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The Oxford Companion to American Theatre: Friend or Foe Publication of the Oxford Companion to American Theatre provides a fierce example of the ways history is unfairly and dishonestly made and remade with the best of intentions, seemingly unpolitical. The editorial "we," from the pen of Gerald Bordman, congratulates its achievement with utter confidence : "We" believe that we have discussed all the giants among our actors , authors, producers, and other theatrical notables." Earlier on the "Preface" claims that "no American play of major importance has been omitted.... We have attempted to give a broad picture of the popular American stage." Now the qualifiers for what's been left out: In two particular areas our omissions may distress some dedicated contemporary playgoers: the first, a number of figures and plays admired by off-Broadway or by more venturesome regional critics and audiences ... we believe that these off-Broadway or regional favorites do not yet belong to the theatrical mainstream. Certainly, any encyclopedic work has its guidelines and preferences. Certainly , there will always be errors of omission and too enthusiastic admission , especially since this is the first Oxford Companion to American Theatre. But that is not enough to account for this volume's exclusionary policies. By what authority can Bordman and whoever else comprise his editorial "we" choose to ignore virtually the entire range of experimental theatre in this country? Its magnificence is that It is not "mainstream." The Oxford Companion, a rather narrow-minded, intolerant friend to unconventional art and artists has no entries for Joseph Chaikin, Maria Irene Fornes, John Vaccaro, Rochelle Owens, Ken Bernard, The Open Theatre, Mabou Mines, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, Richard Schechner, The Performance Group, Theatre for the New City, and 4 so many more who have contributed so much to the making of an American theatre. Under the entry "Scenic design in American Theatre," there is no mention of environmental theatre design. Nor is there any indication that there have been gay, feminist, black and Chicano theatre movements. And while the editorial policy claims to have included foreign plays "which influenced American theatre significantly," this does not hold for performance theory as there is no entry on Grotowski. A renegade place such as The Magic Theatre is excluded while the conventionality of the Actors Theatre of Louisville fits comfortably in this volume. La Mama has a mere nine lines, none of them naming any of the plays or artists who worked there, nor the philosophy of the theatre itself. Presumably not one of the theatre "notables" or "giants," Ellen Stewart does not warrant a separate entry. The same is true of Judith Malina and Julian Beck. Aside from a catch-all section on "Blacks in American Theatre and Drama" on the matter of black writers, there are no separate entries on Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Kennedy, Ed Bullins, Free Southern Theatre, New Lafayette Theatre, and Baraka's play, Dutchman, one of the finest contemporary American plays, but obviously not as important as Getting Gertie's Garter or any of the black plays that made it with white audiences. No, Dutchman is not a "popular" play, and neither are the significant works of off-Broadway's major groups in the "mainstream," which apparently only flows uptown, alongside Broadway. To say that this book has a bias toward drama-Broadway style-only serves to underscore how unacknowledged and uncomprehended is the non-literary, but nonetheless textual, performance tradition of theatre in America, beyond that of musicals and other comedic forms. The Oxford Companion to American Theatre lacks any imaginative grasp of the changing relationships of theatre, society, and aesthetics that have occurred in the last two decades. Putting aside the politics of taste for the moment, at the level of scholarship the volume reflects questionable choices. There is no mention of any theatre periodical except for the old Theatre Arts magazine. Nor are Harold Clurman and Stanley Kauffmann included in the inane entry on "Drama Criticism in America." (On Kauffmann's personal entry his name is misspelled and there is no mention of his film or theatre criticism for The New Republic.) Eric Bentley's entry doesn't list any of his books. In...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1537-9477
Print ISSN
1520-281X
Pages
pp. 4-6
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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