The Theatre Historian in the Mirror and Transformation of Space

Rosemarie Bank
Rosemarie Bank

During the past few years, a rising chorus of voices have begun to address the new theatre historiography. This historiography, though diversely understood, addresses both what the historian investigates and how s/he examines phenomena.

The discourse employs much of the critical thought especially French that has swept through language and literature departments since the 1970’s and the revisionist thought-especially neo-Marxist (again, diversely understood) that has repositioned research in history, cultural anthropology, political science, gender and ethnic studies, sociology, psychology, and related disciplines since the 1960’s.

The “new theatre historiography,” whatever that means, is both an invisible and a complex discourse — invisible because much of it has been articulated in terms of specific subject matters (medieval, Renaissance, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theatre, for example) and so has escaped notice as a repositioning of theatre research itself, and complex because the theatre historian attempts that repositioning, subverting or at least redirecting the gaze of the received tradition in a substantive research area, while lacking an established language for the discourse.

Elsewhere in this issue, my colleague Michal Kobialka discusses theatre history research as the search for instabilities, a rejection there, as here, of the legacy of cultural Darwinism and its reliance upon ideology reinforced by a seemingly objective and unassailable apparatus of sources, causal sequences, chains of being, effects, modes of distribution, and the like, which has characterized the thinking of theatre historians over the past hundred years.

What follows here is an attempt to articulate a spatially oriented theatre historiography, expanding upon French historian-philosopher Michel Foucault’s “space of representation” and “heterotopia.”

These ideas were expressed in part orally in August of 1988, and as the expanded essay leaves my hands now to begin its journey through the editorial processes of this journal, time has functioned both to increasingly enjoin the past analytical strategy (cultural Darwinism), whose assumptions are clearly no longer unquestioned among theatre historians, and to advance both the often invisible substantive discourse and the often unheard historiographical one.

While less effort is required to defend the “new historiography” when it achieves the status of “foremost intellectual undertaking” among American theatre scholars, current concern about the inquiry does not obviate the unfamiliarity of some of the interested parties with both the critical thought and the revisionist historical thought which informs it, creating concomitant problems for essays such as this one in identifying the audience toward which the inquiry is directed.

More disconcerting, however, is the necessity, as here, to create or derive a language for historiographical discourse the limits of which have not — and, I will argue, can not — be set. Accordingly, it is necessary to make clear from the outset that the present essay cannot hope, indeed, does not aspire, to encompass all of even its segment of the historiographical matrix, a limitation which accurately reflects the historiography being discussed, without, hopefully, rendering that discussion itself unnecessarily elusive.

In Greek, the word historiographia breaks into “historios” (the record) and “graphia” (the arrangement and interrelationship of the record). The controversial aspects of the word itself concern what constitutes the record and how it should be/has been arranged. For some two thousand years in the West, the historian’s, as well as the literary critic’s task, was to preserve the record, to attempt to determine the “true,” the “real” historical artefact or event.

There have been many views concerning how historians might best discharge this responsibility. The twentieth-century inherited the view of the nineteenth-century, represented in theatre historiography by a wearing down of scientific theory generally identified as “cultural Darwinism,” and here called “modernism.”

Cultural Darwmism/modernism posits a linear development of history proceeding from hidden sources through a causal pattern to manifested events. The modernist theatre historian was quite earnest about being “objective” in the pursuit of “truth,” to determine what things “mean” free of the prejudice that had coloured previous research.

In addition, modernism had considerable appeal because it brought rigour (and hence academic and intellectual respectability) to the study of theatre, a field of inquiry legitimized in the United States only in the twentieth-century.

As American theatre historians began the monumental task of recovering, preserving, and analyzing the United States and other theatrical and dramatic histories, interpretations of the canon were often deferred-one could not determine the “truth” if “evidence” was sparse-though the graphia of histories nonetheless proposed both relationships and hierarchies of importance. Premiums were placed on the most characteristic or typical example, upon phenomena arranged chronologically and casually, and upon received values concerning art.

While cultural Darwinism continued to determine and shape the field into the 1960’s and our own time, theatre practice had already diverged from the path of science and evolutionism. These divergences had been largely ignored in United States theatre historiography-symbolism, futurism, Dada, surrealism, expressionism in the first wave of avant-garde activity, Artaud and Brecht in the second-though their influence can be found in design and among theatre groups and critics influenced by non-”traditional” theatre.

This divergence swelled in the 1960’s into a flood of theatrical practices which modernism could neither accommodate nor contain. The counterculture had arrived, carrying postmodernist criticism and historiography with it.

The initial response to these forces among historians was pluralism and revisionist history. Previously taboo topics became subjects for investigation — frontier melodramas, performance art, circus, theatre viewed as a cultural phenomenon, contemporary theatre groups, gender and race in theatre and plays, and so forth-and traditional historiography was questioned.

Pluralism and revisionism often remained modernist in theatre historiography, however, either constituting shifts in what was examined, rather than questioning how or why, or by adopting modernist historiography from other disciplines, a process perceived to be postmodern because interdisciplinary.

Gradually, however, postmodern historiography is emerging in theatre, though often indiscriminately buried among modernist approaches toward both traditional and pluralistic subjects.

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