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Reviewed by:
  • American Avant-Garde Theatre: A History, and: Site-Specific Art: Performance, Place, and Documentation
  • Branislav Jakovljevic (bio)
American Avant-Garde Theater: A History. By Arnold Aronson. London and New York: Routledge, 2000; 242 pp. $24.95 paper.
Site-Specific Art: Performance, Place, and Documentation. By Nick Kaye. London and New York: Routledge, 2000; 238 pp. $27.95 paper.

In American Avant-Garde Theatre: A History, Arnold Aronson investigates the development of new theatrical ideas and practices, not individual artists' careers. This is the right choice, considering the variety and richness of experimentation in American theatre and visual arts in the second part of the 20th century. However, this methodological approach has its shortcomings: Aronson produces a conventional historiographic narrative, a form often contested and disputed regardless of its subject matter.

Historiographic acceptance of limitations is often justified by the need for clarification of the main subject of investigation. Here, methodological choice is of primary importance: Aronson is not writing the history of theatrical avantgarde, but a history of avantgarde theatre. Although this distinction may seem laconic, it actually establishes firm boundaries for practices that were marked by great inclusiveness of other arts. This does not mean that other "theatricalities" are completely excluded from this historical account. Action painting, happenings, performance art, body art, Fluxus events, postmodern dance, and experimental film exerted an important, often crucial, influence on avantgarde theatre. All have their place in its history, but according to this account, that place is at the margins. One of Aronson's main concerns is that deeper considerations of these artistic practices not lead to the obfuscation of the main subject. "Marginal" does not necessarily mean "insignificant." Aronson never fails to note the impact that paratheatrical practices exerted on the development of new theatrical aesthetics. For example, he outlines the two "broad categories" that marked the avantgarde in the 1960s: one is the "formalist work" (performance art, Jack Smith, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson) "informed by Happenings, Cagean aesthetics, and influences from other arts"; and the other is "an Artaudian search for a nonliterary theatre and a nonverbal means of communication" (Living Theatre, Open Theatre, The Performance Group) (79). This division into two broad "branches" is not limited only to the 1960s: to a large extent, it informs the totality of Aronson's history. According to this schema, the traces of the two avantgarde streams are detectable already in the 1950s, they reach full maturation in the frenetically productive 1960s, and extend well into the following decade, with the second, "Artaudian" branch slowly diminishing. This leads to the "decline" of the avant-garde.

In Aronson's American Avant-Garde Theater: A History, the richness of the subject matter perfectly corresponds to the vastness of its geographic locale. Aronson attributes the 60-year lag between European and American avantgarde theatre to the absence of the consolidated "high" or "official" culture in the United States prior to the 1950s, especially in the domain of theatre and fine arts (11). American culture was not overwhelmed by an imposing tradition threatening to break the spirit of individualism, easily identifiable with the American frontier spirit. "In a peculiar way, then, 'Americanism' and 'avant-gardism' were one and the same," [End Page 177] writes Aronson (12). This assumption proposes that like geographic (colonial) conquest, artistic experimentation imagines a limit, however distant, of the unknown it sets out to explore. So, when in the opening of the final chapter Aronson asserts that "just as historian Frederick Jackson Turner had famously declared the closing of the American frontier in 1893, Richard Schechner, in 1981, declared the end of the American avant-garde" (181), it becomes clear that what began as a historical speculation inflates into an overarching metaphor. Historiography displaces historical events it claims to be describing.

Aronson allows that Schechner's claim "was perhaps a decade early," asserting that the Wooster Group (together with its "logical heir" Reza Abdoh) was "the last major exponent of the postwar American avantgarde movement" (185). Although he grants the avantgarde another decade of life, Aronson does not question the argument about its death. Schechner's article "The Decline and Fall of the (American) Avant-Garde" published in Performing Arts Journal (1981...


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