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.
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.