- To Have or Have Not: Essays on Commerce and Capital in Modernist Theatre ed. by James Fisher
While the recent Great Recession surely motivated the publication of To Have or Have Not: Essays on Commerce and Capital in Modernist Theatre, the collection’s focus spans the history of capitalism since industrialization. Across twenty essays curated by James Fisher, this volume delivers a sweeping account of how American and European dramatists have “staged the cultural and economic ramifications of capitalism and the growing power of the corporate realm” (1). The topics covered run the gamut from the gold rush to the prison-industrial complex, with chapters ordered chronologically rather than thematically, starting with England’s Industrial Revolution, moving through the Great Depression, and ending in the wake of Lehman’s collapse. Fisher’s collection is a survey of modern drama as told through the struggle between the “haves” and the “have-nots” referenced in the book’s title.
At first glance, To Have or Have Not seems to rehearse subjects we know by rote: for example, the essay by theatre historian Laurence Senelick is titled “Money in Chekhov’s Plays.” However, even articles on classic works offer novel insights. Senelick’s look at Chekhov proceeds with rewarding attention to the Russian playwright’s personal pecuniary affairs. By tracking the well-worn theme of greed in Eugene O’Neill’s Marco Millions, Thierry Dubost invites us to revisit the playwright’s legacy for political theatre. An essay on Charles Klein’s The Music Master finds Felicia Hardison Londré aligning herself with the critical consensus that attributes the success of the 1904 premiere to the play’s palatable embrace of the American Dream. But Londré goes a step further, arguing that public knowledge that the playwright, producer, and star each “rose from poverty and struggled to overcome adversity” added crucially to the production’s “drawing power” (97).
Contributors to this collection are not only interested in dramatists who have sought to interpret economic reality through their plays; several focus on attempts by theatre artists to change it. Exemplary of this approach are a pair of essays on socialist Yiddish theatre in pre- and interwar New York. Valleri Hohman examines the influence of plays by Russian émigré Jacob Gordin at the turn of the century, while Joshua Polster recounts the geopolitical context for a 1932 production of Hirsch Leckert by the worker’s theatre Artef. In a careful reading of The Investigation, Gene Plunka argues that Peter Weiss’s 1965 documentary play on the Auschwitz trials should be understood as a Marxist indictment of capitalism’s responsibility for the Holocaust. Still other articles consider the overlooked ambivalence of highly politicized plays. For example, John O’Connor reads the collaborations between Howard Brenton and David Hare as “at once condemnations and celebrations” of the excesses fostered by late capitalism (243). Likewise, Christopher Herr’s discussion of Paradise Lost by Clifford Odets insists that the Waiting for Lefty author actually sought to avoid attacking capitalism outright; according to Herr, Odets’s play instead worked to highlight “the gap between the expectations built into American democracy” and the actual experiences of ordinary people (172).
The eclecticism of the collected essays is, Fisher notes in his introduction, the raison d’être for To Have or Have Not (7). Nevertheless, there remains a strong methodological affinity among the contributions. Most of the essays rely upon close reading and [End Page 624] contextualization of dramatic literature, albeit with little attention to actual performances. Amelia Howe Kritzer provides a notable variation of this approach by comprehensively surveying a recent rich body of British plays that investigate conditions leading up to the 2008 financial crisis. And Rosemarie Bank’s essay stands out for its intellectual history of the performance concepts that informed the work of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who was a major influence on Friedrich Engels.
For a volume devoted to drama’s engagement with capitalist “societies constructed on capitalist principles,” the short shrift To Have or Have Not gives to the racist...