- Editorial Comment
Happily, the days when theatre scholars habitually located meaning exclusively in dramatic texts are well behind us. The recognition that the performance event is a vital site for generating meaning, rather than merely for illustrating the meaning of pre-existing texts, is now deeply entrenched within theatre studies. More significantly, so too is the recognition that the performance event itself is constituted, not simply by acts performed on stage (or wherever the performance occurs), but equally by acts of spectatorship and subsequent acts of critical and historical reflection disseminated in the popular press and through scholarly discourse—including Theatre Journal itself. All of the essays in this general issue—despite the wide sweep of subject matter—share a focus that extends well beyond texts and performances to reception and spectatorship.
The issue begins with Elizabeth Klett's analysis of Fiona Shaw's drag portrayal of Richard II in the Royal National Theatre's 1995 production of Shakespeare's eponymous play. "Many Bodies, Many Voices: Performing Androgyny in Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner's Richard II" highlights intriguing differences among various theatre critics and scholars' perceptions and interpretations of Shaw's cross-gender performance. Some critics, for example, perceived Shaw's Richard as "a homosexual male," while others perceived her as "a dyke" or "a man-child." Klett uses this case study to launch a penetrating interrogation of the multivalent concept of "androgyny."
The second essay similarly takes up the issue of queer representation in contemporary theatre, this time by focusing on a recent play. In "The Tease of Truth: Seduction, Verisimilitude (?), and Spectatorship in I Am My Own Wife," Michael R. Schiavi examines Doug Wright's one-person play about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a celebrated German transvestite who survived the Second World War and the communist regime in East Germany and eventually was exposed as a stool pigeon for the East German secret police. "How," Schiavi asks, "does a playwright engage audiences in the tales of a person offered up as real, as possessed of allegedly verifiable experience, but who loses credibility with each successive utterance?" Both Schiavi's essay and Wright's play problematize biodrama as a genre, especially its claims to authenticity and its tendency to provoke an audience's preoccupation with determining the factuality of a play's details.
Jennifer Terni's "A Genre for Early Mass Culture: French Vaudeville and the City, 1830–1848" investigates the most popular theatrical genre of July Monarchy France. Terni argues that "vaudeville was an integral element in the rise of a modern spectacular culture that began to take shape in Paris by the 1840s." She demonstrates that even as vaudeville performances depicted and often satirized the emerging culture of consumption, the performances themselves, as entertainment commodities, epitomized and propagated that culture. Hence, Terni ultimately is less concerned with the plays as aesthetic artifacts in their own right than with the cultural drama within which both the plays and their spectators participated. Terni also explores critical reception and canonization, probing the longstanding scholarly neglect of this genre despite its overwhelming popularity.
The next essay directs our attention to another long-neglected subject from early nineteenth-century theatre history, this time from across the Channel. In '"The Illegitimate Assistance of Political Allusion': Politics and the Hybridization of Romantic Tragedy in the Drama of Richard Lalor Sheil," Diego Saglia forcefully defends the significance of this forgotten Irish playwright. Saglia notes the dismissive attitude toward Sheil adopted by the playwright's most illustrious contemporary critics, such as William Hazlitt, as well as the few twentieth century historians who acknowledged Sheil, such as Allardyce Nicoll. The critical antipathy toward Sheil's Romantic tragedies, Saglia suggests, may be traced to at least two sources: the oppositional political discourse implicit in the plays, and "the consistent hybridization at work in his plays, combining the Gothic mode, melodramatic features, Orientalist themes, and Renaissance models," which elicited a "deep cultural anxiety caused by the fact that the highest genre in the legitimate canon was becoming increasingly contaminated by less noble and more spectacular forms of theatre."
Carrie Gaiser considers hybridity in a very different context. In "Caught Dancing: Hybridity, Stability, and Subversion in Dance...