- 10,000 Nights: Highlights from 50 Years of Theatre-Going by Marvin Carlson, and: Ellen Stewart Presents: Fifty Years of La MaMa Experimental Theatre by Cindy Rosenthal
We who study performance don’t speak often about pleasure, but pleasure matters, perhaps more than anything else, to our work. There’s the pleasure of walking to a theatre down avenues and stairwells we know or those we don’t; the pleasure of discovering a document, whether secreted in a mold-speckled shoebox or meticulously wrapped in acid-free tissue paper, that confirms a hunch or takes us by surprise; the pleasure of helping our students, readers, and friends understand the affection we have for a particular performance or the reasons we find it despicable. There are the pleasures of companionship, of wrestling over an armrest with a friend, of debating the quality or meaning of what we’ve witnessed. And there are the pleasures, the powerful pleasures, of remembering performance.
Reading and rereading Marvin Carlson’s 10,000 Nights: Highlights from 50 Years of Theatre-Going and Cindy Rosenthal’s Ellen Stewart Presents: Fifty Years of La MaMa Experimental Theatre (both published by the University of Michigan Press under the aegis of longtime UMich Press editor LeAnn Fields), my thoughts often turned to the pleasures of performance and the [End Page 184] pleasures of remembering it. Though both texts are, strictly speaking, works of theatre history, they are unconventional in their approach. Their authors call them “memoirs,” attesting to the personal, positioned, partial stories they tell. Not coincidentally, both books are about singular individuals and the abundance of theatrical pleasures they’ve enjoyed and enabled others to enjoy.
For the singular Marvin Carlson, that abundance is five decades of spectatorship, some 10,000 performances by his rough count. Carlson, as readers of TDR will know, is the author of a wide-ranging, meticulously researched and written body of work on the theory and history of theatre and performance. Despite that expertise, Carlson admits to the challenge of the project: “I am almost overwhelmed by the range and richness of theatre it has been my privilege to experience. When I decided to put together some kind of memoir of this experience, I cast about for some time for an approach that would provide some sense of the richness, without becoming overwhelmed by the potential size of the project” (3). His “solution” is the tried-and-true historian’s tool of synecdoche. Each of the book’s 52 chapters focuses on a single performance that represents, in some fashion or other, its moment. “I have not always picked my ‘favorite’ show of a particular year,” he explains, “nor the best-known or most awarded production, but have instead picked productions that have remained in my memory and that I think reveal important aspects of the theatrical culture of their time” (3).
The stories Carlson tells are of theatre-going in the most literal sense. We follow him as he weaves his way through the streets of New York and London and Cairo and Paris, hopping on and off trains and taxis and buses, stopping for a bite to eat or a cappuccino at a favorite café, eyes alighting on a detail of architecture or discomfiting evidence of the social dislocations of the contemporary urban space. But first and foremost, these are stories about spectating—the intelligent, historically informed, critically minded, aesthetically sensitive work of watching, listening, and connecting. In his account of Karen Beier’s 1995 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, Carlson touches on Beier’s prior and subsequent work; recalls the founding of the Union of European Theatres and its promotion of international festivals; and scans the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus’s curvilinear facade, marveling at the way it blurs the boundaries between interior and exterior space. And, of...