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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 428-429

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Book Review

The Cambridge History of American Theatre, Vol. II: 1870-1945

The Cambridge History of American Theatre, Vol. II: 1870-1945. Edited by Don B. Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999; pp. xviii + 590. $95.00.

This second book in a three-volume set continues the ambitious and praiseworthy efforts of editors Don B. Wilmeth and Christopher Bigsby to present a comprehensive examination of United States theatre history "with a full awareness of relevant developments in literary criticism, cultural analysis, and performance theory" (i). Like the first volume, also reviewed in this issue, Volume II includes an editorial introduction that sets forth broad themes; a lengthy overview essay, in this case by Thomas Postlewait, covering multiple strands of development throughout the period; and eight subsequent chapters, each dealing with particular aspects of theatrical production. Generally well written, this volume presents an extraordinary synthesis of information as it works to capture the theatre's role in a rapidly changing, modernizing nation.

Postlewait's overview essay is the most venturesome in broaching new theoretical ground by offering ways to view the past while incorporating new data. Attuned to the imperatives of an increasingly urban, visual culture and a dizzying panoply of performance forms, he posits a "hieroglyphic stage" operating within a vision of America itself as a "spectatorium" (107). This formulation enables him to weave together many seemingly disparate developments, including commercial spectacles. In [End Page 428] so doing, he disrupts the traditional chronicle of American theatre's evolution from popular entertainment to the triumph of realism and modernism "to show that a theatre of the real thing and a theatre of hieroglyphic spectacle, instead of being mutually exclusive, are two dynamic, interrelated codes that operate within various forms and kinds of theatrical entertainment in American culture" (136). Postlewait's paradigm illuminates the era and prompts further analysis of linkages between his "theatre of the eye" and the nation's imperialistic gaze (136).

Turning to particular aspects of the hieroglyphic stage, John Frick charts the organizational changes that ensued as theatre became an industry, chiefly the geographic and economic centralization of theatre in New York City and the rise of alternative structures in the independent theatre movement of the 1920s and the Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s.

The following chapter on "Plays and Playwrights" divides the period into three smaller increments--1865-1896, 1896-1915, and 1915-1945--covered, respectively, by Tice Miller, Ronald Wainscott, and Brenda Murphy. Given the narrower focus on dramatic literature, the standard melodrama-to-realism-and-modernism narrative predominates, at least until the third section where it is complicated by the political, economic, and aesthetic tensions between mainstream commercial and alternative theatrical impulses that gave rise to the most prolific period in US playwriting. But if certain traditional themes and figures still, understandably, command attention, so too do contributions by women and African Americans. Focusing more on challenges arising from Marxist politics than gender or racial issues, Mark Fearnow's chapter on collectively generated work culminates in a discussion of the Group Theatre. Alternatives to scripted spoken drama are elaborated in lively chapters on popular theatre by Brooks McNamara and musical theatre by Thomas Riis, the latter emphasizing the seminal contributions of African Americans to what is regarded as the preeminently American theatrical form.

In Daniel Watermeier's analysis, some of the most dramatic developments of the period occurred in the area of acting, with the decline of the resident stock company and establishment of New York-based training centers. The resulting increase in professionalism helped improve male and female performers' social status and paved the way for the founding of Actors' Equity. Examining the formation of the modern directing profession in these decades, Warren Kliewer stresses how the pivotal separation of artistic authority from hiring power fostered the ascent of the producer modeled after business magnates in other industries. Whereas the acting profession offered more opportunities to women and African Americans than before, the more authoritarian directing and producing professions emerged as almost...


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