- Performing Objects and Theatrical Things ed. by Marlis Schweitzer and Joanne Zerdy
Performing Objects and Theatrical Things imagines a theatre history focused on objects rather than people, to "understand physical materials not as inert human possessions but instead as actants, with particular frequencies, energies, and potential to affect human and nonhuman worlds" (2). The authors offer theatre and performance research that goes beyond the frame of humans as primary agents and challenges the relationships between methods and scholarship. The differentiation between "thing" and "object" offers different viewpoints on subjectivity and objectivity onstage and off. Unlike recent scholarship on puppetry, which often emphasizes relationships between human and object, this book compellingly contends how the objects shape or influence human behavior and performance. The thought-provoking introduction by the book's editors, Marlis Schweitzer and Joanne Zerdy, provides a critical overview of different ideas and authors with whom the collection converses, including Actor-Network Theory (ANT), Bill Brown, J.L. Austin, and how various theatre scholars have employed these in related conversations (especially Robin Bernstein and Rebecca Schneider).
The book is divided into four parts and intentionally spans a wide range of geographies and time periods in order to invite comparisons. The first section, "Part I: Archival Digs" asks how objects might enhance the understanding of performances. Christopher Swift deftly questions the relationships between the senses and mechanical objects in medieval performance in the first chapter. Chapter 2 by Schweitzer uses Maud Allan's famous Salomé costume to explore how a physical object might fill the gaps left by description or photographs, providing a clear argument for the effort to preserve theatrical items and memorabilia for later scholarship. Nicole Berkin offers interesting insight on photographs as objects in a chapter on carte-de-visite as objects of social practice. These three chapters would be excellent reading for graduate students and scholars on archives and research [End Page 161] methods because they offer rich examples of how objects and things complicate analysis.
The final two chapters in Part 1 look at remains (human and otherwise) as objects within and generative of performance. Lezlie C. Cross thoughtfully analyzes how properties, like the skull from Hamlet, are given life through the language of performance and offstage in inscription and description. Lastly, Margaret Werry's chapter gives a theoretically rich investigation of human remains and decay as performance at the ghost town of Wykuff, Minnesota. Her sometimes creepy descriptions of tarantulas, cats, and gallstones left and labeled within a museum general store demonstrate how "heritage in a neoliberal age is revaluative: it promises that history's debris can be repurposed as the raw materials of a leisure economy" (82). Taken together the chapters in this section offer some wonderful complications to the dichotomy proposed within Diana Taylor's archive and repertoire—between objects and bodies within investigations of performance.
The three chapters in "Part II: Embodied Research Practices" perceptively probe how objects insert themselves into field research to bridge past and present within site specific performance. Zerdy uses a map as a kind of "micro-performance" to walk the performative terrain of a theatrical performance long gone to compel an interesting narrative of how materiality, past/present, and performance collide within bodies and spaces. Helene Vosters takes apart military uniforms, thread by thread (literally), in order to question ideas of nationhood embodied within public mourning and objects that she also explores through her own site specific performances. Her context is Canada and the chapter was written pre-Trump, but perhaps offers insight and a possible lens for understanding objects, performance, power, and nationhood in these uncertain times. Minty Donald writes about two performances in Glasgow, Scotland that utilize the relationship between spectator and place in order to examine the interdependence of humans and environment.
In "Part III: Materialist Semiotics," the authors delve into the inherent slippage of material and nonmaterial in thoughtful considerations of the ephemeral art of theatre. In "All Transparent: Pepper's Ghost, Plate Glass, and Theatrical Transformation," Aileen Robinson writes about how through magic, objects perform an...