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Reviewed by:
  • The American Play, 1787–2000
  • David Krasner
The American Play, 1787–2000. By Marc Robinson. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009; pp. 416. $45.00 cloth.

The American Play illuminates the contradictory and competing features of selected American dramas, from Royall Tyler’s The Contrast to Wallace Shawn’s The Designated Mourner. Marc Robinson’s aim is to discourage the common view of American drama as primarily linear and realistic, treating it instead as the fluctuating and transient presentation of opposing voices through visual and textual juxtapositions. According to Robinson, American dramaturgy is choppy, spatial, and syncopated, rather than Aristotelian, temporal, and teleological. Even melodrama, he says, “allows its sentiment to falter and its schematism to blur before righting itself” (9). Rising through this dramaturgically oscillating condition is the “ascendancy of flux” (9), locating meaning in the play’s “fragmentary utterances and fractured images, partial rather than comprehensive narratives, spasmodic impulses rather than accomplished action” (12). Robinson brings together an array of material by drawing deftly not only upon theatre, but also poetry, art, dance, photography, and literary theory, keeping multiple balls in the air as he guides us through his discursion on destabilization and asymmetry.

The book begins by analyzing Royall Tyler and William Dunlap, authors who suggest “a theater culture that fosters rather than resolves arguments; that elevates disorder over legibility; that depends on centrifugal rather than centripetal force; and that purposefully effaces images, gestures, or propositions just when they reach full strength” (15). Chapters 1 and 2 analyze nineteenth-century temperance plays, coded tableaux in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, moving panoramas, flaneur plays, and post-bellum dramas, focusing on the “unsteady, fragmented theatrical landscapes of American modernism” (59). Drawing parallels to the “choppy surfaces” (71) of Walt Whitman’s poetry, Robinson contends that post–Civil War dramas such as Augustin Daly’s Under the Gaslight, Bronson Howard’s Shenandoah, and William Gillette’s Secret Service “reveal [a] compelling picture of a society uprooted from all ethical and moral foundations, scornful of the old sentimental values without yet subscribing to any new, compensatory faith” (77).

Chapter 3, “Realism against Itself,” examines plays that “move unpredictably among tones and through models of structure, transforming attitudes that look sincere in one scene into irony and outright parody in the next” (117). James Herne’s Margaret Fleming and David Belasco’s The Girl of the Golden West sustain this fluctuating theme, “continually readjusting characters’ relationships to their object worlds, erasing and redrawing the lines separating animate from inanimate matter” (138) through what Robinson calls “instances of vision” (129)—objects presented onstage that are frequently at odds with the play’s language. For example, blindness in Margaret Fleming creates what Robinson calls a “blank space [that] invites spectators to ponder alternatives to the realist milieu and to imagined unstaged, unembodied characters [who] give us room to pivot [End Page 126] our attention—away from the effaced center of the spectacle and toward marginal figures or other phenomena placed beyond the jurisdiction of realism’s visual sovereignty” (123).

Robinson’s interests are in mapping the representational challenge of theatrical interiority and its oppositional space—namely, the problem of visibility and invisibility, the absolutely here onstage and the altogether elsewhere off stage. Every dramatist in the study is yoked into this theme. In chapter 4, Eugene O’Neill, for instance, is viewed through a lens that neutralizes his “psychodrama” and redirects “attention to the theater’s more challenging modes of evasion and resistance. What isn’t seen and said, in this view, assumes as much if not more importance than any lyrical outpouring” (164). Thus examining O’Neill’s floor plan of the Tyrone house assists in analyzing Long Day’s Journey into Night by “help[ing] us see that his theater moves toward nothingness” (167), rescuing the play from being “a mere family drama” (179).

Chapter 5 considers dramatists Wallace Stevens, e. e. cummings, T. S. Eliot, Djuna Barnes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Jean Toomer, who are often overlooked by mainstream dramaturgical analysis. Chapter 6, “Changing Decorum,” focuses on Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, pinpointing their striving for intangibles—“theater’s outer...


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