- The Cambridge Companion to Theatre History Edited by David Wiles and Christine Dymkowski
The Cambridge Companion to Theatre History works to articulate the various challenges and anxieties facing contemporary theatre historians and historiographers. While these challenges cut across the volume and nuance the work of each of the contributors, there is not always agreement about the best way to proceed. David Wiles’s introduction calls for reasserting the centrality of the “big stories” that form theatre’s legacy, spark the imagination of scholars and students, and help us connect with the past (4). These stories, the editors believe, have been “abandoned” by conscientious left-leaning scholars in their efforts to accommodate the range of voices that have emerged with postcolonialism and an emphasis on global diversity and specificity — the danger being that theatre history’s big story will be left to the ends of “right wing nationalism,” which doesn’t have qualms about engineering stories of the past to serve its interests (4).
This collection aims to reestablish some of that “big story” legacy, a “vertical line which cuts through the past,” while finding points of intersection with a “horizontal line that reaches sideways to the diversity of the present” (4). Four essays provide an overview of how theatre’s development has become known to us. In order to resist the conceit that “the progress of the narrative equates with the progress of humankind” (10), however, the editors sequence these pieces in reverse chronological order. The essays, then, treat “modernist theatre” (Stefan Hulfeld), “baroque to romantic theatre” (Christopher Baugh), “medieval, renaissance, and early modern theatre” (David Wiles), and “classical theatre” (Erika Fischer-Lichte) in that order, an interesting (if somewhat clunky) strategy that shows the book means business when it comes to challenging received narratives.
The editors realize all too well, though, that the big story about the theatrical past has been shaped by a small handful of “intellectually and politically dominant” nations (9), and that new retellings, while continually necessary, will be informed by the subjectivities and values of historians. There is some ambivalence in the volume regarding this position. Certain contributors settle for compromise between reifying the grand narratives and continuing to shoehorn in the local histories: “There is no other way to give the past a shape and thereby perceive it as something other than a random stream of events,” admits Wiles (55). Hulfield writes, “theatre wanders through time and space in a circular and erratic trajectory,” hence “only the standpoint of a particular historian can give it shape” (30). Others take more polar positions. Seeking an “overall reality” concerning the scientific and artistic heritage of acting, Josette Féral [End Page 179] inquires whether we should “speak of a hegemonic model that breaks with more fragmented and geographically limited perspectives” (184, 193). “I believe so,” she concludes, “despite the prevailing view that privileges the diversity of local practices” (193). Fischer-Lichte takes the opposite view in her chapter on classical theatre: “Instead of macro-history — i.e., the grand narrative — we have to deal with many microhistories” (73); “there is no place for a definitive linear history here” (83). And Thomas Postlewait’s careful reflection on the unreliability of written and oral evidence, using conflicting accounts of Christopher Marlowe’s death as a case study, warns scholars against a “totalising explanation for human activities” (242).
The Companion offers a series of representative “local” studies to intervene in the national histories rehearsed in the first four chapters. Ros Merkin gives a Liverpool-based history. S.E. Wilmer writes on Finland. There is a very good essay by Hazem Azmy on 19th- and 20th-century Egyptian theatre and performance, and another by Diego Pellecchia on Japanese noh. Other essays engage history from a point of view not confined to dramatic literature, including the audience (Willmar Sauter), music theatre (Zachary Dunbar), and the circus (Marius Kwint); or offer historiographic meditations on the scholar’s process, such as the work of assessing visual evidence (Barbara...