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In this brilliant study, Marc Robinson explores more than two hundred years of plays, styles, and stagings of American theater. Mapping the changing cultural landscape from the late eighteenth century to the start of the twenty-first, he explores how theater has—and has not—changed and offers close readings of plays by O’Neill, Stein, Wilder, Miller, and Albee, as well as by important but perhaps lesser known dramatists such as Wallace Stevens, Jean Toomer, Djuna Barnes, and many others. Robinson reads each work in an ambitiously interdisciplinary context, linking advances in theater to developments in American literature, dance, and visual art.
The author is particularly attentive to the continuities in American drama, and expertly teases out recurring themes, such as the significance of visuality. He avoids neatly categorizing nineteenth- and twentieth-century plays and depicts a theater more restive and mercurial than has been recognized before. Robinson proves both a fascinating and thought-provoking critic and a spirited guide to the history of American drama.
There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts. -Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Nature"
My art is about just paying attention-about the extremely dangerous possibility that you might be art. -Robert Rauschenberg, in Rauschenberg: An Interview, by Barbara Rose
* * *
Among eyewitnesses to nineteenth-century American theater, Henry James has few rivals in appreciating the stage's visual pleasures. The first volume of his autobiography, A Small Boy and Others (1913), is in fact a chronicle of theatergoing in the 1850s, less valuable for its descriptions of plots and interpretations (of these there are few) than for its record of this particular spectator's consciousness as he anticipates, admires, and memorializes a series of pictures animated by time. James's implicit conviction that theater is a visual art before it is a literary or even a performing art grows more persuasive as he betrays how completely he remains under the spell of images a less enthralledspectator would have soon forgotten or ignored in the first place. Even as he is watching a play, it seems, its narrative breaks apart for him, leaving a residue of a few compelling sequences-often silent, in memory if not in fact, and marginal to the action-saved from oblivion by their clarity and kinetic force. James remembers whole plays only by an actor's sudden rush up a mountainside, for instance, or the pace at which the light darkens, or the patterns made by the lengthening shadows. The most striking pictures allow a long look at a performer's face and body. James studies the angles formed by a hero's arms and legs when he falls dead, more expressive of loss than any valedictory speech. In other passages, he strings together adjectives both to rekindle and to control his passion for what he remembers. As Leon Edel notes, James is a connoisseur of actors' surfaces. Sixty years on, the novelist still treasures a Hermia for her "short salmon-coloured peplum over a white petticoat," a Walter Scott huntress for her kilt and velvet leggings, one actress's "broad brown face" framed in "tight black curls" and another's crowned in a gold tiara trailing a gold scarf, someone's "pendulous cheek," someone else's "protuberance of bosom."
Elsewhere in A Small Boy, James defines the particular kind of attention this theater cultivates as a combination of "fascination" and "fear" (47). Such ambivalence seems no less inevitable before these performers, not only because the James viewing them is a sexually unorganized eleven-year-old. How should anyone respond to a figure neither wholly real nor wholly fictional, at once inviting and prohibiting intimacy, his or her flesh-and-blood presence bound by imaginary circumstances? The procedures of fantasy preoccupy James throughout A Small Boy, helping him to understand why his era's theater takes flight even when its jury-rigged plots and prosy dialogue should, by rights, keep it grounded. The spectator's role in that success, James shows, begins long before the performance does, as the force of his expectation generates images vivid enough to compete with those in the theater. He remembers conjuring whole performances as he stands transfixed before theater posters and, after taking his seat in an auditorium, treating the lowered stage curtain as a screen inviting him to project still more scenes from an ideal theater, as well as other images from memory, dreams, and barely acknowledged longings. By delaying the start of the production, this pleasurable "torment of the curtain" (61) ensures that when the stage is finally revealed, it is seductive less because of any particular sight than because the eye, frustrated for so long, can at last give itself up to someone else's reverie.
Yet James obeys a rigorous idea of fantasy, and it has important implications for an understanding of the visual appeals made by the era's theater. As James describes them, the theater's gaslit dioramas are not alternatives to or renunciations of reality. Rather, they reveal to him reality's psychological nodal points, the dreads and desires that one might not notice away from the theater, in the blur of everyday preoccupations. They permit him to experience life from both the inside and the outside-feeling, by means of identification, with greater intensity and precision than anywhere else, but also removing himself to a distance from which, unseen himself, he can see freely, identifying the causes and consequences of his emotions. Fantasy, in other words, is the arena in which James learns the skills of analysis. Even when his memoir takes him away from the playhouse, James reveals how much his sensibility has been formed by the theater. On the avenues and in drawing rooms, he pulls back to frame their inhabitants, turning everyday life into a succession of scenes before which he reads the code of glances and movements that often contradict what is said.
Such free play over the surface of experience enlarges his understanding of its depths. James recalls accompanying his family one night, "quite as if going to the theatre," to a gallery exhibiting Washington Crossing the Delaware, Leutze's monumental canvas as yet undiminished by familiarity. Gaslight illuminated the painting, he writes, "but Mr. Leutze's drama left behind any paler proscenium" (152)-its life-size scale, almost palpable wintry weather, and most of all, the protagonists' attitude of visionary self-confidence affecting James more deeply than could any ordinary, nontheatricalized exhibition of the painting. By the force of its presentation, a well-known episode from history reentered his life as urgent, still unfolding fact, demanding a more self-aware kind of engagement than he once brought to the legend it cites.
Shortly after this experience, James began writing plays. If he hadn't already intuited the value of theatrical pictorialism, the happy accident of his materials would have shown the way. He used a brand of paper that came folded in four pages, three of which were ruled. On these he wrote dialogue, reserving every fourth, blank sheet of the quarto for an illustration of the scene. From the very start, playwriting was inseparable from drawing. Only by experimenting with the placement of actors could he release the full implications of their conduct. One imagines James controlling psychological tension with the height and width of his stage, and centering attention on the essential narrative transaction by fixing the location of the vanishing point. "I panted toward the canvas on which I should fling my figures," he writes in A Small Boy, "which it took me longer to fill than it had taken me to write what went with it, but which ... must have helped me to believe in the validity of my subject" (148-49).
"The validity of my subject." James's concern for the truth, or at least the credibility, of what he writes hints at the reasons-deeper than mere pleasure-seeking-for his interest in theatrical spectatorship. Is seeing believing? It seems to be, but in the theater itself James experiences a more complicated form of belief. It should come as no surprise that the author of The Golden Bowl is attentive to the cracks in stage illusion. In one production, James spots "the leg of a trouser and a big male foot" belonging to the performer playing the heroine (63). A wooden board creaks when Eliza steps on an ice floe in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Later in the same production, Little Eva emerges still dry and ironed after falling into the Mississippi River. In these and other sightings, theatrical illusion survives the betrayal. The flaws prompt James to check the seams of his engagement with the stage and to find them secure: he realizes that, in fact, his capacity for emotional and mental involvement depends neither on the scene's perfection nor its credibility. Far from feeling superior when the boards creak, James refuses to be disillusioned, thus learning, perhaps for the first time, how great is his need for faith.
That need-not for excitement, sensory or sensual-is what this era's theater of images tries to satisfy. Before long, this war between faith and doubt has become a spectacle in itself, fascinating James (he admits) more than the one onstage. He goes to the theater to await the moment when his resistance to a fiction breaks down, the moment he shifts from skepticism to belief or, more often, learns to be skeptical and trusting at the same time, a feat in which his cultural sophistication plays no part. "We had all intellectually condescended," he concludes after a theater outing with some friends, "and ... we had yet had the thrill of an aesthetic adventure ... this was a brave beginning for a consciousness that was to be nothing if not mixed" (95).
Any study of mid-nineteenth-century American theater must come to terms with this "mixed consciousness"-the experience of being both inside and outside the performance, and the process by which a spectator's surrender to visual pleasure, a surrender that typically involves self-forgetting, results in self-recognition of the kind James describes. (This is a version of what Whitman calls being "both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.") Such an experience enlarges one's sense of the purpose of theatrical seeing. Instead of being passive and anonymous, spectatorship in the nineteenth century is often a form of intervention, as audiences are invited to become witnesses, analysts, historians, and even reformers, able by the care with which they observe a production to practice the skills of self-scrutiny and social diagnosis necessary outside the theater as well. Yet this kind of looking isn't clinical: it also depends on the enchantment James longs for, if the scrutiny and diagnosis are to maintain their urgency. William Wells Brown speaks for many of his peers when he precedes his autobiographical 1858 abolitionist play, The Escape, with an epigraph from the closet scene in Hamlet: "Look here upon this picture, and on this," says Hamlet to his mother. Brown omits but hopes we'll supply lines later in the speech that specify the responsibility of such vision. Hamlet chastises Gertrude for having "eyes without feeling, feeling without sight" (3.4.78), a divorce that Brown, too, resists as he leads his own audience from vision to empathy-sense to sensibility-and from sensibility to action.
Any theater culture in which the first theater historian and professional playwright is also its first art historian-William Dunlap, an active if undistinguished painter as well-is perhaps fated to care about how seeing affects thinking and feeling, and to take a lexicographic interest in the languages of gesture, posture, and facial expression. A pair of Dunlap's paintings on theatrical themes confirms the point. In one, depicting a performance of The School for Scandal at the moment when Lady Teazle is discovered hiding behind a screen in Joseph Surface's rooms, a set of pillars frames the alcove containing the eavesdropper, turning it into a stage within a stage, to which the other actors point with an astonishment mirroring that of their own spectators-a diagram making us conscious, if we weren't already, of our own presence before Dunlap's painting. Those who remember Sheridan's play might reasonably conclude that Dunlap is asking for theater spectators to adopt these characters' motives as well: to see their way to truth and, by such seeing, to force long-overdue change.
Even more suggestive, if no more formally accomplished, is Dunlap's The Artist Showing a Picture from Hamlet to His Parents (1788). Here, Dunlap depicts himself leaning against a canvas almost as tall as he is while his father directs Mrs. Dunlap's attention to the murky characters from the play's first act. In the painting-within-the-painting, two faceless figures are standing under moonlight on the Elsinore ramparts. The "real" Dunlap's own scene is theatrical-his spectator-mother is seated before his canvas-stage-and by reducing Shakespeare's action to an image he seems to ready us, as well, for the kind of seeing appropriate to the coming American theater. The scene from Hamlet is itself about seeing, its perils and responsibilities embodied as "the Watch." After Horatio has warned Hamlet that looking at the Ghost will "deprive your sovereignty of reason /And draw you into madness" (1.4.73-74), Hamlet insists on seeing for himself, hoping, rather, to bolster his reason. For him, as for Dunlap's ideal theater spectator, vision is both a seizing and a sacrificing of control, a form of inquiry with otherwise unavailable knowledge, even self-knowledge, the reward for its risks.
Dunlap pursued his interest in the link between vision and reason when he began adapting French and German melodramas in the 1790s and early 1800s, in particular the work of Pixérécourt, inventor of the genre. When Pixérécourt claimed that he wrote for the illiterate, he established the precedent for American artists' own efforts to enlist visual theater in the cause of populism. The links in France between the audience sought for melodrama and the populace committed to revolution have been extensively chronicled by Peter Brooks, among others. The relation was just as firm and perhaps more intuitive in the new American nation, as it met the obligation to free all civic ideals-justice, faith, virtue-from the dogma, tradition, and in many cases the very language of the Old World. In a theater unmarked by the borders maintained by language, where the intricacies of argument and nuances of psychology, such as they are, are telegraphed openly and thus rendered legible to all, spectators enjoy both access and autonomy, spared not only the humbling sense of their dependence on characters telling them what to think but also untroubled by the worry that someone sitting nearby can better understand what is onstage. Indeed, American melodrama at its height grants as much power to the spectator as to the artist, encouraging us to recognize the full generative potential of our sight. At the most basic level, one need only consider the melodramatic actor's vast repertoire of gestures of indication-"it often seems," writes Michael Booth, "as if [a] speaker cannot refer to another person on the stage without pointing at him"-to discover a theater that enlists us as collaborators in the action. The pointing actor suggests that only when we consent to look upon a scene does it come to life.
Dramatists and the theorists who shadow them have of course been trying to fix the proper relation between theater and painting ever since Diderot called for "an arrangement of characters onstage so natural and true that if it were faithfully rendered by a painter it would please on canvas." As Michael Fried reminds us, Diderot evaluated productions of well-known plays by sitting at the back of the theater and covering his ears. The distance enabled him to see the scene whole, its proscenium frame as essential to its effect as anything depicted, while the silence exposed weaknesses in stage composition and imprecision in actors' gestures. In his preference for painterly tableaux over coups de théâtre (and for introspective rather than presentational performance), Diderot implied that vision should be as controlled as the action onstage. The most responsible audience members learn to think of seeing as itself a form of disciplined performing rather than merely a surrender to curiosity and fantasy. One looks with the same logic that informs the work of the rational theater artist.
Early American theater, insofar as it fosters the same ideal of careful attention, offers the same rewards. The theater's visual priorities (and the culture's awareness of its own theatricality) promise legibility and regularity against the sprawling experience, volatile feeling, and uncertain thought outside the theater. Once-submerged emotions surface in the body of an actor as reproducible emblems. Individual behavior and collective history obey simple patterns. Both emblem and pattern seem unassailable because empirically verified.
Excerpted from The American Play: 1787-2000 by MARC ROBINSON Copyright © 2009 by Marc Robinson. Excerpted by permission.
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