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.
Susan C.W. Abbotson
In European and North American theater and film, the centuries-old practice of “yellowface”—white actors playing Asian-identified characters—has dominated the ways that Asians and Asian Americans have been presented. Since the 19th century, yellowface representations in American theater portrayed these characters as villainous despots, exotic curiosities, or comic fools. These roles in turn greatly reduced the opportunities for the employment and recognition of Asian and Asian American actors. Yellowface performance does not only misrepresent Asians and Asian Americans by limiting the kinds of visibility and opportunities that they might have, but it also supports the imagined distinctions between those values presumably embodied by white Americans and those associated with oriental others. Late-19th and early-20th-century plays such as George Ade’s The Sultan of Sulu (1902), Joseph Jarrow’s The Queen of Chinatown (1899), and David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly (1900) not only used yellowface acting but also expressed anxieties about interracial interactions and the potential for racial contamination produced by U.S. imperialism and Chinese immigration. Both yellowface and “whitewashing” (the erasure of Asian and Asian American characterizations from film and theater in order to benefit white actors) continue to be used in U.S. theater and film. In addition to protesting, Asian American performing artists have responded by creating alternative venues for Asian American performers and writers to make their talents known, such as Los Angeles’s East West Players (established in 1965). Asian Americans have also fully engaged with these issues through writing a host of plays that feature characterizations of actors who suffer the effects of discriminatory casting practices. Two plays in particular, David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face (2007) and Lloyd Suh’s Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (2015) not only critique the legacies of yellowface representation but also prompt broader reflection on how contemporary Asian American identities are shaped by both political radicalism and “model minority” conformity. These plays re-appropriate yellowface to comment on the changing and contested nature of racial categories such as “Asian American” as well as the continuing problems of racial typecasting.
Vivian L. Huang
Asian American queer performance indexes racialized, gendered, and sexualized forms and modes of performance created by, for, and about Asians in an American context. Since the 1980s, queer and ethnic studies have conceptualized performance not only as object of study (e.g., staged performance, visual art, film) but also as a method of critique and hermeneutic for troubling knowledges of Asian American encounter and subject formation. Performance in this sense can be understood as Asian American and queer in its engagement with and critical rescripting of histories and ideologies of empire, nationalism, war, globalization, migration, missionizing, white supremacy, and cis-normative heteropatriarchy that constitutes themes of Asian American studies. The interdisciplinary field of performance studies offers quotidian performance, racial performativity, and gender performativity as discursive tools with which to consider social conventions and scripts that render Asian American queer formation legible and dynamic toward future rewritings.
Caroline Kyungah Hong
Asian Americans have had and continue to have a complicated relationship with comedy and humor. On the one hand, comedy and humor have always been a vital and dynamic part of Asian American culture and history, even if they have rarely been discussed as such. On the other hand, in mainstream US culture, Asian Americans are often represented as unfunny, unless they are being mocked for being physically, socially, or culturally different. Asian Americans have thus been both objects and agents of humor, a paradox that reflects the sociocultural positioning of Asian Americans in the United States. Examples of how Asian Americans have been dehumanized and rendered abject through comedy and humor, even as they also negotiate and resist their abjection, reach as far back as the 19th century and continue through the 21st. The sheer volume of such instances—of Asian Americans both being made fun of and being funny on their own terms—demonstrates that comedy and humor are essential, not incidental, to every part of Asian American culture and history.