The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Review Essay | Staging the Space Between

Grace Lillard
Washington University in St. Louis

Books Reviewed

Performing Queer Modernism. By Penny Farfan. Oxford University Press, 2017. 154pp. + 18 halftones. $105.00 (cloth); $36.95 (paper)

Real Theatre: Essays in Experience. By Paul Rae. Cambridge University Press, 2019. 246pp. + 11 b/w illus. $99.99 (cloth); $80.00 (ebook)

Sport and Modernism in the Visual Arts in Europe, c. 1909–39. By Bernard Vere. Manchester University Press, 2018. 216pp. + 51 illus.  $120.00 (cloth).

The many and varied contexts for the concept of “staging” make it a flexible and productive term for those of us who are both scholars of the interwar period and global citizens of the 21st century. Under its conceptual umbrella lies the breadth of performance studies—“staging” concerned with what takes place, literally, on a stage, be it in a theater of hundreds or dozens of seats, a temporary edifice in a municipal park, a drawing room arrangement, or a multi-purpose arena. But even as performance studies itself suggests, “staging” occurs in our everyday social interactions on an individual and communal level, as we hardly need reminding in an age of social media, corporate pageantry, and the reemergence of grassroots protest. In academic and philosophical discourses we think about the performance of gender and race as “stagings,” or social constructs, of the self, identity, and community. And if we let ourselves consider the more sinister venues in which something like “staging” has grown recently more prominent, in contemporary media, political discourse, and world leadership, the staging of alternative facts and versions of reality has infiltrated not only the daily function of social and political institutions but also the casual consumption of information for every individual plugged into the global network.

To cite merely one instance, in early September 2019 the President of the United States held a press conference in the Oval Office to address inaccurate statements he made on Twitter about the projected path of Hurricane Dorian. While models from the National Weather Service indicated that the storm would follow the Atlantic coast of the southeastern U.S. as it traveled north, the President tweeted warnings that the state of Alabama, much further west and on the Gulf coast, would be directly affected. During the press conference, the President referred to a clearly doctored posterboard image of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s official map of Dorian’s trajectory, on which an additional section had been drawn in black permanent marker extending the projected path into the state of Alabama. The complex stagings of this media event were multilayered and nefarious even in their basic stupidity: against the chosen backdrop of the Oval Office, the seat of power and authority in American government, before the national and international audiences of digital and cable news outlets, the President performed an expertise he doesn’t have regarding a natural event that didn’t happen the way he said it did, producing additional fodder for a fresh round of social media re-stagings and commentary. And yet the most disturbing element of this example lies not in its absurdity but in its tedium. Staging has become as pervasive and mundane as the literal weather—and in doing so, it surely deserves our critical, if also quizzical, attention.

We may seem to have wandered far from that more stable definition of our term rooted in stage performance, but the beauty of staging is that none of its social, political, or otherwise quotidian meanings are ever very far from each other. The concept identifies any intensified moment of performance, prearranged or spontaneous, aesthetically coordinated and materially organized, and, most importantly, suggests the political effects of that enactment. In this capacity, we see performance linked to human ideals and their expression, constituting a mode of communication through which we come to better understand ourselves, our values, and our environment. Three recent monographs in and around the fields of early 20th-century performance and cultural studies show how various contexts and venues of staging—athletics, architecture, dramatic performance, film, dance, everyday conversation—are adjacent to and inflected with this broad appeal to the political. These texts together ask, first, what performance expresses, how “staging” influences or even describes the world beyond the limits of the theater, and, finally, how we as scholars can best approach our study of the represented or representative object for its ideological and cultural significance.

The first book begins this pursuit in the world of sport, where performance functions both as “something measured in relation to the athlete’s potential,” as well as what is “understood in an artistic or theatrical sense of a series of actions staged for onlookers” (Vere 62). Bernard Vere’s Sport and Modernism in the Visual Arts in Europe, c. 1909–39 historically situates the rise of sport—and of thinking sport analogous to art—within the context of commercial, technological, and aesthetic modernities. While other critical works in the fields of cultural and sports studies have recognized sport as one of the defining features of urban modernity in the 20th century, Vere’s study is the first to identify and investigate—in an international context and specifically within the modernist period—the staging of sport in early 20th-century works of visual art and architecture which attempt to depict and theorize that modernity. Weaving together the concerns of art history and cultural studies, Vere explores why various artists of the avant-garde were drawn to sport, how their art expresses the role of sport in modern culture, and what we can learn about the politics of sport through its staging and performance in avant-garde art objects and events.

The strength of Vere’s study lies in thickly historicized explications of his chosen objects within their various national and aesthetic contexts, producing gems of artistic analysis and close reading. But Vere's focus is not merely aesthetic. Far from mere entertainment or trivial distraction, Vere argues, sport in the early 20th century was essentially and meaningfully ideological, closely associated with various cultural values and several major political regimes. In chapters organized thematically around one type of sport, the first half of the book explores ties in art and architecture between sport and commercialism, nationalism, celebrity culture, fashion, militarism, dissent, and Christian masculinity, while the second half deals with the role of sport in the projects of fascism in Germany and Italy and of communism in the Soviet Union. Most compellingly, in the penultimate chapter Vere locates the Olympic contests of the 1930s at the center of international disputes between right- and left-wing regimes and the artists who supported them. The political potential of staged athleticism comes to the fore here in Vere’s analysis of Leni Riefenstahl’s propagandist documentary film of the 1936 Berlin games, Olympia, which produced the “aesthetic equivalent of Nazi ideology” in its focus on the beauty and potential of the athletic body (119). Paired with the film in Vere’s analysis is its ideological opposite: Soviet constructivist photomontage of the Spartakiada, a USSR alternative to the Olympic games, which staged the active lifestyle of fizkultura, or physical culture, as both desirable and attainable by all communist citizens for the collective good.

Vere’s methodological approach balances a multi-national range with a microhistorical focus on individual artists’ responses to specific sports, though he draws from an archive intentionally narrowed to include only those best-known works of visual modernism by canonical figures from the conventional centers of urban modernity. This framework, however, enables surprising means of thematic organization and analysis whereby two major currents in aesthetic responses to sport emerge. The first considers sport as spectacle, as seen in paintings by Lyonel Feininger, Jean Metzinger, and Umberto Boccioni examined in the first chapter. These expressionist, cubist, and futurist works portray the drama of cycle-racing, capturing the exhibitive quality of the sport and exploring its entanglement with the commercialism of modern life. The second response, predominant in years following the Great War, observes in sport a system for understanding and manipulating intelligent design—sport as rationalization. Tennis, for example, became a model for Le Corbusier in his theorization of the modern commodity. To the purist architect, tennis, a sport which disciplined and trained the mind as well as the body, enacted an aesthetic Le Corbusier advocated: “distinctly modern, clean, healthy, geometric, and elitist” (78). Similarly, Vere reveals, representations of rugby in the French magazine La Vie au Grand Air linked athletic and military training as rubrics for modern masculinity and patriotism. In each of these artistic stagings, Vere uncovers the implications of sport in the political, aesthetic, and ideological values of the modern era.

While Vere considers how the avant-garde staged the social role and cultural value of sport through the visual arts, Penny Farfan in Performing Queer Modernism considers the literal stage in the late 19th- and early 20th-centuries as the generative site of queerness and modernism’s “coproductive intersection” (Farfan 5). Both texts share a consideration of “performance” as crucial to the development of modern ideologies, which, in Farfan’s case, center on ideologies of sexuality. Each of these studies also takes seriously questions of the value and place of the popular in connection with the highbrow of art and performance—popular sport and popular or commercial theater in each case entering productively into the theorization or material consideration of the objects under examination.

In her formulation of the phrase “queer modernist performance,” Farfan interrogates each of the first two terms as they are staged within the rich context of the third. Building on the claim that performance created a vital space for the cultivation of queer desires, communities, and subversions, Farfan asserts that queer performance was integral to both the development of modernism and to “the historical emergence of modern sexual identities” (1). Queerness, Farfan argues, is not merely analogous to or concurrent with modernism, as some in queer modernist studies have claimed; rather, queerness helped create the conditions of modernity as well as what we understand and study as modernism now. Some works we might not think of as modernist in form or technique, then, are modernist in their sexual dissidence. In this way, she suggests, “queer modernist performance” also anticipates and lays ground for contemporary queer modernist studies.

Acknowledging the complexity of the term, Farfan’s study registers the meaning of “queer” in several valences. In the period, queer as “odd” often coincided with or covered for sexual queerness. Most of the book’s examples, though, correspond to “queer” as “a verb that refers to the action or process of unsettling established cultural forms and modes of reception as they intersect with sexual norms and themes” (3). The disruptions and alternatives offered by her chosen texts, Farfan emphasizes, helped support and contribute to the articulation of modern sexual identities in both performers and audience—the role of spectator signifying particularly strongly in her conceptualization of the theater’s influence on queer identity. Following Susan Stanford Friedman’s definition of “modernism,” Farfan employs the term not as a set of aesthetic or formal principles but as the “engagement with a wide spectrum of historical changes,” including changes to gender norms and concepts of sexuality (4). Farfan’s text therein openly contributes to the transformative project of the new modernist studies by foregrounding the still-underrepresented area of performance, further expanding our understanding of modernism across genres. Underscoring important connections between performance history and the history of sexuality, Performing Queer Modernism also does the work of revisionist history from queer feminist perspectives on the study of modernist performance.

Like Vere’s, Farfan’s book is distinguished by a series of truly exquisite close readings, in her case of the queerness present within or produced by her chosen aesthetic objects, beginning in the first chapter with her illumination of homosocial desire in Arthur Wing Pinero’s 1893 The Second Mrs. Tanqueray. Farfan carefully lays out how the title character’s desire for her new husband’s unyielding daughter disrupts the traditional heterosexual plotline of the popular moral problem play, signaling a modernist innovation both in form and in sexual subjectivity. This reading ultimately ushers The Second Mrs. Tanqueray into the canon of Mao and Walkowitz’s “bad modernism” as a work not originally thought modernist, but which, through the analytical framework of queer theory, emerges as a contemporaneous participant in modernism’s “political and aesthetic subversions” (26). Farfan’s middle two chapters continue the examination of queer modernist performance through acts of dance in which shocking content combines with experimental form to reveal nascent, unconventional sexuality. Working a deft application of Freud’s unheimlich alongside the submerged and ghostly queerness of Loie Fuller’s 1897 Fire Dance, Farfan explores the modernist effect of Fuller’s innovative lighting techniques on her uncanny representations of the “queer feminist heretic,” historically burned at the stake, and the Wildean figure of the homosexual martyr (35). Farfan then pursues the thread of indeterminacy introduced by Fuller through a reading of Vaslav Nijinsky’s controversial 1912 ballet, Afternoon of a Faun. The flatness and unsentimentality of Nijinsky’s choreography, alongside his staging of indeterminate male sexuality through the ballet’s infamous act of autoeroticism, Farfan suggests, produces a “queer departure” from conventional heterosexual narrative and an invitation to a new queer spectatorship (42). The final two chapters consider the disruption of compulsory heterosexuality and conventional representational practices in plays by Noël Coward and Djuna Barnes, respectively. In a gesture toward the horizon of further inquiry, Farfan positions Barnes’s “metatheatrical” one-act plays To the Dogs and The Dove as anticipatory of contemporary queer and feminist critique, suggesting that one of queer modernist performance’s most significant “audiences” continues to be we later critics and theorists who engage with its ongoing “performances” in the present moment (69). Acts of staging, Farfan ultimately suggests, occur and recur throughout the archive when we retrieve an object from the past. So, staging proliferates not only horizontally, across many aspects of contemporary life, but also vertically, in a sense, through time, in the historical work of scholarship.

The role that we as scholars play in the critical and theoretical staging of our subject matter forms the basis of Paul Rae’s Real Theatre: Essays in Experience. Offering a provocative line of inquiry into the relationship between theater and reality, Rae is interested not in how theater stages reality, in the sense of approximation or representation, but in the reality of staging—the material acts and structures that are a constitutive part of the performance and experience of theater as we understand it. What if, Rae asks, in addition to the aspects of the theater which normally enter our analyses (production, performance, reception), we also attended to “the mundane realities of theatre as social institution, cultural practice and technical activity” (Rae 5)? Mimicking the kind of vertical and horizontal expansions suggested by new modernist studies, this project extends our consideration of the theater multi-dimensionally: in space, to the “backstage” and other locations within the theater and beyond; in time, to sequences of a show made by rehearsals, by other subsequent performances in the run, and by the cumulative weight of all previous performances; and in medium, to the many other sources of knowledge about a performance which circulate outside of it—conversation, reviews, advertising, and unquantifiable additional modes of cultural reference (25). Such diversity of connection to theater prepares the way for a vast overflow of forms of staging into many arenas of life and interaction.

Rae takes as his critical frame various elements of the “new realisms,” which can be characterized by a “commitment to the blurring of boundaries between human and nonhuman,” an understanding of agency as diffused in systems rather than concentrated in individuals or objects, and an attention to the “non-signifying features” of performance—those things that aren’t standing in for or representing some meaning to the audience, but are part of the creation of meaning itself (7, 10). The reader is assisted through portions of dense (though clearly conveyed) theoretical prose by grounded examples from Rae’s own performance background as well as other familiar performance-related objects, ranging from the writings of foundational theater practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski to the wildly popular Broadway production of the mid-1990s, The Lion King. In working with the concept of “real theater,” Rae offers his own understanding of the term which facilitates the kinds of inquiry described above. Part of the problem he identifies in post-structuralist criticism of the “theater of the real” is an assumption that theater is separated from a reality that exists elsewhere and outside of the theatrical. This prompts the question: “Why is it so difficult to allow that theatre might first of all be real in the same way that everything else is?” (4). Because, Rae suggests, that question strips the theater of what makes it remarkable, even magical; interrogation of the materiality and human fallibility of the theater lessens the spectacle of the performative experience—like learning the mechanism behind a magician’s trick and losing the substance of the illusion. Yet we are compelled to peek behind the curtain (or the magician’s cape) by Rae’s insistence that a greater attention to what is “ordinary” in and about the theatrical can only enrich our analyses, never detract from them.

The first two chapters comprising Part I of Rae’s study expound on the theoretical groundwork laid by the introduction, considering “real theater” in terms of both the material and the mundane components of performance. Focusing on the material composition of the theater—“starting with stuff” as Rae puts it—enables a broader response to the question of where and how theater happens, which is the first step in reconsidering what makes a suitable object for performance analysis (33). The second chapter pursues three definitions of “experience” as they intersect in theater: “an experience” as an event, the place theater occupies in the general experience of life, and how the theater depicts the condition of “experiencing” things as part of material reality. Rae works an analysis of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2014 Academy Award-winning film Birdman through this theorization of experience, creating a lens through which to then reexamine one of the highest grossing and longest-running stage productions of all time, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera (1986).

A seemingly disingenuous moment occurs at the end of the second chapter, however, at the conclusion of the theoretical and framing portion of the book. Rae off-handedly comments on another film which premiered within months of Birdman and which also takes the theater as its main subject matter—The Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) by Olivier Assayas, starring Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart, and Chloe Grace Moretz. Rae suggests that the film’s treatment of theater as a cultural and aesthetic institution is so similar to Birdman’s, that “had [he] caught it first,” it could have served as the primary example of his chapter instead. Such a substitution, he admits, would have been inflected (though “not all-consumingly so,” he assures us) with different questions and considerations of gender, as the film focuses on relationships among women rather than men (79). As the final gesture of the chapter, Rae poses both films as analogues for understanding the role of experience in real theater, asking, “Which theatre experience is it going to be? One does not, of course, need to choose—cannot choose” (79). But Rae does choose, and he has chosen for us the cultural object which reinforces the dominant and default position of the straight white male experience—the perspective which, he has earlier explained, still informs the idea of the “theatre in general,” or the “pervasive social idea of metropolitan, mainstream theatre as it exists internationally” (58). That his new framework for performance analysis still seems to obscure a basic diversity of experience while claiming to expand the frames of reference through which we think about theater would seem to undermine the chapter’s theorization of multivalent experience in relation to performance. And his explanation for why Birdman grounds the theoretical framework of the chapter rather than Sils Maria—that he simply “caught it first”—ignores the complicated social and political reasons for why that may have been. While the overall project of Real Theatre purports to offer a mode of critical engagement newly attuned to the systems and structures of reality which inform and constitute the theater, this brief and seemingly inconsequential slippage at the end of Part I reveals a momentary, incongruous lack of attention to the institutional limitations and political realities which make films centralizing the experiences of women less critically acclaimed and commercially successful than their straight-masculine counterparts. This oversight must certainly give us pause, though it need not undermine the project as a whole. The book’s strengths remain the wide disciplinary net cast by its theoretical engagements and the innovative and experimental programs of thought offered about what “staging” means within both the public and intimate registers of our lives.

The remaining chapters in Part II of Real Theatre broadly pursue the theater through and beyond the theatrical event itself. The most unusual of these sites is the subject of the third chapter, wherein Rae takes the difficulty of recreating or representing a theatrical experience through conversation as an invitation to explore the fascinating and unremarked contributions made by “theater talk” to the network of mundane realities surrounding performance. Casual conversation, as Rae puts it, “re-stages” theater for ourselves and others, mediating the experience through the material context of the conversation and passing judgment on the performance itself in statements filtered through personal and sociocultural value systems (87). These informal performances muster a reality, Rae argues, as much a part of theater as the performances on stage. In the fourth chapter Rae examines the tendency of theater to obscure the processes of its own creation, and, recapturing those processes, offers new insights into the mechanisms of “staging” performing bodies. This is aptly followed by an interpretation of theater as assemblage, in a chapter tracing the relationship between live performance and the non-human, technical systems which enable and support it. Loïe Fuller appears again briefly here as a figure whose deep involvement in “the technical details of her creations” made her a choreographer not only of body, but also of light and instrument (136). That Fuller’s “serpentine dance” features both in a study of queer modernist performance and a theoretical discourse on the “theater of the real” speaks to Fuller’s lasting power as a figure of technical, sexual, and theatrical modernities. And emphasizing the occasional yet meaningful impact of a single person, such as Fuller, on the world of theatrical experience as a whole, Rae returns in the end to the human element of staging, in a six-degrees-of-separation-type analysis of “theater people.” This final chapter takes as its example Sir Ian McKellen, using his single point of reference to demonstrate the connections among the human bodies involved in the creation of theater over space and time. True to his pursuit of the “real” in and about theater, Rae ultimately demonstrates the extent to which these networks spill into or otherwise infiltrate social and political space in excess of that designated as specifically theatrical.

As these three monographs show—and as was strongly suggested by the theme of the 2019 Space Between Society Annual Conference and its keynote Claire Warden—performance studies has yet much to offer literary and cultural studies of modernism and the 20th century more broadly. Not only does modern theater itself remain an under-examined archive, but the methodologies and attentions of performance studies provide new ways of seeing our materials of study as part of networks of production, representation, and perception: as staged events or objects performing ideological and aesthetic roles. The concepts of performance studies might be especially meaningful to scholars of the interwar period, in considering the effects of “staging” the years 1914–1945 as a space “between.” We may be reminded of the representative and encapsulating work of period bookends, whether they be world wars or the relatively arbitrary demarcations of the century, and how staging a span of history as enclosed or unique also imbues it with particular political significance.

These methodologies of performance also, and perhaps most importantly, help us recognize relevant connections between our historical work and our present moment. Vere and Farfan, though looking at approximately the same period of the early 20th century, certainly model the kind of transitive property of analysis by which historical study remains relevant to the present. We see this first in Vere’s illumination of the strong ties among sporting practice, commercial industry, and ideological dissemination, which of course persist today, perhaps even more intensely, in the association of professional American sports with the military establishment, as well as in the calculated corporate support for certain political protests (as in Nike’s endorsement of Colin Kaepernick following his refusal to stand for the American national anthem). Similarly, Farfan’s foregrounding of the roots of contemporary queer modernist study within stagings of sexuality in early 20th-century performance draws attention to the means by which we in the present continue to engage with the stagings of the past even as we negotiate their place in our current critical moment. And Rae’s expansive model for broader consideration of performance’s material realities—applicable transhistorically—encourages reflection on the many aspects of current daily life which resemble the productive and representative mechanisms of the stage. Turning the historical gaze which we employ professionally to our current global moment, we might find that performance studies, and the attendant concept of “staging,” can help us analyze and understand the proximity of various kinds of performance to the forms of political staging we encounter daily and with ever rising stakes.

Works Cited

Smith, Allan. “Why does Trump’s hurricane map look different from others?” NBC News. 4 September 2019.


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