- The Cambridge Companion to Theatre History ed. by David Wiles and Christine Dymkowski
In many ways this thought-provoking collection of essays circles around a series of arguments and questions that are by now very familiar to theatre historians. These include the need to account more for our process, question our content, and interrogate the inherited and – to a large extent – persistent narrowness of our scholarly activity, both in terms of time, location and approach. What distinguishes this collection, however, is the new ways these issues are brought together and worked through within a series of largely original, interesting and occasionally provocative case studies. The energy of David Wiles’s opening chapter (3-6) frames and drives the collection, and the active voices of historians-at-work that follow are both thought-provoking and stirring. As a reflection on the current state of theatre history it is both reflective and realistic. At its best, the material offered in this collection is discursive (and at times frustrated) as authors wrangle with the ongoing questions of how we can achieve these goals within the discipline. Sidestepping the dogmatic, the collection’s contents prompt change and simultaneously offer encouragement to those working in the field.
The structure of the collection works particularly well. Five sections follow a familiar set of questions researchers of theatre history asks themselves: “Why?”, “When?”, “Where?”, “What?”, “How?”. The approach taken throughout is active with methodology and evidence foregrounded. As the editors argue, “we have to ‘do’ some history in order to clarify the historiographic principles at stake” (10). The decision to divide the issues and questions at stake into five parts clarifies both the overall agenda and that of each author. The opening section on historical periods is reversed, beginning with Modernism and concluding with Classical Theatre. It is a simple strategy, harnessed to disrupt received histories of performance, but it works effectively. Each section is clearly introduced and well connected. The material included raises a range of additional questions concerning, amongst others, the peripheries of the discipline, intersections between theatre histories and performance studies, the suffocating effects of existing vocabularies and terminologies and the opportunities and limitations of interdisciplinarity. Overall, the essays are of very good quality, with a couple of exceptions that are less discursive and verge (disappointingly) more on the encyclopaedic. Hazem Azmy’s chapter [End Page 67] of Egypt stands out (116-35), as do the five contributions that make up section five, written by Thomas Postlewait, Barbara Hodgdon, Fiona Macintosh, Gilli Bush-Bailey and Jacky Bratton, and Grant Tyler Peterson (231-313).
In light of the coherence of the collection and its strengths it is, however, a shame at times to encounter comments that appear to pre-empt criticisms its aims and content might prompt. This prevailing concern is reflected, perhaps, in the way that several of the authors position the collection against Routledge’s Theatre Histories (2nd edition, 2010) – with varying levels of critique. Included, for example, is an extended explanation of a chapter (on South African theatre) that was proposed. The proposal is quoted at length, seemingly to counter any criticism that might be made against its omission. Whilst the intent to cover more remains urgent in the discipline, small instances such as this seem to centralise, and apologise for, necessary shortcomings, rather than direct attention to developments and achievements. Overall, what this collection, and its frequent references to Routledge’s Theatre Histories, remind us of is that the textbook approach is unlikely to prove practical in teaching in the discipline, even as the numbers in undergraduate cohorts increase. Indeed, it is often in the engagement between texts such as these two that ideas, questions and challenges are raised.
The hierarchies that the discipline seeks to counter also surface occasionally. The chapter on music theatre foregrounds modernist and postmodernist experimentations at the expense of other examples (197-209). When John Gay’s Ballad Opera is introduced as a case study, it is, in fact, not discussed. Its inclusion serves merely...