- In Praise of the Anthologist’s Craft
Anthology [Medieval Greek, anthologia, literally, "gathering of flowers"] A selection of literary, musical, or artistic works or parts of works.Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature
It might well be said of me that here I have merely made up a bunch of other people's flowers and provided nothing of my own but the string that binds them.Michel de Montaigne, "Of Physiognomy"
At a recent celebration of the publication of his seventh and latest anthology of American plays at the Martin E. Segal Theatre of the City University of New York, New Downtown Now: An Anthology of New Theater from Downtown New York (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), Mac Wellman (co-editor with Young Jean Lee), commented wryly, "It's an odd thing to be an anthologist." For some time I have been delving into the history of anthologies of modern drama, trying to fathom the secrets of the anthologist's craft, asking myself the following questions: What are the reasons for putting together an anthology? How is it done? And who are anthologists? As a result of pondering these questions, I think I am beginning to understand why the anthologist's profession is an odd one. The paradox is that the anthologist is a writer whose books are written by other people.
The anthologist of modern drama is a go-between who pairs off readers with playwrights. To be an anthologist one needs to join the creative sensibility of an artist to the analytical spirit of a critic. Whoever would anthologize modern drama must play the role of a proselytizer and prophet willing to take risks. I believe that anthologies serve to define the nature of modern drama, and anthologists may even influence its course. A look at the history of modern drama anthologies is the best way to test my hypotheses. When did anthologies of modern drama first start to appear, who made them, for what audiences, for what purposes, and according to what principles? What functions do such collections serve? What has been their role in shaping our ideas about what modern drama is? [End Page 113]
Because of their length traditional full-length plays do not lend themselves to the anthology format as readily as poetry. From the beginning the purpose of an anthology—a Greek word, meaning collection of flowers—has been to offer many short examples, usually of poetry, as in the case of The Greek Anthology, Tottel's Miscellany (1557), or Palgrave's Golden Treasury of Songs and Lyrics (1861). Although anthologies can be made according to many different principles of selection and to serve a wide variety of purposes, one of their most important uses is the introduction of new and unknown writers to the public. The prominence given to the one-act form by the American Little Theatre movement and the European Independent Theatre movement (starting with Antoine's Théâtre Libre) served to advance the anthologizing of modern drama. The short form, which was integral to the aesthetics and the ideology of the modern theatre, was a radical departure from the entrenched formulas of dramatic composition, performance practice, and audience reception that held sway in the commercial theatre. The evening of one-act plays had far-reaching consequences and diverse implications. It was egalitarian in permitting five or six authors to be heard instead of a single voice; it was democratic in authorizing a plurality of styles and declaring that anything goes. Unlike hierarchically categorized full-length plays with their genre rules and expectations, the one-act play had no a priori structure; rather, by breaking with past assumptions coming from the well-made heritage that plays had special principles of construction whose laws only professional playwrights could master; the one-act threw open the question of what a play is, de-emphasized commercial success, encouraged risk-taking, and welcomed newcomers, strangers, and outsiders: novelists, painters, poets, musicians, and women.
The short form itself, as Strindberg argued, was modern, particularly suited to the nervous, hurried new age that had no time for slow-paced exposition or tedious minor characters. Short forms made possible the anthologizing of drama, which...