Cara Anne Kinnally
While cultural critics and historians have demonstrated that print culture was an essential tool in the development of national, regional, and local communal identities in Latin América, the role of oral culture, as a topic of inquiry and a source itself, has been more fraught. Printed and hand-written texts often leave behind tangible archival evidence of their existence, but it can be more difficult to trace the role of oral culture in the development of such identities. Historically, Western society has deeply undervalued oral cultures, especially those practiced or created by non-Westerners and non-elites. Even before the arrival of the first printing presses to the Americas, starting with the very first encounters between Spaniards and indigenous peoples in the Americas in the late-15th and early-16th centuries, European conquerors understood and portrayed European alphabetic written script as a more legitimate, and therefore more valuable, form of history and knowledge-making than oral forms. Those cultures without alphabetic writing were deemed barbaric, according to this logic. Despite its undervaluation, oral culture was one of the principal ways in which vast numbers of Latinas/os were exposed to, engaged with, and exchanged ideas about politics, religion, social change, and local and regional community identity during the colonial period. In particular, oral culture often offers the perspective of underrepresented voices, such as those of peasants, indigenous communities, afro-Latinas/os, women, and the urban poor, in Latina/o historical, literary, and cultural studies. During the colonial period especially, many of these communities often did not produce their own European script writing or find their perspectives and experiences illuminated in the writings of the letrados, or lettered elites, and their voices thus remain largely excluded from the print archive. Studies of oral culture offer a corrective to this omission, since it was through oral cultural practices that many of these communities engaged with, contested, and redefined the public discourses of their day.
Oral culture in the colonial period comprised a broad range of rich cultural and artistic practices, including music, various types of poetry and balladry, oral history, legend, performance, religious rituals, ceremonies, festivals, and much more. These practices served as a way to remember and share ideas, values, and experiences both intraculturally and interculturally, as well as across generations. Oral culture also changes how the impact of print culture is understood, since written texts were often disseminated to the masses through oral practices. In the missions of California and the present-day US Southwest, for example, religious plays served as one of the major vehicles for the forced education and indoctrination of indigenous communities during the colonial period. To understand such a play, it is important to consider not just the printed text but also the performance of the play, as well as the ways in which the audience understands and engages with the play and its religious teachings. The study of oral culture in the Latina/o context, therefore, includes an examination of how literate, illiterate, and semi-literate Latinas/os have engaged with, resisted, or repurposed various written forms, such as poetry, letters, theater, testimonios, juridical documents, broadsides, political treatises, religious texts, and the sermon, through oral cultural practices and with various objectives in mind. Oral culture, in all of its many forms, has thus served as an important means for the circulation of knowledge and the expression of diverse world views for Latinas/os throughout the colonial period and into the 21st century.
Ju Yon Kim
The term “performance” covers expansive ground: it can suggest theatrical presentation, the demonstration of ability, or the execution of a task. Theories of performance variously emphasize one understanding over others or put multiple conceptions into play. For example, because performance encompasses both theater and “performativity,” or the efficacy of declarations and reiterated acts, the relationship between these distinct kinds of performance has been the subject of fruitful scholarly debate. Yet however elastic the term might be, the field of performance studies has coalesced around questions of embodiment, identification, presence, repetitions, and cultural transmission.
Asian American literature and culture similarly encompasses a wide range of works, but it shares with performance theory an interest in embodiment, identification, and cultural transmission, especially in relation to issues of race and nation. Studies of Asian American literature and culture have moreover turned to performance as an analytic framework and object, emphasizing theatrical models of social interaction, the relationship between performance and performativity, and the potential to respond to the forces of racialization, colonization, and assimilation through various kinds of performances. Although juxtaposing performance theory and literature might seem to run counter to the critical distinction between text and embodiment underscored by academic fields such as performance studies, works of Asian American literature evince an affinity with theories of performance in dramatizing the tension between text and embodiment, particularly in efforts to capture the voices of “Asian America” in accents, dialects, and pidgin. On the stage, productions have taken advantage of the distinct possibilities afforded by performance to explore the complexities of identification, kinship, and memory in the context of migration and racial marginalization.
How are race and performance implicated within one another? Performance understood as theatrical practice extends back to antiquity before modern understandings of race emerged. Moreover, performance as a larger field of inquiry extends far beyond theater and includes embodied spatial practices, live events that hinge on communitas, patterns of behavior, as well as the presentation of certain abilities ranging from sports to rhetoric. Given such broad associations, performance can become a vehicle for the instantiation of race. Race—as psychic, material, and social processes of human differentiation—reveals in turn certain dynamics of performance; for example, the recourse to and privileging of human agency in discussions of performance frequently leaves uninterrogated the very category of human often thought to animate it. What are the relationships among humans, animals, objects, and technologies? What performs and what can be made to perform?
Any attempt to think about how race and performance are bound together raises questions about populations and identificatory actions and feelings. Race in performance suggests how individuals and groups take shape within larger structures of power and suggests the kinds of contradictions and improvisations that might be enacted within said systems. Such dynamics hinge on efficacy, pleasure, and/or discomfort.
Krystyn R. Moon
Performers of Asian ancestry worked in a variety of venues and media as part of the American entertainment industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some sang Tin Pan Alley numbers, while others performed light operatic works. Dancers appeared on the vaudeville stage, periodically in elaborate ensembles, while acrobats from China, India, and Japan wowed similar audiences. Asian immigrants also played musical instruments at community events. Finally, a small group lectured professionally on the Chautauqua Circuit.
While on the stage, these performers had to navigate American racial attitudes that tried to marginalize them. To find steady work, performers of Asian ancestry often had to play to stereotypes popular with white audiences. Furthermore, they faced oversight by immigration authorities, who monitored their movements in and around the country and made it difficult for foreign entertainers to work in the country for long periods of time.
Despite these hurdles, Asians and Asian Americans have appeared in the performing arts in the United States for over one hundred years.
Michael R. Griffiths
Indigenous people in Australia have used inscriptive practices for at least 65,000 years and have employed alphabetic writing extensively since contact with Europeans, but the latter half of the 20th century saw an even wider explosion of indigenous writing in Australia. Aboriginal writers have worked across all modes: poetry (beginning with Oodgeroo Noonuccal in the 1960s), theater (flourishing in the 1970s with the National Black Theatre and spreading as far afield as Western Australia with the formation of Jack Davis’s Yirra Yaakin Aboriginal Theatre Company), the novel, and the proliferation of life writing in the 1980s. In each case, indigenous writing in postwar Australia balances the aesthetic with the political, drawing in transnational influences while also foregrounding local concerns.
Iván A. Ramos
The late José Esteban Muñoz’s body of work provides readers and scholars of Latina/o literary scholarship a vast scope that centers the work of performance as the tactic minoritarian subjects engage against a racist and homophobic public sphere. Throughout his writings, Muñoz sought to reveal a trajectory for minoritarian subjects from the realization of difference through disidentification through the search for what he called a “brown commons.” His oeuvre bridges the divides between Latina/o and queer studies, and offers an expansive methodological approach for both fields.
Vietnam War literature is a prolific canon of literature that consists primarily of works by American authors, but it is global in scope in its inclusion of texts from writers of other nationalities like Australia, France, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. The war’s literature first emerged in the 1950s during the Cold War when Americans were serving as advisors to the French and the Vietnamese in literary works such as Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a British novel, and William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick’s The Ugly American, an American novel, and gradually evolved as American involvement in the war escalated. In the mid-1960s, Bernard B. Fall, who grew up in France and later moved to the United States, offered well-known nonfiction accounts like Street Without Joy: The French Debacle in Indochina and Hell in a Small Place: The Siege of Dien Bien Phu, and numerous other writers, mostly Americans, began to contribute their individual accounts of the war. Thousands of literary works touch on the Vietnam conflict in some way, whether in the form of combat novels, personal narratives and eyewitness accounts, plays, poems, and letters, and by both male and female writers and authors of different ethnicities. These numerous literary works reflect the traits unique to this war as well as conditions endemic to all wars. Many Vietnam War texts share the cultural necessity to bear witness and to tell their writers’ diverse war stories, including accounts from those who served in combat to those who served in the rear to those who served in other roles such as the medical profession, clerical work, and the entertainment industry. Important, too, are the stories of those who were affected by the war on the home front and those of the Vietnamese people, many of whom were forced to leave their homeland and resettle elsewhere after the war during the Vietnamese diaspora. While combat novels are still being written about the Vietnam War decades later, notably Denis Johnson’s award-winning Tree of Smoke and Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn, bicultural studies that reflect work by North Vietnamese writers and the Viet Kieu are especially pertinent because Vietnam War literature is a continuing influence on the literature emerging from the 21st-century conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Liveness” is a crucial concept that traverses the boundaries of many academic disciplines; however, most prominently, performance studies, media studies, and music studies have been engaged in the ongoing debate regarding its shifting parameters. Not only does the concept navigate through multiple academic disciplines, but it also calls attention to the constantly morphing conditions of social interaction and community formation in an ever-digitizing world. Defined from a wide range of perspectives throughout history under specific sociocultural circumstances, the idea has brought critical scrutiny to the related questions of presence, disappearance, absence, and recurrence of the performing subject. At the same time, immediacy, temporality, and authenticity of human contact as well as human-to-nonhuman contact have also been interrogated under the rubric of liveness.
Interdisciplinary studies of liveness tend to inquire into three areas: ideology, technology, and ontology of performance, which are by no means fixed terrains but rather overlapping and corroborating regimes reflecting the transforming notions of liveness. As the medium of performance became more diversified and convergent over time, the notion of liveness accordingly became complicated. Liveness is no longer defined simply as “bodily co-presence of actors and spectators” (Erika Fischer-Lichte), but with historical specificity in mind and with an eye to the way “the idea of what counts culturally as live experience changes over time in relation to technological change” (Philip Auslander, “Digital Liveness: A Historic-Philosophical Perspective,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 34, no. 3 , 3).
There are no limitations to the performance genres and platforms that fall under the critical analysis of liveness: music, TV, stage plays, online media, live-action roleplay (LARP), and mixed-reality performance—“mixing of the real and virtual as well as their combination of live performance and interactivity” (Steve Benford and Gabriella Giannachi, Performing Mixed Reality [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011], 1)—all wrestle with the ontological questions of what is live. On a more profound level, the derivative semantics of liveness, such as “live,” “alive,” and “life,” point to the ontological dimension of the term as they collectively articulate the “ephemerality, mediation, reproduction, and representation” (Daniel Sack, After Live [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015], 13) of human life.
Heather S. Nathans
Scholars have long wrestled with definitions of what might constitute “American” performance or theater. Early 19th-century histories defined it in strictly white, largely anti-British terms, imagining an art form that could instruct citizens of the newly created nation in lessons of civic virtue. In his History of American Theatre (1832), playwright, theater manager, and theater historian William Dunlap described theater as a “powerful engine” for a democratic state. Subsequent theater historians would catalog records of “firsts”—such as the first American stars (including Edwin Forrest and Charlotte Cushman), or the first long-running American dramatic hits (including The Drunkard or Uncle Tom’s Cabin). The roles of women and racial or ethnic minorities were frequently relegated to the anecdotal or the exceptional.
In the wake of the Civil War, and with the expansion of the frontier, definitions of American theater grew more capacious, encompassing more amateur, popular, and immigrant performances as new groups struggled to establish footholds in American culture. The turn into the 20th century and the unfolding series of civil rights movements on behalf of women, LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer) citizens, people of color, and people with disabilities rapidly transformed the nation’s theatrical landscape. Groups that had found themselves represented by others onstage discovered new opportunities for creative expression in the playhouse.
Over the past twenty-five years, theater scholars have shifted away from a narrative of “firsts” and national exceptionalism toward a more nuanced series of intertwined histories that illuminate the complex discourses of national and ethnic identity in American culture. Their work has revealed a performance community—whether in the playhouse or on the streets—constantly struggling to create workable definitions of citizenship and belonging. Theater artists have never stopped pushing themselves and their audiences to challenge definitions of national identity. Their work invites contemporary students to expand their understanding of what constitutes the canon of “American” theater.
The Influence of Arthur Miller on American Theater and Culture and the Global Implications of His Plays
Susan C.W. Abbotson
Arthur Miller (1915–2005) was the author of essays, journals, short stories, a novel, and a children’s book, but is best known for his more than two dozen plays, which include the seminal American dramas Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. A staunch patriot and humanist, Miller’s work conveys a deeply moral outlook whereby all individuals have a responsibility both to themselves and to the society in which they must live. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Miller maintained his optimism that despite humanity’s unfortunate predisposition toward betrayal, people could transcend this and be better. In the creation of Death of a Salesman, along with its director Elia Kazan and designer Jo Mielziner, Miller brought a new style of play to the American stage which mixes the techniques of realism and expressionism; this has since been dubbed “subjective realism” and provoked a redefinition of what tragedy might mean to a modern audience. Influenced by the social-problem plays of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, the experimental poetics of Clifford Odets and Tennessee Williams, and the inventive staging of Thornton Wilder, Miller created his own brand of drama that often explored macrocosmic social problems within the microcosm of a troubled family. Though he is viewed as a realist by some critics, his work rarely conforms to such limitations, and his entire oeuvre is notable for its experimentation in both form and subject matter, with only his inherent philosophical beliefs to provide connection. For Miller, people need to understand that they are products of their pasts, and that it is inevitable that “the birds come home to roost,” but through acknowledging this and actively owning any guilt attached, individuals and society can improve.
Miller was raised in a largely secular Jewish environment, and his morality has a Judaic inflection and he wrote several plays featuring Jewish characters; however, his themes address universal issues and explore the impact of the past, the role of the family, and a variety of belief systems from capitalism to socialism, along with providing lessons in responsibility and connection, and exploring the abuses and misuses of power. His works provide insight into the heart of human nature in all its horror and glory, including its capacity for love and sacrifice as well as denial and betrayal. Miller was able to see both the comedy and tragedy within the human condition. His driving concern was to make a difference, and it was through his writing that he found his means.