Modernism's Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, Solo Performance

Modernism's Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, Solo Performance

Modernism's Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, Solo Performance

Modernism's Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, Solo Performance


The ancient world served as an unconventional source of inspiration for a generation of modernists. Drawing on examples from literature, dance, photography, and film,Modernism's Mythic Poseargues that a strain of antimodern-classicism permeates modernist celebrations of novelty, shock, and technology.

The touchstone of Preston's study is Delsartism--the popular transnational movement which promoted mythic statue--posing, poetic recitation, and other hybrid solo performances for health and spiritual development. Derived from nineteenth-century acting theorist Fran ois Delsarte and largely organized by women, Delsartism shaped modernist performances, genres, and ideas of gender. Even Ezra Pound, a famous promoter of the "new," made ancient figures speak in the "old" genre of the dramatic monologue and performed public recitations. Recovering precedents in nineteenth-century popular entertainments and Delsartism's hybrid performances, this book considers the canonical modernists Pound and T. S. Eliot, lesser-known poets like Charlotte Mew, the Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, Isadora Duncan the international dance star, and H.D. as poet and film actor.

Preston's interdisciplinary engagement with performance, poetics, modern dance, and silent film demonstrates that studies of modernism often overemphasize breaks with the past. Modernism also posed myth in an ambivalent relationship to modernity, a halt in the march of progress that could function as escapism, skeptical critique, or a figure for the death of gods and civilizations.


Recovering the astonishingly influential yet largely forgotten movement called Delsartism for modernist studies, Carrie Preston’s Modernism’s Mythic Pose: Gender, Genre, Solo Performance makes modernism new by attending to the ways in which it was always old. As Preston shrewdly remarks, “Modernism was rarely so ‘new’ as advertised,” and her book reveals modernism’s debt to a set of international movements popular between 1880 and 1920 that were inspired by the French performance theorist François Delsarte (1811–1871). Later considered excessively feminine and nostalgic, particularly from the perspective of futurism and other hypermasculine celebrations of modernity, Delsartism emphasized the body’s capacity for expression as key to spiritual health and to that end promoted practices such as posing and poetic recitation.

Uncovering a lost genealogy of modernism, Modernism’s Mythic Pose links Delsartism to an overlooked tradition of paratheatrical practice—especially the mythic pose but including Romantic and Victorian monodramas—and then connects both to a revisionist account of the dramatic monologue as a genre deeply concerned with the body. What emerges is a new way of thinking about modernism’s relation to the performing body, as well as about relations among modern dance, acting theory, literary recitation, poetry, and film—all of which were influenced by Delsartism.

The book builds toward detailed case studies of H.D. and Isadora Duncan, but in the intervening chapters, we encounter a fascinating array of figures and texts that rarely enter into studies of modernism. There is Delsarte himself, of course, whose meticulous study of the “jointed body” and its expressive capacities refers to the elbow as “the thermometer of the soul”; the scandalous Emma Lyon Hamilton . . .

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