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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 504-505

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Book Review

Performing History:
Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre

Performing History: Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre. By Freddie Rokem. Studies in Theatre History and Culture. Iowa City: University of Iowa, 2000; pp. 264. $42.95 cloth.

Performing History examines theatre's relationship to the historical past. Specifically, it investigates the relationship of a dozen theatre productions—all but one staged after World War II and in a variety of sites in the US, Western Europe, and Israel—to the French Revolution and Shoah. Plays by Georg Büchner, Yukio Mishima, Peter Weiss, Yehoshua Sobol, and Hanoch Levin are considered, as are productions by Orson Welles, Robert Wilson, Ingmar Bergman, Dudu Ma'ayan, Peter Brook, Ariane Mnouchkine, Herbert Blau, and others. What Freddie Rokem attempts here is audacious: to describe and theorize the way theatre functions as a mode of historical understanding. What he attempts is also quite courageous; his book opens theatre studies onto highly troubling critical and ethical vistas.

Rokem utilizes textual analysis, vivid description of performances he's attended, documentary reconstructions of those he hasn't, wide-ranging and fluent theoretical consideration, examinations of audience reception, and careful ennumerations of the craft of actor and director to point out specific moments when the past confronts the present on stage. The preface and introduction lay out the complications, which play into the problem of perception, referentiality, and aesthetics. Rokem writes, "History can only be perceived as such when it becomes recapitulated, when we create some form of discourse . . . on the basis of which an organized repetition of the past is constructed, situating the chaotic torrents of the past within an aesthetic frame" (xi).

It is the actor who is given pride of place here, considered to be especially significant since s/he plays the role of revealing the conduits of historical drama, a "hyper-historian," defined as "a connecting link between the historical past and the 'fictional' performed here and now of the theatrical event . . . who makes it possible for us . . . to recognize that the actor is 'redoing' or 'reappearing' as something that has actually existed in the past" (13). The actor is not the only one perceived, but serves as a perceiver, "a witness for the now dead witnesses" of the past as well as a witness of the performance itself (xii). Rokem's discussions of the work of actors Semadar Yaron-Ma'ayan and Stina Ekblad suggest exactly how problematic such [End Page 504] acts of witnessing are. As he demonstrates in such passages, the theatre resists totalizing theories.

Rokem refuses to totalize on the side of theatre, as he does when it comes to history. He uses the Shoah as exemplum—the archetypal "torrent" of history refusing to be settled within any "aesthetic frame." This guarantees that the book never skirts the ethical dilemmas raised by art after Auschwitz, but it also mortgages his book to a theory of history and aesthetics that is more than a little problematic. Rokem holds that history and aesthetics can be separated, a notion that makes little sense even in relation to the Shoah. Granting the epistemological, aesthetic, and ethical abyss into which six million Jews were thrown, it is problematic to argue that the French Revolution is "as a rule more open to different points of view [than the Shoah]. Here we are even willing to admit that the historical events from this period are like the theatre" (15). Whether we admit it or not, life in the camps involved theatre and theatricality. Performing arts and performance (in the sense described by performance theory) were as much a part of life and death in the camps as it is anywhere else. The basis of the ethical problem is not whether the Shoah was theatrical, but whether the abject horror of camp life can ever be adequately represented by theatre. The consequences of this position become clear when Rokem argues that without a historical representation, witnessing becomes meaningless and so does the struggle through the "most...


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