- On the Performance Front: Us Theatre and Internationalism by Charlotte M. Canning
On the Performance Front is foremost a history of US artists’ utopian belief in theatre’s capacity to make a better world—a belief that galvanized attempts to develop US theatre as vital to international engagement throughout the twentieth century. In this volume, Charlotte Canning maintains and persuasively argues that internationalism, in sharp distinction from globalization, defined these artists’ pursuits; the state’s preeminence shaped both policy and how theatre artists conceived of themselves. As Canning shows, despite persistent tensions between nationalism and internationalism and conflicting domestic and foreign policies, US artists’ felt connections to their counterparts abroad supported a perception of coherence, not contradiction, in their vision of a national theatre to transcend cultural divides. Canning’s research is significant not just for what it demonstrates about US theatre’s role in geopolitics, but also for its dramaturgical approach to the archive. Through incisive analyses of “the indications of how people are to act, think, and behave, as well as assumptions about how and why they would do so,” Canning establishes affect’s centrality to the history of international relations (6).
The book’s structure skillfully supports Canning’s contention that internationalism concomitantly relied upon affective connections produced via theatre and used artistic achievement as a competitive measure of national superiority. Chapters alternate between US theatrical institutions and exemplary productions. The rough chronological arrangement of case studies highlights US artists’ shifting engagement in internationalism, from their importation of theatrical practices, to a search for international recognition, to participation in cooperative international endeavors. In doing so, Canning discloses the dilemma that capitalist ideology posed for the state, which was interested in using theatre for international diplomacy yet compelled to keep it a private enterprise.
Canning’s history begins with the integral role of Theatre Arts, under the editorships of Edith Isaacs and Rosamond Gilder, to internationalizing US theatres through circulation of information about worldwide theatrical practices. Canning details the magazine’s commitment to connecting little theatres and international exchange as mechanisms to improve US theatre. Both the latter and the inclusion of African American theatres in the pages of Theatre Arts significantly advanced the internationalist perspective that domestic concerns are indivisible from international affairs, and both are inextricable from those of the theatre.
That US artists during the interwar years elevated Soviet theatre as a model for developing a US theatre in league with those of Europe and Russia is well-known. Canning’s nuanced explanation of why they did is an achievement. Here, the argument for Theatre Arts’ centrality to internationalism is furthered by a close analysis of the wide-ranging impacts of US artists’ international travels, subsequent publications—many of which [End Page 493] appeared in Theatre Arts—and productions. Canning reveals Hallie Flanagan’s 1927 Vassar College production of The Marriage Proposal as an attempt to precipitate an affective transformation in audiences from “misrecognition to emotional recognition to social knowledge” (87). Flanagan’s theatricalized argument for Soviet experiments also instances US artists’ tendency to (mis)take admiration for the key role that theatre played in Russian society for the Soviet program’s ability to improve the world.
Subsequent shifts in geopolitics and theatre’s role in them from the interwar period to the cold war are traced by Canning through the changing relationship of the American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) to the US government. She argues that in its iteration as a national arts foundation, ANTA’s partnership with the state was legitimated; designed to avoid any suggestion that the government produced, funded, or selected art, the relationship actively disassociated from the failed Federal Theatre Project and communist art propaganda. Thus it could fulfill the cold war imperative for a national theatre competitive on the international (political) stage.
From here, Canning foregrounds theatre’s role in the government’s aims to maintain peace while it waged ideological warfare by comparing the international reception of the first official Department of State production, Hamlet (1949), to reports...