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Mary Ann Frese Witt. Metatheater and Modernity: Baroque and Neobaroque.

Mary Ann Frese Witt. Metatheater and Modernity: Baroque and Neobaroque. Lanham, MD: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013. Pp. x + 183. $70.00.

After a career of teaching comparative theater to university students, writing on and translating theater, and leading summer seminars in Avignon, there are few scholars more equipped than Mary Ann Frese Witt to lead the reader through the complex web of scholarship on metatheater and to break new ground on the subject.

Frese Witt outlines the literature on metatheater since Lionel Abel coined the term in 1963, commenting not only on English-language scholarship but noting key Italian, Polish, and French language studies. Searching for a proper definition of the oft-discussed term, she reads early work by Abel, Georges Forestier, Manfred Schmeling, and Slawomir Swiontek as well as the more recent studies of Martin Puchner, Tadeusz Kowzan, and Mariagabriella Cambiaghi. After a comprehensive review of what metatheater is, the author calls for change in scholarship on metatheater. She avers that at this juncture in the evolution of the subject, it is more useful to define what metatheater does. The book proceeds to do precisely this.

Metatheater and Modernity's approach is entirely new. In half a century of scholarship on the subject, metatheater has been identified in the theater traditions of nearly every period and culture, but Frese Witt narrows her scope to focus on two centuries of prolific metatheatrical activity and the link between them. Focusing on the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries, Metatheater and Modernity is the first text in which the theater traditions of the two centuries are expressly compared and discussed. She approaches the question not only of what metatheater does in these periods but also why it enjoys its peak in the seventeenth century and such a strong resurgence in the twentieth.

In each of the book's five chapters, the author chooses an example or pair of examples from baroque comedy and what has been termed twentieth-century neobaroque comedy, juxtaposing the works from the two periods and examining how and why metatheater functions similarly in each.

In her first chapter, the actor as saint or martyr takes center stage, and Jean Rotrou's Le veritable Saint Genest, Jean-Paul Sartre's Kean, and Jean Genet's Les Negres are considered. Next, a French baroque comedy and its twentieth-century free adaptation are taken into consideration, namely Pierre Corneille's L'Illusion and Tony Kushner's The Illusion. Frese Witt maintains that while Kushner's adaptation is particularly free, borrowing not only from Corneille but from "the Italian commedia, the Spanish comedia, Shakespeare, Pirandello, and Brecht" (73), both utilize metatheater to achieve similar ends. While Corneille's work defends the theater to a society that deems acting a dishonorable or low profession, Kushner defends theater's significance in the postmodern era, praising its magic and power against the increasing popularity of cinema and television.

The author continues to discuss comedy in a chapter entitled "La commedia da fare," in which striking similarities are identified between Gian Lorenzo Bernini's unfinished and untitled comedy and Pirandello's "theater in theater" trilogy. Though Bernini's architecture and sculpture stood the test of time far better than his written work--only one comedy from his oeuvre has survived--we know that he was renowned as a stage designer par excellence, creating stage effects that eliminated the boundary between stage and spectator. Pirandello's work, the author argues, strives for and achieves a very similar result.

The author moves away from comedy in her fourth chapter and focuses on Hamlet, which she refers to as the "ur-text of baroque metatheater" (117) and lauds as one of the most important precursors to neobaroque metatheater. Her twentieth-century juxtapositions include Pirandello's Enrico IV, often called a modernist metatheatrical version of Hamlet, several Tom Stoppard plays, and other Hamlet riffs. Both Hamlet and Enrico IV are established as paragons of metatheatricality; protagonists Enrico IV and the Melancholy Dane function similarly as actors, writers, and directors, and in both plays being and seeming are similarly blurred. The Hamlet/Enrico IV line of inquiry is taken a step further when the author examines a little-known 2004 production of Tom Stoppard's Pirandello's Henry IV and the more familiar Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Frese Witt concludes this latest book with a chapter on metatheater in seventeenth- and twentieth-century impromptu theater. She uses Moliere's Impromptu de Versailles as a starting point, and discusses several twentieth-century impromptus that pay homage to Moliere's piece while completing a similar task, commenting on the author's theatrical principles and responding to criticism. This chapter is particularly interesting for any scholar of comedy, as the impromptu remains a curious and understudied subgenre of seventeenth-century comedy. The author, in comparing Moliere with followers such as Jacques Copeau, Jean Cocteau, Jean Giraudoux, and Eugene Ionesco, provides convincing solutions to lingering questions about the impromptu: What was its function? Why does it virtually disappear in the nineteenth century to reappear in the twentieth?

It is refreshing to read Frese Witt's new perspective on metatheater after a half century of debate over the term. Without discounting the great importance of Shakespeare's metatheater, particularly in Hamlet, she brings the discussion away from that play and focuses primarily on comedy. She broadens the field as well. Her approach is comparative not only across periods but across languages, as she cites examples from English, French, Spanish, and Italian theater traditions while mentioning also Russian and African theater.

The author goes further than identifying one or two paradigmatic metatheatrical pieces or artists per chapter. She bolsters each example with numerous other plays that include metatheatrical aspects or tendencies similar to the paradigm, alerting the reader to trends within and across linguistic borders. Her bibliography of the scholarly literature on metatheater is just as vast. She takes into account every major study on metatheater since the birth of the term, and thus provides the reader with the most useful, accessible, and up-to-date bibliography for anyone working on the topic. Metatheater and Modernity: Baroque and Neobaroque is a necessary read for scholars working on the baroque and its twentieth-century legacy, or any student or scholar of theater history.

In her discussion of Corneille and Kushner, Frese Witt shares the story of how a young undergraduate Kushner came to the "corny but true" conclusion that theater was the "closest thing ... to magic" (69). It is clear from Metatheater and Modernity that the author shares Kushner's opinion and seeks to impart it upon her reader. With such an innovative, passionate, and well-organized book, she will surely succeed in this mission.


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Author:Gurney, Tessa C.
Publication:Comparative Drama
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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