- Genealogies of Queerness on the Modernist Stage:But Where's the Performance?
In this slender, often handy volume, Penny Farfan charts notable instances of performance from 1890 to 1930 to argue that queerness, broadly construed, was a central, animating force to the broader modernist ethos of the period. At the same time, she also demonstrates that modernist performance helped disseminate queer ideas of gender and sexuality among its audiences, acting as a form of discourse in Foucault's sense.
In under ninety pages, excluding endnotes, Farfan looks at a wide range of materials, including commercial stage plays by Arthur Wing Pinero and Noël Coward, landmark instances of modern dance by Loie Fuller and Vaslav Nijinsky, and less mainstream playwriting by Djuna Barnes. She builds on recent scholarship by Scott Herring, Heather Love, and Nick Salvato, among others, who have sought to uncover queer genealogies of modernist literature and drama. Farfan's desire to focus on performance, however, sets her apart from most of these forerunners, with the exception of Salvato, whose Uncloseting Drama: American Modernism and Queer Performance (Yale 2010) receives passing mention in a pair of footnotes. Still others have trained a more formalist or conceptual lens onto the relationship between queerness and modern aesthetics—for example, Leo Bersani in his essay "Is There a Gay Art?" and [End Page 417] his writings on Proust, Genet, Henry James, and so on. By contrast, Farfan's work is more empirical: she draws on eyewitness testimonies, critical reportage, archival documents, and a substantial, though sometimes unwieldy, amount of secondary criticism.
Full of astute observation, Performing Queer Modernism is most innovative in its sections on dance. In a chapter on Loie Fuller's 1897 Fire Dance, for example, Farfan attends to Fuller's conspicuous butchness, her unusual upper-body strength, her noted resemblance to Oscar Wilde, her tortoise-shell spectacles, and her "burned-out eyes," damaged by overexposure to phosphorescent lights (37). In this analysis, Fuller's queerness results less from her costumes' campy, art nouveau extravagance, replete with "feminized natural themes, sensuous flowing lines, and shimmering colors" (36), than from her uncanny ability to inhabit certain liminal spaces, between "the homely and the frightening, the abstract and the real, masculine and feminine, past and present, onstage and offstage" (38). The chapter admirably incorporates Fuller into a larger context of modern Salomes (e.g., Wilde, Max Reinhardt, Richard Strauss, Maud Allan), noting Fuller's special appeal to female and gay male spectators.
Similarly, in her chapter on Nijinsky and Afternoon of a Faun (1912), Farfan concentrates on the ballet's final image, in which the titular faun gradually lowers himself onto a scarf he has seized from a fleeing nymph. For other critics, this movement has implied both sexual fetishism and a preference for masturbation over sexual intercourse. Farfan reads it instead, alongside the famous bas-relief-style flatness of Nijinsky's choreography, as throwing "autonomous, nonreproductive male sexuality into relief on the modernist stage" (48). Surveying the erotics of Nijinsky's face, eyes, body, and rumored bisexuality, she shows that Nijinsky's performances helped fuel the spread of dissident sexualities in the time of modernism.
These analyses are persuasive and extensively supported. The same is true for the chapters on drama, which are also illuminating, though they deal noticeably less with embodied performance in the usual sense. Instead, Farfan borrows W. B. Worthen's notion of "dramatic performativity" (23) to illuminate the ways dramatic texts can enact their own performative departures from heteronormative narrative conventions. As a result, the studies of Pinero, Coward, and Barnes's plays concentrate more on dramaturgy than on how these works transpired physically on the stage. At times Farfan does reconstruct aspects of the plays' onstage lives, though these details are not always foregrounded. For example, [End Page 418] with Mrs. Patrick Campbell playing the role of Paula Tanqueray in Pinero's 1893 society drama The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, she touches on a few elements of staging as they were recorded in artist sketches and publicity photographs, noting Campbell's ineffable "aura of fin...