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Reviewed by:
  • Performing Queer Modernism by Penny Farfan
  • Ben De Witte
PERFORMING QUEER MODERNISM. By Penny Farfan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp. 152.

In Performing Queer Modernism, Penny Farfan argues that the field of modernist studies has not sufficiently recognized the formative role of queer performance in the history of modernism. This compact study seeks to correct this critical lacuna by analyzing a selection of well-known dramas (by Arthur Pinero, Noel Coward, and Djuna Barnes) and iconic dance performances (by Loie Fuller and Vaslav Nijinsky) that shed light on both "the central role of performance within modernism" and "the integral relationship between performance history and the history of sexuality" (9). Combining historical and textual analysis with insights from queer and feminist theory and from theatre studies, Farfan in each of the five chapters (and a short epilogue on Oscar Wilde, who "haunts the book" [83] as a figure incontournable in this history) reveals that queerness and modernism were effectively coproduced in and through performance. The skilled manner in which this book applies the formal and historical deconstructions of queer theory to some of the most studied figures in the history of modernist performance to me stands out as its strong suit.

Farfan convincingly argues that research on queer performance can contribute to a "new modernist studies" (4) that challenges the often narrow formal and generic expectations on which most definitions of modernism rest. The introductory chapter draws on a well-known 2008 PMLA special issue on "The New Modernist Studies," which launched a call to dissolve the "once quite sharp boundaries between high art and popular forms of culture" (qtd. on ibid.) with excursions into mainstream entertainments that have often been overlooked in modernist studies. Chapter 1 takes up this proposition by examining Pinero's problem play The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. This is a remarkable choice, not only because in the past, critics have dismissed Pinero's theatre as an exemplary case of failed modernism (largely on account of its conventional stage realism), but more surprisingly also because this particular drama features no identifiably queer characters. Revisiting the female protagonist's "hysterical" (8) behavior as a disruption of the drama's "heteronormative ideology" (12), Farfan sees at the heart of The Second Mrs. Tanqueray an unresolved "queer contradiction" (ibid.) that at the time galvanized women in the audience. Pinero's drama for Farfan therein "effects its queer performativity" (23), clearing the way for queer feminist content on the modern stage.

In chapters 2 and 3 Farfan examines celebrated dance performances by Fuller and Nijinsky to argue for an increased visibility of modernist queerness in the mainstream of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century culture. Each chapter posits the "interplay between character and performer … and onstage and offstage personae" (28) as a crucial aspect of queer modernist dance and its reception. Chapter 2 charts the reception history of Fuller's Fire Dance, which was praised by contemporaries for her "blazing" (37) and almost "supernatural" appearance onstage. Farfan argues that Fuller's dance solo—a reworking of her performance in Salome a few years earlier—instilled "an uncanny figure at the heart of the dance," revealing a dynamic of "performative ghosting" (27) that linked her to Wilde: her stage persona was imprinted with the queer and "uncanny aura" (33) of Wilde's phantom presence in the years following his infamous sodomy trial. The chapter on Nijinsky deals with a more overtly queer content, proposing that Afternoon of a Faun shocked and delighted contemporary audiences with Nijinsky's performance as a sexually dissident faun. Concluding with an overview of the sustained "queer afterlife" (50) of Nijinsky's persona, the third chapter signals a subtle turning point in the book's historical and methodological arch: whereas Farfan first defines queerness as an elusive and oftentimes indirect quality of performance, in the following chapters she treats queer styles and sensibilities in modernism as recognizably scripted "for an emerging gay and lesbian spectatorship" (49).

Chapters 4 and 5 reflect this change in historical context and methodology: both analyze dramas by Coward and Barnes that aim to queer dramatic form with modernist sensibilities. Farfan reads Coward's marriage comedy Private Lives as a "queer...


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