- Staging Ageing: Theatre, Performance, and the Narrative of Decline by Michael Mangan
Gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability—after a generation of identity studies, critics can enumerate classifications of performance without pausing to take a breath. Seldom has age been on that list, and while scholars in other humanities and arts fields have been rectifying that situation, few in performance studies have turned attention toward aging. Michael Mangan, professor of drama at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, offers a much-needed monograph on performance and age studies, following on The Stages of Age (Anne Davis Basting, 1998) and Staging Age, the 2010 essay collection I edited with Leni Marshall. (Clearly, it is time for a different kind of book title.) His purpose is to examine how drama, theatre, and performance engage with old age as a sociocultural category, an experience, or an idea (175), and the wide-ranging study is particularly useful to theatre and performance scholars as an introduction to that intersection. Mangan demonstrates a solid research base in both camps; in addition to making a valuable contribution to this interdisciplinary field, he points toward directions for further scholarship.
As this subject is so ripe for the picking, Staging Ageing tends toward breadth; Mangan summarizes that he addresses “a variety of performances, ranging from the very complex to the very simple, from the highly artificial to the quotidian, from the emotionally empathic to the coldly exploitative, from the scripted to the improvised, from the inspirational to the depressing” (242). He gathers numerous modes of performance, some that consciously revolve around older age, but more often those that have not yet attracted explicit attention regarding age. From radio drama to Beckett, reminiscence theatre to sitcoms, Staging Ageing explores performances of aging and the aged, noting ageism as well as resistance to what has come to be known as the master narrative of decline.
The book’s dozen chapters are grouped in four thematic sections. The introduction leads into two chapters that frame the overall inquiry: a brief survey of aging studies and a consideration of consciousness, appropriate to the book’s placement in the publisher’s Theatre and Consciousness series. He links theatre with consciousness studies through their shared question, “What is it like to be…?” and specific to this study, “What is it like to be old?” (35). Mangan conflates the myriad terms now in use for nonmedical inquiry into aging under the term “gerontology,” but his overview of the cultural study of aging is especially helpful to theatre scholars who are new to the topic. The second section, Tragedy and Comedy, proceeds in a loosely chronological fashion. It addresses Oedipus at Colonus as an example of late style, as well as the ageist stereotypes of the senex, the stock old man character central from the time of classical drama through Restoration comedy. Noting the recent work of drama scholars such as [End Page 178] Christopher Martin and the late Anthony Ellis on older age during the early modern period, Mangan eschews comprehensive chronology, leaping to contemporary television sitcoms to analyze the older character as trickster. Mangan draws examples from British television and stage that are likely to be unfamiliar to US critics, but his points are clear and transferable even without exposure to the specific shows he includes.
Mangan’s insights are particularly strong in the third section of Staging Ageing. The chapters on memory and reminiscence move conversations forward in both performance studies and age studies. He applies age-studies theories classifying types of narrative reminiscence to a number of texts “which address issues of coming to terms with the past in old age” (127), such as Krapp’s Last Tape (1958), and studies stage performances of dementia to challenge the notion that acting is defined as remembering. He then explores the tensions between the aesthetic and therapeutic values of reminiscence theatre, which is based on the memories of older people and often performed initially for those subjects. That mode of performance seldom has been dissected...