This is an account of one lesson plan’s pivot from slide presentation to real time research.

I wanted to make a slide show of production stills from the 1922 production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape. I imagined the students being brought into the creative decisions made by the Provincetown Players as we looked at the New York Public Library’s digital collection of slides together. We would analyze set design and lighting choices, as well as the gesture and physicality of the actors. It would be a great way to show students what the NYPL’s massive digitization project has made available.

Louis Wolheim as Robert Smith, “Yank.” Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL.

Then I stopped myself. If I showed students the production stills in an assembled slide show, it would continue to obscure the process of using digital tools to find archival materials. Wouldn’t it be better if students located the images themselves?

They already had their laptops in class since we read the freely available script from We spent a good portion of class discussing the episodic structure, the specificity of O’Neill’s stage directions, his use of language to mark ethnicity and class, and the staging of white working-class masculinity in contrast to Mildred’s white-dress wealth.

Then we discussed production options and the dilemma of the gorilla. How would they stage Scene VIII at the zoo? Is the gorilla meant to be a mirror or a contrast to Yank? Therefore, should the two figures be close in size or quite different? What are the aesthetic and political risks in staging the gorilla? Students identified a variety of problems with using a gorilla suit, including it becoming humorous and disrupting the pathos of Yank’s existential alienation. “Too literal / realistic” was another problem.

Finally, I asked students to get in pairs and google “NYPL Digital Collections.” They quickly chose the most obvious search phrase, the title of the play, and were amazed to see 21 actual production stills, like precious messages from the Provincetown Players from 94 years ago. In pairs, students clicked through the images, selected their favorite, and then did a low-stakes  freewrite about the image: what they saw, what they liked about it, and what it told them about the original production. We then discussed several teams’ responses while looking at their chosen image projected on the screen at the front of the classroom.

Louis Wolheim as Yank. Billy Rose Theatre Division, NYPL.

This exercise brought the material to life, energized the classroom with visual culture and production discussions, and fostered community building among students who collaborated to analyze the production stills. Crucial to my learning goals, it introduced the process of digital research to students in a low-stakes atmosphere.

This post was originally published on


As a means of encouraging those interested in Arthur Miller studies, the Arthur Miller Society decided to provide a database of all the dissertations that have been written on Miller’s work since the very first in 1949 through to the current day (mostly taken from WorldCat, with some additions from other bibliographic sources). The plan is to update this each year to keep it current. This includes BA Honors, MA and PhD. both in English and other languages. Browsing through the list offers an excellent sense of what has been well-covered, suggests interesting directions only minimally considered that might be worth further pursuit, and provides a useful springboard to new ideas informed by what has already been tried or accomplished. As you will see, these dissertations cover a lot more territory than existing print critical publications on Miller.  This database can be found on the society website:

Our hope is to generate more conference papers and publications on the playwright to ensure that this seminal American playwright is fully considered in terms of what he offered the public through his varied writings, which go far beyond just Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, great though those two works might be. Aside from more than two-dozen other plays, many of them excellent and covering a diversity of styles, he published a fair amount of fiction and non-fiction, too. The society has its own journal, published through Penn State–Arthur Miller Journal—that publishes critical essays, notes, book and production reviews and welcomes submissions from scholars at all levels (including undergraduates if worthwhile), and submits panels to a variety of conferences on a regular basis. Details about the Journal, CFP, other Miller events, teaching guides, links, as well as a wealth of other Miller related material is all available for free on the Miller Society website, which is regularly updated and maintained. We also recently set up a Miller Society Facebook page to be able to get out the word about calls for papers, upcoming productions and recent Miller related publications at:


Religion and theater, religious studies and performance studies–these practices and fields share multiple, sometimes contentious, points of connection. From a content perspective, at least within theater studies, research on the relationship between religion and theater has often focused either on the possibility that plays evolved from liturgical practices or on the phenomenon of antitheatrical sentiment. Methodologically, performance studies inherits to an important degree its impetus to study off-stage role-playing, seeing, and self-representation from the interest in ritual that animated the collaborations between Victor Turner and Richard Schechner. Yet, despite the importance of religion as player in theater history and ritual theory as a resource within performance studies, scholarship on religious performance has occupied a relatively marginal position in the field. As Lance Gharavi argues in his excellent introduction to Religion, Theatre, and Performance: Acts of Faith (2012), the lack of readings and courses related to religion in the standard curriculum offered by graduate programs in theater and performance studies attests to this marginal status (5). The last decade, however, and especially the years between 2012-2014, have witnessed an exciting renewal of scholarly attention to the intersections between religion and performance, with edited collections by Gharavi and by Claire Maria Chambers, Simon W. du Toit, Joshua Edelman (2012), an Ecumenica special issue on “Critical Terms in Religion, Spirituality, and Performance” (2014), and monographs by Edmund Lingan (2014), John Fletcher, (2013) and Jill Stevenson (2013).

The current issue of Performance Matters builds on this momentum by gathering articles, essays, creative works, and field notes on the theme “Performing Religion.” Its contributors to the Articles section offer a medieval theory of religious emotion, a history of the immersive game “Romans and Christians” in Protestant youth camps, an analysis of the liturgical practices of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, and a study of Ignatius of Loyola’s influence on early modern French hagiographic drama. The Forum Section gathers reflection pieces on religion and theater as “folk categories,” on Trump’s evangelicals, on Jonathan Goodluck’s piety, and on the recuperation of religion in art history. Finally, the Materials Section features a video and script of Angela Latham’s original autoethnographic play Jesus Camp Queen, along with an artist reflection and reviews, followed by excerpts from Richard Schechner’s field notes on the Ramlila of Ramnagar.

We invite you to take a look!

Performance Matters
Vol 3, No 1 (2017): Special Issue: Performing Religion
Table of Contents

Editorial Notes
Introduction: Performing Religion (1-6)
Joy Palacios

Sacred Feeling: A Dramaturgy of Religious Emotion (7-18)
Donnalee Dox and Amber Dunai

Romans and Christians: Bearing Witness and Performing Persecution in Bible Camp Simulations (19-38)
Scott Magelssen and Ariaga Mucek

“I Name Myself in Power”: The Roman Catholic Womenpriests and the Performance of Relational Authority (39-61)
Claire Maria Chambers

Awakening Imagination: Glimpses of Ignatian Spirituality in Seventeeth-Century French Hagiographic Theatre (62-87)
Ana Fonseca Conboy

Blaspheming Against Ourselves: Folk Categories in Religion and Theatre (88-93)
Lance Gharavi

Deep Stories of the Demonized: Empathy and Trump Evangelicals (94-102)
John Fletcher

Goodluck the Performer (103-111)
Ebenezer Obadare

Recuperating Religion in Art History:  Contemporary Art History, Performance, and Christian Jankowski’s The Holy Artwork (112-115)
Karen Gonzalez Rice

Jesus Camp Queen (116-131)
Angela J Latham

Fundamental Femininity in Performance: An Artist’s Reflection on “Jesus Camp Queen” (132-137)
Angela J Latham

Performing Fugue: Desire, Denial, and Death in Jesus Camp Queen (138-142)
Patrick Santoro

Jesus Camp Queen and the Performance of (Fundamentalist Christian) Gender (143-146)
Julie Ingersoll

Encountering the Ramlila of Ramnagar: From Fieldnotes in 1978 and 2013 (147-156)
Richard Schechner



Dear colleagues:

The current issue of Theatre/Practice is now live! It features the following:

and a special section of graphic notes:

Take a look and please consider submitting your work for the 2018 issue!




In summer and fall 2016, ASTR’s sub-committee on conference accessibility drafted a best practices document. The best practices document passed through the committee on conferences, and was distributed to plenary panel respondents, working group conveners, and conference attendees. It can be found here:

The committee’s work was informed by a number of resources, in particular those available through The Society for Disability Studies at the University of Buffalo and The DO-IT (Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology) Program at the University of Washington.

As the sub-committee drafted the best practices document, we noted and/or reflected on key aspects of the process:

  • How can conferences—conceptualized broadly to include planners, long time and new organization members, all attendees, and all support/organizational teams—incorporate accessibility, especially “accessibility” conceptualized nimbly and robustly?
  • How is a best practices document a starting point for systemic, supported, long-term commitments to accessibility? What are the immediate goals, the aspirations, and the cultural shifts to foster?
  • How do venue logistics– in cities, hotels, and performance spaces—support accessibility? How can such considerations be prioritized within the exigencies of conference planning?

In the best practices document, the sub-committee addresses different physical abilities, pronoun usage, as well as multiple formats for discussion and presentation in both working sessions and plenary presentations. We also, following the Society for Disability Studies (SDS), invite ASTR to “think about issues of privilege and injustice and to reflect on the inclusions and exclusions” in preparing presentations and organizing conference sessions.[1]

The best practices document is intended to be responsive to more input, from ASTR members and through inter-organizational collaboration. ATHE, for example, has a robust membership contingent working explicitly with differing abilities and accessibility.

Simultaneously, the sub-committee on conference accessibility asks, how might we, as an organization, use our conference to challenge the boundaries of inclusivity. How can we, as a conference and an organization, invite increasingly astute conversation and responsive actions?

For example, what are our needs and desires, as individuals and as an organization? How might the ASTR website be consistently utilized as a repository through which conference attendees might access materials in advance of the conference? What are the considerations around recording plenary sessions and making them available to attendees who may need or wish to revisit material? What are our goals for or aspirations towards sign language interpretation? Simultaneous translation?

Where, and in what formats, can we continue these conversations and this work?

[1] “Accessible presentations.”


My first reference to Hamilton in the classroom occurred in Fall 2015. I had recently seen the CBS Sunday Morning piece on the musical and viewed it as an opportunity to discuss casting in my Introduction to Theatre course.[1] Since then, I have incorporated Hamilton into the classroom to varying degrees and in various ways to engage students in a variety of topics.[2] I offer here a description of ways I have integrated Hamilton into my curriculum, and reflect on the effectiveness of such incorporation.

For context, I think it important to share a bit about the campus community at California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly), and the theatre studies courses I teach there, including Introduction to Theatre, Theatre History, and Honors Program Seminars. Majors and non-majors comprise all of my classes, with non-majors usually filling 75-80% of the seats. Typically, I have around fifty students in both my Intro and Theatre History courses, as they each fulfill a general education requirement on campus. One of the challenges I face, then, is teaching to multiple levels of engagement, interest, and experience. It’s not uncommon for me to teach an upper-level subtopics course to juniors and seniors, some of whom are majors and many of whom have never read a play. Furthermore, Cal Poly’s student population is overwhelmingly white: 56% of the students identify as white, with Hispanic/Latinx students making up the second largest population at 16%. African-American, Native American, and Pacific Islander students each make up less than 1% of the student population. Ergo, the lessons about storytelling and representation that Hamilton can provide and the discussions it can initiate are both valuable and crucial.[3]

One reason I have found Hamilton effective is because both my majors and non-majors quickly engage with the show. While few students have actually seen it, most are at least nominally familiar with the musical at this point. Generally, once I introduce Hamilton  to students (often with the CBS Sunday Morning piece), they are hooked. This interest has afforded me opportunities to use the show to explain various performance topics, create group assignments based on the production, and even build an entire seminar around it.

In terms of using Hamilton to explore particular topics, I have found it most effective in discussing casting and historiography. In Intro, I show interviews and clips from Hamilton in order to introduce discussion of different views on and approaches to casting, including “blind” casting, cross-casting, color-conscious casting, and coalitional casting. I also have students read various responses to the casting choices in Hamilton, including reactions to the controversy that emerged last spring when a casting notice for the touring company called for non-white actors.[4] Using Hamilton in these discussions opens up considerations of a multitude of issues surrounding casting including representation, opportunity, authorial intent, and storytelling. Through small group discussion (which typically leads to a conversation by the entire class), students wrestle with approaches and reactions to casting, and begin to realize the complexities involved. I have found that Hamilton raises awareness of not only the complexities, but also the stakes involved in casting. I often share a quote from Okieriete Onaadowan, who played Hercules Mulligan/James Madison:  He doesn’t want to do “another show about a messed up black kid,” and instead, in Hamilton, is “a black man playing a wise, smart, distinguished future president.”[5]

With regard to historiography, I have found that Hamilton helps students understand (at least basically) looking at the past through a historiographic lens. Notably, the songs “History Has Its Eyes on You,” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?,” in addition to the repeated motif of legacy in the show, encourage students to think about the construction and dissemination of (hi)stories. Ron Chernow, who wrote the biography upon which the musical is based, has noted the “historiographical rigor” of the show.[6] After completing a project on Hamilton for Theatre History II last spring, one student explained during her presentation that she had a discovery about historiography while working on the assignment.[7] She explained that she is from the American South and that she did not recollect discussing Alexander Hamilton in history classes during her upbringing. She claimed that she asked her mother, who is a teacher and owns several textbooks from the student’s youth to search for Hamilton in the textbooks, only for the search to come up empty. The student suggested that Hamilton’s absence from her textbooks may be related to the unfavorable view of Hamilton in the South. She then told her fellow students that it’s important to pay attention to how a historian’s own embedded biases and background may inform the historical narratives she/he creates.[8]

During the aforementioned Theatre History II course, I developed a group project in which a group of six students analyzed Hamilton.[9] I listed the following as expectations for the students:

  • Listen to the Hamilton
  • Read the libretto/book included with the soundtrack.
  • Conduct individual and group research on the musical.
  • Analyze 3 songs within the production.
  • Respond to discourse surrounding the musical.
  • Present findings/discoveries/thoughts to class.

I provided a set of questions and prompts to help guide their research and analysis. In addition to background information on the show and its creation, the assignment required students to find images, video clips, and sound clips from the show. Students analyzed a total of three songs from the show; they had to include “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who tells Your Story?” as one of their songs. The students also responded to four articles about the show, two of which were positive reactions and two of which included critique of the musical. Finally, I asked students to reflect upon notions of historicization and how the musical uses the past to comment on our world today.   I explained to the group that it was important that the students meet as a group and discuss their research and analysis (rather than exchanging ideas solely through a Google Doc). To conclude the project, the group presented their research and discoveries with the class.

Though group presentations can consume a lot of precious class time, I found that the value of this group’s presentation was worth it. The students’ enthusiasm for the topic and the “a-ha moments” they experienced while completing the assignment was palpable. One group member shared that he had bought Chernow’s biography and was already halfway through reading it, even though he was not required to do so. Not only did the group’s classmates ask follow-up questions, but many also inquired about the show at my office hours after the presentation. Several group members later recommended that I continue to assign the project to the entire class, rather than just one group.

The level of engagement demonstrated by the students in Theatre History II inspired me to create opportunities for deeper exploration into Hamilton for students. The possibility for a more in-depth engagement arose this past fall when I taught an Honors Seminar. The class met weekly for 50-minutes, and was developed as a supplement to Intro to Theatre. Fourteen students comprised the seminar, with twelve also enrolled in my section of Intro that quarter, and two enrolled in another instructor’s section of the course. The purpose of the seminar was to provide deeper exploration into the concepts taught in Intro to Theatre. The format of the weekly meetings was primarily discussion-based. Though I was unsure of the sustainability of Hamilton as the sole case study for the seminar, I proceeded to shape the 10-week course around the musical.

For required texts, I assigned the musical soundtrack, as well as the book, Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. I hesitated to require the book, but found it to be a valuable supplement to not only the seminar, but to the textbook I had assigned in my Intro class.[10] Relatively inexpensive at $35, Hamilton: The Revolution chronicles the development of the musical from inception to opening night on Broadway. McCarter relies heavily on interviews with those involved in the show’s creation and fills the text’s pages with behind-the-scenes photographs, costume and set renderings, scanned pages from Miranda’s notebooks, and production images. The book also features the lyrics to each song, with footnotes by Miranda revealing inspirations, anecdotes, and other informative commentary on the show’s libretto.

In preparation for each week’s meeting, students read several chapters from the book and contributed to an online discussion board by identifying a “Quotable Lyric.” This quotable lyric need not be the students’ “favorite” lyric, rather one that particularly struck them. Students also explained why they chose that lyric. During the first few weeks, the online board served as a repository for favorite lyrics, but later became a trove of connections that students made between the seminar and the concurrent Intro class, as well as between Miranda’s oft-poignant wordplay and the issues emerging in the political landscape that dominated the months leading up to the election.

Initially, rather than assigning the book chapters in chronological order, I tried to lay out the assigned readings in such a way to reflect what we were covering in Intro that week. For instance, I asked students to jump to Chapter XIV, “On Paul Tazewell and the Fashion of the Revolution” the same week we covered costume design in Intro to Theatre. A couple weeks in, however, I shifted the reading schedule so that the students read the book in chronological order. Because the book tracks the creation of the musical through its run at The Public to the Broadway premiere, I felt it was more important for students to trace the stages of development many shows undergo. Luckily, the students were able to recall the concepts we discussed in Intro weeks later in the seminar. In many ways, I believe that encountering the concepts at different intervals during the quarter helped to reinforce the ideas for the students. For instance, when we finally read Chapter XIV, students applied considerations of material, line, and metaphor they had encountered earlier in the quarter in Intro to Theatre.

Most of my students remarked in their student evaluations that they enjoyed reading Hamilton: The Revolution and appreciated that it lined up well with the material covered in Intro. An accessible read, the book offers valuable insights to the show and theatre. It initiated conversations on wide-ranging performance topics such as copyrights, understudies, finances, choreography, space, and sound mixing and design. Students also pointed out that the book, through Miranda’s input, provided studies in music history and genre. This led to a scavenger hunt assignment, through which students looked up the musical theatre, rap, and hip-hop influences Miranda cites in his footnotes.[11] The scavenger hunt also sent students on a search for examples of Alexander Hamilton’s writing. I designed this assignment to set the groundwork for their next project; a group presentation to my section of Intro to Theatre.

The Honors Seminar group presented some of their reflections and discoveries to the Intro class during the musical theatre unit. To do so, they divided into groups of 3-4 and each group covered a particular facet of Hamilton. I left it up to the students to decide what topics to include (this provided a great opportunity for students to practice the type of selection process that we as teachers, historians, scholars, and artists continually face). They decided to focus on background, choreography, musical references, design, casting, and historiography.[12] As was the case in Theatre History II, the group’s investment in the delivery of their work piqued their classmates’ interest.

Concerned that the seminar students had become a bit too effusive in their obsession with Hamilton, at the end of the quarter I assigned them two readings that offer some critique of Hamilton: James McMaster’s “Why Hamilton is Not the Revolution You Think It Is” and Stacey Wolf’s response to the show on The Feminist Spectator.[13] Both of these responses allowed the class to take a step back and discuss the merit in McMaster’s and Wolf’s points, as well as the importance in being able to critically reflect upon even the things we love, rather than blindly adoring them.

From verbal feedback and quantitative evaluation data I have received from seminar students, it seems using Hamilton as the sole case study for the course worked well. Other honors students have inquired as to when I will be teaching the “Hamilton class” again. I am not sure what future curricular “revolutions” Hamilton will inspire in my classrooms. In my experience, however, Hamilton provides a theatrical example that is exciting, entertaining, and engaging to students, both majors and non-majors.

Click here for Deconstructing Hamilton Guidelines and Hamilton Scavenger Hunt prompt.

[1] Since fall 2015, I have shown the CBS Sunday Morning report in several classes. I have found that it is a great introduction to the musical for students who are not familiar with the show. (

[2] Obviously, I do not shape and wield words with the same talent that Lin-Manuel Miranda possesses, but one of the elements that students enjoy discussing is the wordplay used by Miranda. My play with variation/various/variety here is a nod to Miranda’s exploration of words and language in Hamilton. I have found that students (especially English majors) enjoy analyzing this aspect of the show, and often, in their responses, began to experiment with their own use of language.

[3] This is not to suggest that these discussions are any less valuable and crucial at institutions with more diversity.

[4] Here are a few of many responses (I find these especially useful):;;

[5] Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter, Hamilton: The Revolution (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016) 149.

[6] Miranda and McCarter 125.

[7] I will explain the nature of the project later in this piece.

[8] Admittedly, this was a bittersweet moment for me; sweet because I was excited this student was able to articulate this to her peers and bitter because Hamilton was able initiate the comprehension I had been trying to achieve all quarter.

[9] Please see Assignment Guidelines for more details.

[10] I currently assign Mira Felner’s Think Theatre in my Introduction to Theatre classes.

[11] Please see Scavenger Hunt. The newly-release Hamilton Mixtape can provide further investigation of Miranda’s musical influences and ideas not found in the show, including “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done),” recorded by immigrants and children of immigrants. Miranda also includes “Cabinet Battle #3” on Mixtape, an example of a track that was cut during the process of shaping the show. In the book, Miranda expresses his difficulty in letting go of this battle about slavery, which provides a valuable lesson to students about the editing process and selecting the components that make it to the final (hi)story.

[12] I promise I did not insist on that last topic. (Though I was glad they chose to include it.)





CTR 168 (Fall 2016) Theatre Criticism is now available at CTR Online and Project MUSE

It has been 27 years since CTR devoted an issue to the subject of critical practice in Canada. In the meantime, the field of theatre criticism has undergone considerable transformation, in large part due to the global erosion of print media and the unbridled growth of the Internet. This shift has had many consequences, from shrinking space devoted to arts coverage in mainstream media outlets, to the proliferation and diversification of critical voices online, to a widespread questioning of the role and relevance of expertise in critical discourse. CTR 168 Theatre Criticism, edited by Karen Fricker and Michelle MacArthur, takes stock of Canadian theatre criticism and charts the relationship of theatre studies to theatre criticism at this vital juncture.

Assembling an exciting array of voices from across the country, CTR 168 instigates lively and urgent debate on the uncertain future of theatre criticism. Artists speak back to their critics and outline their critical utopias, educators reflect on the importance and practice of teaching theatre criticism, and several contributors explore how innovative modes of criticism—from blogging, to anti-racist praxis, to interactive film screenings—might challenge the authority of traditional pundits and tastemakers and disperse their power to the masses.

In I Really, Really Mean Something: Ten Micro-Plays about Theatre, the featured script specially commissioned for this issue, Rosamund Small offers some criticisms of the Canadian theatre industry while exposing the different forms criticism can take. Small’s satirical and incisive script reflects a broader shift in the relationship between art and criticism, the boundaries of which are being increasingly blurred by a new generation using online platforms to create conversation and collaboration among different stakeholders—practitioners, reviewers, scholars, audiences, and those who straddle multiple categories.

The online slideshow illustrates this shift as well. Featuring excerpts from theFacebook Relay Interview, a project initiated by artist Erin Brubacher that connected 344 participants to discuss issues of equity and diversity in Canadian theatre, the CTR 168 slideshow demonstrates how social media can be used to generate dialogue, build community, and challenge traditional hierarchies structuring critical discourse.

Click here to view the full table of contents.



Dear colleagues,

We are pleased to share with you our newest publication, In Terms of Performance, produced by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and the Arts Research Center, University of California, Berkeley.

In Terms of Performance provokes dialogue, debate, and discovery in a free, web-based keywords anthology, designed to generate shared literacies across artistic disciplines. More than 50 prominent artists, curators, presenters, and scholars—including Janine AntoniJudith Butler, Simon DoveRoseLee Goldberg, Kathy Halbreich, Jens Hoffmann, Ishmael Houston-Jones,Young Jean Lee, Ralph Lemon, and William Kentridge—offer their distinct perspectives in essays and interviews that reflect on common yet contested terms, the poetry of miscommunication, and the stakes of literacy in our current context of hybrid cultural production.

An introductory editors’ conversation describes the genesis of the project and our aim to cultivate dialogue and repeated exploration across disciplinary boundaries.

We invite you to explore this free online resource The site offers a richly cross-listed and unstructured browsing experience—and will comission new entries to be added in the future. It also allows you to create your own PDF publication, customized to your interests.

We hope you’ll share the publication with your colleagues, and share your thoughts with us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter using#InTermsOfPerformance. We look forward to your feedback.

Paula Marincola, Executive Director, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage
Shannon Jackson, Director, Arts Research Center


A network of US-based theatre translators that has been developing over several years recently established itself online. is the website for TinT, the Theatre in Translation Network, which “brings together drama translators and others – directors, dramaturgs, producers, agents – committed to the promotion of plays in translation.” And TinT is one of a number of similar groups fostering interest in theatre from a trans-national perspective, and exploring various ways to collaborate.

To read more about the history and development of TinT, read the full article posted on The Theatre Times.


We learn of a warp in time-space, one that actually occurred here on Earth, from Gertrude Stein who, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932), reflects on the portrait of her painted by Pablo Picasso. It was some time around 1905-1906, Picasso was between periods and thus experimenting with different visions. He had never done a portrait, a fact that might explain why he required ninety sittings from Stein in order to complete it. So much work went into it, so much thought. Upon its unveiling, however, commentators pointed out that the portrait lacked the one element so crucial to the genre. It didn’t look like her. Or, rather, Stein didn’t look like it. Either way, Stein’s representation in oil didn’t represented Stein in the flesh didn’t represent Stein in oil. To this, Picasso famously replied, “She will,” meaning that at some point in the future, Stein would live up to the representation. And sure enough, as time passed, Stein seemingly lived into her artistic representation, growing in appearance more and more like her painting, thereby revealing Picasso’s ability to chart matter’s unfolding through time and space as well as how an art object can act as a foreshock to the future.[1]

As a theatre and performance scholar struggling to make sense of the recent turbulence of the election, I have been asking myself: Is there an analogue in theatre history to this event of painting, one that prefigures our recent election cycle and outcome and acts similarly as a foreshock to the future in which we now dwell? Simon Critchley’s recent post in The Stone about the renewed importance of Existentialist nausea goads my thought, too, though I would like to emphasize here not a philosophical paradigm as such but rather a theatrical-philosophical one.

The foreshock that first comes to mind is The Chairs (1952) by Eugène Ionesco. In this play, now a canonical title belonging to what Martin Esslin named Theatre of the Absurd, we find two characters of greatly advanced age struggling, in essence, to make their lives great again. Dialogue, if we can call it that, drenched in memories, perhaps misremembered recollections, oscillates from semi-sensical to nonsensical and back again, slowly rendering a fuzzy image of the two characters’ present situation. The Old Man, we discover, has something of major import to tell us. He has worked his whole life to express this majorly important insight about the world in which he lives, but he does not have the language to do it. To get the message across, the Old Man has enlisted the help of an Orator who, the Old Man assures us, will convey the full thrust of The Message.

In anticipation and celebration of the Orator’s address, the old couple throws a party. As the play progresses, Ionesco gradually ratchets-up an odd feeling of dis-ease and eventually reveals to the play’s audience that each party guest, while bearing a name and a clear social function, is invisible. One by one, the old couple welcomes these invisible people into their living space. A separate chair marks each guest. It is unclear whether they, the characters, can see these invisible entities or whether they are engaged in some kind of willing suspension of disbelief themselves, a kind of selective dementia. Regardless of the true ontic status of these invisible characters, the frenzy of anticipation grows until the play almost combusts in a conflagration of fragmented speech and hurried movement. The stage, once empty, fills with chairs. The Old Man and Old Woman are moving so quickly that we have either to doubt their age—listed as 95 and 94 in the text—or accept that the vitality of the moment has enthused them.

The Orator finally arrives, and after a suitably grand introduction delivers The Message. But, once again, Ionesco constructs the logic of this moment with his signature strangeness. The Orator speaks in discernable sounds, but not in familiar speech. We learn in the text that he is a “deaf mute,” and thus his message, the oh-so important message hyped throughout the play, is incommunicable and unintelligible. Even when the Orator determines to write The Message on a blackboard, thereby overcoming the problem of the spoken word, the audience, both on and off stage, receives the following: ANGELFOOD […] NNAA NNM NWNWNW V. And so The Message does not land, it cannot land since it seems to have no content. Yet, with renewed vigor, the Orator erases the board and seems to conceive of a remedy: ∧ADIEU ∧DIEU ∧P∧. There’s The Message all worked out. Can’t you see it?

Can we not imagine Trump, Clinton, or Sanders as the contemporary embodiment of the Orator? Enlisted to put into words the message of many disgruntled and uncomfortable citizens of the United States, the message we eventually receive from them is in fact a string of sounds and symbols that have no real import beyond the readymade intelligibility that each sound and symbol may carry for acolytes and those initiated in each politician’s way. As with the Orator’s message, we might ask whether the messages of these politicians lack sense intrinsically or whether some of us lack the reservoir of knowledge to understand the all-important utterance? That Trump won means only that there were more members of the Electoral College who seemed to understand his ∧ADIEU ∧DIEU ∧P∧.

In The Chairs, once the confusion of the message begins to register with the audience—Like, oh, this is it? This is what we’ve been waiting for?—we in the house seats start to re-appraise the character of the Orator. Is he a normal character? Is not something a little bit off about him? Is he indeed a deaf mute (as the text suggests), or is he playing one, perhaps even mocking one? Have we perhaps, because of his title of Orator, overlooked something beneath his appearance? The fact of the matter is that we do not have, nor will we ever receive, answers to these questions. Ionesco, in his stage directions, tells us that the Orator seems displeased with the way his message has landed, but the audio track that slowly rises onstage—“bursts of laughter, murmurs, shh’s, ironical coughs”—suggests that some of the invisible people have understood something. Maybe the Orator’s appearance of displeasure is something else altogether, a kind of body language decipherable only to those who speak his language. After all, before he exits the stage he “bows ceremoniously,” as if he has done what he was summoned to do. When the play ends, a lot has just happened, but what precisely are we to make of any of it?

Back to the present day similarities: The Old Couple foreshadows the electorate. Old and young at the same time, they are equipped with vivid memories but also ample disillusionment, i.e., memories of a past that never existed, able to recognize the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, but simply unable to speak it for themselves. Due to this inability, they require a spokesperson, a surrogate, a representative to drive the message home in precisely the right terms, i.e., terms that make sense to them.

Even the scenography of the piece, which Ionesco draws out in great detail on the first few pages of the script, eerily resembles the floor of a Parliament or legislature: a semi-circular configuration of chairs facing a raised dais with a discernible left side and right side. Are the characters of the play gathered in a political arena that has been evacuated of its use and now functions as a party venue?

While not a completely verisimilar replica of the current political situation, The Chairs nonetheless predicts the confusion, the miscommunication, the enthusiasm paired with despair, and the general out-of-tune-ness of the state in which many now find themselves. A message has been delivered, but can anybody say what precisely that message is. ∧ADIEU ∧DIEU ∧P∧, indeed.

Looking back to the precursors of Ionesco’s brand of theatre, I find another intriguing foreshock: Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). Midway through that play’s action, which itself consists of a rehearsal of a play preparing for its grand opening, the doors in the back of the auditorium open. Through the very same doors through which the audience will have entered comes an ensemble of characters that, so we are told, are searching for their author. At this moment, “real-life” audience and “fictional” stage actors are united in an uncanny experience that hinges on a seemingly impossible reversal of cause and effect: before an author has created them, a cast of characters wanders the earth. Struggling with this twist of temporality, the six characters plead with the actors to put their story into action.

All of this happens within the framework of a play-within-a-play, what Lionel Abel eventually terms metatheatre. The result of this upon the “real” audience watching the play was profound in its day. Audience members shouted in disbelief: Manicomio! (Madhouse!) Incommensurabile! (Incommensurable!).[2] The uncommon event transpiring within the theatre eventually ends tragically, due in part to an inability between the actors and the six characters to determine the precise mode of realism needed to bring the characters to life, in part to the fact that causality has been broken, and in part to the actors’ inability to properly author the ciphers who appeared before them. The characters are indeed ciphers, placeholders with relatively common dimensions—denoted by names such as “Father” and “Daughter”—waiting to be filled out, but the filling out does not transpire properly and thus tragedy befalls the lot of them. Many of the six characters “die” at the end, but the Director of the “real” show is unsure whether it matters. After all, they weren’t real people were they?

In this foreshock, our recent presidential hopefuls corresponded to Pirandello’s characters. We, the electorate, are going about the dramas of our daily lives when there appears a group of characters claiming to need our support in order to bring their visions to fruition. Clinton is the archetypal matriarch, Trump the dominating and witheringly masculine patriarch, Sanders the son (who, in Pirandello’s play hates the family because they have ostracized him). We, the electorate, are told that without us the power of these characters cannot come into being. We are needed to author the promise of each character. Without us, these characters are empty placeholders, Zeroes, but when we do our best to play our parts we find that the joke is on (half of) us. We act through our vote only to discover that the majority of the voting population hasn’t accomplished anything real at all. The votes counted and didn’t count in the end. Were they fictional votes? Does it really matter?

The point I’d like to make here with these strange resonances between absurdist plays and our recent election cycle is this: history is not repeating itself as either tragedy or farce; it is, rather, fulfilling its identity as the theatre of the absurd. Therefore, the present reality is not absurd in its own right, but is instead theatre of the absurd. We are experiencing another stage in the evolution of the Theatre of the World. Maybe this is the most important aspect of Absurdism that scholars like Esslin have overlooked; namely, that, despite its clear relationship to the climate of the times (post-WWII), the theatre of Ionesco and his contemporaries actually conjured a vision of a future, a future that has revealed itself to be the present in which we live. We have, in other words, finally grown into the misery of the world portended by the Absurdists over half-a-century ago.

Faced with this possibility, what we need today is a team of theatre and performance scholars to investigate this current theatre in which we all find ourselves. To do this, the team could break down the theatre into its constituent parts. For example: language. Is it too much of an exaggeration to say that an orangutan testing the depths of a pool blocking its path is more adept with its tool than any of the presidential contenders were with the tool of language?[3] Transcripts from stump speeches prove clearly that not only did language fail to communicate specific messages to the gathered audiences but also that language consistently failed to rise to the level of meaning at all.

Of course, Trump’s are the most amenable to my argument, as this excerpt from a rally in South Carolina on July 21, 2015, proves:

Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are […][4]

Where Clinton’s language is concerned, the problem is not outright grammar-less nonsense but, rather, vagueness and empty talk. In her speech for the acceptance of the Democratic Party’s nomination, for example, we heard, “Now we are clear-eyed about what our country is up against. But we are not afraid. We will rise to the challenge, just as we always have.” And then we heard about building a road to citizenship (how?), fixing inequality and social mobility (in what way?), creating better jobs (in what fields?), that climate change is real (…duh?), and other broad-sweeping claims that people in the room with her already believed. What, though, was the main message of her campaign? There wasn’t one. There wasn’t one, and so her speeches could at best aim not to set an agenda but, rather, to accomplish everything that liberals want and to do it all well. This vagueness and lack of message may in fact explain why Clinton polled at 47% for nearly the entirety of her campaign. No message = no change in polls because there’s no new information into which swing voters might tune. (I’d need another 4000 words to discuss the language and logic of polls.)

As was the case in the plays of Ionesco, language did not function in the campaign as a tool to convey meaning but, rather, as a tool to produce not-fully-understood affective responses. With the dog-whistle politics of Trump and the vapid sloganeering of Clinton’s talk, the electorate was left with sound and fury, nothing more. The candidates stripped language down to basic sounds with indeterminate meaning and a hint of recognizable vitriol. In terms of reception, the negatively polarized electorate heard only what it already believed to be true. Like high school fans catching the Fab 4 in concert during the height of Beatlemania, whose screaming drowned out the sound and lyrics of the musicians, the role of the polarized electorate was never to listen to speeches and be convinced of something new. No, the role allowed individuals to cheer and believe that their candidate was saying what they believe he/she has said in the past and what they already fervently believed in before the election cycle even started. Such a breakdown in language’s traditional function as meaning-maker, communication facilitator, or, God forbid, medium of reason, means that we have no hope of applying Aristotle’s tried and true ethos, pathos, logos analytical scheme to the campaign rhetoric. Trump: all pathos (fear), no ethos, no logos. Clinton: all logos (neoliberal), no pathos, no ethos. When we look back on all the transcripts and search for meaning in the words, do we really find anything more “meaningful” than the words uttered by the Old Man and Old Woman in The Chairs?

George Saunders was well aware of this problem when it sprouted a particularly pungent blossom several years ago in the form of Sarah Palin. His essay for the New Yorker, “My Gal” plays with this new de-tooled language. Here are the first two paragraphs in case you missed it:

Explaining how she felt when John McCain offered her the Vice-Presidential spot, my Vice-Presidential candidate, Governor Sarah Palin, said something very profound: “I answered him ‘Yes’ because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can’t blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we’re on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can’t blink. So I didn’t blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.”

Isn’t that so true? I know that many times, in my life, while living it, someone would come up and, because of I had good readiness, in terms of how I was wired, when they asked that—whatever they asked—I would just not blink, because, knowing that, if I did blink, or even wink, that is weakness, therefore you can’t, you just don’t. You could, but no—you aren’t.

Saunders went wild over the fact that the key of each Palin sentence, that which was supposed to unlock the hermetic meaning in each convoluted expression, was never tendered. And this way of speaking (strategy?) was somewhat brilliant because it compelled listeners to keep listening for the moment when the idea landed. But it never landed.

If we can compare Palin’s wandering talk with Trump’s nonsense, then we can also compare the empty sloganeering of the McCain/Palin ticket with that of the Clinton/Kaine ticket. Saunders also helps us here as he walks through the 2008 Republican banner slogan:

Now, let’s talk about slogans. Ours is: Country First. Think about it. When you think of what should come first, what does? Us ourselves? No. That would be selfish. Our personal families? Selfish. God? God is good, I love Him, but, as our slogan suggests, no, sorry, God, You are not First. No, you don’t, Lord! How about: the common good of all mankind! Is that First? Don’t make me laugh with your weak blinking! No! Mercy is not First and wisdom is not First and love is super but way near the back, and ditto with patience and discernment and compassion and all that happy crap, they are all back behind Country, in the back of my S.U.V. […]

Given his interest/fear in the unmooring of language in 2008, it is no surprise that Saunders turned up again in the eye of the Trump storm, this time not to accost through wit but to understand who exactly these Trump supporters are. He attended Trump rallies, admitting to those he met that he himself was once an avid reader of Ayn Rand and a registered Republican who voted for Reagan. Bonding in this way seemed to give him access to interviews with the Trump supporters gathered there, such as this woman:

I ask her what, in terms of her day-to-day life, she thinks is wrong with America.

“I don’t like people shoving Obamacare down my throat, O.K.?” she says. “And then getting penalized if I don’t have insurance.”

Is she covered through Obamacare?

No. She has insurance through her work, thank God, but “every day my rights are being taken away from me, you know?” she says. “I mean—this is America. In the U.S., we have a lot of freedoms and things like that, but we’re not going to have all that if we have all these people coming in, that are taking our—”

What is on display here if not the same antilogic (illogic? ill-logic?) that subtends the ever-weakening rationality of the masses in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1959)? In that play, Ionesco weaves a discussion between the Logician and the Old Gentleman about syllogisms that functions something like background music to the primary dialogue unfolding between the play’s lead characters:

Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Here is an example of a syllogism. The cat has four paws. Isidore and Fricot both have four paws. Therefore Isidore and Fricot are cats.

Old Gentleman: [to the Logician] My dog has got four paws.

Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Then it’s a cat.


Old Gentleman: [to the Logician, after deep reflection] So then logically speaking, my dog must be a cat?

Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Logically, yes. But the contrary is also true.

This lesson builds to a more complex example of two cats and the number of their paws. Instigated by the Logician’s question, “If you take six paws from the two cats, how many paws are left to each cat?” the Old Gentleman delivers a wide range of answers before stumbling into the category of the unnatural: one cat with five paws, a cat with one paw, a cat with six paws or with no paws at all—all logically possible. These possibilities lead to further possibilities of some cats with special privileges (those with paws) and some cats without privileges (those with no paws). Here the Logician fuses the path of Logic with that of Justice and declares: “Logic means Justice.” But Ionesco undercuts this statement with the sound of a rhinoceros, thereby suggesting that some bestial thinking undergirds the logician’s seemingly scientific rationality. Saunders seems to have discovered a similar (il)logicality in the thinking of Trump supporters, one that aligns with their (in)justice. Violence lurks beneath this irrational rationality.

So we find ourselves now, after the election, cast within the theatre of the absurd. If language has acquired an Ionesco-like ambivalence and malleability, one of our jobs moving forward must be to understand how this theatrical language works, how it is put to use, and what worlds it is capable of making. But theatre and performance scholars should also rush in to assess other constituent parts of this theater: the embodied knowledge of protesters, for example, and the scenography of violent police shootings, and the mis en scène set by those who claim to be directors of the national interest. In short, what we need now is a dramaturgy of this theatre of the absurd, perhaps one armed with a solid background in Wittgenstein and the notion of language games.

Another foreshock, the last I’ll mention, occurred prior to my writing of this essay. Two days before the election I randomly pulled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Crack Up” off my bookshelf. In that story, the narrator (who seems to be a surrogate of Fitzgerald himself) tells us that the mark of true intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in one’s head. For example, and to stay in the key of the Absurdists, that I can’t possibly go on and I must go on. The narrator who says this with such certainty, however, also vouchsafes to his reader the fact that he himself is slowly going crazy, slowly cracking up. To practice true intelligence is to risk insanity. The primary opposition in the story, the one that will fuse disjunctively into a profound realization of self and world, comes from the confrontation between the narrator and the narrator’s wife (who resembles Zelda). During a bitter argument, the former explains his belief that his crack is interior to himself and thus he himself bears the responsibility of fixing it (or ignoring it altogether with alcohol), while the latter works from the opposite belief that the crack is outside. “The crack is in the Grand Canyon!” she yells. The story ends abruptly, without resolve, and so leave us with questions. Are we to follow the internal crack-up into our own individual depths, thereby pushing our sanity to the brink no matter how dangerous that may be, or do the cracks of the natural and social words impinge on our sanity to such a degree that our job is to map those forces and explore them like an intrepid scout?

With so many cracks showing now in the aftermath of the election, which path are we to follow? “Of course all life is a process of breaking down,” Fitzgerald tells us, and so we see the cracking of language all around us. But the inevitability of breaking down, either through internal cracks or by external blows, does not preclude an attitude of good humor and sharp wit. Indeed, it is precisely now, with the help of our life dramaturgs, that we may find a new dimension to language altogether, one that frees us from the paradigms of right/left, black/white, 99%/1%, and produces instead a new cosmology.



[3] Take your pick: