- Purchase/rental options available:
American Literary History 17.4 (2005) 765-780
[Access article in PDF]
Liberalism, Democracy, and the Twentieth-Century American Theater
In 1959, Robert Brustein remarked in Harper's Magazine that "the lack of communication with the other disciplines gives the drama a peculiar insularity. The typical American playwright is encouraged to write, not by the pull of literary ideals, but by the stimulus of successful Broadway plays, and it is unusual when he develops beyond a hackneyed imitation of what is current and fashionable" (245). This now overly familiar lament, with its complex set of interrelated assumptions about disciplinarity, drama, and the marketplace, would not be worth recounting but for two crucial reasons. First, scholars of American theater and drama still recur to this kind of pronouncement with such regularity that the field as a whole is marked by a peculiarly disabling form of the anxiety of influence. Although recent studies have furthered the important work of examining the "academic and critical bias against American drama" (Smith 2), as Shannon Jackson suggests, the historical relationship between drama and literary/cultural studies remains undertheorized (33–34). And, second, the gravitational center of interest for many current studies in the field remains the postwar period; that is, a time exceptionally invested in defining American "interests" and establishing boundaries of ideological "containment" from which these arguments largely arise. The Cold War, when complaints about the poor quality of American plays was loudest, witnessed both a period of dramatic canon formation (the late Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, Edward Albee) and the decade or two when consolidation of the "consensus" model marked what some consider the golden years of American studies.
At mid-century, Lionel Trilling critiqued "liberal criticism" for privileging politics over aesthetics. He wrote: "It is as if wit, and flexibility of mind, and perception, and knowledge were to be equated with aristocracy and political reaction, while dullness and stupidity must naturally suggest a virtuous democracy, as in the old [End Page 765] plays" (Liberal 12). Trilling aims to undo the binary opposition between imagination and reality, aesthetics and democracy, and to show both that liberalism is resolutely dialectical and that the products of such a culture "contain a large part of the dialectic within themselves, their meaning and power lying in their contradictions" (9). If Brustein's ambivalence about the drama haunts the recent studies, Trilling's more nuanced, dialectical account of the liberal imagination is conspicuous for its absence from the critical landscape that they portray. Those that rely most heavily upon the term liberalism do not define it, and they tend largely to take positions for it (personal freedom; self-reliance; individual—later civil—rights; limited, representative government) or, more often, against it (possessive individualism; consumerism; capitalism and economic hierarchicalism). In this way, critical studies continue to reflect the overdetermined rhetoric and ideological oversimplifications of the plays they discuss. Taken collectively, however, the books reviewed here represent not only the tensions but also the variety and vitality of the drama and theater of a liberal culture characterized by an always fluid set of relations between liberty and coercion, the democratic and the undemocratic.
There have been at least a couple of significant factors in the antitheatrical prejudice that still informs American studies (in spite of increasingly prolific theories of "performance" and the ascendance of ideological over purely formalist approaches). On the one hand, as Philip Fisher has argued, in the twentieth century, the experience of literature in America has moved increasingly into the academy. Drama, however, remains intractably wedded to the theater, and that means Broadway, middlebrow culture, and the marketplace with...