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More Big Fat Reference Books!
By Jonathan Kalb


The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre & Performance
Edited by Dennis Kennedy
1559 pages, 2 vols.
Oxford University Press



In this age of specialization, the specialized encyclopedia may be the most embattled type of reference book. Since dictionaries confine themselves to defining terms, they may be attacked for inaccuracy but are rarely the subject of loud debate about the value of defining their terms. Almanacs and other periodical compendiums (such as annual Best of… and This Year in… series) avoid controversies about value by concentrating on ephemeral and drily factual data. Encyclopedias, however, particularly those issued by prestigious publishers, invariably give the appearance of valorizing selected knowledge as timeless and monumental, even when their editors duly acknowledge that they are products of a particular time. Encyclopedias always come off as authoritative time-capsules, whatever their disclaimers, and time-capsules invite arguments over the representativeness of their contents.

I suspect that Dennis Kennedy, editor of the two-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre & Performance, will be spared the sort of heated disputes over selection and accuracy that currently swirl around, say, Brill's Encyclopedia of Islam. Nevertheless, Kennedy has entered notoriously unsettled territory--the still uncertain relationship between theater studies and performance studies--where flare-ups, and occasionally full-scale battles, still occur. There is a sort of unspoken diplomatic frisson to this enormous project, which (as its title implies) is premised on the notion that the rift between the two disciplines is no longer real or important, or at least that whatever gulf remains can be bridged by mutual understanding. Only "time will tell," as Beckett's addled academic Lucky says, himself a victim of re-allocated resources in a market-driven environment indifferent to high-minded ideas. Meanwhile, Kennedy's prodigious and intelligently conceived volumes--1559 double-column pages with credited entries by 317 distinguished contributors--are likely to be welcome succor and sustenance to those most victimized by academic turf wars: graduate students.

Kennedy says in his preface that The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre & Performance (OETP) is conceived to serve both specialists and non-specialists. The work encompasses both brief, just-the-facts entries and longer, discursive articles that dispense with the appearance of objectivity to aim at capacious historical and critical assessment. I can't discern any rule about which subjects receive longer entries--people, places, concepts, theories, or traditions--but most of the biographies are very brief (150-200 words) and, it must be said, unambitious. The non-specialist turning to the OETP for such entries would find few qualitative reasons to prefer them over those in any of the "Companion to Theater" volumes now available (though the OETP's range of entries is greater). The real editorial love and care in this work has gone into the longer contributions.

For those interested in plays, the gold standard for essay-articles in smaller English-language encyclopedias has long been The Reader's Encyclopedia of World Drama, edited by John Gassner and Edward Quinn. Published in 1969, this incisive single volume was guided by the old post-war assumption that drama, if it merited serious study at all, was best regarded as literature. The same was true of The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of World Drama, which appeared in 1972 and devoted large portions of its four volumes to plot summary. Interestingly enough, by the time both these works appeared, theater studies in the U.S., Britain, and Germany had already evolved to the point of sophisticated consideration of performance as a primary subject. Unfortunately, though, no essayistic encyclopedia of world theater (as distinct from drama) ever appeared that could meaningfully complement Gassner and Quinn--including the five-volume 1984 revision of McGraw Hill, which wasn't nearly as "conceptually improved" in this respect as it claimed.

Now, several decades later, the picture is vastly more complicated. Happenings, performance art, performance studies, cultural studies, inter- and multiculturalism, the ascendancy of critical theory, and much, much more have intervened to render the very notion of a single field quaint. The biggest question in any new work attempting comprehensive coverage is: what are the new boundaries? Another stickler is: how is comprehensiveness to be judged? Among many American and British academics, the rigid old "all drama is literature" bias has now been displaced by an irresponsibly loose "everything is theater" openness. Thus, the framing choices of an editor like Kennedy are very much under the microscope. To my mind, he deserves enormous credit just for producing a landscape that seems coherent for the moment, for the sake of argument.

Among the many lucid and mind-opening essays in the OETP are those on "Toilets" (by Tracy Davis and Peter Holland), "Pornography and Performance" (Kim Marra), "Film and Theatre" (David Mayer), and "Interculturalism" (Brian Singleton). These combine with excellent 500-1000-word articles on such matters as "Riots" (Jim Davis), "Cyber Theatre" (Matthew Causey), and "Historiography" (Thomas Postlewait). The breakdown of scholarly borders over the past several decades is fairly and fruitfully represented. Standard theater topics that receive penetrating longer treatment include "Molière" (Roger Herzel), "Lighting" (John Barnes), and "Scenography" (Matthew Wilson Smith).

Among Kennedy's most original editorial decisions was to dispense with articles on national traditions (which he says are adequately treated in other works, and that's true--see Don Rubin's World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, for instance) in favor of long entries on cities and regions that are important centers of theatrical activity. This, he says, creates a focus "on performance as an expression of society and locality, from contributors with deep connections to the area." He might have added that the approach also generated some of the encyclopedia's best writing. The fine, multiply-authored entries on London, New York, and Paris, as well as the shorter ones on Berlin, Moscow, Algiers, and Mexico City are all full of fresh observations and will repay study even by readers familiar with the cities.

Inevitably, some readers will also be irritated by certain choices. The spirit of interdisciplinariness certainly prevails in the OETP, but some types of interdisciplinariness are more equal than others. Cross-pollinations of theater with anthropology or ethnography, for instance, are considered much more important than those of theater with psychology and psychotherapy. Victor Turner and Richard Schechner are in; psychodrama and sociodrama are out. Another bias follows a pervasive trend in the humanities over the past several decades in preferring political questions to aesthetic ones--no entry on humanism and nothing on conceptions of beauty (by region or era), or even on its quasi-political iterations in kitsch or camp. Furthermore, Marxism is curiously muted in this political universe--no entry on "Lehrstück," and a major article on "Race and Theatre" lacks a counterpart on "Class and Theatre" and/or "Revolution and Theatre."

Still another bias in the OETP--odd only in light of its claim to serve non-specialists--has to do with a too strictly academic gauge of which living artists are important enough for inclusion. Particularly directors. Avant-gardists like JoAnne Akalaitis, Peter Sellars, and Anne Bogart seem assured of a place, as does anyone whose iconoclasm (or formal innovation, or history of public controversy) has been useful to college seminars over the past 10-15 years. Directors who have merely excelled at the craft of interpreting plays, however, or who have earned respect among their peers for other practical or technical prowess, or for psychological perceptiveness, occupy an unmentioned sub-category. Here is the famous gulf between the theory and praxis of contemporary theater, which ought to unsettle every scholar. I don't dispute Kennedy's inclusion of anyone--I happen to revere many of the avant-gardists he covers--but I do question the exclusion of yeoman artists such as Jack O'Brien, Mark Lamos, Michael Greif, Jonathan Kent, Arthur Penn, James Lapine, and Joe Mantello.

Every encyclopedia, despite the time and widely shared effort needed to produce it, is in the long run a panoramic snapshot of a particular historical moment. The OETP's snapshot is both fascinatingly self-contradictory and wonderfully ambitious: it records both an explosion of performative knowledge in our time and intense post-post-Enlightenment hopes for disciplinary solidarity. The work is rooted strongly in the culture wars of the past two decades, and while it's true that students today cannot survive in academia without understanding this intellectual heritage, it's also true that, for the most original thinkers of the future, poring over that heritage will be comparable to generals preparing for the last war. A prodigious work like this tells us much about where we are, and no doubt also points unequivocally to where we're going, if we only knew how to read it that way.


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