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  • Theorizing Practice: Redefining Theatre History
  • Christopher Cobb
Theorizing Practice: Redefining Theatre History. Edited by WorthenW. B. with HollandPeter. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. Pp. xvii + 240. $26.95 (paper), $79.95 (cloth).

Theorizing Practice: Redefining Theatre History begins a projected five-volume series, Redefining British Theatre History, to be edited by Peter Holland. Following this introductory volume, the series will proceed chronologically through the history of British theatre from its origins to the end of the nineteenth century, undertaking "a significant review" (xvii) of the state of the discipline. This introductory volume, however, eschews chronology. It aims to contribute to the project of redefining theatre history by theorizing the discipline's practices: approaching the historiographical problems of the field with the same degree of theoretical sophistication that has been brought to bear on problems of studying performance over the last twenty years, during which the field of performance studies has gained definition as a discipline. The editors have gathered eleven essays dedicated to theorizing some aspect of the practice of theatre history and arranged them according to the methodological problems they examine. The essays in the opening "Historiographies" section trace the history of theatre history, constituting the discipline as a discipline through the history of its practices. The essays in the next section, "Objectivities," challenge claims of objective, neutral knowledge in the discipline, making the case for more fully theorizing performance studies. The essays in the "Dis/continuities" section deal with issues of periodization, questioning the ways in which knowledge in the discipline has been organized. The essays in the closing "Absences" section deal with the problems of using texts to study unrecoverable, non-textual performance events; these essays identify problems of methodology in theatre history that touch directly upon problems in performance studies. Although the essays are grouped by methodological problem, they do not (aside from the historiographical essays) take these problems as their primary subject. Instead, each undertakes a specific interpretive project that raises such problems. Much livelier than straightforwardly theoretical essays would be, all are fine examples of "state of the art" theatre scholarship, probing and polished, sophisticated and elegant, according to the conventions of contemporary scholarly prose. Even though they do not all contribute equally to the collection's goal of redefining theatre history, they all amply reward attentive reading. [End Page 143]

The quality of the individual essays bears particular emphasis for two reasons, the first being that the Shakespeare scholar may need some extra incentive to read them. Because the volume does not have a chronological focus, the essays range across the history of British and American theatre from the early modern period to the present; only four essays are directly concerned with early modern theatre history or Shakespearean performance. Peter Holland's "A History of Histories: From Flecknoe to Nicoll" surveys the methods and the publication history of the earliest historical accounts of pre-Restoration English theatre: Richard Flecknoe's 1664 "A Short Treatise of the English Stage," the anonymous 1699 Historia Histrionica, and John Downes's 1708 Roscius Anglicanus. The essay traces the development of theatre history as a discipline from these originary texts to the work of the great theatre historians of the early twentieth century, E. K. Chambers, G. E. Bentley, and Allardyce Nicoll. The reprinting of these early works in collections of documents on the history of the stage, in collections of drama criticism, and in undifferentiated antiquarian anthologies shows, Holland argues, enduring uncertainties about the disciplinary identity and methods of theatre history. In a similar vein, Thomas Postelwait's "The Criteria for Evidence: Anecdotes in Shakespearean Biography, 1709–2000" examines the allure of anecdotes in Shakespearean biography from Rowe to Schoenbaum and the interpretive challenges created by the impossibility of firmly separating "'legendary anecdotes from ascertainable facts'" (50). He deftly demonstrates that Shakespeare's biographers have both criticized the practice of using unauthenticated anecdotes and nevertheless done so themselves. Barbara Hodgdon's "Photography, Theater, Mnemonics; or, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Still" examines methodologies for using photographs as evidence, taking the photographic record of several recent RSC productions as its main case study. She treats the photograph much as Postelwait treats the anecdote: as alluring evidence whose...


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