- Modernism and the Theatre of the Baroque by Kate Armond
In The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1927), Walter Benjamin describes the task of criticism as “mortification” of the works under consideration: “Mortification of the works: not then—as the romantics have it—awakening of the consciousness in living works, but the settlement of knowledge in dead ones.”1 This, he argues, is how the authors of the baroque mourning play (Trauerspiel) related to their classical antecedents, and it provides a model for his own practice. Mortification: a fragmentation or parceling out in which the antiquarian desire to understand past works in their original sense gives way to the utopian hope of eventually revealing a more complete truth about the world. [End Page 895]
Benjamin’s text, in both its subject matter and method, is a key touchstone in Kate Armond’s ambitious and successful Modernism and the Theatre of the Baroque. This wide-ranging interdisciplinary study makes a compelling case for why a great deal of modernist culture (she considers novels, criticism, archival documents, dance, and stagecraft in theory and performance) is best understood in relation to baroque theatre. While cultural and historical links between the two eras are long-established, Armond’s investigation sets itself apart by expanding the baroque’s circle of belated influence to include English and American works, while rooting her comparison in the generative possibilities of the baroque’s “sense of theatre as an art-form that was applied to a whole constellation of social, political, technical, and aesthetic roles” (7). She brings broad expertise to her project, painting an illuminating portrait of “both sides of the [historical] comparison” although this text will likely be of most interest to readers interested in modernism; she lays out the basic elements of baroque theatre—the repertoire of stock commedia dell’arte masks, for instance—in ways that are helpful for the non-specialist of the seventeenth century (8).
Each chapter of Armond’s study puts works by major modernist artists in dialogue with a theatrical form or philosophical treatise from the seventeenth century and draws parallels between their social and intellectual historical contexts. Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood is understood in terms of the rhetorical forms, characters, and thematic concerns of the Trauerspiel, while providing a comparison between the “lapsed enlightened modernity” of the years following the Thirty Years’ War and those that saw the rise of fascism (66). Similarly, the elements of commedia dell’arte that inform her readings of Edward Gordon Craig and Wyndham Lewis are situated in terms of the itinerant poverty that accompanied traveling baroque performers and the colliers’ misery that sparked the General Strike in England in 1926. Isadora Duncan’s theories of dance prompt a consideration of movement and form in Spinoza’s Ethics as well as its reception in nineteenth- and twentieth-century evolutionary theory. Familiar though some of these historical comparisons may be, Armond’s unique constellations of close, formal readings, theoretical analyses, and historical contexts generate new interventions in several scholarly debates.
A good example lies in her response to critical appraisals of Nightwood (1937) as an apolitical or anti-Semitic novel. Jews were expelled from Vienna in 1670 and faced increased persecution after a period of relative tolerance and integration under the absolutist rule of Leopold I of Austria, a reversal that recurred in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries under Franz Joseph and the Nazi regime. In Armond’s view, the characters in Barnes’s novel gesture to the standard figures that inhabit the Trauerspiel. They express mourning for a similarly fallen historical world marked by tyrannical rulers, face manipulative political “intriguers” and catastrophic war, and despair of the absence of redemption. In Armond’s words, “Nightwood’s significance as a modern, secular counterpart of the baroque Trauerspiel can . . . be said to evolve from Barnes’s awareness of the fate of Jews in Europe, their forfeited state of integration and opportunity, and her sense of the similarities between baroque and contemporary post-war history” (81). Careful archival...