- Reading Modern Drama ed. by Alan Ackerman
Alan Ackerman’s edited collection Reading Modern Drama resumes the conversation about modern drama’s embattled status in the North American academy that Ric Knowles, Joanne Tompkins, and W. B. Worthen began nine years earlier in their coedited collection Modern Drama: Defining the Field (2003). That volume examined how globalization, interculturalism, and new approaches to performance challenged the definition of modern drama established in the 1950s. Responding to interculturalism’s call for pluralism, the editors advocated an open range of definitions coined in rigorous cross-disciplinary conversations. Conversely, Ackerman argues for a single definition—one that will give drama a unified identity without foreclosing interdisciplinary dialogue. To do so, he turns to new criticism, the method that dominated literary studies for much of the past century.
Ackerman is fully aware of the controversial nature of this turn and carefully tackles the obvious counterarguments. Defining drama as literature and its medium as language, he explains, does not imply that a play has a single meaning independent from the contingency of performance. And reading drama, just like participating in performance, can be an event with important political and social consequences. In short, he argues for the benefits of re-admitting literary approaches to scholarly conversations about performance. In his view, their exclusion, caused by disciplinary struggles among English, theatre, and performance studies, impoverishes our accounts of the relationship between dramatic language and other aspects of performance. Indeed, Ackerman’s introduction is a passionate defense of close reading—new criticism’s signature procedure—which, he claims, can only deepen our understanding of the social aspects of culture, including race, gender, and class.
Seven of the twelve essays in the collection, all previously published in the journal Modern Drama during Ackerman’s tenure as editor, eloquently demonstrate the uses of close reading in illuminating historically specific social phenomena. Joseph Roach combines close readings of A Doll House, The School for Scandal, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and the scandal press of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to argue that in modern dramas, gossip ensures the social cohesion that myth provides in ancient tragedies. Just as the circulation of money affects modern characters’ financial credit, the circulation of gossip establishes their social credibility. Noting the parallel relationship among [End Page 622] money, gossip, and language in Ibsen and Sheridan, Roach suggests moving the beginning of the modern dramatic canon back to the late eighteenth century.
Tanya Thresher and Bilha Blum read silence as meticulously as Roach reads gossip. In their respective essays, they show how characters use silence to negotiate social hierarchies, with Thresher attending to the relationship among women, language, and power in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, and Blum examining Lorca’s use of silence as a form of social protest in his rural tragedies. Both essays support Ackerman’s claim that a close attention to language can illuminate rather than obscure art’s social and ideological investments.
In the same vein, Myka Tucker-Abramson and Nicholas Crawford use close reading to explore Suzan-Lori Parks’s and J. M. Synge’s racial and ethnic politics. In an analysis of Topdog/Underdog, Tucker-Abramson shows how Parks’s characters rely upon the language of late capitalism to define black masculinity, arguing that while Booth and Lincoln attempt to assert the prerogatives of liberal individualism in an economy that denies them agency, their language, uncritically repeating liberal-individualist rhetoric, prevents them from articulating a livable masculinity. Crawford’s close reading of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World finds in its hybrid of English and Gaelic an alternative masculinity that empowers the Irish to resist British assimilation.
The political uses of dramatic language are further explored by Hana and W. B. Worthen in their examination of The Pillowman. They argue that in Martin McDonagh’s play, allegory is not a technique for simplistic propaganda, but an effective tool for political criticism, demonstrating that Katurian’s violent stories pose ethical questions without prescribing ethical behavior. As the other characters struggle to interpret these open allegories, the...