- Theaters of the Everyday: Aesthetic Democracy on the American Stage by Jacob Gallagher-Ross
In a democratic gesture, Theaters of the Everyday invites renewed consideration of ways in which genres and styles within US American theatre overlap and inform one another. Jacob Gallagher-Ross proposes this north star in the book’s introduction titled “Re-enchanting the World,” stating that “[o]utliers and mainstream artists often have more in common than we think” (34). This basic foundation is evident in the selection of artists and practices that comprise the book’s case studies: Thornton Wilder, the Method, Stuart Sherman, and Nature Theater of Oklahoma. Gallagher-Ross orders his discussion according to a four-chapter chronology, moving toward the most recent in a startling and refreshing juxtaposition of dramatists, actor-trainers, visual and performance artists, and [End Page 175] contemporary experimental devising companies. Early on, the book develops and applies theories of the everyday that draw from the different models of existential philosophy developed by US American thinkers Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Through these lenses, Gallagher-Ross conceptualizes the everyday as a union between the aesthetic and the phenomenological: he privileges what audiences see and hear, together with the dramatic and processual structures that undergird performance. While seeking strands of US American artistic identity, unexpected links among the book’s artists and practices emerge as early as the first chapter, “Brightness Is Seeing in a New Way: Thornton Wilder’s Everyday Departures,” in which Gallagher-Ross claims the Nature Theater of Oklahoma, a contemporary New York– based group, as “Wilder’s latter-day inheritors” (59). The slight disjunction that might accompany this claim of kinship, or this particular pairing of artists explored in relationship, is central to the book’s project. By unsettling barriers among modes of theatre and performance-making, Gallagher-Ross restores a networked kinship to models that are too often studied in isolation.
The process of sense-making, the rationale for the methodology of putting these artists into aesthetic and historical conversation, is where Gallagher-Ross’s remarkable contribution to the field becomes clear. His book, as he states in the introduction, “traces a genealogy of the American theater of the everyday — an alternative tradition that is aesthetically and philosophically distinct from realism but is often obscured by it” (7). Even as the book invokes the democratic nature of the aesthetics these artists prompt and produce, Theaters of the Everyday enacts its own critical democracy that blurs and reorders boundaries and histories within US American theatre.
As each artist occupies a distinct mode of performance-making, Gallagher-Ross shifts and adapts his critical focus as he moves from one chapter to the next. His discussion of Wilder is vividly rendered and primarily text-based, yet the invocation of Emerson and Thoreau revitalizes everydayness as a web of movement that is both internal and external to the self: “Wilder’s everyday plays stage a tension between Thoreau-like moments of arrested attention — bracketed, framed, and frozen; temporary resting points for the gaze and the brain — and Emersonian departures, the necessary abandonment of these resting places” (42). Within Gallagher-Ross’s text, US American everydayness emerges as the consequence of centering individualism: Thorton Wilder’s remembered images, Lee Strasberg’s tape recorder, Stuart Sherman’s objects, Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s humble epics. All of these examples mark everydayness as existential exploration; as pattern-making made possible by and through the personal. By positioning Emerson and Thoreau as foundational theorists, Gallagher-Ross makes use of these thinkers’ respective, and intimate, fascinations with change/speed/escape and building/nesting/stasis. The resulting interplay between movement and stillness provides an effective throughline for the book’s main chapters that begins with the train-laden work of Wilder, and ends with the train imagery associated with “Nature Theater of Oklahoma” as it appears in Franz Kafka’s Amerika. Even as Gallagher-Ross levies literature as an interpretive artifact, he orients that critical process...