The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Conference Preview | Spring Q & A with Claire Warden

Each year our Spring Q & A offers readers of The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914–1945 insight into the work and ideas of the annual conference keynote speaker.  This year's keynote, Claire Warden, will be speaking on May 31, and the title of her talk is "Weak (Theatrical) Modernisms."  

Claire Warden is a Senior Lecturer in English and Drama at Loughborough University and Secretary of the British Association for Modernist Studies. Her books British Avant-Garde Theatre (2012), Modernist and Avant-Garde Performance: an Introduction (2015), Migrating Modernist Performance: British Theatrical Travels Through Russia (2016) as well as her provocative work with the UK’s Wrestling Resurgence arts collective are reshaping the conversation around performance and culture, between the wars and today.  This interview was conducted by Janine Utell, Editor, over email in May 2019.


You are an expert on modernism and avant-garde performance…and on professional wrestling.  These seem to share a preoccupation with spectacle, and it does not seem too far a leap through performance studies to accommodate interests in each or both of these.  You in fact refer to professional wrestling as a “sport-art” in a 2018 essay for The Journal of Popular Culture.  Can you talk a bit about how your interest in professional wrestling informs your interest in the avant-garde, and vice versa?  How has this work given you new insight into modernist performance—or perhaps ways of thinking about early 20th-century performance, or performance between the wars, beyond the confines of modernism?

CW: At first, wrestling and modernist performance might appear to be rather odd bedfellows! But, actually, working in these two areas simultaneously has been really fascinating. Roland Barthes famously referred to wrestling as a “spectacle of excess” and the same term could be used to describe, say, Dada’s Cabaret Voltaire. There are other connections too. Both, for example, place real emphasis on the body. The body tells stories and its actual presence in front of me compels me to attend to the story and immediately respond; this is as true for wrestlers as it was for Isadora Duncan or Mary Wigman. I think modernist avant-garde performance and wrestling are both about taking risks too; these risks might be physical and/or aesthetic, but I find this mixture of physical liveness and risk very compelling and exciting. I also think that attending more to the body through my work on wrestling has shifted my understanding of modernist performance; I initially approached the latter through text and context, but now I am better able to imagine the embodied interpretation of the play. Understanding wrestling helps me to see the physical labour behind all artistic creativity. I think in modernism this is particularly important; it is, for me, vital to appreciate the work behind the art, whether that is the novel, sculpture, music or whatever. This appreciation of embodied labour was particularly useful in my work on Russian theatre in Britain: to imagine, say, Vsevolod Meyerhold-influenced experiments in biomechanics on the modernist British stage as physicalised, sweat-inducing, muscle-challenging movements. 


Perhaps further to the really compelling ways in which your research extends our understanding of early 20th-century performance, how do you see your body of work on left-wing dramatists and theatrical artists creating an opportunity, or an imperative even, to redefine the avant-garde?  How would you like to see scholars build on this?

CW: I think attending to the political theatre of the early twentieth century is vital in three ways. Firstly, it shifts our understanding of high and low culture. So often, even in these times of a more expansive modernism, our field still feels a little hamstrung by the high art/low art dichotomy. Theatre forces a revision of this, particularly the way that self-proclaimed leftist theatre companies worked between media and types of play, with verbatim, naturalism and modern dance existing together in their repertoires. I also think that a focus on leftist groups enables a geographical shift. Returning to my PhD research for a moment, British political theatre during the early twentieth century illustrates a real sense of the transnational; for example, Theatre Workshop’s seasons contained plays from Lope de Vega and Ernst Toller, as well as original folk theatre pieces focusing on Britain’s rising unemployment. The extremely local and the expansively international coexist across modernist leftist theatre in Britain. This also entailed a regional shift as Glasgow, Leeds and Manchester, in particular, became centres of leftist, experimental theatre, challenging the centripetal pull of London. I am using a British example, but I think there is a more universal truism there. Thirdly, I think this change in perspective compels a greater appreciation of working-class popular culture. There is a lot of work still to do to shift modernism’s class biases. This is particularly an area I would like scholars to build on, and I think performance has a lot to say about these issues.


To go more so into how the figures and spaces you consider in your work—figures and spaces we might take to be somewhat understudied even in moments or methods dedicated to recovery in the face of dominant currents or canons in modernist studies—what do you see as missing in our investigations of the interwar period?  Where do you see lacunae, the filling of which might lead to a more vibrant and nuanced understanding of the era?  I’m thinking again of your JPC essay, and your tracing of the history of Butlins holiday camps in Britain.

CW: I think there are still a lot of gaps to be addressed, despite the exponential growth in New Modernist Studies. I have been very influenced by the development of transnational modernist studies; there is still a good deal of work to be done to uncover modernism in the truest transnational sense, a lot of areas of the world still overlooked. This is such a tricky challenge as it is vital to geographically expand modernism, and yet imperative that modernism is not used as a neo-colonial frame: I am so glad for all the thoughtful scholars at present who are committed to addressing this. I think, as the Butlins article you mention above tried to illustrate, there is still a good deal to be done in terms of popular culture too. Conventionally, popular culture has just been studied in terms of its influence on so-called High Modernism (e.g., T.S. Eliot liked music hall, that sort of thing). While this is an interesting enquiry, I wonder how popular culture—things like holiday camps, for instance—could be understood as innately modernist, perhaps in terms of architecture or leisure studies. Professional wrestling is another interesting case study. Modernist pro-wrestling reflected anxieties about truth, fakery and authenticity, anxieties recently uncovered in different contexts by scholars such as Matt Houlbrook and Leonard Diepeveen; wrestling sits oddly in traditional conceptions of modernism but, in more expansive versions, its subversive, embodied, transdisciplinary identity actually recollects a lot of the concerns of modernism more generally.


Picking up on this year’s conference theme of “staging”:  Where are you seeing exciting new trends and directions in (inter)modernist performance studies?  (And Is the “weak” in the title of your plenary generated in conversation with the recent special issue of Modernism/modernity on “weak theory”?)  

CW: I really find modernism such an exciting area to work in, particularly at the moment when our expanding discipline seems to be attracting so many new voices and ideas. Paul Saint-Amour’s idea of weakness is, I think, a useful direction, and, as I’ll go on to explain in my keynote, I really think that the incorporation of performance studies as part of this framework would bring a new dimension. I love the way that scholars are looking past the typical boundaries of modernism in new ways: Faye Hammill’s work on the middlebrow, for instance, is a case in point. I am also excited by a range of new modernist work. I love Carrie Preston’s more embodied approach to modernist performance, particularly in her Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism and Journeys in Teaching (Columbia UP, 2016). I have recently been excited by Kevin Riordan’s 2018 article "Jean Cocteau’s Around-the-World Performance" in Modernism/modernity. And I can’t wait to read forthcoming scholarship from Rebecca Kastleman on Gertrude Stein, Hannah Simpson on Beckett and the body, Sunny Stalter-Pace on Gertrude Hoffman, and Ramsay Burt and Mike Huxley on modernist dance. I am energised by reading work from different disciplines that, yet, addresses modernist concerns: most recently I’ve particularly enjoyed Bernard Vere’s new book on sport and Natasha Periyan’s work on education. As the current Secretary of the British Association for Modernist Studies, I am also thrilled to see the way modernist organisations across the world are reaching out to each other: I am particularly eager to see how MSiA will develop over the next few years. These represent some of the directions I am most excited about at the moment. 


What are you working on now?

CW: I am continuing my revision of British modernist theatre historiography with a new project about the influence of German playwright Ernst Toller. I recently spent time in his archive at Yale and learnt a good deal about Toller’s political aesthetics, particularly about his influence over Anglo-American responses to the Spanish Civil War. I am also working on a new book proposal on modernism and muscularity. To me it feels as if the muscular is a defining concept in modernism, despite the way it initially appears to contradict the notion of weakness I have mentioned above; this means I am currently reading a lot of novels, learning more about penmanship, and uncovering the history of female bodybuilding. I love projects that allow me to be curious about new ideas, figures and disciplines. On top of this, I continue to enjoy working as part of our Arts Council-funded art-wrestling company Wrestling Resurgence, which is really making waves on the British wrestling scene. It allows me to put my research into action and share my work with the general public. A lot of my current grant applications focus on bringing together a range of scholars, practitioners and curators to understand wrestling in productive and innovative ways. 

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