The Politics of Performance
Performance and politics have always been intertwined. For centuries, the stage has offered a unique place to comment upon social issues, reconcile (or not) with historical trauma, and even incite revolution.
The very settings of performance – from street corner buskers to smoky jazz bars to opera houses and courtly masques – themselves are fraught with social and political meaning by virtue of their intended audiences and in-/exclusivity. As actors and characters in theatrical presentation, the bodies of performers also prompt us to interrogate socio-political conflicts such as those about women on stage, blackface performances, and colorblind casting. Finally, political “actors” have always trafficked in the trappings of theatre – through ceremonies, portraiture, and modern mass rallies – as markers of power, just as demonstrations and protests are super-charged by the high theatricality of their tactics.
But how, then, do performers, performances, and audiences make meaning? This seminar will draw from the Newberry’s vibrant collections related to theatre, music, dance, opera, and politics, to explore the fertile ground of political performance and the performance of politics.
Above, from left to right: poster for Tenth of a Century, John M. Wing Foundation Printing Ephemera Collection; The Front Page, Ben Hecht Papers, Box 79, Folder 2395; photo of Sun Ra, Modern Manuscripts, Chicago Reader Photographs: News Collection, Box 43, Folder 2006; “Anti-War Dance” Poster, Dill Pickle Club Records, Box 1, Folder 33.
Class discussion will explore materials ranging chronologically and geographically, across works by Renaissance English playwrights such as Shakespeare; broadsides, programs, and playbills from the U.K. and U.S; and promptbooks and acting manuals. We will consider the movement arts by examining treatises and manuals on dance; dance music; festival books; and descriptions of English masques. Our exploration of music will delve into the Newberry’s extensive inventory of opera librettos, sheet music and scores; and concert programs, with a particular emphasis on the history of music and opera in Chicago in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries and its ties to Europe. We will also interrogate explicitly political gestures as represented in the Newberry collections, including speechmaking, conventions, propaganda, and protests; and economic practices like performing arts philanthropy, sponsorship, and marketing.
Our focus on performance broadly conceived, then, invites students to employ a wide range of potential disciplinary perspectives in their research projects. These include the seminar leaders’ research and teaching expertise – in English, history, music, dance, opera, and theatre – and also anthropology, critical race studies, economics, gender and sexuality studies, musicology, political science, and sociology.
Above, from left to right: New Left Notes, August 1968, Students for a Democratic Society and 1968 Democratic Convention Publications Collection, Box 1, Folder 10; Socialist Anti-War Rally in Berlin, 1912, Charles Kerr Company Records, Series 5, Box 6, Folder 100; “Suffrage and Love,” Hull House Theater Poster, Theater Programs Collection; Protest of the Demolition of the Chicago Stock Exchange.
John Garrison is Professor of English at Grinnell College, where he teaches courses on early modern literature and culture. His teaching covers a range of themes, including gender and sexuality, peace and conflict, and performance studies. He has published widely on theatrical drama and popular culture. His books include Glass, Shakespeare at Peace, Shakespeare and the Afterlife, and Performing Gods in Classical Antiquity and the Age of Shakespeare. Before becoming a professor, he worked in the non-profit sector and was a competitive ballroom dancer.
Kelly Maynard joined the faculty at Grinnell in 2009 after teaching in the history and art history departments at Scripps College. Her current project, entitled Hearing Wagner in France at the Fin-de-Siècle: Music and the Interior World, explores the ways in which musical experience shaped habits of mind among French listeners of Wagner’s works in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Other research subjects include the independent presses of the late nineteenth century in Paris, cultural tourism and the Bayreuth Festival, and early German Expressionism.