Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Joan Hawkins

 

All the World's a Stage

 


 

 

Timothy Murray

_Drama Trauma: Specters of Race and Sexuality in Performance, Video and Art_

Routledge, 1997

ISBN: 0415157897

305 pp

 

_Drama Trauma_ is a difficult book to review because it both does and does not hang together as one sustained linear argument. Made up of pieces originally written for another book-length project and of more recent critical readings of cultural performance, the book moves from a lengthy section on Shakespeare to much briefer sections on contemporary drama, performance art and installation pieces. And since there's no conclusion, it's not always clear how the sections interact with one another; how they hang together, so to speak. But the sections themselves make for a provocative read; and, if one accepts the book as a loosely organized attempt to 'reflect the non-linear incursions of theory and political performance that have altered our understanding of dramatic 'genre' over more than the past decade' (21), _Drama Trauma_ marks an important contribution to the fields of drama scholarship, performance studies, cultural studies and media studies.

 

As the title suggests, the book does much more than simply map the trajectory of generic change. Murray is interested in the way performance has traditionally served 'as a means of confronting hegemony with the specter of its own vicissitudes' (7). And, for Murray, the 'specter' of hegemony's vicissitudes corresponds to the 'specters of race and sexuality' mentioned in the book's title. Utilizing poststructural as well as psychoanalytic theory, Murray attempts to analyze the 'trauma' which the dramatic specters of race and sexuality unveil, reflect, address and (occasionally) attempt to contain within culture and performance. But he's also interested in the trauma of what he calls 'televisual fear', a sort of performance trauma which attaches to the use of televisual and cinematic apparatuses to record and transmit theater. This, then, is a whole new brand of genre study -- one which attempts to trace both the cultural trauma reflected in various performance pieces, and the generic trauma reflected in new modes of 'staging' ('screening') performance works. The fact that the book is heavily indebted to psychoanalytic theory -- a theory of psychosocial development which may, to some extent, be said to be founded on drama (Oedipus) trauma -- gives some sense of how much, for Murray, is at stake in the generic and cultural 'specters' (and 'traumas') he is analyzing.

 

_Drama Trauma_ opens with a discussion of Baz Luhrmann's 1996 _William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet_, a film characterized by what Murray calls 'libidinal overkill', excessive violence, and 'performative erotics'. The first major remake of _Romeo and Juliet_ since Zeffirelli's 1968 classic, Luhrmann's production situates Shakespeare's tragedy in the hood. Its style -- one of quick cuts and rock video inserts -- seems specifically designed to target a youth audience. Apparently, it was successful. The film not only 'captured top honors at the American box office during its first weekend of release but did so without an overwhelming number of adult ticket holders' (1). Luhrmann's production was successful largely because it positioned itself against 'adult' or 'traditional' adaptations of Shakespeare. As Claire Danes, the actress who played Juliet in the film, remarked:

 

I saw Romeo and Juliet with a friend of mine, and he was like, 'Forget Shakespeare! This movie is so cool, you shouldn't even mention him. It'll keep people away.' And I want people to know this movie has nothing to do with anything scary or academic or boring.

 

Murray uses Danes's quote as an epigram to the first chapter, and in many ways it is a fit epigram for the entire book. The dichotomy which Danes establishes between Luhrmann's movie and (traditional) Shakespeare, between _William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet_ and 'anything scary or academic or boring', is one which fascinates Murray and which he attempts to collapse throughout _Drama Trauma_. For Murray, Luhrmann's film -- while certainly not boring -- is 'scary' and 'academic'. With its multicultural cast, invocations of drag, and rock video techniques, the film not only heppens up the play and makes it accessible to a youth audience, it also lays bare and explores many of the tensions -- the traumas -- submerged or half-encrypted in Shakespeare's text: sexual trauma, patriarchal and paternalistic trauma, class trauma, male hysteria, homoeroticism, racial trauma. The film, Murray writes, 'enters more or less into dialogue with Shakespeare's script to represent celluloid specters of the hybrid economies of race and sexuality that have remained deeply traumatic to Shakespeare's viewers over the ages' (2). The fact that it does so largely through the use of actors like Harold Perrineau and the well-known performance artist John Leguizamo -- actors whose performances are 'haunted' by the 'specters' of their other (previous) raced and travestied cinematic roles -- gives Murray an interesting means of exploring what he calls the 'ghostly legacy' of Shakespeare's 'historical texts'.

 

There is a curious elision of 'performance' and 'text' throughout the book. Not only are the 'haunted' performances of Perrineau and Leguizamo somewhat analogous to the 'ghostly legacy' of Shakespeare's plays (which are similarly 'haunted' by the 'specters' of race and sexuality), but, throughout the book, Murray tends to consider 'performance' as both integral to and separate from specific stagings ('presentations') of the works he discusses. The plays are approached largely via their texts. Influenced by Laplanche's writings on sublimation and Abraham and Tarok's theories of 'melancholic 'cryptation' (10), Murray seeks to analyze the performances which are encoded within the play texts themselves (and which, one could argue, a sensitive director can and should expose through careful, meaningful stagings of the works). To this end, he provides interesting and theoretically-informed readings of _King Lear_, _Othello_, _Hamlet_, _Romeo and Juliet_ and _All's Well That Ends Well_.

 

Where he does consider specific productions of a play text, he seems to reserve lengthy discussions for cinematic and video productions -- Jonathan Miller's BBC production of _All's Well That Ends Well_, Luhrmann's _William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet_. In part, this privileging of filmed and televised theatrical productions over specific staged productions engages Herbert Blau's theorizations of the difference between presentation on-stage and representation on-screen, and reverses (or at least questions) Blau's assumption that live theater provides a more 'authentic' presentation of human agency than cinematic re-presentations can possibly provide. 'Perhaps the most characteristic and, in my mind, most troubling assumption about theatricality,' Murray writes, 'pertains to the ideology of presence pervading the discourse of performance. The privileging of presence is particularly problematic when offered as the epistemological groundwork of otherwise admirable criticism that promotes the radicality of representation' (17).

 

As Murray points out, what's radical and cool in Luhrmann's cinematic version of _Romeo and Juliet_ is precisely the degree to which it does not make 'presence' an 'epistemological groundwork'. Here the director uses cinema and televisual references 'as the destabilizing mechanism of irony and hyperbole for which rhetoric and perspective were the playful engines on the Renaissance stage' (2). In that sense, Murray suggests, Luhrmann's cinematic adaptation of the play -- with its pointed referencing of television news broadcasters, commercials and rock video inserts -- is authentic in a way that a 'straight', high-brow, theatrical production of the play could never be.

 

In subsequent sections, Murray goes further in collapsing the traditional opposition between staged and screened (re)presentations, analyzing Marsha Norman's troubling play _Getting Out_ largely in terms of 'institutional codes of spectatorship' (102), and analyzing contemporary African American dramas in light of French film theory's formulation of the cinematic apparatus -- specifically, Marcelin Pleynet, Jean-Louis Baudry, and Jean-Louis Comolli's elaboration of the 'abstract relationship of the development of the camera with the Colonial history of Occidental humanism' (151). This strategy is particularly useful in analyzing both the prison memories which haunt Arlie/Arlene in _Getting Out_ and the specter of slavery which haunts all of Amiri Baraka's work (just as, Baraka rightly claims, it haunts all of American history). But it also helps point out the way in which theater, like film, is bound up with structures of surveillance and voyeurism, the way in which theatergoers, like film spectators, are implicated in the ocularity of the institutions being exposed/critiqued in the space of the spectacle. In that sense, Murray refuses to let theater off the hook, refuses to let it take refuge in its status as high art, but implicates it in the same problematics of voyeurism and sensationalism which film scholars and directors have long attributed to cinema. If this is a daring rhetorical move, it is also an invigorating one, since it reinscribes theater within a set of cultural discourses which seem to matter (outside the confines of the theater); a set of cultural discourses where there is a larger social something at stake.

 

Exactly what is at stake becomes clear in chapter ten, where Murray moves from a provocative discussion of censorship to an equally provocative discussion of 'official' performance art. Here the point of departure is the NEA's censorship (and censure-ship) of various performance artists whose work was deemed objectionable by the conservative right. But the 'performance' which Murray spends the most time analyzing is the unfurling of the newly-renovated Statue of Liberty during liberty weekend, a hegemonic performance which Murray contrasts to the vanguard performances of artists like Holly Hughes, Orlan and Carmelita Tropicana. While the televised spectacle of liberty weekend was 'calculated to transmit a maternal image of an America politically unified by its commitment to liberty' -- an image so problematic that even the Campbell's Soup Company was able to 'strategically cut across the grain by advertising how 'even in the shadow of her [Liberty's] torch -- homeless Americans go hungry'' (221) -- vanguard performances seem designed to expose the hegemonizing means through which such a calculated transmission might be achieved. That is, what makes vanguard performances dangerous to hegemonic power structures is not -- as the right usually claims -- what is represented, but how it is represented. Vanguard performance directly addresses the 'interrelation of method and ideology' that spectacles like liberty weekend work so hard to mask.

 

This seems to bring Murray dangerously close to reinscribing the theater/screen dichotomy which earlier he worked so hard to collapse. That is, liberty weekend's seamless spectacle of unity was a televisual performance event -- one dependent on (constructed, edited) representations on the screen, while the disruptive and potentially challenging performance works which Murray cites depend absolutely on the messiness and unpredictability of physical presence and live drama. In a move reminiscent of the Frankfurt school, Murray here seems to be locating the potential for real revolutionary art in an 'authentic', non-reproducible space, and to reinscribe 'televisual fear' as a critique solely of the ideology encoded in the apparatus itself. 'TV', Murray writes, 'continues to produce new methods of addiction to the bourgeois ideology' (224).

 

What's interesting and new here is that Murray doesn't end his analysis of the televisual on this somewhat reductive note. Drawing on the work of scholars like Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, John Ellis, and John Fiske, Murray discusses the way that television breaks down the voyeuristic structure of primary identification which film seems to encourage. That is, because televisual media are viewed at home, where, as Timothy Corrigan puts it, they are 'watched across the distractions rather than the collective gaze' of their audience, they frustrate the methods of 'primary identification' through which cinema traditionally sutures cinema viewers into the film text (whereby the viewer is thought to 'identify' with the gaze of the camera). [1] 'In somewhat of a paradoxical move,' Murray writes, 'I now turn directly to television for a theoretical model of the technological oscillations now dispelling the reality of the camera-subject match. While it is not difficult to note television's drive to control the world-picture, it is just as important to acknowledge how the apparatus of television actually disrupts the ocular model [film] from which it descends' (226).

 

While I applaud Murray's attempt to re-collapse the theater-screen dichotomy (in which physical presence is good and authentic, and screen representations of performances are -- if not bad -- certainly less good, less potentially disruptive, more inclined to be hegemonic) I'm nervous about his reliance on yet another dichotomy (the film/TV dichotomy) to do so. The problem I see in Murray's discussion of the televisual is his reliance on what some scholars call 'glance theory', the theory articulated by John Ellis, John Fiske, Sandly Flitterman-Lewis and others, that 'television differs from film by catering to a distracted home viewer with a variety of 'looks', machineries and transmissions' (226). As John Thornton Caldwell has shown, 'glance theory' assumes an 'inherently' distracted home viewer, [2] an assumption which is theoretically problematic -- the vast sums of money which people are currently willing to spend on home viewing systems and the proliferation of pay-per-view and pay cable channels suggest that a large number of viewers sit down and watch certain TV broadcasts from beginning to end; that is, that they can and do gaze at the TV screen just as fixedly as they gaze at a film screen, rather than merely 'glance' at it, as Fiske, Ellis and Flitterman-Lewis maintain.

 

But although I think Murray's reliance on glance theory is at times problematic, his analysis of the televisual as a potentially disruptive and empowering medium is, I believe, accurate. (The advent of the VCR and remote control have given viewers far more power than ever before over how, what, and when they watch.) And I like his use of the possibly disorienting effects of the televisual to theorize the ''tele-visions' common to theatre, film, video, and installation art' (2). That is, I like the argument he makes and the conclusions he draws. I just wish he'd used a different, less problematic, theoretical 'engine' to get there.

 

In closing, I find this an intelligent, finely-argued, and always interesting book. In addition to the works mentioned above, Murray provides provocative readings of installation pieces by Mary Kelly and Dawn DeDeaux; plays by Ntozake Shange, Rochelle Owens, and Adrienne Kennedy; and performances by Robbie McCauley and Jordan. He engages a wide range of theory, moving gracefully from discussions of Freud to La Planche, Derrida, Lyotard and French semiotic film theory. In that sense, Murray provides a bravura performance of his own -- one which is completely united with and integral to the text.

 

Indiana University, USA

 

 

References

 

1. Timothy Corrigan, _A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture After Vietnam_ (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1991), p. 16.

 

2. See John Thornton Caldwell, _Televisuality: Style, Crisis and Authority in American Television_ (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995).

 

 

*********

 

Joan Hawkins, 'All the World's a Stage',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 1, January 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n1hawkins>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

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