Toward Cultural Awareness through the Performance of Literary Texts

Article excerpt

In 1940, at Princeton University, Edmund Wilson delivered a lecture during which he distinguished himself from the "new critics" of the day. While Eliot and other formalists would concern themselves with information intrinsic to the poetic text, Wilson would attend to the "interpretation of literature in its social, economic and political aspects" (257). According to Wilson, it is possible to discern a great deal about the attitudes, compulsions, and values of a people by analyzing their stories, even if the stories are fictive. A literary text can reveal the life of its human community just as an organic cell "shows the condition of the tissue" (266). In defense of this critical approach, Wilson traces what may be called the sociocultural interpretation of literature to Giambattista Vico, who, in 1725, explained the Iliad and Odyssey as manifestations of Classical Greek temperament and civilization. Indeed, the relations between fictive texts and culture have been a longstanding subject of scholarly inquiry by writers such as Taine and Arnold (Grebstein 161-170). This traditional view of the interanimation of literature and culture informs the ideas of this essay.

While our primary interest is the sociocultural criticism of literature, a secondary point of reference is the ethnographic study of performance. Recent ethnographic research has explored the nexus between the performing arts - rather than written texts - and their corresponding cultures. Ethnographic research studies culture as what Gerry Philipsen caus the "interpretive background" for making sense of performance texts. Dwight Conquergood, for instance, has produced a documentary about Laotian rituals being performed on the South side of Chicago. In his book Between Theatre and Anthropology, Richard Schechner has applied a dramatistic analysis to the Easter ceremonies of Yaqui Indians. Kay Ellen Capo, Kristin Valentine, and Jean Haskell Speer are other performance scholars who practice ethnographic research. We acknowledge the contribution of ethnographic perspectives, particularly for explaining the place of performance in the study of communication; we further contend that the sociocultural and ethnographic approaches to critical understanding are very different, though not incompatible, in function and focus.

This essay contains two sections. The first discusses the historical predecessors and current practitioners of sociocultural and ethnographic criticism. This exposition is meant to be both descriptive and prescriptive in nature. We describe the antecedents and the current state of sociocultural and ethnographic scholarship so as to reveal the shared importance placed upon culturally situated texts; we feel that, on the basis of this similarity, the two approaches may be combined without compromising the integrity of each. The second section describes how an academic program may be a means of integrating sociocultural criticism's emphasis on literary texts and ethnographic criticisms emphasis on performance texts. We discuss how the use of literary texts and nontraditional casting discloses the multiple relations among literature, performance, and culture - thus contributing to the theory and practice of cultural awareness.


Historically, sociocultural critics have believed that literature is an extension of its social milieu. A bridge between sociology, culture, and the literary text is assumed. In History of English Literature, Hippolyte Adolphe Taine proposes a sociocultural approach to the analysis of great literary texts. The study of a text yields a grounded or conditioned understanding of the psychology of a people and the environment that tempered this pervasive cultural mentality. Taine makes this point analogically. According to him, an animal is to its fossil imprint as a poet is to his or her poem; the literary critic's task then becomes akin to that of a marine biologist's reconstruction of the sentient being that left behind its fossil record. …