Last year’s innovation in drama criticism was a kind of historicism that wove together artifacts surrounding a play like Uncle Tom’s Cabin to define a broader context, though to some extent reducing the playtext to the same value as souvenirs sold at performances. This year’s works instead see drama as a means of contextualizing the historical image, photo, or event, supplying the meaning that might have been taken for granted and left to stand alone. In Spectacles of Reform: Theater and Activism in Nineteenth-Century America (Michigan), 2013 winner of the American Society for Theatre Research Barnard Hewitt Award, Amy Hughes observes, “Theater scholars have studied the mechanics of stage spectacle, and historians have traced the impact of U.S. reform movements, but to date the two fields have not come together to question how and why sensation scenes capitalized on public iconography and national sentiment associated with various advocacy projects.” The term public iconography nicely summarizes what is under scrutiny in much of this year’s scholarship. Hughes argues that recontexualizing in a play “renders visible the invisible; it makes sensation seen. Consequently, spectacle plays an instrumental role in the public and private spheres because of its potential to destabilize, complicate, or sustain sedimented ideological beliefs.” A simple example cited last year and worth recalling is Koritha Mitchell’s Living with Lynching (Illinois), reprinted this year in paper. Mitchell analyzes plays performed between 1890 and 1930 that recontexualize stark photos of lynching by showing the victim instead in an alternative domestic context and assigning more convoluted motives [End Page 379] to the lynchers. Supplying the missing context is a common ingredient in much of the new work on American drama.
i Recontextualizing 9/11, War, and the Dead
Stephen Bottoms takes the year’s prize for the most stimulating essay. He approaches recontextualizing in “The Canonization of Christopher Shinn” (MD 55: 329–55), analyzing three plays that have as their background 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the plays never directly touch upon those events: “Shinn’s drama,” Bottoms argues, “performs the major in a minor key—aspiring not to timelessness but timeliness, and taking the big, public events of the moment as the starting point for explorations of some of the private crises and hauntings that shadow them.” The first ten scenes of Shinn’s Where Do We Live take place sequentially in August 2001. “At the opening of scene eleven, however, we are informed that we have leapt forward to 27 September—more than two weeks (and in the subjectivity of passing time, several million years) after the World Trade Center ceased to exist. There is, then, a yawning temporal hole in the fabric of the play, an unremarked upon absence that echoes the hole in the New York skyline. Audiences must negotiate the gap in their own terms.”
What makes the article doubly relevant to defining through absence is that Bottoms sets it up with reference to Shinn’s exclusion from a proposed Methuen anthology of American drama. Shinn’s play was blocked, first by Arthur Miller’s estate and then by David Mamet; the implication seemed to be that including a “minor” playwright would diminish the others. Bottoms constructs an extremely sophisticated argument based on the ethics posited by French philosopher Alain Badiou, who attacks big-issue binaries as oversimplifying to an extreme, the binaries fabricated by homogenizing a wide variety of points of view. The point is that the same thing is being done in the Mamet/Miller attempt to control the canon of American drama. A playwright like Christopher Shinn who is not a big Broadway success is, in fact, undermining such clear-cut views of positions, especially in these plays of homosexuality, rich versus poor, racial divide, and Muslim versus Christian, the easy handles we are conventionally given. The result of contextualizing such issues into smaller domestic settings is, counterintuitively, to make more evident many differing points of view. After a “U.S.A.” toast/chant in a bar is modified to “where we live,” the “resistant speech act changes [End Page 380] everything in four words, by repositioning the...