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Reviewed by:
  • Performance Histories
  • Paul Rae (bio)
Performance Histories. By Bonnie Marranca. New York: PAJ Publications, 2008; 252 pp. $18.95 paper.

What does it mean, today, to revisit an artwork, oeuvre, or life through writing? What does it take to rework that writing, recontextualize it alongside other such writings and their attendant voices, and put them back into circulation under the title Performance Histories? These questions animate this latest collection of articles, interviews, and reviews by Bonnie Marranca, all but two of which have previously been published in some form in the journal that she edits, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art.

Certainly, Marranca is clear about what the answer to such questions should not be. She makes no bones about her distaste for the instrumentalization of her field, be it through the conversion of artists into "social activists" (26), the preoccupation of theatre with "replicating the global crises of society" (22), or the "hyperactive theorization and lumpy prose" (19) of much performance scholarship. "When all is said and done," she writes, "what remains is the mysteriousness and ravishing heartbreak of a form, valued for its ceremony of presence, even as it occasions absence" (23). It is the persistence of this, she implies, that compels reaffirmation-and republication.

The four sections of Performance Histories represent different approaches to sustaining that force, while investigating its constitutive ambiguities. "Towards a History of Performance Ideas" contains exercises in what Marranca might call "performance thinking" (16) about "performance knowledge" (33), and includes articles on Happenings, the Wooster Group, Robert Wilson, and Maria Irene Fornes. "Aural Histories" is made up of roundtable transcripts and interviews with the likes of Peter Sellars, Romeo Castellucci, and Marianne Weems. "Present Tense" takes the [End Page 178] temperature of the performance scenes in Berlin, Barcelona, and Istanbul. The book closes with "In Memory of Her Feelings," a wide-ranging 1977 interview with the late Susan Sontag.

Over the course of the book, perhaps the most apposite framing of the word "history" that emerges is that relating to diagnosis. Marranca, to use the britishism, is a sharp-eared General Practitioner. She is mindful of the stories both artists and artworks tell about themselves and adept at identifying in them otherwise obscured patterns of meaning and behavior.

At the same time, Marranca is not above prescriptiveness, nor, I think, would she claim to be. She is for morality over ethics, judgment over critique, craft over concept, art over culture, the sublime over the social, and aesthetic pleasure over petty politicking. It is a seductive position. Against a world in flux, there is reassurance to be found in the steadiness of her critical eye, and the sureness of the hand that inscribes her views. But nodding along in agreement is perhaps too easy a response. For if one is as attentive to Marranca's history (such as it emerges in this book) as she is to the histories of others, one cannot help but identify a pattern of privilege in the saying that is only partly acknowledged by the said; the privilege, that is, of proximity. Marranca has every right to rhapsodize the cultural milieu that has sustained her, and which she has, in turn, nourished. Her writings testify eloquently to both the scope and rigor of the work whose histories she transcribes. Where she is less astute is in the disavowals and exclusions upon which such a finely wrought edifice must be erected. Wherever a specific form, practice, or idea is offset against some manifestation of the world at large (as in her discussion of the internet in the book's keynote chapter, "Performance, a Personal History"), the inevitably generalized character of the latter tends to be misrecognized as an inherent shortcoming, and painted in correspondingly broad strokes.

If the resulting social sensibility is unevenly drawn, however, Marranca's corresponding strength-as writer and critic-lies in her attentiveness to individual ideas, works, and practices. This is because, as she states and demonstrates, both the art event and its subsequent interpretations give form to thought and produce knowledge. As such, Marranca champions art criticism that "can be read for pure pleasure while embodying a sense of the critical terms...


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pp. 178-180
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