Standards of Comparison

Day 2 brought still more rain and cloudiness but in our seminars we tried to clear away some of the fog. Martin’s seminar, “What Gets Performed,” compared how canons are formed in the theater system as opposed to the literary system. Drawing on John Guillory’s 1991 article, “Canon, Syllabus, List” we identified canonizing factors in theater. The season, the festival, the importance of programming and touring, the world premiere, the centennial or anniversary — all these processes differentiate theatrical canonization from literary canonization. What, then, is a list of canonical plays? We considered the theater anthology’s important role of bridging the literary canon with the theatrical canon. 

Lists are in some ways the opposite of canons, Elizabeth T. suggested, reminding us of “disposable” lists such as “this summer’s top reads.” Ysabel commented that when she chooses plays for a student she looks for examples of a certain type of play rather than basing her syllabus on important authors. Indeed we reflected on the decoupling of the “author” from the theatrical text in the theater system, where collective production and its simultaneous reception by an audience makes it much harder to identify a play with its author. The playhouse, the troupe, the director and producer — these factors make the theater play more dynamic and collaborative than the literary text.

Responding to Maitri’s description of the reception of the Western canon in India, Martin  recalled a central thesis in Gauri Viswanathan’s book, Masks of Conquest: Literary Studies and British Rule in India, that what we think of today as the English canon was actually produced for colonizing India. I left the seminar wondering about the theater canon’s nostalgia for lost community. Both of the anthology introductions we read, the Wadsworth and the Norton, began by describing a moment of communal reception, when actors and audiences are in captivated by each other’s presence.

After lunch sandwiches we gathered for Steve Kuehler’s presentation on the theater archives in the Houghton Library. Steve, a librarian with a heart of gold, can be reached at for any and all theater-related research queries. Here is the Library Guide to Harvard’s Theater Collection.

The afternoon gathered us for our first Graduate Writing Workshop with Minou Arjomand. Minou didn’t mince words; she asked us to go on a date — for the sake of our dissertations, and to try and describe our projects to this audience (perhaps at the expense of said date!). I jotted down some dissertation-related pickup lines for you (thank me later!):

“Have you seen the new Avengers movie? (My dissertation is kind of like that)”

“Being an actor sucks… I’m studying a 300-year-old example of this”

“You know how Shakespeare is kind of bankrolling modern playwriting and how that’s kind of weird for Britain?”

“I feel like this is kind of my second date with you”

“And you’re from Russia, right?”

“And what are you drinking?”

In Tuesday’s final event we welcomed Sharon Marcus with a lecture on celebrity, repertory, and merit. Sharon described to us how “celebrity came to be structured as a contest” in the medium of theater. Competition presents an interesting challenge for discussing theatrical celebrity, Sharon argued, because performance doesn’t have a clear relationship to competition — so much depends on qualitative judgment and collaboration. And yet in researching one of the predecessors to today’s celebrity, the actress Sarah Bernhardt, Sharon found that for turn-of-the-century actors as well as spectators competition meant professionalization. By competing against each other in the same roles actors and actresses staked out their personal styles. Fanny Davenport’s rivalry with Sarah Bernhardt gave theatergoers a chance to hone their aesthetic judgments and tastes, to professionalize in their own way by comparing the actresses’ performances of the same role. In this lecture Sharon focused on one of the most famous French celebrities of all time — second perhaps only to Napoleon — the actress Sarah Bernhardt. 

Bernhardt, says Sharon, was “skilled in celebrity” in ways that “empowered both actresses and audiences.” Deliberately choosing to play roles made famous by predecessors, Bernhardt drew on the theatergoers’ desire to judge and appraise performance. Like other famous actors and actresses, Bernhardt used the “mirror repertory” strategy, in which actors played the same role in different theaters or even in one playhouse on different nights. Simultaneous performances of actresses like Fanny Davenport and Sarah Bernhardt gave theatergoers. Far from diluting interest, Sharon says, the mirror repertory strategy increased the popularity of both actresses. Ultimately it is Sarah Bernhardt’s clever manipulation of repertory that made her the “global standard of comparison” for actresses.

The scrapbooks of theater enthusiasts attest to a sort of global repertory, a set of plays seen in common by international audiences. Studying over a hundred theater scrapbooks from 1880s to the 1920s, Sharon observed that theatergoers were keenly judging the acting talents of actors even before “theaters went dark” and “asked audiences to be silent.” The coupling of celebrity and contest created evaluators “able and willing to weigh merits” of acting — an activity that “was considered worthwhile.” Sharon suggested that a certain mirroring happens between audiences and their celebrities. If nowadays we equate celebrity merely with notoriety (rather than talent) and with worthlessness (“famous for being famous”), does this not reflect our own waning capacities for aesthetic judgment?

In post-show discussion we recalled the Elizabethan era rivalry between actors Richard Burbage and Edward Alleyn, and considered Sarah Bernhardt’s career as a competition against herself. We also elucidated the theoretical difference between Sharon Marcus’ concept of celebrity and Joseph Roach’s notion of surrogation, in which a surrogate is “auditioned” to substitute for a lost original. Sharon stressed that her understanding of acting and celebrity allows for the coexistence and mutually beneficial competition of actors — Eleonora Duse does not “replace” Sarah Bernhardt for the original Dame Aux Camellias. “People had an endless appetite for repetition, replication.” She also pushed back against the notion of notoriety, “notoriety is almost always a form of celebrity but not all celebrity is notoriety,” Sharon remarked, pointing out that Bernhardt’s own phase of “sleeping in a coffin” did not eclipse her theatrical merit.


See also: Ania Aizman