Critical Theory and Performance.
The title of this anthology requires, strictly speaking, the additionaI specifier "in the U.S.A" in order to convey accurately the scope of this volume. Although this geographical specification is nowhere alluded to in the various introductions, it is in fact crucial for assessing the accomplishments and shortcomings of the editorial undertaking. What Reinelt and Roach have succeeded in doing is to synthesize and typologize a whole critical movement in the area of theatre and performance studies in the U,S.A which has grown out of a number of disciplinary convergences and exchanges. What this volume really documents is an all-encompassing movement to politicize and ideologize theory. Although the editors stress the plurality of methodologies at work, they are in fact contained in a highly homogenous vocabulary blending marxist and poststructuralist terminology in a remarkable cocktail which calls itself "Critical Theory." As far as the ideological impetus is concerned the editors lay their cards on the table: "We did not include a section on the pure aesthetics of performance transcending the realm of ideology, because we could not imagine one" (2).
The term "Critical Theory" is itself conceptually a little wobbly as a glance at the chapter headings and the articles themselves soon reveals. In terms of its preferred ideological orientation, it dearly owes something to the Kritische Theorie of the Frankfurt School, but used here it actually encompasses theory of almost any provenience, the "theory explosion" (4) in American academia, with its strong interest in the philosophical assumptions underlying research in any and all branches of the humanities. On closer examination, the theory explosion shows itself to be primarily a "Foucauldian" explosion, into which feed a number of other theoretical strategies, The chapter headings reveal, then, what the strategies of Critical Theory in performance studies can include: Cultural Studies; Semiotics and Deconstruction; After Marx; Feminism(s); Theater History and Historiography; Hermeneutics and Phenomenology; Psychoanalysis; Critical Convergences. Each chapter heading receives its own discrete introduction outlining both the general concepts behind the terms as well as contextualizing the individual contributions. There are also frequent cross-references to other articles which have relevance to a particular field but have been included under another chapter. These introductions are in the main excellent and provide an astonishingly concise and perceptive overview of very complex fields. While the advanced scholar may find a one paragraph explication of Saussure's sign theory a little tiresome, and the fact that Reinelt in the same introduction consistently misspells the name C. S, Peirce as "Pierce" downright irritating, I think the editors are right in erring on the side of simplicity. I have no doubt these introductions will prove invaluable guides for students and perhaps for the odd professor as well.
As space restrictions preclude any possibility of assessing all twenty-six contributions, it is only feasible to point out certain general impressions which the volume communicates to . scholar working outside North American academia. The major impression is one of overwhelming parochialism which in the case of some articles narrows into intense self-absorption. When one considers that the whole theoretical foundation of American critical theory derives from the Continent, primarily France, and to a lesser extent Germany, with Italy (Gramsci) and England (Raymond Williams) also having made valuable contributions, then it is curious that important Continental theatre theorists such as Patrice Pavis, Marco de Marinis, or Erika Fischer-Lichte are absent. This parochialism extends as well into many of the case studies that draw on performances and productions which have gained little or no exposure outside the U.S.A. and culminates perhaps in David McDonald's self-congratulatory disquisition on the theoretical underpinnings of the writer's own inhouse university production of David Hare's Fanshen, which ran a total of three performances, and which was part of the writer's own research program. Parochialism and self-absorption combine and are celebrated in Sue-Ellen Case's contribution, which forms, together with a piece by Herbert Blau, an attempt to gather together many and varied theoretical strands. Case's essay hinges on an internal debate she was involved in concerning a particular professional organization, the Association for Theatre in Higher Education, from which she emerges the hero(ine) having successfully promoted the cause of revolutionary (feminine) theory against reactionary (masculine) theatre history; or to quote Case in her own Manichean terminology: "the feminization of theory and the masculinization of history" (423). While the essay does branch out after a while into a general discussion of theoretical issues, the first part is so reliant on a local intertext of specific institutional and gender-related issues that an outside reader is somewhat at a loss.
In fact the choice of Blau and Case as the theoretical flagships of the volume is a curious one and symptomatic of the local orientation of the book. If there is any scholar who represents for an international readership American performance studies it is Richard Schechner who, in his writings and in his capacity of editor of The Drama Review, more or less established "performance" in its many manifestations as a legitimate field of study. While Schechner is represented with an article in the chapter "Cultural Studies," he is accorded very little importance either by the editors or the other contributors; he is cited only in one article. That the notion of performance is understood and explored in the volume in so many fascinating ways--it contains artides on jazz, shamanism, stand-up comedians, kathakali and Annie Oakley as well as on dramatic texts and raise en scene--is directly or indirectly a result of Schechner's critical and editorial endeavors.
It is perhaps fitting that the collection should close with an essay by Herbert Blau in which he interrogates in a wide-ranging survey the notion of ideology, theory, and theatrical practice. After reading. such a volume in which notions such as hegemony, essentialism, and ideology are invoked with a mantra-like repetitiveness (a glance at the relevent entries in the index provides the statistical verification), Blau's stock-taking, although frequently opaque in its argumentation and tropes, does demand a more differentiated view of the relationship between ideology and performance.
Despite the various criticisms, this volume deserves a wide readership both in and outside the U.S.A. However, the response will be a very different one depending on the reader's geocultural location. Looking in from the outside I am sure many European readers will react with that combination of fascination and bewilderment that has always characterized Europe's response to displays of American culture.
Institut fur Theaterwissenschaft
University of Munich
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1993|
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