- Dramatic Revisions of Myths, Fairy Tales and Legends: Essays on Recent Plays ed. by Verna A. Foster
Dramatic Revisions of Myths, Fairy Tales and Legends is an admirably wide-ranging survey of the ways in which contemporary dramatic literature appropriates, contests, and transforms pre-existing mythic and fantastical narratives. Verna A. Foster's introduction makes a strong case for the volume's chosen terminology and self-consciously diverse range of subject matter. Dramatic "revision," Foster [End Page 268] contends, does not (unlike more conventional terms, including "adaptation" and "translation") presuppose the existence of an identifiable, literary source-text (2-3) and thus opens the way for an expansive and inclusive range of narratives— incorporating "various kinds of retellings of myth, fairy tale, and legend" (3)—to be considered alongside one another. The resulting breadth of critical focus aims to develop new insights into the contemporary use of "old stories for new cultural purposes" (12), traversing genre- and subject-boundaries to explore a varied collection of modern playwrights, their different creative practices, and their distinctive "dramatic revisions" of myth, fairy tale, or legend (12).
The book's first four chapters offer new perspectives on relatively familiar territory, as they examine the contemporary adaptation and dramatic revision of ancient Greek myth. Miriam Chirico develops a structuralist analysis of the "mythic revisionary drama" (15) of Karen Hartman, Sarah Ruhl, and Caridad Svich, highlighting the diversity of revisionary strategies and styles being deployed in three key works. Karelisa Hartigan discusses the challenges posed to Aristotelian definitions of tragedy by modern dramatic revisions and, in particular, their intense focus on individual experience. Elizabeth W. Scharffenberger explores the ways in which contemporary playwriting and performance can radically "unmake" myth (52), inviting modern audiences "to reflect on their own participation in, and vulnerability to, the phenomenon of mythopoesis" (53), in the process rendering the received mythologies of Helen and Jocasta "metamythopoetic" (63). Finally, Jeffrey B. Loomis identifies a complex network of connections between the Homeric "Hymn to Demeter" and "the affirmation of a vital, dynamic, life-heralding spirituality" (76) in the seriocomic dramas of Tina Howe.
There is plenty to stimulate and provoke in these essays, but what is particularly valuable about this volume is the juxtaposition and interaction of these analyses with later chapters drawing on a more diverse range of source materials, which invite a broader exploration of the role of dramatic revision in contemporary theatrical writing and performance. Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.'s exploration of the transformation and reception of West African myth on American stages highlights the role of revisionary drama in creating and representing "complex and fluid" diaspora identities (93). Similar themes also emerge in Christy Stanlake's study of the multiple mythologies uneasily co-inhabiting Tomson Highway's Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing and the ways in which this complex drama might ultimately function as "a bravely wrought ceremonial action" designed to aid a fractured Native American community's attempts at self-healing (110). Amelia Howe Kritzer argues that Caryl Churchill's use of mythic figures and themes in The Skriker deliberately pushes the play beyond the personal and the everyday in order to make visible "the psychological, social, and economic burden carried by young people" and address the wider issues of "social breakdown" and "natural [End Page 269] catastrophe" (122). Sharon Friedman contributes a fascinating survey of multiple revisions of the "dybbuk" in modern theater and the ways in which this Jewish folkloric figure has been used to engage contentious issues of gender, identity, and sexual desire, additionally stressing "the performative aspect of storytelling" (140) as a key factor in myth-inspired drama's ability to restore the unpredictable, flexible qualities of traditional narratives. Anthony Ellis comparably addresses the relationship between staged fairy-tale narratives and their contemporary audiences, examining Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman and the play's unsettling depiction of "the struggle for the control of representation" (156) between the creative artist and the state. And the fairy tale's potential to dramatize and contest contemporary social...