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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 294-295
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The History of North American Theater:
From Pre-Columbian Times to the Present
The History of North American Theater: From Pre-Columbian Times to the Present. By Felicia Hardison Londré and Daniel J. Watermeier. New York: Continuum, 1998; pp. 541. $95.00.
This continental study represents an ambitious and unusual approach to theatre historiography. In general the book attempts to cover the development of theatre in Mexico, the United States and Canada from the earliest recorded practices to the present. The multicultural and transnational aspects of the first two chapters are perhaps the most [End Page 294] original. The authors first discuss pre-Columbian performance amongst Mayan, Aztec, and other Native American peoples, and then the development of theatre in the French, British and Spanish colonies of North America. Once they reach the nineteenth century and the establishment of the national borders of the United States, Mexico and Canada, the authors follow a more conventional national approach in examining the growth of professional theatre. But rather than writing three separate national theatre histories, they trace the developments on the continent by interweaving separate sections on the three countries into multinational chapters, each covering approximately fifty years of theatre history. Certain countries in the Caribbean, notably Cuba and Puerto Rico, are also examined. The advantage of this approach is that the reader can see more easily what was happening in the continent as a whole in a particular period and readily draw some comparisons.
In such a wide-ranging study, it is difficult to find a balance between an encyclopedic approach (where everything of significance is mentioned albeit briefly) and a deeper discussion of developments so that the reader can appreciate the social and theatrical context that gives rise to certain types of events. The book vacillates between listing important figures in the industry (actors, directors, playwrights, designers, etc.) and discussing changing cultural phenomena. I found the latter more rewarding than the former. Especially gratifying were the examinations of regional idiosyncrasies such as the satirical bufos habañeros in Cuba and the tours of Sarah Bernhardt, who alienated her adoring French-Canadian audience when she questioned their Frenchness.
In such an ambitious project there are bound to be shortcomings. While some developments such as burlesque in the United States are comprehensively discussed, it would have been useful to analyze certain forms such as the zarzuelas and tandas in Mexico more fully. The discussion of the Mexican theatre privileges Mexico City and tends to ignore regional activities. The theatre history of the United States neglects the workers' theatre of the 1930s. The information about the Caribbean tends to be quite sketchy. As the authors confess in the preface, the "treatment of the theatres of Cuba, Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico is superficial" (9). But the omission of Trinidad and Jamaica seems surprising. Given the scope of the book, it would have been opportune in the section on the British colonies to discuss Jamaica as part of the touring circuit in the eighteenth century. Similarly, it would have been valuable to trace the lively performance tradition in Trinidad.
It is also surprising, given the different countries represented in this study, that there is not more cross-border analysis and comparison in the years between 1800 and the present. The reader moves from one country to another as if reading three separate national theatre histories simultaneously. There is little evidence of theatrical forms or institutions in one country affecting those in another. While there is some discussion of interpenetration between Canada and the United States with, for example, the America touring circuits including Canada at the turn of the century and the Canadian Livent making itself felt on Broadway in the 1990s, it would have been appropriate to investigate the transnational aspects of Mexican-American and Native American theatre and perhaps to include artists (such as Guillermo Gomez-Peña) and organizations (such as TENAZ) that have problematized or transgressed those borders. Similarly, it...