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Theater 30.2 (2000) 169-173
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Performing America: Cultural Nationalism in American Theater. Edited by Jeffrey D. Mason and J. Ellen Gainor. 1999: University of Michigan Press
Descendents of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America. . . . You do not live in America. No such place exists.
--Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, in Tony Kushner's Angels in America
The good rabbi is talking about history here, but there's a whisper of utopia in his admonition. No place--like America, a world-historical vanishing point--exists in the same way that history exists: as a virtuoso performance, with scenes of violence, sometimes spectacular, sometimes suppressed. If a national fantasia called "America" is still signifying utopia upon the world-historical stage, it's because Kushner's Louis isn't alone in clinging to his "neo-Hegelian positivist sense of constant historical progress towards happiness or perfection or something," nor in associating that sense with something called "America."
But to what extent and in what ways is this national fantasia performed? How has "America" as a performance changed, and how has it remained the same, over time? What roles have theater and performance played in it? How has "America" defined itself with respect to other national identities, particularly on the stage? And how have hybrid Americanisms--African American, Asian American, Chicano--contributed to, challenged, and adopted for their own uses the ideology of "America," in drama and in general?
These questions are intermittently addressed in Performing America, most successfully when writers dig deep into history and make surprising discoveries there, less successfully when they determine what they will find in advance and then name their discoveries accordingly, sometimes anachronistically. Alas, in a volume such as Performing America, the latter strategy becomes a temptation as writers try to force their (often previously completed) research and writing to fit the mold of the book. When this happens, the results are unconvincing. But most of the essays here are clearly written and vigorously argued, and some present original research and ideas. In this time when every tenure-tracker is looking for two square inches of intellectual territory to homestead, it's truly astonishing that there hasn't been more research done on the history of the pre-twentieth-century American theater (but don't tell anybody). [End Page 169] Performing America would be valuable for its work in this area even if for no other reasons.
But there are other reasons, and one of them is the volume's first essay, Ginger Strand's "The Theater and the Republic: Defining Party on Early Boston's Rival Stages." Strand's essay reads like a good story, even as it presents substantial archival research concerning the ways in which rival theaters in Boston allied themselves with rival political parties in the late eighteenth century. Without dressing her subject in borrowed robes, Strand expertly traces the interconnections between theater architecture, dramatic theme and structure (she's a perceptive close reader), performance, and politics. Then, in her conclusion, she brings to the surface an idea that has enlivened her argument throughout. Boston's eighteenth-century theater makers, she writes, "were using artistic preferences to mark themselves ideologically--a process that continues today, as Congress fights skirmishes over federal arts funding that is so small a percentage of the budget it would be insignificant, were it not a vital political display." And our representatives aren't the only ones: the real question is, how are contemporary theaters' politics shown in their artistic preferences, and what do these theaters gain by choosing not to declare them?
Performing America is divided into two parts, "Nation Then" and "Nation Now," but its best moments show how the past is always implicated in the present. One of these moments occurs in David Krasner's essay on W. E. B. Du Bois's pageant production, The Star of Ethiopia, which Krasner helpfully situates in the context of Du Bois's thought, the rise of Ethiopianism, and the theatrical pageant form. Krasner writes that the pageant, popular in the early part of...