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  • Yes, No, Maybe:A Position Statement from Midstream
  • Dorothy Chansky (bio)

Midstream is supposed to be that place where you don't switch horses. If, however, you did boldly decide to dismount, you might find yourself struggling against the current, swimming to Cambodia—or drowning. Midstream is, I think, where those of us who teach theatre history find ourselves right now. The days of theaterwissenshaft are long gone, but full-blown globalism and / or theatre history as a kind of planet-wide performance genealogy remains a long way off. My title, then, is a lead-in to my own musings about this midstream moment. These musings are deeply personal yet inevitably professional as well.

Yes, I still stand behind the response I wrote to Jody Enders's "Theatre History in the New Millennium" issue of Theatre Survey. To recap: while "positivism and playtexts" is the old-fashioned mixture that still drives most undergraduate theatre history courses, and while an inability to think about fissures, gaps, evidence, documentation, hegemony, rhetoric, theory, invisibility, othering, silencing, genealogies, the cultural situatedness of literature, and the self-centeredness of most claims to the "universal" collectively remains a gaping hole in the training of most theatre majors (not to mention the thinking of many theatre practitioners), the fact remains that even graduate programs aspiring to and achieving innovation in history depend on students coming in with the sort of "background" or "knowledge" delivered in the very package (positivism and playtexts) I problematized. Add to this the fact that the theatre history survey may be the only history course of any sort that a theatre major takes, and the problem becomes even worse.1

No, I am not persuaded that the Zarrilli et al. Theatre Histories: An Introduction (2006) is the silver bullet with the magic to carry us into a solidly interdisciplinary historiographic future. I admire much in the text and will probably test drive it in my own survey course next year, but in some ways it falls prey to the very problems with which I am concerned in this essay. (See my review elsewhere in this issue.)

Certainly no single book can solve problems that go beyond the structuring of a single course (semester- or year-long). And maybe, as we try to think globally and introduce bits of theory to beginning undergraduates, there is an ahistorical component to the whole conversation that underpins my worries. Thinking across boundaries is crucial to responsible present-day citizenship. There is, however, a difference between boldly (or even carefully) crossing borders, and traversing territory while either willfully ignoring or remaining unaware of them. With temporal border crossings (one way to think about studying theatre history), it can be frighteningly easy to collapse the past into the present for a kind of easier access. After all, the dead can't talk back, and they may seem much more appealing if presented in the image of the present, which is to say with their differences minimized or retrofitted to be legible as a primitive precursor to the here and now.2

Let us assume, however, that we wish to avoid ahistoricism as we cross the stream. What do we lose as we revise? This is an especially pressing question at the moment of revision, since those doing the restructuring retain the "old" knowledge and skills they seek to reinterpret or retool. Those who come later will cease to know the terrain from which the revisionist historians drew. [End Page 21] Recall deconstruction—a heady proposition when "everyone" knew the literature and theories it was infecting like a virus from within. Now it's a trope, a style, a hegemonic tic, and the idea that an undergraduate has read Rousseau or Voltaire or even Shakespeare beyond the high points and character psychology is an iffy proposition at best. Deconstruction loses its sting when it is the default-setting optic. (Although this may be preferable to its losing its very lifeblood by being misunderstood as take-it-apart-and-rebuild-it-in-a-nontraditional-way—any old "nontraditional" way—while the "traditional" way defaults back to a blend of New Criticism and major themes. Bye-bye Derrida, the supplement, the slippery...


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