- Theatre and AutoBiography: Writing and Performing Lives in Theory and Practice
Over the past decade or so, theatre and performance studies and auto/biography studies have inched toward one another, but only in the last few years have we seen concerted study and discussion at the confluence of these two concerns. In 2004, the University of British Columbia hosted a workshop on precisely this nexus, "Putting a Life on Stage: A Theatre and AutoBiography Exploratory Workshop." The result is this useful, though by no means comprehensive collection edited by Sherrill Grace and Jerry Wasserman, one that explores both the practical and theoretical dynamics for staging lived experience, and for writing lives conducted on or near the stage. While the origin of these essays as conference papers sometimes limits the scope and impact of many pieces in the collection, several will contribute meaningfully and lastingly to this growing area of inquiry.
In her introduction to Theatre and AutoBiography, Sherrill Grace contends that there exists a "highly productive" relationship between these two fields of knowledge, and situates the intersection within current critical discussions of performativity, of the interplay between theories of life writing and the writing itself, of narrative, and of memory. Specifically, she argues persuasively and usefully for a notion of "performative autobiographics: the creation of identities that exist in performance, that challenge fixed notions of the self and of subjectivity, and that are new each time the story is performed" (18). While the volume is perhaps too disparate for the introduction to make much more substantitive claims than this, it is a useful summary of the critical conversation thus far.
While the threads that Grace introduces are not all common to every one of the fifteen academic essays in the volume, notions of performance, self, and subjectivity are recurring themes, and find their most theoretically infused engagements in the first section, "Theorizing AutoBiographical Theatre." Particularly compelling in this section are Susan Bennett's "3-D A/B" and Ric Knowles's "Documemory, Autobiology and the Utopian Performative in Canadian Autobiographical Solo Performance," both of which examine, variously, the ontological and rhetorical status of the body on the truth claims of auto/biographical narratives. Bennett writes, "The body, above all else, [End Page 213] makes these performances both more and less reliable than their written equivalents, for it claims a special purchase on the real, incites evidence of the past and promises, for the audience, a three-dimensional text" (46). Meanwhile, Knowles, in discussing the work of performer Emily Taylor, argues that "the show turned on a confrontation between the discursive 'I' as social and grammatical 'subject' and the culturally and discursively produced and abjected body" (50). While neither essay comes to a consensus on the relationship of the autobiographical body to "the real," there is plenty to work with in these thoughtful additions to the field.
The second section of the volume, "AutoBiographical Plays: Page, Stage or Real Life?," examines a range of auto/biographical texts in performance, covering issues of process and performance, the notion of dramatic portraiture, the autographic relationship of the playwright to the fictional play, and the implications of the self in performance for feminist work. Particularly useful in the section is Joanne Tompkins's essay, in which she examines the actor's and audience's engagements of Self and Other. She argues that in works by Joan MacLeod and by Guillermo Verdicchia and Marcus Youssef, "each encourages its audiences to read the fictional characters in their own context, but neither isolates that context from the 'real' life models which partly precipitated them" (124). It is in this section in particular that a reader will find the greatest evidence of the rich range of discussion on this critical confluence of theatre and auto/biography, and while the shorter nature of many of the arguments may render those discussions less than exhaustive, each essay in this section makes a contribution to the discourse.
The third section, "Theatre Lives: From Autobiography to Biography," revolves...