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Theatre Topics 17.1 (2007) 81-86

The Theatre Historian as Rock Star, or Six Axioms for a New Theatre History Text
Henry Bial

History is over.

Not in a richly layered Hegel cum Baudrillard cum Francis Fukayama "end-of-history" way. Not in a Benjamin / Kushner / Millenarian "end-of-days" way. Not even in a Phelan / McKenzie / Jackson "end-of-performance" way. History is over, rather, in the way that grunge rock, independent bookstores, and Late Night with David Letterman are. History is "so last century." Most of our students see neither the need for nor the appeal of history. They begrudgingly accept a semester or two as the cost of admission to more immediately amusing or lucrative pursuits. They regard the fact that we scholars continue to practice it anyway as a function of faith, inertia, and indescribable geekiness. You might have noticed that theatre, too, has this problem. Twice damned, then, the theatre historian: the most abject apostle of an already abject faith.

As a matter of intellectual and economic survival, we must at all levels of theatre history pedagogy focus on the active role of the theatre historian as interlocutor, as storyteller, as academic, and (in a limited but real sense) as celebrity. If we are to inspire and properly prepare future theatre historians, we must teach students how and why theatre history is written, and what intellectual, historical, political, and professional concerns influence that writing. In this spirit, I offer the following Six Axioms for a New Theatre History text.

1. Summon the Authorial Presence

In traditional undergraduate (and often graduate) pedagogy, the role of the theatre historian is strictly proscribed: it's not about you—stay out of the way of the story. Most undergraduate theatre history students could not name a single theatre historian, with the (possible) exceptions of their professor and the author of their textbook. Theatre history, as too often taught, is something to be experienced passively: read, understood, and appreciated. But it's not something that people do.

If we want more students to value, celebrate, and perform theatre history, we might begin by teaching them that it is a dynamic and creative enterprise in its own right. It is, moreover, a scene, complete with disputes, alliances, crises, opportunities, trends, classics, and yes, stars. There was a time, or perhaps we only imagined it, when concerns about reputation, careerism, and "star" status were considered an unfortunate and somewhat déclassé symptom of a general decline in academic culture. But when history is over, the aura of the chronicler is crucial to the reception of the chronicle. We are now conditioned to expect "personal" details about our journalists, entertainers, and politicians. We don't want just information—facts are cheap, plentiful, and promiscuous—we want a relationship with someone we trust . . . or failing that, someone famous.

In a culture that worships celebrity, our discipline cannot afford to ignore the reality that some of us are or desire to be, if not famous, then not not famous. We must further recognize that to our students, the desire for celebrity is not a perversion of our profession, but the most recognizable thing about it. It's time for the theatre historian as rock star to step up to the mic. [End Page 81]

The textbook is not the only site on which we can mount this performance. Primary documents, dramaturgical intervention, and professors' management of their own classroom personae all play a role. Nevertheless the text is most students' first encounter with the professional output of the theatre historian, and it is the largest and most substantial objet that they take from the class. Because the necessity of choosing some reading cannot be deferred beyond a certain point, the choice of a text may be the only serious conversation about the theatre history curriculum at a given institution in a given year. Conversely, at many institutions the text stays with the course longer than any individual faculty member.

At the same...


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