- The Long View of World Theatre History
In the fourth edition of their textbook Living Theatre: A History of Theatre, Edwin Wilson and Alvin Goldfarb state the historiographic principle that still underlies much scholarship of theatre history: “By definition, a history is a chronicle—a recapitulation of events from the past”1—a definition, by the way, that the authors wisely cut from subsequent editions. Still, those editions are no less stuffed with events than are the earlier ones.2 The result is the sort of chronicle to which Wilson and Goldfarb had referred: history as little more than the proverbial “one damned thing after another.” The problem affects not merely this particular textbook. Here is Thomas Postlewait on one of the most frequently used textbooks: “[Oscar] Brockett’s chronicle of information lays out the theatre for the reader as a register of names, places, titles, techniques, terminologies, and events.” The advantage to such a presentation of history is that it allows interpretive freedom; the disadvantage “is that many classes remain committed to the memorization of facts rather than cultural studies and social history.”3 Postlewait’s claim about memorization is no doubt exaggerated, and there is undeniable value in Brockett’s assemblage of facts. But as with all chronicling, it falls short of a basic goal of history writing, which is to make sense of the past, not merely to note its passing. Let me take a quick example. One might easily note that spoken theatre in Europe emerged in cities such as London and Madrid, while Japan’s kabuki had its origins in Edo (Tokyo). But why did these urban forms emerge when and where they did, and how did their urban origins shape their performance? Examining them in the context of the [End Page 95] global trend toward urbanization can help elucidate the curious parallels between these very different forms of theatre. But lacking textual guidance, students (and their professors) might easily overlook any relationship between the forms, leaving them to founder in the depths of theatre history’s endless catalog of events.
Of all the available textbooks, Theatre Histories: An Introduction, by Phillip B. Zarrilli, Bruce McConachie, Gary Jay Williams, and Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei, makes the strongest effort to move beyond chronicling. In addition to being the most inclusive world theatre text, the authors structure their history “in relation to key developments in human communication.”4 This emphasis on communication is borrowed from Walter Ong and Tobin Nellhaus;5 Nellhaus himself correctly speaks of “communication technology” to characterize key developments such as writing and print, as well as film, television, and so on, emphasizing the “communication frameworks” that follow in the wake of changes in that technology.6 Theatre Histories, in other words, focuses on an important aspect of one of the historical trends I will be discussing later in this article: technological development. Other historical trends, however, are given far too little discussion in the textbook, while historical continuities (a result of what I will shortly speak of as structures) receive scant notice, leaving unanalyzed why many things remain more or less unchanged despite technological developments. Theatre Histories, in brief, is an important first step toward moving beyond chronicling, but one that leaves much conceptualizing to be done.
Arguably the most significant way of conceptualizing long stretches of history was pioneered by the historian Fernand Braudel, long the leading light of the Annales school of historiography. Braudel takes issue with the historiographic tradition that sees the past as a “mass of diverse facts,” contending that “this mass does not make up all of reality.”7 He argues that history can fruitfully be understood in terms of multiple, though interrelated, scales of time. The historian Patrick Manning likewise argues for the importance of multiple time scales, adding that “at any given scale . . . the experience of that level is influenced by phenomena at both smaller and broader scales,” while at “any given scale there exist patterns and phenomena that are unique to that level.”8 But if the broadest temporal scale is treated simply as a chronicle, its particular “patterns and phenomena” remain hidden from sight.
Braudel’s idea of using multiple time-scales...