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  • The Contemporary American Monologue: Performance and Politics by Eddie Paterson
  • Stephen Harrick
The Contemporary American Monologue: Performance and Politics. By Eddie Paterson. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015. Cloth $108.00, Paper $29.95. i-xii +217 pages.

American solo performance has long been studied and contextualized, ranging from Spalding Gray's America by William Demastes to Women and Comedy in Solo Performance: Phyllis Diller, Lily Tomlin, and Roseanne by Suzanne Lavin to Straight White Male: Performance Art Monologues by Michael Peterson. With The Contemporary American Monologue: Performance and Politics, Eddie Paterson presents a unique take on the form. He deftly argues that the contemporary American monologue is inherently political, in form and content. For Paterson, the monologue as a form of performance owes much to religious sermons, political speeches, comic rants, and other traditions of oratory. He offers fresh interpretations on select works by four artists who have altered the landscape of American solo performance: Laurie Anderson, Karen Finley, Spalding Gray, and Anna Deveare Smith. Paterson demonstrates that these performers, along with several successors, have shaped solo theatre over the past forty years, and he gently aims to predict the genre's future potential.

Paterson begins with an examination of both the dramaturgical and historical lines of contemporary American theatre, and its evolution in the Western dramatic canon. By revisiting the monologic aspects of ancient Greek and Roman dramas, Elizabethan drama, Romantic monodramas, and select scripts by Chekhov, O'Neill, Brecht, and Beckett, Paterson traces a lineage of how the monologue has evolved, and notes ways that contemporary American artists have politicized the form. In chapter 2, the author proceeds to consider how transgressive performances such [End Page 134] as stand-up comedy, Beat poetry, and hip hop music have impacted the American monologue, which has become its own transgressive genre. For Paterson, these and other types of live performance are the loci for discussions and challenges to received notions of mainstream politics and culture: "(C)ontemporary performance in the United States … can continue to be seen as a central site in which ideological debates around race, citizenship and identity are staged and come to shape the national imaginary" (51). He proceeds to articulate that the four solo artists previously mentioned found inspiration in the dramatic canon, sermons, speeches, and other transgressive genres, calcifying in the unique paradigm of contemporary American solo performance.

The following four chapters are case studies on the works of Gray, Anderson, Smith, and Finley. In each, Paterson carefully considers how identity and authenticity are constructed, fluid, and fractured. While the work of all four solo artists has been examined at length in other studies, Paterson's analyses are imbued with cogent and unique observations. For example, he asserts that Gray's fragmented identity has been formed by oral traditions such as the sermon, the confession, and the comic rant (69). By borrowing from these and other established and emergent methods of communication, Paterson skillfully argues, Gray critiques classism, racism, and xenophobia. Similarly, Laurie Anderson probes American social and cultural inequities through her solo performances. Though Paterson considers her experimentation with technology, he focuses on Anderson's "critical response to the economic and social policies of Reagan-era American and their links to the countercultural history of spoken work and music in American culture" (82). Exhaustive analyses of Empty Places and the 1985 concert film Home of the Brave dominate Paterson's reading of Anderson's work. This leads to perhaps Paterson's most significant thoughts on Anderson's work. He views Anderson's detached approach to neoliberalism and Reaganomics as her significant political critiques. Paterson argues that, "Anderson employs her cool style of monologue to reveal a growing economic and social inequality" (93). Paterson methodically unpacks Anderson's countercultural critiques and how they exemplify a postmodern irony while simultaneously highlighting the inequities in the United States.

In stark contrast to the other artists, Anna Deveare Smith's documentary theatre offers a different approach to the contemporary American monologue to interrogate complex American sociopolitical issues. In examining Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Paterson sees a disjunction in Smith's identity. He convincingly argues that, "while Smith's style of acting foregrounds mimicry and...


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