- Kitchen Sink Realisms: Domestic Labor, Dining, and Drama in American Theatre by Dorothy Chansky
The October 2008 issue of Theatre Journal was bookended by articles from Jill Dolan and Dorothy Chansky that separately reevaluated two stalwarts of the second-wave feminist movement: Wendy Wasserstein (Dolan) and Betty Friedan (Chansky). Together, they marked one unofficial beginning of what has since become a vibrant contemporary movement (including my work with Roberta Barker in Canada, as well as work by Elaine Aston in the United Kingdom, and Varun Begley and Cary Mazer in the United States) to rethink, reframe, and reclaim stage realism in all of its fraught complexity. While it is impossible to recuperate stage realism naively, thanks to the robust critique leveled against it by feminist and critical race scholars over the past four decades, it is—as the above writers contend—nevertheless necessary to parse that critique with care, to distinguish among the multiple practices and strategies (dramaturgical, technical, and performative) that constitute the thing(s) we mean when we talk about “realism,” and to take the measure of the different kinds of cultural work that multiple “realisms” can do—sometimes separately, sometimes in tandem, and sometimes at tantalizing cross-purposes with one another.
Now, nearly a decade after her essay on Friedan was published, Chansky offers us a thickly historicized, informative, lively, and intelligent addition to the burgeoning critical literature we might call “Realism 2.0.” Kitchen Sink Realisms is a provocative, unabashedly “feminist history” (3; emphasis in original) of American theatre that spotlights the role that domestic labor has played, as both dramaturgical device and sustained performance action, in a wide range of popular (and a few avant-garde) works written and performed between 1918 and 2005. At the center of Chansky’s history is a careful revaluing of the often-derided genre in her title, and while the book does not offer a thoroughgoing engagement with genre per se, it structures all of its readings around the questions that ghost the label “realist”: How does the American theatre stage our [End Page 489] assumptions about what experiences, what human beings, and what kinds of human labor count as “real”? How can we, as scholars of theatre and performance, account for those assumptions effectively and interrogate the ways in which our performance cultures both uphold and challenge them?
Chansky’s rich introduction will appeal to historians, as well as to readers interested more broadly in the recent critical turn back to realism. After introducing the term kitchen sink realism within its historical context, the author spends time thinking through the different ways in which we might value realism today, and the different generic structures within which we might uncover its operations. Although she begins by noting that her book will investigate the routine ways in which some of the most “real” labor in American life—domestic work for pay, or more often for none—is simultaneously implied and forgotten by major realist texts in the American canon (3), Chansky quickly moves on to complicate what might otherwise seem a familiar critical move: damning the realist stage for failing to account for multiple forms of human experience. Brecht, she helpfully reminds us, was a self-identified realist, one who believed realism to be the preeminent genre for “unmasking” a culture’s most malignant operations (5). Following his lead and quoting Pam Morris, Chansky defines realisms—plural—as a cluster of related genres invested in “a complex, ambivalent responsiveness towards, rather than repulsion from, the tangible stuff of reality” (Morris, qtd. on 5). The social and political potentials of these genres, Chansky goes on to argue, are always implicit, but not always available to artists or producers; especially when we examine works for a wide popular audience, the marketplace often gets in the way (6). Thus the task of the realist historian becomes to think theatre carefully through its cultural histories, exploring what knowledge audiences might have brought with them to the theatre at any given...