- Avant-Garde Performance and the Limits of Criticism by Mike Sell, and: Not the Other Avant-Garde: The Transnational Foundations of Avant-Garde Performance ed. by James M. Harding, John Rouse
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I, along with most theatre scholars, have grown sick of hearing that the avantgarde is white, European, and long dead. Its practices and its histories are colonialist and sexist sure enough (see for example Schneider 1997), but I am not ready to officiate a funeral just yet. Neither are the editors and authors of the two volumes reviewed here. Instead, they call for particularly situated historiographies of the avantgarde that challenge the temporal, racialized, and geopolitical assumptions that have so persistently haunted the field.
Not the Other Avant-Garde is composed of three pairs of essays focusing on a geopolitical region (Africa, Latin America, Japan) and five other essays. In his chapter “From Cutting Edge to Rough Edges,” Harding examines the intercultural and transnational exchanges so crucial to the formation of various avantgardes. Using the concept of a “rough edge” to reimagine border theory as a way to recognize the inherent negotiations, resistances, and compliances that occur at the borders and edges of cultural exchange, Harding interrogates the often “universalized notions of history implicit in the linear undercurrents of terms like ‘cutting edge’” and its tacit center-periphery politics (24). It also opens up the possibility of rethinking border theory after the advent of transnational discourse and diasporic imaginations. The other authors do not always follow Harding’s paradigm, but they do wrestle with the assumptions he interrogates using historiographically minded methodologies from literary criticism, theatre history, and performance studies.
In his essay, Harry Elam takes on TDR’s first Black Theatre issue, arguing that guest editor Ed Bullins’s 1968 volume defied white spectators’ racialized notions of avantgarde performance by publishing plays that referred to social reality but nonetheless enacted revolutionary dramaturgy that demanded methexis rather than a mimesis. Elam draws on the implications of his earlier work on the importance of ritual in social protest theatre, while simultaneously making a case for thinking productively and performatively about Bullins’s claim that the “The King is Dead” (Elam 1997; Bullins 1968:23–25). John Conteh-Morgan concentrates in his essay on the intersection of radical politics and aesthetics in contemporary francophone Africa, revealing a distinctly postcolonial critique of French-language textual theatre as a colonial imposition—a critique enacted by engaging African indigenous oral forms, many of which perform essentialisms of their own.
In their essays on Latin American theatre, Adam Versényi and Jean Graham-Jones complicate the possibilities of transnational foundations there. Versényi points out that staging plays by [End Page 174] certain European and US playwrights, such as Eugene O’Neill and Jean Cocteau, was seen as a distinctly nationalist move by Mexico’s early avantgarde theatre artists, while Graham-Jones points out how the highly developed theatre scene in Buenos Aires, rather than promoting standard European definitions, determined performances’ legibility as vanguardista. For example, one could say that in the 1930s there were two vanguardias—the “politically committed ‘Boedo’ social realists and the apolitcal ‘Florida’ Europeanists” (169); by the 1960s, key Buenos Aires practitioners used the term to describe diverse performance forms, revealing its historically contingent nature.
The contributions on Japanese theatre and performance analyze the relationship between politics, formal innovation, and political efficacy. Peter Eckersdall’s exploration of Japanese theatre in the 1920s and ’30s argues that artists were committed to the performing body as a site of sensation and knowledge until the dire political situation led these artists away from liminality and toward ideology to combat the regime. David Goodman, meanwhile, takes on the nostalgia for traditional forms, such as Kabuki, among underground theatre practitioners in the 1960s...