Past Performance: American Theatre and the Historical Imagination

Past Performance: American Theatre and the Historical Imagination

Past Performance: American Theatre and the Historical Imagination

Past Performance: American Theatre and the Historical Imagination


In this age of overweening global capital and omnipresent electronic media, many critics have diagnosed Western culture as suffering from a kind of historical obliviousness, a mass inability to situate our lived experience within the temporal flow of past, present, and future that is history. Within this historically bankrupt culture, representations of history in whatever medium - cinema, television, print - most often become mere fashion, the quotation of past styles devoid of historical gravitas. Against this, Past Performance: American Theatre and the Historical Imagination argues that many contemporary American theatre and performance artists are not only developing innovative strategies for staging history, but helping us reimagine our relationship with the past.


Time is le temps, but also l’histoire, and it is le monde, time,
history, world.

Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx

When I saw the title on the front page of the chronicle of Higher Education Review—“Images of the Day Time Stopped” —I knew without opening the cover that the article would have something to do with September 11, 2001. Some four months after the attacks, what hypothetically could have been a reference to any day, of any personal or historical import, was undoubtedly announcing that this would be another rumination on the seemingly inassimilable events that had assaulted us that late summer morning. After all, what other day in decades had perpetrated such a sense of collective anxiety and correspondingly cut such a wide swath through our collective memory? Yet what piqued my interest in this particular essay, Marianne Hirsch’s provocative meditation on photography and mourning, was the title’s implicit promise that it might elucidate an experience common to many on September 11; the sense of time stopping.

Upon reading Hirsch’s essay I discovered that the title was somewhat misleading. According to Hirsch time didn’t stop on September 11; in fact, quite the opposite. Part of the intrinsic horror of witnessing the catastrophic events, she argues, was precisely our sense that they were unstoppable as they relentlessly unfolded through time. To use her word, the temporality of these events was “unforgiving.” Yet if time was unremitting on September 11, countless single moments of time were captured photographically, creating an associative means of conveying, or perhaps better, recovering our temporal experience of that day. For Hirsch, a photograph can “interrupt time,” can arrest in an image a sense of the momentous loss and trauma en-

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