Memory's Dramas, Modernity's Ghosts: Thornton Wilder, Japanese Theater, and Paula Vogel's the Long Christmas Ride Home

By Mansbridge, Joanna | Comparative Drama, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview
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Memory's Dramas, Modernity's Ghosts: Thornton Wilder, Japanese Theater, and Paula Vogel's the Long Christmas Ride Home


Mansbridge, Joanna, Comparative Drama


The close relationships between theatre and memory have been recognized in many cultures and in many different fashions.... Central to the Noh drama of Japan, one of the world's oldest and most venerated dramatic traditions, is the image of the play as a story of the past recounted by a ghost, but ghostly storytellers and recalled events are the common coin of theatre everywhere in the world at every period.

--Marvin Carlson, The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine (1)

For an American dramatist, all roads lead back to Thornton Wilder.

--Paula Vogel, Forward, The Skin of Our Teeth (2)

Whether explicitly or obliquely, Paula Vogel's plays often respond to and rewrite works by canonical writers from Shakespeare to David Mamet. In her 2003 play The Long Christmas Ride Home (hereafter LCRH), Vogel revises Thornton Wilder's one-act plays The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden and The Long Christmas Dinner, while incorporating aspects of Japanese No drama and Bunraku puppet theater. Like her 1992 break-out play The Baltimore Waltz, LCRH commemorates Vogel's brother Carl, who died of AIDS in 1987. And like the return of Uncle Peck's ghost at the end of her 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive, LCRH is haunted by ghosts--of Carl, of Thornton Wilder, and of a social history that is both personal and collective. LCRH bears all the Vogel trademarks--sharp juxtapositions, a combination of humor and pathos, the use of circular form, and a focus on a political issue examined through the lens of the American family--but it is also markedly distinct from her previous work. It is a highly conceptual, poetic, and formally complex piece, and in contrast to the embodied historicity and social specificity of her other plays, LCRH invokes notions of time and place that are, at once, more abstracted and more immediate. It marks a shift in her oeuvre away from a central female character and toward a more diffuse ensemble of perspectives, striking notes of solemnity and reverence in contrast to the irreverent humor of her previous plays. In its use of Japanese theater techniques, LCRH also marks Vogel's first experiment with a non-Western theatrical tradition.

Given these differences, I would like to examine LCRH in relation to Elin Diamond's provocative question: "How does one of modernity's key features--its way of inventing/thinking about historical time--get dramatized, and what would 'modernity's drama' as a configuration do to the ways we think about modern drama?" (3) Whether conceived of as linear progression, cyclical repetitions, or postmodern ruptures, modernity's time has been "invented," in various ways, as a method for organizing human experience and making sense of the relationship between past and present. Likewise, modern drama has been "invented" as a body of legitimized, canonical texts and performances that hierarchically organize theater history and construct the value and meaning we associate with certain plays. Modern time and modern drama are neither disinterested nor universal, but rather human constructs bound up with the broader technological, scientific, political, imperial, and ideological developments that characterize the modern era. And since "performance contains an irreducible material historicity," thinking in terms of "modernity's drama" rather than "modern drama" invites a method of interpretation that examines the way theater and its literature register "the new modes of historical thinking that modernity fostered." (4) Diamond's argument dovetails in interesting ways with Marvin Carlson's theory of ghosting, which he defines as the uncanny effect created by theater's "recycling of specific material" which generates "repetition, memory, and ghosting" as effects that "are deeply involved in the nature of the theatrical experience itself" and yet that also manifest "in a very different manner in different periods and cultures." (5)

The plays of both Wilder and Vogel represent time in ways that generate a ghosting effect and that complicate the cause-effect narrative logic and naturalistic characterizations of Western realist drama.

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