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Reviewed by:
  • The Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama
  • Marvin Carlson (bio)
The Columbia Encyclopedia of Modern Drama. Edited by Gabrielle H. Cody and Evert Sprinchorn. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007; 1721 pp. $450.00 cloth.

I could not help feeling as I worked my way around in this monumental undertaking that I was dealing with a kind of dinosaur, impressive in its monumentality, but nevertheless, despite the best efforts of its editors, very much reflecting a disappearing era when Europeans confidently felt justified in cataloguing and presenting the entire world. In the contemporary world such a project inevitably suffers from two contradictory and probably irreconcilable demands. On the one hand there is the heavy weight of the received tradition, which must be respected. How could anyone market an "Encyclopedia of Modern Drama" without substantial representation of the established canonical works? And so we have dozens, indeed hundreds of columns devoted to potted biographies of Ibsen, Chekhov, Shaw, Williams, and all the rest, and scores of plot summaries of individual plays like Ghosts, Streetcar, or Long Day's Journey into Night, on the whole competently done but readily available, in almost identical form, in dozens of other reference works. Such material cannot be omitted, but it contributes much dead weight to an already massive project.

On the other hand, there is the growing demand and expectation for such a volume to be truly global in scope, and to give serious representation to dramatic literature as a world phenomenon, especially in the modern era. If in fact the editors were to take this responsibility seriously, they could easily produce a work 10 times the size of the present undertaking, even if they seriously reduced the heavy emphasis on the European and US canon. They are certainly to be commended for presenting substantially more material than previous similar volumes from such once neglected but now more fashionable countries as China and Canada, but these few bright spots are quite overwhelmed by the vast areas that remain largely or totally neglected, especially in the all too predictable poor cousins of theatre scholarship, which include much of Asia and Latin America, and almost all of Africa and the Arab world.

While it may be true, as the editors assert in their charming postcolonial manner, that "modern literary drama is fundamentally Anglo-European" (x) and that "much non-Western drama is orally transmitted rather than recorded as 'literature' " (x), this conveniently ignores the fact that during the "modern era" the "Anglo-European" model was spread around the globe, with major effects in many countries not even covered in this work (such as much of Africa). Nothing could more clearly indicate the shortcomings of this work than the fact that its most "distinctive feature," according to its editors, "is the emphasis it places on the cultural context of dramatic works and their authors" (ix), and yet there is no entry for postcolonial drama. This is true even though postmodernism at least gets a small token entry of five paragraphs (the same amount of text allotted, by the way, to a plot summary of A.A. Milne's 1952 The Truth About Blayds or George M. Cohan's It Pays to Advertise of 1914).

Equally revealing is the list of the 26 members of the Editorial Advisory Board and their listed special areas. Sixteen of these are US or European (including individual specialists in [End Page 183] Norway, Denmark, and Sweden). Four cover Asia (China, India, Japan, and Southeast Asia). One covers Yiddish theatre, two cover genres in general and "aesthetic movements." The rest of the world is the responsibility of three editors, one who modestly claims the area of "Africa, Asia, and the Middle East," one who is content merely to cover "Africa," and one who claims "Latin America and Spain." Here a whole continent, with what some might consider a significant contribution to modern drama, does not even rate a single editorial advisor. It comes then as hardly a surprise that while 26 European countries (even Macedonia) have separate entries, there are only four from the entire continent of South America (Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, and Peru) and two from all of Africa (Egypt...


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pp. 183-185
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