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Theatre Journal 53.2 (2001) 351-352

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Book Review

The Portable Theater:
American Literature &Amp; the Nineteenth-century Stage

The Portable Theater: American Literature &Amp; the Nineteenth-century Stage.By Alan L. Ackerman Jr. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999; pp. 304. $45.00.

For some time now, a persistent and lamentable backlash against the literary text has been widening the gulf between literary criticism and performance studies. The great merit of Alan Ackerman's timely study The Portable Theater resides in the fact that it bridges the gulf between a theatre or performance studies hostile to the literary text and a literary studies uninterested in the theatre and theatricality.Ackerman's primary authors--Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, William Dean Howells, Louisa May Alcott and Henry James--share one feature: they either did not write for, or did not succeed on, the stage, deeming the theatre industry uncongenial to their literary pursuits. This does not mean, however, that their work should be read without a knowledge of theatre history, for their gesture of rejecting the theatre inevitably ties their literary work--poetry, novels, dramatic criticism, and even drama itself--to the very theatre against which they protest. The "portable theater" describes a theatricality that has been displaced from the stage, but also a type of literature that writes back to the theatre.

Ackerman's study answers two questions: where the theatre went when it was displaced from the stage and what effects this displacement had on the literary canon of nineteenth-century American literature. A compelling introductory chapter vividly describes the nineteenth-century American theatre with its melodramas, its imported well-made plays, adaptations of novels, and, later on, its struggle with the emerging realism. In addition, we get a description of the star-system, and, of course, the theatre riots, which still loom large in the imagination of present-day downtown theatre. This is the world of the theatre that presses from all sides onto those literary writers who cannot, or do not want to, free themselves from its influence, even when they turn their backs on it. When placed in this context, familiar and canonical texts of the nineteenth-century canon suddenly emerge in a new light. Whitman's obsession with voice, for example, appears not only, as it often does, as a nostalgia for some kind of Greek rhapsody, lost to the onslaught of the printing press and the typewriter, but as a response to the theatre, which has always been intimately tied to oratory and literary speech. Melville, on the other hand, becomes important for the study through what one could call the theatricality in the novel. A fantastic reading of Ahab as a star-performer who carefully calculates his appearances and exits and an analysis of James's use of dramatic scenes demonstrates how central the category of the theatre is for the representational practices of the novel. Related to this more formal question is the depiction and evaluation, in the novel, of theatrical events--for example the theatrical in Alcott, which Ackerman also compares to the paradigmatically anti-theatrical Mansfield Park. One of the strongest chapters is the one on James because it brings together theatre history, the history of modern drama (including a compelling discussion of Henrik Ibsen's influence on James) with questions of narrative and dramatic conventions as well as their relation to realism. Ackerman thus shows the extent to which drama and the notion of dramatic realism exerted a vital influence on Howells's dramatic, novelistic, and critical oeuvre. Here again Ackerman demonstrates with great acuity how indispensable questions of drama and theatre are for comprehending the emergence of American realism at large. The Portable Theater is bound to make such an impression on the field that the study of nineteenth-century American literature will no longer be able to ignore the theatre despite, or even because of, the fact that American theatre did not produce a major successful dramatist until the twentieth century.

As Ackerman observes in his preface, ThePortable Theater is a historical study and not a theoretical one. This...


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