Saturday, January 28, 2012

Who Says?

When I ask myself who I am, I don’t come up first with "scholar."  Long before I get there, I swing by actor, director, cat lover, singer, lapsed dancer (watch out for typos on that one!), recovering Catholic, vegetarian, writer, designer (sound and costume… I don’t claim any expertise over lighting and scenic), stage manager, marketing maven, sister, daughter, aunt, friend… and pretty much all of those are places I would go before I get to scholar.  But here I am, a PhD student, trying to reconcile my artistic and my scholarly self.  The way I like to write and the way the academy demands I write tend to disagree.  So there is great comfort in the questions posed in Theatre Historiography.  “Have we sufficiently expanded our ways of knowing to allow for approaches to historiography that are truly Other?  Far better to ask whether the history of theater practice offers modes of inquiry that can illuminate our historical knowledge.” (Bial 284)  Isn’t it about time that we invite into our discourse voices and sources and experts and ideas that do not fit neatly into the (let’s face it) masculine academic cookie cutters?  Isn’t it about time that we allow, nay, encourage, nay, DEMAND that our scholars crawl out from the library stacks to interact directly with that living breathing thing they’re writing about?  When we look at plays and performances and sigh and say that the critical tools open to those artists are not also open to scholars, how many doors are we closing? Aren’t historiographers theatre artists too?  Or shouldn’t they be?  Can the inroads we use to understand and illuminate a script also guide us to understand and illuminate the very history of our art?  Why have we spent so much time shunning that connection?
Kassy mentioned that she noted how many questions the scholars in this book seem to be asking, and I suppose that led me to follow suit.  I think I find questions comforting.  I appreciate the idea that it is acceptable, even in a formal setting, to acknowledge that there are things we don’t know, may never know.  I tend to find myself a little paralyzed as I begin to write, feeling the need to know all of the answers before I can begin typing.  But as Mary said in a meeting the other day, and as these clearly excellent scholars point out, the answers probably won’t be at your disposal as you begin to write.  In fact, they may never present themselves fully or even partially.  You may read and read and write and write only to discover nothing.  But the void is a gift.  Based on his article, Postlewait agrees: “A gap thus exists between the event and our knowledge of it.” (Postlewait 160)  It’s our job to play in the gaps, to look for the connections, or to acknowledge the emptiness and leave it as a gift for the next person who stumbles by.
Can we perform our theatre histories the way we perform our theatre?  Why not?  Who says?
So if we can, as Bial suggests, allow theatre practice to inform theatre historiography, how do we start?  McConachie’s thoughts on narrative history might lead us in the right direction.  Postlewait’s respect of the researcher’s own experience of the research process lends a degree of performativity that has been lacking.  Heather Nathans (whom I greatly admire) did a lot of this in her essay, relating her own journey and questions throughout the course of the search for her “conspicuous” Jewish performer.  Westlake even incorporated his own thoughts of what he hoped to be true about historiographers before him, projecting another level of character and performance onto the text.  The Magic If would certainly be a useful tool as we explore the hows and whys of the construction of the canon and records.  Young inserts moments of pure conjecture to enhance the narrative of his essay, wondering aloud whether his subject had traveled to the South and how those experiences might have informed his work.  Imagination plays a bigger role in some of the entries we read than one might assume “rigorous” scholarship might allow, but it’s nice to have permission to take that leap.  That is not to say, of course, that these writers are encouraging us to write haphazardly without foundation or proof, but rather to allow for possibilities within the search for history to inform and enliven the retelling of it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Above and Below

“traditional history offers a view from above…a number of the new historians are concerned with ‘history from below’, in other words, with the views of ordinary people and with their experience of social change.” (Burke 4)
So let me get this straight.  My story is “from below” if I’m not one of the privileged, straight, white, western men?  Yes, it’s a charming tweet-sized binary constructed to portray a simple difference between traditional history and new history, and I certainly appreciate the impulse to include and uncover histories that have not, thus far, been deemed worthy of the canon, but there’s something in it that feels so condescending.  Even in deconstructing the established hierarchy, he pays homage to it.  He does concede problems with the term, both in connotations and in definition of which “below” to choose in any given scenario.  E4r3\ (My new kitten Matilda felt like assisting with this post, so I figured I would leave in her contribution.  Where, after all, is the kitten’s-eye view of history to be written if not here?  She is awfully small, so perhaps “from below” is fairly literal in her case.)   Later, Burke addresses the everyday – and perhaps this is a place to draw a less divisive binary.  Traditional history deals with the exceptional while new history concerns itself with the everyday?  No, there is still the implication of a higher value for the material of the traditional approach.  Yes… even the deconstruction needs deconstructing.  Just another in a string of readings this week that seem designed to remind me of my interest in semiotics, structuralism and (especially) poststructuralism.  While some see a dark and uneasy nihilism in the uncertainty of poststructuralism, I find a reassuring freedom.  If no meaning is fixed or ultimately, definitively knowable, then change is always possible.  And if other people won’t accept the change, it doesn’t particularly matter: “Our minds do not reflect reality directly.  We perceive the world only through a network which varies from one culture to another.” (Burke 5)  Context, context, context.  Reality isn’t a fixed point, so why feel hamstrung by it?  When I look at the comedies of Bekah Brunstetter, an interesting and energetic young playwright, I see an impulse that seems to fit in this discussion.  She sets up old tropes and signposts of femininity, only to turn them on their ear or squoosh them under the heel of her characters’ sensible shoes.  In one play – You May Go Now – she introduces us to Dottie, “a bake-from-scratch throwback to the halcyon TV mom days of Donna Reed and June Cleaver, complete with a starched apron over her pleated dress,”[1] and her daughter Betty, whom she is attempting to raise to be the perfect housewife.  Together they make icing and talk about how to please a man:
“When he arrives home, be gay and a little more interesting for him.  His boring day may need a lift and one of your duties it to provide it… Catering for his comfort will provide you with intense personal satisfaction.  Speak in a low, soothing voice.  Don’t ask him questions about his actions, or question his judgment or integrity.  Don’t dare judge him.  Don’t neglect to – don’t neglecthim.  If you have your own goddamn wishes for yourself, for your future, push them deep inside and make dinner.  Keep them to yourself…Remember, he is the master of the house.” (Brunstetter 15)
Of course, as we go along, we discover that Dottie is not all she seems.  In fact, she was a driven career woman who never cooked and who had no intention of having children; a fact that led her husband to commit suicide.  So she kidnapped a child, called her Betty and has been raising her in this hermetically sealed, Donna Reed bubble for fifteen years.  As the truth comes out, both Dottie and Betty are left completely out to sea, and the structure of the blissful domestic goddess (a distinctly patriarchal construction… constructed “from above,” one might say) is irreversibly shattered.  Though destructive, there is a playfulness in the way she points out the absurdities of the accepted too-neat-and-tidy narrative, replacing it with a fractured set of questions about her characters’ places in the world.   This sort of using narrative to break the narrative could prove itself to be a useful tool in attempting to write a history that incorporates some of these viewpoints “from below.”

[1] William Westhoven, “Review Preview: ‘You May Go Now,’”Jersey Stages, 26 February, 2009, <>.