1797. Sarah Yates, recently widowed actress and mother, played a London benefit performance of Francklin's Earl of Warwick, winning her audience's sympathy for her "mama grizzly" portrayal of Margaret of Anjou.
1916. Michio Ito deployed his personal performance style in At the Hawks Well, subverting director William Butler Yeats's attempt to create a noh theatre version.
1973. Billie Whitelaw developed a collaborative relationship with her famously controlling writer and director, Samuel Beckett, in the premiere of Not I.
2011. Deaf actor Howie Seago suggested to Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch that he play Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird, a choice that transformed the courtroom scenes and engineered new forms of agency for Mayella.
2016. The Modern Language Association formally changed the name of the Drama Division to the "Drama and Performance Forum."
To many observers--especially those in the audience--the actor plays the most visible role in any particular performance. But critical perspectives on drama, especially in literature departments, have tended to focus on the text rather than on the performer, for obvious reasons. In theatre studies, by contrast, the actor--as subject of biography or aesthetic analysis, or as the target of practical training--has taken center stage. Our call, born out of a sense that literary, critical, and historical perspectives require a living touchstone to ground analysis and anchor conclusions in the real world, seeks to corral some interesting thinking at the junction of two fields. In its contours, this collection demonstrates performance studies done historically and literarily. More than just interdisciplinary, these essays reveal multidisciplinary approaches to thinking about not only texts either destined for, or resulting from, performance, but also the human bodies essential to completing the meaning of those texts. We could not be more gratified by the historical breadth and compelling consilience of the group.
By coincidence, this issue appears at almost the same time that the Modern Language Association formally retitled the Drama Division the Drama and Performance Forum. The inclusion of "performance" alongside the venerable and more limited term of genre signals a burgeoning understanding of performance as both a wider category of analysis and as a methodological tool. The MLA has called for a "historic shift," but in many ways the MLA is simply recognizing the state of things: literary studies has already begun to embrace the multidisciplinary nature of studying theatre and performance.
Theatre studies first emerged as a discipline largely out of English departments, within a generation or so of the first training institutes and degree programs focused on educating the actor. Performance studies, on the other hand, developed much later out of anthropology--in particular ethnography--as well as out of a focus on the panoply of 1960s performance forms within the counter-cultural scene. In a sign that performance studies has perhaps reached a sort of disciplinary maturity, Duke University Press's recent digital book What is Performance Studies? uses video interviews alongside written essays to show how the tools of performance studies appear in many kinds of scholarship, and how the very definition of performance studies--is it a discipline, or a methodology?--remains an unsettled question. The heated debates from the 1980s and early 1990s, in scholarly forums like the American Society for Theatre Research, where theatre history and performance studies seemed to threaten each other's existence, have now cooled to an approach that eccentrically and eclectically combines features and characteristics of the two while generating new properties. It is this new approach that literary critics now meet when they reintroduce themselves to theatre studies.
In late 2015, we conceived of a special issue that would explore the space between literary and theatre studies with a focus on the body of the actor, entitled "The Actor in the Interval." The submissions we received so emphasized the agency of the actor, his or her power to "comment on" the text (to quote Billie Whitelaw), that our original image began to seem too passive. These authors conceptualize both agency and embodiment very broadly, showing how theatrical texts engage with multiple discourses of power and how multiple agents collaborate to produce theatrical characters. In these analyses the actor's body is never entirely literal or self-contained, but is always caught up in a network of social relations, theatrical practices, and textual expressions. These essays exemplify the best humanities scholarship in their focus on the human beings at the center of creative and critical processes.
Hannah Simpson's essay brings the question of agency into sharp focus, analyzing two particularly stark and intimate struggles between actors and author-directors. Simpson documents how both Beckett and Yeats sought to minimize, or even eliminate, the capacity of the individual actor to shape or "comment on" dramatic characters as written. Such suppressive efforts sound dehumanizing, and between Yeats and Michio Ito, Simpson writes, they were. But they can also give rise to a new kind of creative process, one the essay demonstrates by carefully reading Whitelaw's memoir alongside Beckett's play.
The actor's power to affect a dramatic text gets broader historical context in Sarah Burdett's study of the eighteenth-century actress Sarah Yates's portrayal of Margaret of Anjou. The philosophy of acting articulated by Billie Whitelaw in Simpson's essay ("an actor is usually hired precisely for the personal things he will bring to a piece") has its origins in eighteenth-century Europe. Through her embodiment of mother, widow, and working actress, Yates "comments on" Margaret of Anjou, a character whose discursive engagements extended far beyond the script of Thomas Francklin's tragedy. Using the extensive publicity for the production and her participation in an emergent celebrity culture, Yates shaped her character in the minds of the audience in concert with their assumptions about women. Burdett shows us an actor subject to, but also able to manipulate, power in many forms, including audiences, multiple textual representations of a character, recent historical events, theatrical practices, and popular media.
As complexly constituted as Yates's performance of Margaret of Anjou seems to be, that character appears relatively simple when compared with the character of Martin Marprelate, the subject of J. P. Conlan's essay. The author fades in importance in this study; here the major institutions of power in Elizabethan England craft the "text." This is an altogether different story about an actor's intervention into a character. In one sense Richard Tarleton invented the character, but in another sense he didn't; the social and political script already existed. What the actor added--that the authorities wanted to use--was the satirical potential in his skillful clowning. The theory of acting as self-expression analyzed by Burdett and Simpson had yet to come into being in Elizabethan England. Tarleton's success at creating a role independent of his own identity (though not disembodied, as his talent for satire and clowning created the character) is clear when Conlan points out that Will Kempe played the same role so well that people thought that Tarleton was reincarnated. So while in some sense the actor became the agent of political and ecclesiastical authorities, the character he created eventually served the rhetorical needs of those struggling against those same authorities.
Maureen McDonnell's analysis of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2011 production of To Kill a Mockingbird may offer the most radical instance of an actor's "commenting on" a dramatic text. Casting Deaf actor Howie Seago as Bob Ewell affected more than one character; it changed and made more complex the power relationships in the play. In fact it illuminated many hidden power dynamics in the original novel, as well as present-day ableism in contemporary theatre production. Moreover, this choice represented a fully collaborative move, as the full effects of Seago's intervention were worked out by multiple contributors to the production. Here, too, the actor's embodiment extends past his literal body and beyond his personal will.
For decades critics have sought to understand how texts take shape and the kinds of power those texts in turn exert on society and individuals. We believe that the essays in this collection demonstrate how this inquiry can be strengthened by a multidisciplinary approach, synthesizing literary, theatre, and performance studies. Literary scholars have widely adopted the discourse of "performance" when discussing agency and power; attention to the more literal and embodied forms of performance--with people at the center--can strengthen the analytical power of this discourse and the stakes of our conclusions.
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|Author:||Bradburn, Elizabeth; Durham, Lofton L.|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2015|
|Previous Article:||James Reynolds and Andy W. Smith, eds. Howard Barker's Theatre: Wrestling with Catastrophe.|
|Next Article:||"Now keep out of the way, Whitelaw": self-expression, agency, and directorial control in W. B. Yeats's and Samuel Beckett's Theatre.|