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  • Our Last Shows: The Inheritance and Engaged Pedagogy on the Eve of the Pandemic
  • Dan Venning (bio)

My doctoral mentor, Marvin Carlson, is a prodigious theatregoer; numerous authors in the Festschrift Changing the Subject highlight this fact, and Carlson’s memoir, 10,000 Nights, is structured around fifty years of theatregoing. I frequently ran into him at shows in New York, whether on Broadway or at small downtown theatres, and we would always be overjoyed to talk about what we had just seen or what we were seeing next. One of the lessons Carlson has sought to impress on his students is that critical spectatorship is a key part of scholarship in the field of theatre studies. By engaging with the current repertoire, from commercial theatres on Broadway or the West End to avant-garde incubators of new work, regional theatres, and international venues, we are able to identify current trends in the professional theatre and drama, draw connections to historical texts and practices, direct scholarly attention to the new and noteworthy, and more effectively mentor our own students who may enter the field of professional theatre. Although I will likely never reach Carlson’s level of dedication, I have tried to attend shows as often as I can. I estimate that during a normal year, I see about fifty productions and write on average three performance reviews or review essays for scholarly journals. But since March 12, 2020, nothing has been “normal.” A question that has recurred—at conferences, in Zoom calls, and whenever I have spoken to another theatre scholar—is “what was the last live show you saw before the theatres closed? Have you gotten to see anything live since then?” These conversations reflect not only our personal disappointments in being unable to see theatre and our recollections of where we left the field or the traumatic loss of work and livelihoods faced by many professionals, but an acknowledgment that the field of theatre studies has itself been put on pause for nearly a year and a half.

My answer to these recurring questions shows my privilege and luck. Two days before the closure of theatres, on March 10, 2020, I saw Second Stage Theater’s revival of Young Jean Lee’s We’re Gonna Die at the Tony Kiser Theater, directed by Raja Feather Kelly. During the pandemic, I was able to see Berkshire Theatre Group’s summer 2020 production of Godspell, the first fully staged live musical in the United States to be approved by Actors’ Equity Association during the pandemic. But the experience that comes to mind when I am asked that question is always seeing Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance on Broadway on February 29, 2020 with a group of students from Union College, less than two weeks before theatres shut down. Just as a public health crisis was descending on our country and on the eve of the closing of theatres worldwide, I took my students to see a show about the generational aftermath of a public health crisis. My recollection of the show is colored by the context in which I saw it, highlighting the ways that our narratives of the shows we have seen is a form of personal historiography.

I had first seen The Inheritance over a year earlier, in London in December 2018. I was floored by the play. It is a deeply intertextual work, a loose adaptation of E. M. Forster’s Howards End set in New York around the time of the 2016 election. Forster, whom the text calls “Morgan,” appears onstage as a literary ghost; other adaptations of Howards End, like Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, are also acknowledged in the play1 (fig. 1). Lopez’s play focuses on the lives of gay men in their twenties and thirties, men who came of age and into their sexuality after the AIDS crisis was largely over. The [End Page 19] play deals with what they have inherited from an absent generation of father figures, mentors, and lovers, who either died or somehow survived the plague and saw so many of their friends and lovers pass away. Even more than it engages with Forster’s work...


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pp. 19-23
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