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  • A Tyranny of Documents: The Performing Arts Historian as Film Noir Detective. Essays Dedicated to Brooks McNamara
  • Roberta Barker (bio)
Stephen Johnson , ed. A Tyranny of Documents: The Performing Arts Historian as Film Noir Detective. Essays Dedicated to Brooks McNamara. New York: Thea-tre Library Association, 2011.

In his introduction to A Tyranny of Documents, Stephen Johnson nods to the well-worn simile that likens historians to "detectives in the archives, following the 'clues' to solve a 'case'" (2). Any performance researcher who has sojourned in the archives will recognize the truth behind this cliché. The moment when a long-sought document surfaces, bringing with it precisely the evidence needed to prove a controversial argument or to answer a nagging question, can easily convince a scholar that she or he has joined Sherlock Holmes in the deductive pantheon. Yet, as Dr. Watson himself confessed in his account of the curious problem at Thor Bridge, even the Great Detective sometimes encountered unsolvable cases. To the historian who struggles to reconstruct vanished moments of performance from incomplete and often inconsistent traces, this experience of impasse is all too familiar. The documents upon which she relies often prove "tyrannical" in their refusal to confirm established narratives or to provide longed-for resolutions. Acknowledging this reality, Johnson offers us a modified image of the performing arts historian as film noir detective, stumbling in the shadowlands of recalcitrantly unclear, incomplete, or even absent documents. His engaging edited collection, offered as a fitting tribute to the memory of the great American performance historian Brooks McNamara, conjures both the triumphs and the travails of the scholars who comb the archives in search of that elusive quantity, "the truth."

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Cover image for Tyranny of Documents: The Performing Arts Historian as Film Noir Detective, edited by Stephen Johnson, published by Theatre Library Association (2011).
Courtesy of Theatre Library Association

At the heart of this volume's success is Johnson's decision to approach a set of vital questions around performance historiography not through broad theoretical peroration but through "microhistory, which calls for a close re-examination of individual documents and events, questioning the preconceptions with which we approach them" (3). Forty contributors, ranging from graduate students to professors emeriti, provide short essays that reflect upon their encounters with specific archival documents, recording their successes and failures as they strive to understand the traces of bygone performances inscribed in them. Their multivalent topics and approaches reflect the great diversity of contemporary theatre and performance studies. Yet many authors share interests in the relationship of performance to commerce, in the uneasy negotiation between performance and politics, and in the impact on performance of shifting norms of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and public morality. And all show moving personal investments in the documents that allow them access—however fleeting and incomplete—to a moment of lost stage time.

A short review cannot hope to do justice to the huge temporal and geographical range covered by these close archival encounters. John Wesley Hill interrogates the 1551 report of a Russian Orthodox Church council that provides a tantalizing window on popular performance in Old Russia, Barbara Cohen-Stratyner probes the mysteries of an exquisite studio photo of a pioneering star of African American musical theatre, Aida Overton Walker (1880-1914), and Andrew Brown considers the disturbing meanings and sudden disappearance of a homophobic YouTube response to the work of South African drag performer Pieter-Dirk Uys. The volume's reader encounters sexually explicit pamphlets from eighteenth-century France (entertainingly dissected by Daniel Smith), a slice of General Tom Thumb's wedding cake (contemplated by Marlis Schweitzer with equal parts bemusement and insight), and a poster from a 1972 Warsaw production of Schiller's Don Carlos, stolen from a lobby at Bishop's University (poetically conjured by Rebecca Harries). In some cases, a single documented performance endeavours to cross multiple boundaries of time and cultural difference, as in Charles Francis Hall's 1869 encounter with two Inuit men who strove to convey to him how they, in their turn, [End Page 98] had once tried to communicate in "pantomimic" fashion with survivors of the Franklin expedition...


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