This year’s Mellon school has gathered intrepid defenders and reformers of the canon on that famed battlefield, the dramatic repertoire. Lest the cheery smiles and (soaked) summer wear fool you, we are here to take apart and build back up our most dearly held notions about what should be performed. And, as is usual with the world of theater, survival is at stake.
Already in our first session of Martin Puchner’s morning seminar, “What Gets Performed,” we heard stories of texts, playwrights, and scholars existing against the odds. Ginny Anderson told us about recovering the lost plays of the AIDS crisis in America, while Yuan Li tried to persuade Chinese officials to allow the unhappy ending of an Irish play on stage in China. Joanna Mansbridge described staging a production of Paula Vogel’s How I learned to Drive with her students in Bilkent, Turkey. Ernesto Fundora suggested that the new phase of positive relations between the United States and Cuba will drive up interest in Cuban culture, in local dramaturgy and theater.
In the evening Martin Puchner revealed to us in his opening address how exactly “the canon sausage is made.” Having become an editor for W.W. Norton’s Anthology of Drama, Martin had initially hoped that the task would be simple: the editors draw up the list and secure publication rights. After all, Norton has got the key to anthological success: paper. Thin enough to fit a lot more text — and to remind us of the Bible, that original canon.
But it turns out that the table of contents for Norton’s anthology of drama is not a matter of editorial decision. Rather, texts are selected by a large and anonymous collective, a shadowy association of unknown parameters: theater teachers. That is, you. Martin explained that Norton extensively surveys teachers to find out what they need. Editors are bound to that list (and then — bound to apologize for that list wherever their academic travels take them). At the same time editors are also bound by complex cost-benefit calculations: securing anthology rights from rights owners that usually refuse to grant them (as with Waiting for Godot, Streetcar Named Desire, and Long Day’s Journey into Night), bargaining with the exorbitant translation fees (as with Lorca’s work), or including the lesser-known play of a playwright because it is more affordable. Hence, says Martin, Edward Albee’s The Goat; or Who is Sylvia takes the place of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. And while our lecturer doubted “how well The Goat has aged,” he seemed sorry to see the next edition of the anthology throw out less popular plays and double up on some playwrights — moving towards greater canonicity under the pressure of the market, to entice more teachers and students to buy the anthology. “If we want to change” Martin stressed, “we have to do it together.”
Martin had begun his lecture by discussing the canon wars of the 1980s and 1990s. But the situation today seems to call theater scholars to abandon the struggle or war between canon camps, in favor of collective accountability to Marx’s question, “Who educates the educators?”
Evening saw us walking in the rain to Martin’s house, where a cozy dinner and conversation awaited. Scholars of all stripes stood in small groups, talking about job markets and interviews, syllabi and students. But by the end of the night the conversation had strayed from confrontations with the canon. People chatted about raising children and making art. Wine and water spilled — “libations!” we said, but hastened to mop up the mess. As I walked home I thought of Pushkin’s famous prologue to a fairytale,
There once was I, friends, and the Cat
As near him ‘neath the oak I sat
And drank of sweet mead at my leisure
Recounted tales to me… With pleasure
One that I liked do I recall
And here and now will share with all…”