- Editorial Comment
In recent years, Theatre Journal, reflecting trends in theatre scholarship, has significantly broadened its scope through, among other things, an ever-increasing acknowledgment of plays originating from outside Europe and America, and a radically expanded notion of both the dramatic text and the performance event. In this context, the five essays in this general issue may at first blush seem somewhat old-fashioned: all focus on plays (in the conventional sense of the word) by American, English, or Irish playwrights, most of whom—such as William Shakespeare, Thomas Kyd, and Suzan-Lori Parks—are already highly familiar to students of theatre. Where each of these essays makes its distinctive contribution is by reframing the plays within carefully selected, rigorously defined, and richly restored contexts of performance. Archbishop Tutu, in a statement quoted in Sara Warner's essay, observes that "a person is not basically an independent, solitary entity. A person is a human precisely in being enveloped in the community of other beings, in being caught in the bundle of life." As the essays in this issue amply illustrate, Tutu's observation applies just as well to plays as to people.
Thomas Postelwait has clearly articulated the intimate relationship between theatrical event and context, emphasizing that "an event and its context are, by necessity, mutually dependent conditions. Intersecting both synchronically and diachronically, the event and context participate together in an historical matrix."1 The first three essays in this issue, by Warner, Paul Murphy, and William West, exemplify attempts to reframe context synchronically, extending and deepening our understanding of the world within which the plays were originally performed; the final two essays, by Edward Kahn and Yeeyon Im, exemplify attempts to reframe it diachronically, investigating the interpretation, performance, and reception of canonical Shakespearean tragedies within a geographical and temporal context far removed from that of the plays' composition. The essays all reinforce Postle-wait's basic point that to delineate the field of events, ideas, and sociopolitical facts that constitute a performance's context is a decisive act of interpretation in itself, one that not only profoundly influences the conclusions one draws about the meaning of a play and/or its performance, but also the questions one asks—and even how one perceives the identity of the performance event itself.
Suzan-Lori Parks's controversial play Venus, the subject of the opening essay, has hardly been a victim of critical neglect. The play, rooted in historical fact, revisits the story of Saartjie (Sarah) Baartman, an aboriginal South African woman who in the early nineteenth century was exhibited in Europe as "The Hottentot Venus." While there have been many superb critical treatments of this play, including a recent essay in Theatre Journal,2 most have analyzed it either in terms of contemporary American theatre and society—the context of its composition—or early nineteenth-century South Africa and Europe—the context of its historical narrative. Sara Warner's inspiration is to stir post-apartheid South Africa into this contextual stew. Warner observes that Venus's debut in April 1996 occurred only one day after the first South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearing (itself the focus of a recent Theatre Journal essay),3 and six years before Baartman's remains, which had been on display in Paris's National Museum of Natural History, were finally returned to South Africa for burial in April 2002. Warner designates the TRC hearings and the commemorations of Baartman's South African homecoming as "acts of interment." By contrast, she regards Venus, along with much of Parks's other work, as a "drama of disinterment": [End Page viii] "Acts of interment such as Baartman's funeral and the proceedings of the TRC are rites designed to provide closure. Dramas of disinterment, on the other hand, are aesthetic and cultural productions that insist upon a never-ending opening." Critics' failure to recognize the difference between these two projects accounts for much of the antipathy directed toward Venus. Although Venus's detractors accuse the play of gratuitously sullying Baartman's reputation and dignity, on Warner's reading the play accomplishes nothing less than Baartman's "aesthetic resurrection."
Paul Murphy's essay examines...