Drama Matters: A Manifesto
by Lorraine Brown

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At a time when performance discourse and its new "theoretical partner performativity" are being widely discussed in departments of English, Speech and Theater, in departments and programs in cultural studies, philosophy, womenís studies and anthropology, it is challenging to try to determine how fields of study, such as drama, theater and performance fit within current disciplinary boundaries. Fearing that terms like performance and performativity might quickly evolve into yet another academic fashion, scholars have recently engaged in discussions worrying text versus performance and the applicability of performativity to a variety of subjects. The renewed interest in interdisciplinary work, in these areas, has also motivated theatrical historians to investigate the nature of academic disciplines, their formation and future viability. At a time when colleges and universities are using corporate models of organization to downsize and reorganize the academy, this work should provide important scholarly ballast to resist reductive schemes.

Scholars in drama and theater studies, such as R. W. Vince and Susan Harris Smith have looked closely at the institutional histories of academic disciplines, departments and programs. Smith devotes several chapters in American Drama: The Bastard Art to the place of American literature, in general, and American drama, in particular, in the American university curriculum. Vince in "Theatre History as an Academic Discipline," documents the theater scholarís struggle for professional legitimacy, and theater and dramaís relative lack of credibility as academic subjects. Josephine Lee writing in Text and Performance Quarterly worries the matter of how academic disciplines and discourses determine what "truths" and "knowledges" can actually be produced. As someone who studies theater and drama and who works in an English department, Lee beings important questions to the table, concerning how key terms such as performance are "invested" with historical weight, and how scholars might use the history of departments and fields outside of performance to shape current scholarship.

Drama in English departments in American universities provides an interesting case in point, inhabiting as it does a murky, ghost-ridden, borderland isolated from the scholarly and creative disciplines. While drama currently exudes great energy and vitality outside of the academy, courting science, revisiting history and myth, engaging literary figures from the past, it has been marginalized inside of the academy. This fact is particularly visible with American drama, as Harris has meticulously documented, but it is no less true of all dramatic literature in English departments (with the exception of Shakespeare). While it appears that English departments have successfully staked their claim on Shakespeare, they have been far less enthusiastic about taking responsibility for modern and contemporary dramatic literature.

Further complicating an already complex landscape, the academic hegemony of genres has also meant historically that drama has had to contend with the hierarchical dominance of poetry and prose (with the exception of Shakespeare). Literary histories, anthologies, and dramatic criticism itself have exacerbated the problem with the result that American drama has often been omitted altogether. At a moment when the Humanities seem the last bastion for wide-ranging and incisive discussion can we now acknowledge, and perhaps remedy, the fact that disciplinary fields, exercising their power to exclude must resist the impulse, once again, to shunt aside a vast body of knowledge worthy of scholarly attention?

 

 

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