Anticipation is an energy that can enliven or evacuate a moment. It tells us to look forward to what is to come, but it can also keep us from sitting with the specificity of the present, moving us too hastily from the significance of what is right in front of us. As scholars of performance history, we are trained to look for the most meaningful change over time, the specialness of specific moments. The authors in this issue document and interpret the past in order to weave skillful bridges toward the present, sometimes illuminating, without falling into teleological framings, the ways that artists and critics of the past anticipated some of the most pressing concerns of contemporary times.
Rebecca Kastleman opens this issue with a study that uplifts Zora Neale Hurston's foresight as both a performance theorist and a leader in university-based theatre practice. Building upon the work of other Hurston scholars, she identifies the ways that Hurston's creative practice, particularly after the termination of Charlotte Osgood Mason's patronage, worked expansively to uplift the artistry of Black life across media and social spaces. Kastleman adds to the movement to recognize Hurston as part of the genealogy of American performance theory, providing a foundation for our understanding of precisely how relationships between participants and audiences constitute performance events. Hurston's deployment of her anthropological training shed light on the interpersonal, institutional, and communal dimensions of social relationships, developing a framework that extends toward the ways in which subsequent articulations of performance theory evolved a scalar model of representational efficacy in the construction of social meaning. In addition, her work within university settings provided spaces where she could both refine her personal craft as a writer and theorist, and also contribute to a vision of what arts curricula at the collegiate level could and should include. In the first half of the twentieth century, Hurston was advocating for the well-rounded course offerings that many of us continue to implore our campus leaders to fund!
Bradley Rogers offers a biographical contribution that highlights the signal influence of Otto Harbach upon what we now appreciate as “integrated” musical theatre. Harbach entered the field at a time when musical comedy was a disaggregated assortment of musical numbers and narrative, with no deep sense of connection between the two that would maintain an audience's connection to the story's emotional through line. Instead, Harbach leveraged his extensive training in (and subsequent employment as an instructor of) elocution and oratory to advance a more holistic approach to the musical, deploying songs to advance rather than interrupt the narrative, and did so quite early in the twentieth century, years before the theatrical works that are most commonly celebrated as achieving this formal synthesis. Rogers's essay reasserts Harbach's place in this developmental narrative, and pays particular attention to the historical context of his work—a contemporaneous evolution in the use of music in relation to silent film that was helping to rewrite audience expectations about the relationships among visual storytelling, emotion, and music. Through Rogers's analysis, Harbach's prolific contributions and succinct aesthetic ideology begin to receive more of the attention that they deserve.
Ricardo Ernesto Rocha sheds light on early California theatre history, exploring how a little-studied mid-nineteenth-century play helped to establish certain troublesome terms of representation through which Latinx peoples appeared in the dominant culture well before words like Latinx and Latinidad entered the lexicon. The essay underscores how long the friction between what we now know as the United States of America and what we now know as Mexico (both also known as parts of Turtle Island) has revolved around key dynamics that limit the conditions of Latinx life on both sides of a violently constructed and maintained border. By invoking contemporary language to describe historical theatrical practice and politics, Rocha helps us to understand both the evolution and the persistence of the political project now articulated as/through Latinidad. Rocha works with a framework of duress and containment, arguing that these dynamics constrained what Latinx identity could be during California's period of transition from Mexican to US statehood, and that containment had political as well as affective consequences. As “US California” came to be defined as a racially white space, representations such as Charles E. B. Howe's 1858 play about Joaquín Murieta were instrumental in reifying a racial hierarchy that contained Latinx people in a subjugated position. They also fostered what Rocha defines as “antagonistic empathy,” through which Anglo-dominant audiences related deeply with, yet ultimately against, the plights of Latinx protagonists. The pathos of Latinx characters’ treatment only confirmed the necessity for these audiences to fight the empathetic impulses activated by the narrative in order to secure a more favorable socioeconomic position for themselves in the changing political, cultural, and economic landscape. Such racially stratified affect persists to this day.
In the final essay of this issue, Mattie Burkert draws our attention to the stock characters Nobody and Somebody, mainstays of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European literary and performance culture, to demonstrate the prescient depth of these characters’ use as figures through which societies could document and explore their concerns about the evolution of finance culture and its impact on society at large. In ways both playful and profound, these contrapuntal characters embody and reject the abstraction through which credit systems reshape individual social relationships of obligation and expectation. Furthermore, Burkert argues, the translation of these characters from literary to dramatic figures allows performance to play a role in making the abstractions of finance capital, of credit, and of debt relations become more real, and thus more available for debates about individual versus social responsibility and the dangers of economic inequality. As Burkert notes through parallels with twenty-first-century movements such as Occupy, these seventeenth-century concerns remain unresolved and of vital importance, and “reinsert[ing] history into the present” invites us to identify the depth and strength of social practices that must be reimagined in the name of economic justice.
Writing these words as social contracts are being radically transformed through the ever-evolving policy and public health strategies guiding our response to the ongoing pandemic—and as military conflict and humanitarian crises across the globe hold our collective attention—keeps me mindful of the importance of paying close attention to the past, for all the ways that it reveals the present to us more fully. Sometimes for worse, but often for better, creative artists are seers. Their visions of the future can be aspirational or cautionary, but they help us to imagine and ready ourselves for social relations, affective states, and institutional paradigms that we will eventually confront. They galvanize us. This note is an expression of my immense gratitude to the scholars represented in these pages for ensuring that we have the intellectual tools to attend to both the crises and the opportunities of our moment.