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American Literary History 14.1 (2002) 141-148
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American Theater History Coming of Age
While coming of age has long been discredited as a metaphor for describing the influence of Eugene O'Neill on American theater history, the trope retains some strategic usefulness when applied to the academic study of the field. As Susan Harris Smith makes clear in American Drama: The Bastard Art (1997), several entrenched suspicions and antagonisms have long retarded the legitimacy of American drama and theater as an academic field. This began to change in the 1990s. As scholars in American studies broadened their discipline to include several genres of popular performance, Americanists in English and history departments deployed varieties of materialist theory to investigate many modes of past performativity, and historians of the American stage in theater departments worked to revise the conventional wisdom of this now burgeoning field. Perhaps the best recent evidence that American theater history has come of age is the award-winning, three-volume Cambridge History of the American Theatre (1998-2000), a series of comprehensive essays on plays, actors, producers, companies, etc., analyzed within the context of American social and cultural history, from roughly 1600 to 1995.
Despite these advances, however, several problems remain. The "linguistic turn" in humanistic scholarship has not been an unalloyed benefit for scholarship in American theater history. Historians who collapse all theatrical practice into discourse, for example--a particularly impossible task in theater history and criticism because of performance's several modes of signification--have difficulty articulating the theater's relations with other fields of practice and hence in explaining historical change. Compounding this problem for scholars who investigate recent or contemporary performances is the cultural politics of the field. Convinced (for good reasons) that theater can help to shape political change, scholars too easily adopt the discourse of apparently progressive theater and performance artists to describe their work, or, as historians, make few adjustments when they read present concerns back into past theatrical events. Where previous generations [End Page 141] of theater historians were too easily blinded by the star power of past luminaries on the stage, present scholars tend to credit their own past and present theatrical stars with too much power to effect change in society. For both, a heroic view of history crowds out an understanding of larger structural dynamics.
The linguistic turn has also required historians to clean up their terminological houses. Historiographical housecleaning, though generally a good idea, always forces the question of what to keep and what to throw away. For some, this has meant abandoning old terms and definitions and embracing new ones, whose meanings, however, may be more elusive and complex than their discourse can easily handle. Others continue to use the old words, but try to fix their definitions to avoid some of the inevitable slippage that we now know inheres in all textuality. The result, for historical writing in theater history (and much else), is our current lack of what Jacques, praising Touchstone in As You Like It (1600) for his courtier's ability to rail, calls "good set terms" (2.7.16). Contemporary scholars, alas, have few "set terms," good or otherwise, with widely accepted definitions on which they can rely for their raillery. They may have some of Touchstone's discursive agility, but without clearly defined terminology their arguments are liable to leave their readers "chewing the food of sweet and bitter fancy" (4.3.103).
Despite their many substantial, fancy-free insights, both Alan L. Ackerman's The Portable Theater: American Literature and the Nineteenth-Century Stage and Jeffrey D. Mason and J. Ellen Gainor's anthology Performing America: Cultural Nationalism in American Theater suffer from fundamental problems of terminological definition. Ackerman explores a few of the many intersections of theater and canonical literature in nineteenth-century America. The contributors...