- Theaters of the Everyday: Aesthetic Democracy on the American Stage by Jacob Gallagher-Ross
In Jacob Gallagher-Ross's thoughtful and elegant new book, Theaters of the Everyday: Aesthetic Democracy on the American Stage, the author seeks to give attention to aspects of US theatre that are often missed or left out of theatre history. Gallagher-Ross focuses on artists and authors who bring attention to the "elusive territory" of the quotidian world to find new avenues of awe and wonder that exist in the discovery of the overlooked (12). Gallagher-Ross effectively differentiates these US artists—namely Thornton Wilder, Stuart Sherman, The Nature Theater of Oklahoma, and various practitioners of method acting—from the innovative practices of theatre makers in twentieth-century Europe and the hegemony of American realism. He argues that these theaters of the everyday bring into focus the beauty and nuance of common lived experience, which stands in sharp contrast to performance that actively tries to bring political change to the world.
In chapter l, Gallagher-Ross introduces his concepts in an inviting and affable way that makes his ideas clear and concise while remaining challenging and thought-provoking. In introducing his subjects and goals for this project, he first describes various notions of the everyday from a myriad of thinkers in an attempt to show the value in reexamining theatre that focuses, not on the overtly political, but instead on the smallest nuances of lived experience. He is adept at untangling ideas from various works of literature, drama, theory and philosophy and, in doing so, showcases one of his main projects within the book: to do away with the separation of literature studies from theatre and performance studies. Gallagher-Ross claims that utilizing strategies from each discipline is as helpful with understanding Wilder's plays as it is the Nature Theater of Oklahoma's nuanced performances, as both disciplines are needed to fully understand and appreciate the work. His other stated project is to clarify the active and crucial nature of spectatorship in US audiences, as made visible by Sherman's "happenings," which tax attention, and Lee Strasburg's method, which lauds the small nuance, in an attempt to classify spectatorship not as a passive and thoughtless activity, but rather as a process of complex critical thought and engagement. While a project of this scope might at first seem too broad and varied, Gallagher-Ross carries the theoretical weight of his aspirations. Theaters of the Everyday effectively finds common ground between four distinct and very different dramaturgies as a way to recontextualize basic premises of US theatre.
In chapter 2, Gallagher-Ross analyzes Thornton Wilder's "everyday plays," which consist of The Happy Journey from Trenton to Camden, The Long Christmas Dinner, Pullman Car Hiawatha, and, of course, Our Town. Gallagher-Ross provides catnip for any Wilder aficionado, myself included, who feels the author [End Page 165] is unappreciated, or that the work is largely miscategorized as nostalgic and corny. Wilder's work is shown to be bracing and vital as he eschews realism for theatrical techniques that tap into audience perception to create a personalized reality for each viewer. Gallagher-Ross argues that Wilder is particularly concerned with movement, both with travel and the passage of time, and how the basic unyielding movement of life is one aspect that makes perception of the world a tricky endeavor. His analysis is most adept when describing The Happy Journey, as he points to the characters being whisked away from their usual circumstances, making them more keenly aware of the world around them, and that their heightened perception is brought about by a change in their typical routines. He also notes that the stage directions instruct actors to play toward the audience, so that actors and spectators share moments of realization and awakening. In this way, he shows an astute understanding of how the play functions both on the page and in performance. Gallagher-Ross effectively breathes life into this old chestnut, which is easily the most...