- Reconstructing Theatre/History
Some men see things the way they are and say, “Why?” I dream of things that never were and say, “Why not?”—Robert F. Kennedy quoting George Bernard Shaw, 1968
How do we as theatre scholars define our objects of study? In terms of the discipline of theatre research in the United States, that very question has a history—and it continues to make history. To begin to answer it, one might look to several of our myths of origin: Brander Matthews’s then unprecedented teaching of drama at Columbia University, George Pierce Baker’s “47 Workshop” at Harvard, Baker’s move to Yale and the founding of the School of Drama, the inauguration of conservatory-technical training within the academy at Carnegie Mellon, or the granting of the first doctorates in theatre by the University of Iowa in 1929 and then Cornell University and Northwestern University in 1940. What is striking at first glance is how very different these pioneers’ objects of study were: Matthews’s enthusiastic antiquarianism, Baker’s how-to-make-a-play dramaturgy, Carnegie Mellon’s trade-school pragmatism, the PhD’s literary-historical professionalism—all seem to pull in very different directions. Different, yes, but they are all in some way focused on performance.
Performance in each case provides a place where theory and practice enter into a potentially troubled yet deeply symbiotic relationship. Etymologically as well as ontologically, theatre is a practice of theory, as Jane Harrison, the great classicist, reminds us: “Our word theory,” she noted, “which we use in connexion with reasoning and which comes from the same Greek word as theatre, means really looking fixedly at, contemplation; it is very near in meaning to our imagination.” (Bentley 19). If theory has become passé, as the provocative questions posed by the hosts of Constructing Theatre/History suggest, then imagination has also outlived its importance to scholars in the field. And in some ways, alas, that is exactly what has been happening in theatre departments for the last thirty years. [End Page 3]
The moment I want to examine—the moment when the field, organized around performance as the object of study, took a decisive and, I believe, unfortunate turn—also happens to coincide with the auspiciously happy moment we are celebrating on the occasion of this conference: the completion of Oscar Brockett’s History of the Theatre in 1967 and its publication in 1968. Let me hasten to add that these events, though simultaneous, were not causally linked. In fact, their autonomy as phenomena is conspicuous and part of the story I want to tell. My account takes the form of a memoir of a moment, not of when paradigms shifted but of when they stripped their gears, as told through the rise and fall of some of the theatre departments I have known, and loved, and lost.
“In this book,” Brockett begins the preface to the first edition of the History, “I have attempted to trace the development of the theatre from primitive times until 1967” (v). Looking back from the perspective of students today, I guess one could say that 1967 and 1968 were primitive times. Even as Brockett’s History recorded the particulars of the construction of the Comédie Française, for instance, the then extant “House of Molière” was being occupied and deconstructed by rebellious students, who, like the barbarians of yore, decked themselves out in the stage costumes while they held the company director hostage in his office. As eighteen-year-old theatre majors, we took note.
There was so much else to take note of in 1967–68. There were Happenings and Catastrophes: Guerilla Theatre (on campus, fake) and guerilla theatre (Tet Offensive, real), My Lai, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. There were Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite, Richard Schechner’s Dionysus in ‘69 (a year early), Hair, Arthur Hailey’s Airport, and Arthur Kopit’s Indians. There were Blau’s Impossible Theatre and Grotowski’s Poor Theatre. The Tulane Drama Review moved from New Orleans to Greenwich Village. There were riots in most major cities and Jacques Derrida announced that structuralism was...