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  • Theatre Histories: An Introduction
  • Dorothy Chansky
Theatre Histories: An Introduction. By Phillip B. Zarilli, Bruce A. McConachie, Gary Jay Williams, and Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei. New York: Routledge, 2006; pp. xxxi + 544. $122.00 cloth, $44.95 paper.

Scholarly folk wisdom has it that translations and historiographical optics wear out after about a generation. Theatre Histories: An Introduction arrives roughly forty years after the advent of Oscar Brockett's History of the Theatre and I don't think it is too much to say that the new book's authors seek to unseat the reigning survey-course "Bible." Theatre Histories stakes its claim on three grounding ideas. First, that theatre can best be understood as a communicative phenomenon that shores up or expresses solidarity, resistance, religious belief, or a political stance, the latter sometimes only unconsciously understood. Accordingly, aesthetics and dramatic literature take a back seat to cultural (writ large) aims and practices. Second is that theatre is a global phenomenon. Finally, Theatre Histories asserts at every turn that history is unthinkable without theory, even hegemonic theory passing as the "natural" or "universal."

The book's four units reflect a commitment to thinking about theatre via communication technologies. Part 1 examines "Performance and Theatre in Oral and Written Cultures before 1600." Part 2 is "Theatre and Print Cultures, 1500–1900." Part 3 discusses "Theatre in Modern Media Cultures, 1850–1970," and the concluding section is "Theatre and Performance in the Age of Global Communications, 1950–present." The first and last sections are the most successful at making good on the goal of planetary inclusiveness. Part 1 works hard to explain ritual, shamanism, orality, and literacy, and to define early religions—the "sponsors" for many performances—as "apparatuses for enacting highly choreographed performances believed necessary for maintaining social, civic, and cosmic cohesion" (53), contra any idea of personal faith we may hold today. This first quarter of the book (edited by Phillip Zarilli) proffers snapshots of performance traditions drawn from Indian vedas to Irish druids via henges in northern England and religious memorial plays in Egypt and Iran, with case studies from Korea, Japan, western Africa, Mesoamerica, and republican Rome. This potpourri is sometimes chronologically and geographically confusing, and the book offers no timelines and very few maps. Nonetheless, the point is made that we ignore our non-Western heritage at our (xenophobic, colonialist, anti-intellectual) peril.

The two middle units are the most traditional (read Euro-American) in their focus, but editor Bruce McConachie's accomplishment here is his use of large ideas that force a rethinking of familiar territory. For example, the advent of printing as a technology and its attendant cultural possibilities meant major changes for actors and audiences. Actors now needed to memorize with precision and play "by the book." Witness the problems of the rude mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream, no longer able to improvise and be credible before gentry. Likewise, print unified cultural identity across genres (newspapers, pamphlets, and books as well as plays) but limited readers' solidarity, which increasingly emerged in the eighteenth century as nationalism. These ideas are readily intelligible to even beginning undergraduates. They don't require any special vocabulary; they do situate theatre within a larger world of colonialism and consumerism—two concepts students can readily grasp and two concepts guaranteed to inspire discussion.

It is precisely these two concepts that dominate the final—and the most polemic—unit of the book. Editor Gary Jay Williams pulls no punches in designating people of the last third of a century as defining themselves as consumers rather than in "class, racial, or regional terms" (433). There is much to dispute here. (Is this consumer model equally applicable in the so-called third world? Is consumerism not often understood in terms of class, racial, or regional identity? Is consumption by definition apolitical?) The point, though, is that there is fertile ground for discussion. Williams posits the globalized theatre world as a place with international festivals and megamusicals at the top of the (processed?) food chain, with community-based productions (the "good guys"?) flying under the radar of much middlebrow journalism. He doesn't hesitate to label majority audiences at American regional...


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