- Drama and Bloom's Canon
There is Shakespeare and then all the others. That seems to be Harold Bloom's barely unspoken commentary on drama since the Renaissance. Rarely does he comment on it, other than to extol Shakespeare's greatness, and then his commentary is clipped and a bit narrow sighted. This seems at odds with one of the most important literary critics of the contemporary errors and one of the greatest explicators of Shakespeare, in any time.
What is it about most drama that limits Bloom's interaction with it? In particular, what about American drama diminishes Bloom's interest and respect? In Dramatists and Drama, a book still most notably devoted to the ancient Western and Renaissance dramatists, Bloom does a respectable job of covering many of the great male playwrights of American history: Miller, Simon, Albee, Stoppard, Shepard, Williams, Wilson, Mamet and Kushner. In his last great survey of American writers, The American Canon: Literary Genius from Emerson to Pynchon, he and editor David Mikics chose only to include commentary about O'Neill, Williams and Albee. Baldwin too is mentioned, but for his novels only, not his work for stage.
It seems that Bloom's work on American drama is reflective, not only of his theory, but of the study of theory as a whole. Bloom provides a limited view of the American canon. The works represented are certainly great works, but there are so few of them and he reads them as literature, which is, at best, only half of what drama is. For Bloom, drama is rarified art in the American canon, a "shining city on a hill." Whether that city shines like a Christ, transfigured in Biblical stories, or a teenage vampire lounging in the woods in a Stephanie Meyers novel, doesn't matter. What matters is the accessibility of the exalted and the path one can take to join them.
The image of America as a shining city on a hill can be traced back to John Winthrop's fire and brimstone preaching to his Puritanical followers. He reminded people of the exceptional status of the American colonies. With that exceptional status, he warned, came great responsibility. The spotlight not only highlights the good being done, but also the flaws. Winthrop, in his unflinching desire to intimidate his flock, emphasizes that those in the valley will look to the hill to see greatness, but are more likely to see degeneration, if there is any to be seen. The concept of the canon mimics that same pattern. Those held up as the gods of the literature are most easily those criticized and [End Page 455] those creating the canon are subject to the same fate. Mikics' introduction to The American Canon intimates this when he write, "Bloom, a lifelong man of the left, laments the dire politics that often results from the American taste for the unfettered, God-approved selfhood: self-absorbed greed, worship of power, the cult of masculine regeneration through violence" (2019, 8). Bloom is aware of the danger of using power and position, sometimes in the guise of religion, to assert primacy, but sometimes, seems unaware that he enacts that practice. As a public intellectual with a career of influential writing that spanned six decades, Bloom himself stands in the town square of theory, in the literary city on a hill. As critics, it is imperative to see his flaws, but also to recognize his greatness.
From the very limited perspective of a theorist of Modern American drama, Bloom is deeply flawed. He either consciously, or unconsciously edits out his own influence and bias, while knowingly limiting drama to its written value, all but ignoring performance.
He places Eugene O'Neill, an undeniable deservedly giant figure in American drama, at its pinnacle, writing, "[Y]et O'Neill, despite his many limitations, is the most American of our handful of dramatists who matter most: Williams, Miller, Wilder, Albee, Kushner, perhaps Mamet and Shepard" (Bloom 2019, 216). Interestingly, it seems to be O'Neill's own fraught relationship with his emotional and intellectual nemesis, New England Puritanism, that same tradition which builds the city on the hill. Here...