Academic journal article The Hudson Review

The Wooster Group

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

The Wooster Group

Article excerpt

Any theatregoer who hates the Wooster Group can't be all bad. The Woosters are experts at hiding a play behind a screen of gadgetry: Film! Video! Audio! Dance! Plasma screens, multiple microphones onstage, multiple television monitors! But if all that is too technological for you, throw in traditional theatrical techniques at random from minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque, and Kabuki. Somewhere under the media explosion there is a play-if not a classic (Hamlet) then at least something of historical importance ( The Hairy Ape)-but without a program you could not even tell what play you are supposed to be watching. A solo role muttered mindlessly for over an hour by a white woman in blackface? Why, it's O'Neill's The Emperor Jones, of course.

The Wooster Group was founded fifty years ago as "The Performance Group" by Richard Schechner, a young Assistant Professor in the Theatre Department at Tulane University in New Orleans. After receiving his doctorate there in 1962, he was hired immediately in the professorial ranks of the Theatre Department, teaching graduate seminars almost exclusively. Other faculty members could teach the big survey classes in dramatic literature to undergraduates; Schechner was already above that sort of thing. In addition, he soon took over the editorship of the prestigious journal The Tulane Drama Review, originally founded by the urbane, intellectual Professor Robert Corrigan, after he resigned from Tulane to become a Dean at Carnegie-Mellon. After using up the articles that Corrigan had edited, Schechner shifted the emphasis of the magazine away from traditional drama classics-plays by Sophocles, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Brecht, Shaw, O'Casey, and a special issue on Christopher Marlowe for the playwright's four hundredth birthday, when everybody else was celebrating the anniversary of William Shakespeare, born the same year. Henceforth the focus in Schechner's seminars and in 7D/?was on performance without texts (as in some traditional rituals, as well as in some Western avant-garde theatre) and on performance theory, based on theories of fashionable French crackpots like Artaud, Derrida, and Lévi-Strauss. From these writers Schechner derived several main themes: First, literature had nothing to do with performance; if "texts" somehow found their way into the theatre, they were a contamination of it. Second, "performance" (without "texts") deserved to be studied in its own right. Third, "performance" included just about every type of human activity that might have somebody watching it (except plays, of course); there was even a doctoral dissertation (not at Tulane) endtled The Pelvic Exam as Performance. Finally, study of performance should be wide-ranging, to include not only traditional foreign theatrical forms like Kabuki, but also European and American popular entertainment like the circus or medicine shows. The Ringling Brothers circuses were just as significant as The Royal Shakespeare Company, a burlesque show as important as Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus.

As a corollary, breaking the link between literature and performance meant that when performing masterpieces of Western drama, directors should no longer consider the text to be authoritative. They should feel free to rewrite texts or not use them at all. Critics should not compare performances to the text from which they arose. If Gertrude says, "Good Hamlet, cast thy knighted color off," even though the actor in the role was actually wearing a white shirt and she herself had on a pitch-black gown, the critic was in the wrong for faulting the stupid, contradictory costume designs, not the director or designer for coming up with them. At a conference a few years ago, one of Schechner's admirers gave a long dull paper maintaining that there was no longer any such thing as a "valid" performance of a classic. Afterwards, in the discussion period, I asked if there was any such thing as an "invalid," or even just a plain old bad, performance. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.