American Drama: The Bastard Artby Susan Harris Smith, and: Theatre Culture in America, 1825-1860by Rosemarie K. Bank, and: The Emergence of the Modern American Theatre 1914-1929by Ronald H. Wainscott (review)
- Comparative Drama
- Western Michigan University
- Volume 33, Number 2, Summer 1999
- pp. 306-308
- View Citation
- Additional Information
306Comparative Drama Susan Harris Smith. American Drama: The Bastard Art. Cambridge Studies in American Theatre and Drama, 5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. vi + 248. $49.95. Rosemarie K. Bank. Theatre Culture in America, 1825-1860. Cambridge Studies in American Theatre and Drama, 7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. xii + 292. $59.95. Ronald H. Wainscott. The Emergence ofthe Modern American Theatre 1914-1929. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997, Pp. xi + 260. $30.00. Long the unwanted guest at academia's bounteous dinner table, American drama and its equally-unwanted companion American theater history have languished in the outer reaches of those matters fit for scholarly study. Slowly, however, these two activities—ever suspect (save for the perpetually anguished activities of the never ending Shakespeare industry)—have edged their respectability onto the conservative curriculums of English and theater departments. 'Twas not always so. Hence the three books here under review stand as curious, sometimes estimable, indeed useful correctives ofjust how prominent the revisionist process has now become. Professor Smith's labor of love seeks to right the wrongs done to the drama of our country, marginalized, often ignored, or simply disregarded within the academic seats of cultural power; she is nothing if not passionate in her commitment to the cause. She asserts that this deprecation or outright disregard of American drama "has far less to do with the intrinsic merits or demerits ofthe genre than with the struggles for authority and legitimation of emerging professionalism." In other words, drama was not important; poetry and fiction were, as English departments established themselves as places of academic respectability . Her account of the struggle—each discipline marking out its territory , carving out its position, vying for some kind of professional worthiness—is well-known. Bit by bit, course by course, American dramatic literature made a place for itself no matter how tenuous the stance, or questionable the posture. Now, as she correctly asserts, a quiet war goes on between literature and theater departments as to who does what, itself a useless exercise in tendentious aggrandizement no doubt. But territorialism is ever the business of territorializing academics and their anxious often mindless, silly concerns. The garden patch, to paraphrase Voltaire, must be cultivated assiduously, no matter the Panzer-like tactics employed. Ironically, Professor Smith constantly demands that American drama is worthy of serious critical attention. But she offers precious little evidence to support her case, the earlier, strict, and unavoidable animadversions of Messrs. Blau and Brustein in their well-known essays on the subject notwithstanding. Naively, she assumes that the reader will agree with her problematic, contentious, and polemical assertions . But the argumentation is overstated, and while one wants to Reviews307 agree with most ( if not all) of Smith's insistence that "a play ... is foremost a literary text," the argument soon bogs down as the author bemoans theater departments trapped in the vacuous nonsense of performance theory, the highly questionable so-called "teaching of acting ," and other fol-de-rol. These latter activities, Professor Smith complains , are done at the expense of the study of plays and playwrights. Truer words were never spoken. But the tide will not turn, to embrace another cliché. And whether the author cares to admit it or not, O'Neill put us on the map, and earlier American dramatic literature for the most part is best left to the specialized concerns of antiquarians and their tedious treks through the dust-filled bins common to their interests. No doubt there are minority and out-of-the loop dramatists who deserve consideration: but who? and when? and how? And do they all merit serious scrutiny? Finally, despite the admirable aims of this study, one comes away from it bothered by the author's apparent confusion in purpose, especially in the overwhelmingly literary bias of the discussion . Drama is, was, and always will be a bastard art, snatching a bit here, a bit there, a song, a piece of a poem, a raggle-taggle yarn turned into a play—but always in the presence of a playwright, controlled by the ordering vision the dramatist must have to make his play work. The born playwright knows that it is...