The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Staging Modernist Lives: H.D., Mina Loy, Nancy Cunard, Three Plays and Criticism

Staging Modernist Lives: H.D., Mina Loy, Nancy Cunard, Three Plays and Criticism. By Sasha Colby. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017. x + 326 pp. $110.00 (cloth); $37.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Nicole Flynn, South Dakota State University

Sasha Colby’s Staging Modernist Lives models an innovative research practice that has the potential to solve a perpetual dilemma for humanities scholars: how to pursue a research agenda while also reaching a broader audience. Building upon recent work in performance studies, Colby advocates “literary ‘research theatre’” (9). This research model comprises a complementary pair of methodologies combining the kinetic, embodied practice of theatre with the text-based practices of literary studies: research-based performance (“the pursuit of knowledge through theatrical methods such as improvisation and enactment”) and performance-based research (“the dramatization of literary knowledge that we have already acquired through more traditional forms of inquiry”) (13). While practice-based research is standard in the sciences, the humanities have hesitated to move past traditional forms of research (reading) and dissemination (criticism). Colby suggests the fields of literature and drama are a natural fit—historically, formally, and thematically. Scholars “perform” in the classroom and in delivering conference presentations, so it is not a practice unfamiliar to them. Modernist work, with its “preoccupation with staging the self,” is uniquely suited to this research method. While modernist studies has begun to embrace more theatre scholarship, “the idea of pursuing modernist inquiry through theatre” remains largely untested (9).

In the introduction, Colby describes the development of these new research paradigms over the past twenty years, demonstrates their value, and imagines their potential.  Then, the format of the book itself becomes an innovative departure from the traditional monograph. The rest of the book is divided into three sections in which Colby demonstrates how to put this theory into practice. Each section contains an original play along with its own preface. Given the prevailing skepticism, unfamiliarity, or fearfulness around practice-based research, this concrete demonstration of what research theatre might look like is invaluable. At present, it seems scholars must choose between public-facing humanities projects or field-specific scholarship, but Colby’s plays do both. In addition, she claims they serve as valuable pedagogical tool to help students understand and enjoy notoriously difficult material.

Colby’s research focuses on autobiographical women’s writing, and this project is a corrective that “seeks to find embodied forms of expression for literary scholarship and also to give voice to often under-represented embodied forms of modernism” (25). The word embodied is key. By staging the lives of these women, often in their own words, Colby infuses their texts and contexts with life—human bodies, voices, movement. In performance, Colby’s plays present the women’s often challenging modernist art in its multimodal complexity and the speaking, moving, living bodies on stage render their work more accessible to audiences who might be intimidated or alienated by it on a silent, two-dimensional page. As a result, the plays enable audience members, novices and experts alike, to experience the work in new and enriched ways.

In the first section, Colby presents The Tree, an auto/biographical play about H.D. that combines familiar dramatic elements (character development, narrative arc, thematic elements) with rigorous research about and critical reflection on H.D.’s life and work. Colby’s work participates in literary critical conversations about H.D. thematically and somatically, investigating how performance can represent and explore H.D.’s “aesthetics of impersonality,” “multi-layered sensibility,” “multiple subjectivities,” and “gender performance” (30). Structurally, the play mirrors the “palimpsestic” nature of H.D.’s life and work (29). For example, one actress performs all twenty-five roles in the play—from young H.D. (with an American accent) to 67-year-old H.D. (with an English accent); from H.D.’s parents and friends to figures such as Sigmund Freud, D.H. Lawrence, and Ezra Pound. The script quotes extensively from H.D.’s letters, memoirs, romans à clefs, and poems, carefully documenting each source in the footnotes. Furthermore, the play highlights the theatricality within H.D.’s oeuvre, particularly in Bid Me to Live with its scene-based structure, set-like description of the protagonist’s apartment, even a play within the novel. The genesis of The Tree was reading Bid Me to Live out loud—Colby felt “the novel often sounds like a play” (42; emphasis in the original). Even though Colby characterizes this play as a research-based performance, the preface describes the generative, performance-based research that unfolded during rehearsals: “Like rehearsal, H.D.’s repetitions are not static, but constitutive” (37).

In the second section, we encounter The Mina Loy Interviews. Colby’s play features overlooked aspects of Loy’s oeuvre and, in performance, embodies her often cerebral work, literally, through the bodies of the actors. In Colby’s words, “Dramatizing Loy’s poetry, in particular, creates the opportunity to present that which is about the body, through the body” (108). In particular, the play highlights the aurality of Loy’s poetry, which performance renders through the actor’s voice, and the comic elements of her poetry, which her text suggests but which require tone or gesture (in other words, a body) to be communicated fully. Again, much of the dialogue is direct quotation, in this case, from two interviews conducted with Loy. Interviews differs from The Tree, however, in two important ways. First, it incorporates a screen onto which various images and films are projected throughout the play, such as Loy’s writing and visual art, newsreels, and other films and images for historical context, and characters on screen speaking to characters onstage. In her writing, Loy used the term “newsreel of my memory” and the play stages this metaphor by intercutting the interview scenes with projections of the memories they evoke (113). In this way, the projections provide “a portal into what Loy termed her ‘subconscious archives’” (114). The term “subconscious archives” inspires the second way that Interviews differs from The Tree. While Colby describes the method for both plays as “auto/biographical quotation,” for Interviews this method is “interlaced with a dramatization of the research environment” (297). Interviews literally stages an archive: interview scenes are framed by present-day scenes in which a scholar visits Mina Loy’s archives. As the researcher encounters the two interviews, the play enacts them. For Colby, this staging of the “‘scene of the archive’” dramatizes the “relationship between researcher and subject” in order to examine how archival collections shape our interpretation of authors and their work (107).

Next, Colby turns to Nancy Cunard with These Were the Hours. Cunard presents several challenges to the playwright that Colby addresses thoughtfully and deliberately. One challenge is the “spectacle” of Cunard, a polarizing figure with a vexed personal and political persona (197). Colby must contend with “the surplus of extant performances created by media, literary culture, and academic profiles” (195). Another challenge is the “other spaces” of Cunard’s life, literally and metaphorically—the many countries where she lived and traveled as well as the “topography of memory” within her body of writing (203). Colby suggests that “the stage...operates as intersecting space, a place that can contain and support overlapping realities, geographies, memories, and ideas” (207). For this reason, theatre is uniquely capable of representing Cunard’s broad and diverse range of experiences, ideas, and perceptions while maintaining its heterogeneity. The stage can accommodate and explore the differences without reconciling them.

Colby describes this play’s method as “quotation-based invention” (297). While the script includes some direct quotation from Cunard’s auto/biographical writing, many scenes are imagined versions of moments in her life. The play emphasizes the historical context for these imagined scenes by projecting documentary footage that depicts, for example, race relations in the United States, the Spanish Civil War, and World War II. Colby notes the irony that the play that is “the most historically grounded is also the most imaginatively derived” and, I admit, I found this play the most enjoyable to read, perhaps because of its imaginative scenes (299). For Colby, “Cunard became an important case study for probing the ways more imaginative scenes can be linked to scholarly research” (299).

It is fitting that Colby’s book ends with a play that looks forward to opening up more possibilities for research theatre. The author convincingly argues that

as a companion method to criticism, research-based performance offers us a particular window or vantage point on the human experience that draws us to literature to begin with, a literary genre that can also act as a literary methodology, an art that can provide the contextual and illuminating capacities we sometimes lack in more analytical modes of inquiry. (11–12)

The book challenges us to overcome prejudice against performance, hesitation about reimagining research paradigms, and anxiety about incorporating the personal, the biographical, or the body in our scholarship. Colby takes an important step by illustrating what auto/biographical plays can do to develop and disseminate scholarly research. But it is only one step. Colby’s work leaves us asking an important question: what’s next? In what other ways can we incorporate the arts into humanities research? If we are not staging the life of an author who wrote memoirs, autobiographies, and romans à clefs, what can we stage? What other research questions can dramatic methodologies address? I look forward to seeing how the field responds.  

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