- Introduction to “Reconstructing Theatre/History”
In a year of many conferences, the symposium “Constructing Theatre/History” stood out for the people it brought together and the dialogue it generated. Hosted by the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Theatre and Dance in April of 1998, the event marked the 30th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of Oscar Brockett’s History of Theatre, a book that through seven subsequent editions has shaped both the discipline and discourse of theatre studies.
While the symposium served amply as an occasion to honor the many personal and professional contributions of Oscar Brockett to the field, it also became a forum to examine the intersection of theatre history with emerging constructions of the discipline that coincide or conflict with the narrative history shaped and passed down by Brockett’s text. As Ann Daly, the symposium’s organizer, had hoped, the three major panels turned out to be as much about “trend-setting, forecasting, and agenda-setting” as about celebrating past achievements. Accordingly, the session on “Disciplining Theatre/History,” with presentations by Charlotte Canning and Joseph Roach, considered such questions as: “How are our paradigms shifting? What is the relationship between theatre scholarship and theatre practice? Are we training our graduate students for today or tomorrow?” The panel on “Teaching Theatre/History,” featuring Brenda Cotto-Escalera and Jill Dolan, queried: “How does curriculum define theatre/history? How can we responsibly and productively critique the stability of teaching history as a linear progression? Are our graduate training programs keeping pace with changes in the profession?” Finally, Marvin Carlson and Sandra L. Richards’s panel on “Writing Theatre/History,” asked: “Are journals keeping pace with developments in the discipline? Is paper passé? Is our writing relevant to the theatre community?” Collectively, all the panels and associated sessions (which included a conversation with Brockett himself) considered the broad issues of where we are headed as a field and where we want to go.
History, of course, is always the product of the tension between the present and the past—between where we stand now and what we have received. Out of this interplay come new narratives for the future. This dynamic characterized [End Page 1] much of the dialogue that took place at the symposium, which became a demonstration of ways in which Brockett’s approach still constructively engages those of us who teach theatre.
In order to capture the spirit of this “productive tension,” the editors have chosen to reprint here Roach’s “reconstructing theatre/history” essentially unchanged from the talk he delivered at the conference. Using the original publication of Brockett’s History of the Theatre as a focal point for thinking about the relationship between the past, present, and future of our field, Roach’s polemical (and potentially controversial) presentation uses the past as a framework for critiquing the present with the explicit goal of spurring future change.
Harley Erdman is Associate Professor of Theatre at the University of Massachusetts and the incoming editor of Theatre Topics.