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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 358-360
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Cultural Nationalism in American Theatre
Performing America: Cultural Nationalism in American Theatre.Edited by Jeffrey D. Mason and J. Ellen Gainor. Theatre: Theory/Text/Performance Series. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999; pp. v + 250. $44.50.
Within the context of increasing transnationalism and moves toward globalization, notions of nationhood and citizenship have gained currency. Mason and Gainor's edited anthology examines these problematics through the analysis of how various performances construct the United States and concomitant conceptions of Americaness from the late eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries. Ambitious but uneven, Mason and Gainor's collection provides a useful addition to studies in the historiography of United States theatre and performance.
Mason and Gainor divide their book into two sections, Nation Then and Nation Now. While Gainor provides a thorough overview, connecting the thematics of each essay (9-15), the editors do little to explain this division as anything other than an arbitrary historical break. Gainor does suggest that "concern with representations of the Other" might serve as the linchpin between the two periods (since the second half of the book focuses on marginalized artists and their works) (12). This potential link, however, proves problematic as it comes alarmingly close to reinscribing the very methodologies and ideologies that individual essays work to critique.
In spite of this structural disappointment, the reader will find that the essays readily lend themselves to other, perhaps more productive, groupings. We have ourselves chosen four categories through which to organize our discussion of the constitutive chapters of Performing America, feeling that specific texts intervene most strongly in discussions [End Page 358] pertaining to one of the following areas: historical context, genre, site-specific performance, or cultural pluralism.
Many of the articles situate performance in relation to the historical contours that define the early and developing republic. Ginger Strand looks at the position of post-Revolutionary War theatre. She exposes its role in inculcating the competing ideologies of the burgeoning nation into its audience. Kim Marra's essay serves a similar purpose but narrows the focus to the tropes of conquest that producer Augustin Daly deploys with his leading ladies. The relationships among Daly and these women register the subjugation of the wild frontier in a domestic version of manifest destiny. Charlotte Canning focuses her study on the rural regions of the United States often overlooked in more conventional theatrical studies. Canning suggests that the wildly successful Chautauqua performances of the early twentieth century participated in education and entertainment aimed at promoting a collective American consciousness--like the earlier theatre of Strand's work--but on a mass scale (91).
A pair of essays by Ann Larabee and Rosemarie K. Bank bridge historiography and contemporary performance by addressing issues of locality and citizenship. Bank's essay builds on theorists like James Clifford and Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimlett to reveal how the early museums in the United States were always a form of "rational entertainment" (38). Larabee focuses her efforts on social reform theory and its influence on the settlement house and community theatre movement. While only briefly acknowledging recent work on citizenship, they anticipate such scholarship in their respective discussions of otherness. Bank centers on scientific determinism as the predominant methodology of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while Larabee focuses on how the social reform movement "advocated civic participation and assimilation of community differences" in an effort for the "higher political Self" to emerge (123 and 125).
The two essays by Leigh Woods and Robert H. Vorlicky address questions of genre. In Woods' analysis of the vaudeville tradition, he discusses the appropriation of European stage stars into this performance industry and the formation of United States cultural imperialism. While Woods' essay deals with the assertion of American hegemony, Vorlicky's contribution attempts to dismantle such a monolith. Tracing a lineage back to early American autobiography, Vorlicky's essay examines men's auto-performance as a barometer of heterosexual masculinity and implicit social mores. Although he acknowledges feminist solo performance from the 1960s onward...