- Performing Heritage: Research, Practice and Innovation in Museum Theatre and Live Interpretation ed. by Anthony Jackson and Jenny Kidd, and: Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment by Rebecca Schneider
Can performance grant us access to the past? This is a question taken up, problematized, and reformulated in two recent books: Anthony Jackson and Jenny Kidd’s edited collection Performing Heritage: Research, Practice and Innovation in Museum Theatre and Live Interpretation and Rebecca Schneider’s Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment. To some extent, both books tread the same intellectual and scholarly territory, bucking against the Derridean premises of Herbert Blau, Peggy Phelan, and others, for whom the past is an elusive signified, with the unapologetic insistence that the past is neither dead nor irretrievable and that performance is a way to encounter it. Accompanying this is a second premise, more forceful in Schneider’s book although woven through Jackson and Kidd’s, which rejects the assumption that performance is ephemeral, disappearing even as it is manifested. But this about-face is by no means a simple return to the positivist claims that an authentic window to days gone by is achievable if we only apply enough historical rigor; rather, these books [End Page 138] are efforts to rewrite the concept of authenticity in performance. While both projects attend to rethinking the relationships between performance and the past, they do so in very different ways.
As her title indicates, Schneider stubbornly refuses to truck with tropes of death and disappearance that have been trenchantly linked to performance in recent years. Performing Remains instead maintains that performance does not disappear, demonstrating how the detritus of the past is made continually present through its theatrical activation. Here, she finds allies in Joseph Roach, José Esteban Muñoz, and, perhaps “queasily” (one of Schneider’s compelling operative phrases), Diana Taylor. Schneider is drawn to the idea of the gestic—namely, that a gesture like the pointing of a finger can remain through performance as an indexical action that can “document” a “precedent live act” as accurately as can any text (37)—a concept playfully if gruesomely illustrated by the snapshot of the faux severed digit left behind on a battlefield that graces the paperback edition’s cover. Based on field notes from heritage sites, reenactments, and theatrical performances that she began in the 1990s, Schneider’s book also takes issue with scholarship that dismisses performance as a legitimate way to “do” history, premised as it is on the age-old bias that mimesis can only be a corrupt copy of something more pure. On the contrary, she claims, performance can “touch” the past in ways we call authentic. “[D]espite or perhaps because of the error-ridden mayhem of trying to touch the past,” she writes, “something other than the discrete ‘now’ of everyday life can be said to occasionally occur—or recur” (14). In other words, Schneider troubles the notion that reenactment is merely a simulacrum without a referent, insisting rather that there is a past that remains to disrupt the present, just as the present disrupts the past (as “when a Civil War reenactor claims that a war is not over” ). This, then, is the central, recurring theme of the book, as well as its recurring question: “What if time (re)turns? What does it drag along with it?” (2; emphasis in original).
For Jackson and Kidd, whose volume of essays came out of the Performance, Learning and Heritage project (PLH) funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and first shared at a conference in Manchester, UK, in 2008, we are at a new moment where scholars can be “more reflexive and less defensive” about claims that performance can be a useful strategy for teaching about heritage at museums and cultural sites. While Schneider’s past “remains” and can be “touched,” Performing Heritage...