- Performed Imaginaries by Richard Schechner
TDR Editor Richard Schechner was not involved in the commissioning or editing of this review.—TDR Books section eds.
In 1981, Richard Schechner famously proclaimed “The Decline and Fall of the (American) Avant-Garde” on the pages of PAJ: Performing Arts Journal. In 2010, New Literary History offered an alternative account of the avantgarde’s fate in his essay “The Conservative Avant-Garde.” Here, Schechner acknowledged that a contemporary avantgarde was thriving, but that it had become a substantially different animal. Where the traditional avantgarde radically disrupted the status quo, artists of what Schechner termed today’s “niche-garde” have focused on perfecting the techniques of the postwar avantgarde and mining their known registers, rather than risking failure. “Many of these artists are on the left personally, but in their artistic practice, in terms of venues, audiences, and effects on the political world, this left is apolitical, a style left rather than a workers’ left” (2010:27). The essay, like its predecessor, was a polemic and one that self-consciously spoke from and about the insular—or what Brecht would call “culinary”—downtown New York performance scene. But, it was also a frank glance at the author’s past, a provocation to reconsider the politics of conservation and recollection more broadly for artistic production and for scholarship. We might ask: After several decades of radical invention, does the “antidiscipline” of performance studies threaten to become just such a “niche-garde”?
A slightly revised version of “The Conservative Avant-Garde” figures prominently in Schechner’s newest volume, Performed Imaginaries, where it joins six other chapters that have been previously published in a variety of venues: the earliest piece was first presented as a talk in 2002; the most recent was published in Portuguese in 2014 and is published in English for the first time here. In between, chapters range across American experimental theatre and performance art of the late 20th century, to the terrorist acts of 9/11, to the yearly Ramlila festival in northern India, and to the discipline of performance studies itself. Return and revision are guiding principles throughout: “Writing for me is editing and revising—like rehearsing a theatrical production” (ix). In “‘Points of Contact’ Revisited,” for example, Schechner updates his influential chapter from the 1985 book Between Theater and Anthropology to incorporate new developments in the intervening 30 years of scholarship, including theories of embodiment and cognitive science. He claims that recent research on mirror neurons and affective interrelations between bodies confirm the principles guiding non-Western approaches to actor training and indigenous modes of knowledge production and transmission. The Rasaboxes technique he developed in the 1980s and 1990s, based on Sanskrit performance theory, becomes a case in point. [End Page 175]
In place of a single overarching thematic to draw the collection together, Schechner himself emerges as the subject, the book a self-portrait. The world on view is his own—New York and an adopted interest in India; much of the work referenced was published in TDR (which he edited from 1962–1969, and again from 1985 to the present) or in anthologies and journals edited by some of the innumerable scholars with whom he has worked over his long career.
It is tempting at times here and throughout the book to see Schechner as a synecdoche for performance studies at large. This is most apparent in an extensive dialogue with two Brazilian interlocutors that reflects on the cultural scene of the 1960s, the innovations of The Performance Group, the origins of TDR, and the founding of the NYU branch of the field of performance studies. A highlight of the collection, the account nevertheless remains tethered to Schechner’s experience; however capacious, and however forgivable, it neglects—for instance—the importance of Northwestern University in the narrative of the discipline.
An exercise in theoretical thinking and living, uncertainty and wonder trouble the edges of the book. Schechner recalls a theoretical inclination dating from his childhood, that “[t]o perform is to engage in lifelong...