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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 520-521

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Book Review

Women, Theatre and Performance:
New Histories, New Historiographies

Women, Theatre And Performance: New Histories, New Historiographies. Edited by Maggie B. Gale and Viv Gardner. Women, Theatre and Performance Series. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000; pp. 256. $74.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Women, Theatre and Performance: New Histories, New Historiographies is the first volume in a planned series of edited essay collections replacing the journal Women and Theatre Occasional Papers and devoted to selected themes relating to women, theatre, and performance. This first volume is primarily British-centered, with seven of the twelve contributors based at British universities and eight of the essays concerned partly or entirely with British theatre and/or the work of British or British-based playwrights. The majority of the essays center on late-nineteenth and/or twentieth-century topics, and while the title might suggest an interest in non-theatrical performance, the essays are mostly concerned with theatre and drama. Three interesting exceptions are by Susan A. Rutherford, who argues for a positive revaluation of the role of muse as it was fulfilled by German soprano Wilhemine Schröder-Devrient in relation to Richard Wagner; Susan Carlson, who touches on the "performativity" (209) of "politically progressive" yet "socially conservative" (201) journalistic suffrage drama as it "helped to shape the thinking of the day" (209); and Catherine Schuler, who makes reference to the enforced sexual performances that were part of the common experience of actresses in Russian serf theatre.

In a short introduction, editors Gale and Gardner reject what Jill Davis has described as "'the bravura theoretical display [that] is not untypical in feminist theatre scholarship of the past decade'" (2) and assert instead their intention to pursue "what might loosely be called a 'materialist' [historiographic] position" and to "concentrate on the retrieval and analysis of data, the observation and documentation of performance and theatrical text" (2). This anxious opposition of history to theory, reminiscent of earlier days in feminist theatre studies, is an unfortunate start to a volume devoted to new histories, and historiographies. A more appropriate starting point might have been Susan Bennett's "Theatre History, Historiography and Women's Dramatic Writing," the only contribution to the collection that is concerned with general historiographic principles and with "deconstruct[ing] and revision[ing]" (57) "what gets called theatre history" (50) rather than examining particular dramatic texts, historical figures, and practices.

Surprisingly, however, Bennett's essay is third in the volume, preceded by contributions by Jacky Bratton on Susanna Centlivre and by Gardner on urban geography and middle-class female spectatorship in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century London. This sort of puzzling placement is characteristic of the ordering of the volume as a whole. Gale and Gardner state in their introduction that they "[seek] to disturb the notion of progression . . . by juxtaposing historical and contemporary subjects" (5), but though they suggest relationships among small clusters of essays, they do not assign section titles to suggest to readers how the essays are thematically or methodologically related. As a result, as with the first three by Bratton, Gardner, and Bennett, it is not always clear why one essay follows another. Bennett's essay might as effectively have functioned as a sort of conclusion, but instead the collection finishes with Schuler's "The Gender of Russian Serf Theatre and Performance," an interesting essay in its own right but not one that seems generally to invite new histories [End Page 520] and historiographies in the way that Bennett's does.

While many of the essays are concerned with recovering the work of neglected or forgotten playwrights and theatre practitioners, there is not a lot that is strikingly "new" here in terms of methodology and theory, despite the editors' promise. John Stokes's contribution serves as a case in point: somewhat misleadingly titled "Memories of Madame Arnould Plessy: Henry James Re-stages the Past," Stokes's essay is less concerned with James's view of Plessy per se than with establishing her position in the history of French acting through a careful...


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