The Portable Theater: American Literature and the Nineteenth-Century Stage/Lines of Activity: Performance, Historiography, Hull-House Domesticity/Passing Performances: Queer Readings of Leading Players in American Theater History

By Erdmann, Harley | Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Portable Theater: American Literature and the Nineteenth-Century Stage/Lines of Activity: Performance, Historiography, Hull-House Domesticity/Passing Performances: Queer Readings of Leading Players in American Theater History


Erdmann, Harley, Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film


Ackerman, Alan, Jr. The Portable Theater: American Literature and the Nineteenth-Century Stage. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Jackson, Shannon. Lines of Activity: Performance, Historiography, Hull-House Domesticity. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

Schanke, Robert A. and Kim Marra, eds. Passing Performances: Queer Readings of Leading Players in American Theater History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

Nineteenth century historiography, whether dealing with theatre specifically or cultural and social phenomenon more broadly, continues to confront the challenges of twentieth century history. What I mean is that historians writing on the nineteenth century seem magnetically to gravitate toward attempts at articulating the forms, styles, trends, and achievements of the previous century in relationship to everything that eventually supplanted them - that is, in relationship to modernism. The standard theatre history narrative, as enshrined in influential texts for students and general readers like Brockett and Findlay's Century of Innovation, is shaped by implicitly Darwinist notions of evolution, in which crude forms of dramaturgy (e.g., melodrama) and rote or emotionalistic schools of acting (e.g., DelSartre) get replaced or superceded by more 'artistic' forms of expression, such as realistic playwriting and Stanislavsky-based acting. I'd argue that this vaguely triumphalist presumption of progress towards more enlightened modernist canons of dramaturgy and staging remains one of the most powerful and compelling constructs underlying theatre scholarship today, whether, in wrestling with this question, historians end up either affirming the myth (that is, treating the 19th century with condescension) or reacting against it (nostalgically celebrating the forms of performance washed away in modernism's tide).

Obviously, the last few decades have seen the weakening of this narrative, as modernism itself retreats into history. Performance studies and interdisciplinary forms of scholarship have exploded definitions of'text' and embraced the study of popular culture. Most writers are now articulating a more complicated relationship between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries - one that resists polarities of progress and nostalgia by critically examining the multiple sites where the present remains embedded in the past, as well as places of rupture. Indeed, as modernism fades into postmodernism, and as writers focus on gender, sexual identity, or public and private space, perspectives on the nineteenth century's relationship to modernism are becoming increasingly difficult to categorize. Recent evidence of this trend is provided by these three volumes, examples of scholarship that reflects the vibrant impact of performance studies, gender studies, cultural studies, and feminism on nineteenth-century theatre historiography.

Of the three, Robert A. Schanke and Kim Marra's Passing Performances will probably be of the most direct use to theatre historians since it takes as its specific object of study the professional theatre. The basic approach in this collection of essays is the biographical case study: major figures in the American theatre who can be claimed or constructed as 'queer.' Schanke and Marra invoke Barbara Tuchman's observation that biography is the 'prism of history' (4) as they seek to bring to light closeted behaviors and identities while reflecting on the myriad ways onstage performance, public persona, and private correspondence converge to express or elide sexuality. The fourteen essays are grouped chronologically: we start with Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman and move eventually to Mary Martin and Joseph Cino.

Schanke and Marra acknowledge in their introduction that they stand on potentially controversial ground. Is such a project basically just an historical version of Outing' - and, if so, is this such a bad thing? …

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