- Cookbooks for Theory and Performance
One can clearly see the directions in which research in theater and drama is moving by browsing through titles of new books and articles, of new journals that have begun or renewed their life in the last five years, and of papers presented at the annual conferences held by the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) and the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR). Scholarship and criticism in theater and drama have become much more explicitly theoretical, and the theories used are much more interdisciplinary, with New Historicism, feminist theory, and now cultural studies, moving to the forefront. Not only have the old theories of theater and drama lost their exclusive charms; what is considered the primary object of study is no longer what happens in the theater and even less what can be read on the pages of the playtext. Performance has become a much broader, even all-encompassing term, and there is no longer an easy distinction between the theatrical and the real. Though theatricality, acting, and the stage have long provided those working in other disciplines (Sigmund Freud, Kenneth Burke, Erving Goffman, Judith Butler, to name a few) with easy metaphors, it is more novel and refreshing to have those who have worked more closely with theater turn their attention to events which take place off as well as on the stage.
Two recent collections, The Performance of Power and Critical Theory and Performance, act as methodological cookbooks illustrating this “nouvelle cuisine” of performance studies. Both offer a variety of recipes for the ways in which current critical theory might intersect with drama, theater, and performance. Reading either would give one a good idea of what, professionally speaking, is in demand: what is considered nutritious, desirable, appetizing, successful. This is not to say that either book is geared toward the novice; on the contrary, negotiating the ambitious and rather dizzying range of essays presented in these books demands at least some sophistication. But at the same time a certain didacticism can be read, both explicitly and implicitly, in both books. For those who are desirous of success in a field increasingly focused on academic professionalism, the books promise at least a cursory sense of competence with what one needs to interact, publish, and establish oneself.
The editors of both books, to their credit, make this didacticism clear. Janelle Reinelt and Sue-Ellen Case, the editors of The Performance of Power state explicitly how their book might work as an “entry-level text—a how-to for beginning to apply such considerations to theatrical texts and practices” (xix). Critical Theory and Performance also turns itself into a teaching text by supplying careful introductions, summarizing theoretical viewpoints, identifying seminal texts, and defining key terminology, all the while advertising the excitement of applying the “new theory” to drama, theater, and performance.
Thus it is worth looking more closely not only at the individual essays included in these books, but also these organizing principles and agendas which inform them. My criticisms of both books are directed primarily at the latter. This is not to deny that the books do contain individual articles which are noteworthy in their own right. Joe Roach’s work on the “artificial eye” of Augustan theater, Spencer Golub’s on the iconization of Chaplin in postrevolutionary Russia, and Tracy Davis’s readings of Annie Oakley in particular show the exciting results of critical theory, meticulous scholarship, and intelligent writing. And even the more tentative essays included here do provide useful models for the appropriate ways in which experimentation is allowed to take place, and deviation from norms is allowed to occur.
Yet I would focus on some of the distinct disadvantages of embracing the power structures inscribed within certain kinds of academic discourse. Although these two books clearly show evidence of how the “new theory” provides the fuel for some exciting work, they also make plain that...