Transnational Performances and Ad Hoc Communities

By Sean Metzger

 

Drafting words into sentences into paragraphs into pages is for many scholars a solitary task, but I tend to dwell on the social aspects of this process: collective generation of ideas, debate with interlocutors, citation, and revision with audiences and co-creators both real and imagined. Therefore, I come to Theatre Journal as coeditor energized by the possibilities of collaboration. I am especially committed to passing on the mentor-ship of former editor Harry J. Elam Jr., who drove me when I first submitted an article to this journal toward a particular kind of rigor: articulating with precision and verve new ideas that advance knowledge across multiple fields of inquiry.

In this issue, four authors who have never previously published full-length essays in these pages expand the transnational dimensions of theatre and performance studies. Colleen Daniher’s essay examines E. Pauline Johnson, a Mohawk writer whose poetry performances attracted large audiences at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. Daniher reads Johnson’s embodied recitations of her verse within the context of American Delsartism to argue that Johnson’s gestures worked in combination with her costumes to negotiate Indigenous self-fashioning with the contemporary sociopolitical movements of white settler women. Moving across and between processes of myth-making for Canadian and Indigenous subjects, Johnson deconstructs such binary formations to suggest how an Indigenous modern woman might be seen. Daniher turns to the extant portraits of the Cochran Studio in Ontario to support her article’s claims. She contends that attention to gesture and photography may shape performance historiography in order to complicate stories of nation, gender, and race and see through their fissures rather than accepting those terms as grounds from which an analysis might begin.

The attention to women and their contestation of national projects continues in the essay by S.E. Jackson, who takes us to Germany where she explores the tensions among different actresses’ embodiments, directorial materializations, and textual variants of the Lulu plays. Jackson’s historically wide-ranging analysis focuses on three post-millennial productions within the context of Germany’s Regietheater tradition. In each of the performances, the dramaturgy works in excess of Wedekind (understood as what Michel Foucault would have called an “author function”). The three examples all pair a well-known leading actress with a celebrated male director: Lulu / Pandora’s Box / A Monster-Tragedy by Frank Wedekind / Urfassung at Thalia Theatre in 2004 (Fritzi Haberlandt and Michael Thalheimer); Lulu Tragödie in 5 Aufzügen mit einem Prolog at the Berliner Ensemble in 2011 (Angela Winkler and Robert Wilson); and Lulu at the Volksbühne in 2019 (Lilith Stangenberg and Stefan Pucher). Each female lead complicated and sometimes contradicted textual and/or directorial authority to different ends. The intense foregrounding of different production elements in each case leads Jackson to mark a dramaturgy of excess that illuminates how actresses might obtain creative agency in and/or be circumscribed by the tradition and ever-expanding meanings of Lulu and the source texts from which she emerges. Jackson articulates the stakes of gender for reading and performing plays particularly within the German-language dramatic canon.

Daniher and Jackson also speak to feminism writ large. The two essays call attention to how women performing onstage matter especially during periods of societal upheaval. The texts demand that we consider what happens when women serve as fulcrums for national traditions or as emblems of the state, whether Canadian, German, or Haudenosaunee.

Ali-Reza Mirsajadi’s essay picks up concerns with textual migrations and their transformations through embodied production. Written in part as a response to Stephen Greenblatt’s article “Shakespeare in Tehran,” Mirsajadi’s writing focuses on three recent Iranian productions of Hamlet as he provides a survey of Shakespeare’s Persian uptake to debunk some of Greenblatt’s suggestions. The essay offers a critique of the politicization of Muslim art through flows of neoliberalism. Like Jackson, Mirsajadi also investigates a trio of productions to illustrate different aesthetic forms and the ways in which they express the antinomies of cultural politics. Shohran Ahmadzadeh’s Hamlet (2014) directed by Arash Dadgar, Mohammad Charmshir’s Hamlet (2012) directed by Reza Gooran, and Mohammad Javad Sajadi’s The Seven Trials of Hamlet (2016) directed by the playwright all illustrate different uses to which the Bard has been put, yet they also converge, in Mirsajadi’s reading, as texts that deconstruct Orientalist binaries.

The final essay, by Matt Jones, returns us to photographs and performance, but maintains attention on the Middle East/West Asia. This time the subjects are images of the Syrian Civil War. Jones spotlights Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué’s The Pixelated Revolution (2012) and Chilean playwright Guillermo Calderón’s Kiss (2017). Mroué’s lecture-performance and Calderón’s play stage different perspectives regarding the circulation of Syrian images in our current post-truth climate. Jones thinks about how wartime images perform as they circulate transnationally and across various media platforms. He places emphasis both on who produces such pictures (the Syrian government or activists, for example) and on their reception.

Like Mroué, Jones invites his audience to contemplate shifts of meaning as pictures from Syria flow through and get recontextualized in transnational mediascapes. He discusses the value accorded to amateur footage and the ways in which the desire for grassroots documentation can obscure the research standards of photographic journalism. Image-making in Syria (and by extension elsewhere) is a double-edged sword in upholding “the truth” and exposing its contingency. Ultimately, Jones argues that Mroué does not push his audiences enough, and he finds in Calderón’s theatre a demand for challenging truth claims and the pictures meant to correlate with them. The author identifies these techniques with the writer as well as the rest of the production team. Jones offers an interview with the director, Ashlie Corcoran, in this vein in this issue’s online supplement.

The quartet of articles in this issue has furthered my own thinking about the ways that quite different geopolitical and historical contexts might surprisingly illuminate one another. They are of course an ad hoc ensemble, but I have found them generative for my understanding of what sorts of knowledge might be relatively easy to export across boundaries and the simultaneous limitations to such moves. I hope readers will find them equally provocative.

My new post with Theatre Journal comes with a series of personnel transitions. I am happy to join the team along with our new performance review editor Patrick Maley and our new book review editor Jason Fitzgerald. Carla Neuss is joining me as assistant editor, and I want especially to acknowledge her labor in helping this issue come to fruition. Thanks are also due to outgoing editor Jennifer Parker-Starbuck and the continuing ensemble of E.J. Westlake, D.J. Hopkins, Bob Kowkabany, and Margherita Laera. Everyone has been exceptionally generous answering my many inquiries about our content and editorial and production processes. I would also like to thank our outgoing book review editor Bradley Rodgers and outgoing performance editor Isaiah Matthew Wooden for sharing their many insights with me. Esther Kim Lee and Shane Vogel have supported me in the application process as well, and I also recognize them here. Finally, thanks to Brian Kite and the UCLA theatre department for recognizing the importance of editorial work and their material support of Theatre Journal. In this vein, I also want to acknowledge Adrienne Medrano for providing the graphic design of the issue’s cover.

As I begin my four-year appointment, I look forward to forming contingent communities that develop, share, and enact research in these pages.