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Modernism on the World Stage

In 1954, Maya Angelou performed in a production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that toured through Italy. This United States-sponsored initiative brought African American performance to European stages in an effort to combat Soviet propaganda about American racism. As Melanie Masterton Sherazi shows in her contribution to this cluster, Angelou’s own memoirs of the trip recall not only the staged productions on the tour, but also the everyday performances outside of opera houses and concert halls. When the cast of Porgy and Bess arrived in Venice, for example, they stepped out into a public square where they were confronted by what seemed a menacing Italian crowd. As Sherazi describes this scene, these African American performers recalled and rehearsed a familiar Jim Crow–era “script” in the piazza. As it turned out, the crowd was there to welcome them and an impromptu scene of opera singing ensued. This spontaneous Venetian performance reveals how changing contexts can prompt performers and audiences to invent something new. In modernist performances on the world stage, roles spontaneously shift and everyday performances are spliced with more conventional theatrical productions. This cluster follows the peregrinations of both well-known and forgotten performers, tracking the chance encounters and improvised performances of a modernist theater always on the move.

The pivotal scenes of modernist theater rarely happen when, where, or how we might expect them to. As such, they pose both a challenge and an opportunity for our frames of reference and for our most familiar critical tactics. As Carrie Preston puts it, embodied performance presents us with “a flexible, mobile, rather messy version of modernism.”[1] The essays in this cluster corroborate and extend the sort of modernism Preston describes, finding in mobility and “messiness” the means to reconsider some of the methodological touchstones of modernist studies itself. They cover new ground, and not only in adding new geographies, characters, and events to an ever-expanding modernist map. More urgently, they model useful approaches for engaging with global modernism (broadly understood) by adapting critical maneuvers more routine in theater studies, paying acute attention to questions of time, space, and the body. These are standard concerns for theater research that also have become renewed preoccupations for the new modernist studies. The methodologies modeled here are indebted to the path-breaking work of numerous scholars who already have worked across performance and modernism, among them Elin Diamond, Martin Puchner, and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr. In building on this diverse, synthetic work, “Modernism on the World Stage” expands this network of scholarship while interrogating its conditions of possibility, asking how the experiences of individual performers or spectators can be made legible—and indeed revelatory—on a stage the size of the world.

Cosmopolitan Bodies

In “Planetarity,” Susan Stanford Friedman cautions us that “the danger of an expansionist modernism lapsing into meaninglessness or colonizing gestures is real.”[2] In our present moment, it seems at once imperative to situate works within global networks and yet daunting to characterize those networks with fidelity and precision. We believe this cluster’s examinations of traveling performers provide a surprisingly simple and effective way of locating the abstractly global in the personal and particular. Despite the dizzying traffic on the world stage, the theatrical encounters studied here are scaled to the body, that principal unit of theater. The body, we proffer, is the essential vehicle of transnational modernist transmission and therefore an important site for studying accrued meanings. In this conviction, we follow Michelle Clayton’s lead in “Modernism’s Moving Bodies,” in which she observes that many scholarly projects aspire to a “modernist cosmopolitanism” that obscures the texture of lived experience and downplays the real frictions and imbalances that produced the modernist world. Clayton prefers to begin with a “series of neglected, forgotten, or unnoticed encounters,” which she treats as “comparative particularisms: particularisms performed by moving bodies, and resignified by their shifting publics.”[3] The essays in this cluster are in step with Clayton’s project, inductively giving form to modernism on a world stage without imposing totalizing claims. The essays have divergent aims, but they share a commitment to abiding by moving bodies, while bearing witness to the unpredictable resignification that happens both in transit and in performance.

In “Dancer, Actor, Marionette: The Modernist Performer,” Olga Taxidou shows how in studying historical performance the dispersive network of texts and ideas always leads us back to the at-once singular and plural figuration of the performer’s body. For Taxidou, the materiality of the body is the “lens through which the intercultural encounter is filtered.” She opens her essay with a question about the resemblance between Edward Gordon Craig’s designs for the Moscow Hamlet and Edmund Dulac’s for the London At the Hawk’s Well. To reckon with their juxtaposition, Taxidou turns to Mei Lanfang and Meyerhold, to Plato, and to Mulk Raj Anand, before concluding that what holds together such a “constellation of concepts and gestures” is the “evental nature of these encounters.” She returns us to the encounter, the “event” in Alain Badiou’s sense, to particularize and re-singularize the constellated network. Taxidou both distills and reanimates what Rebecca Schneider identifies as the performance studies scholar’s recursive “replay of evidence (photographs, documents, archival remains) back across the body.”[4] Our various forms of evidence routinely bring us back to and across the body—whether that is the body of the performer, the spectator, or indeed the scholar herself.

Victoria Duckett and Anne Witchard revisit two of the most familiar figures in modern performance, Sarah Bernhardt and Isadora Duncan. Bernhardt contributed to the global culture of celebrity, and scholars have discussed how her image was mass-produced and circulated as a commodity. Duckett steps back to understand how Bernhardt’s own agential work preceded and contributed to that very process. Duckett argues for Bernhardt’s modernism by showing how her theater, even in the mid-nineteenth century, was shaped by “mechanical reproduction, industrialization, and new available transportable forms.” Witchard, meanwhile, traces the transnational career of Yu Rongling to show the unexpected ways in which Isadora Duncan’s “Greek” choreography came to catalyze Chinese modern dance. She reveals new facets of this process through her attention to diplomatic circuits, demonstrating the productive syncretism of artistic influence and emphasizing the role of patronage.

Circulating Bodies, Circulating Copies

These essays reckon, in different ways, with questions of reproducibility and influence in theater, challenging any normative idea of an “original.” It has long been understood in performance studies that performance is always a form of repetition, what Richard Schechner famously calls “twice-behaved behavior.”[5] Sunny Stalter-Pace and Sarah J. Townsend show how modernist performance fuels continuous invention through its dispersive reiterations, as performers and their works travel, sometimes in tandem and sometimes apart. In “Imitation Modernism,” Stalter-Pace traces the work of Gertrude Hoffmann, who brought the choreography of the Ballets Russes to the United States ahead of that company’s own arrival—only to then perform alongside them. Through this interaction, the status of the “first” or the “original” becomes less important than the bodies who performed the “same” work differently. Imitation even became a form of apprenticeship for Hoffmann and her collaborators. Townsend, by contrast, follows one crucial performance through multiple iterations, across national and linguistic contexts. The Théâtre de la Chauve-Souris was a group of Russian émigré artists who famously moved between Paris, London, and New York, adapting their aesthetic and their devised working conditions en route. Townsend reads the show’s shifting production conditions in conversation with those of the Teatro Mexicano del Murciélago, who blatantly imitated the Chauve-Souris in Mexico City in 1924. She sees in this layered performance history clear evidence of the “unevenness” of the world stage, through which ideas, bodies, and the labor of those bodies travel differently.

The Masonic Temple and World Theater Building in Kearney, Nebraska.
Fig. 1. The Masonic Temple and World Theater Building in Kearney, Nebraska. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, in “Staging the Great Migration,” Paul J. Edwards follows The Chocolate Kiddies on tour to Germany in 1925. Edwards expands on the uneven quality of the modernist world stage, attending to how this revue of African American life was transformed through its migration to Europe. He also demonstrates the important role of the critic, and implicitly the scholar, as a re-performer of the material. Reading the theater criticism of Li Zielesch, Edwards finds a complex response to The Chocolate Kiddies’s representation of black American culture. While Zielesch identifies the revue’s emergence out of the New Negro Renaissance, her claim to understanding is undercut by her troubling depiction of the body of Margaret Sims, one of the revue’s star performers. Zielesch applies to the show another traveling script, a set of racist assumptions, in reading Sims’s performing body through a fantasy premised on historical sexual violence. Edwards therefore adds further caution to any utopian vision of a world stage, showing how representations of modernity remain charged with persistent, inherited cultural scripts.

Navigating the Modernist World Stage

Modernism, this cluster finds, was always staging its own migrations, including both the obstacles and the subsequent breakthroughs. In their introduction to a special issue of Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film on “World Literature and Global Performance,” Katherine Biers and Sharon Marcus argue for the critical importance of touring artists, writers, and texts in the nineteenth century. This cluster extends that same work into the twentieth, and shows a world stage transformed. Biers and Marcus describe a “borderless . . . world” of performance characterized by “ceaseless mobility”—but in the twentieth century, despite further advancements in transport and communication networks, artistic encounters are more often characterized by friction, obstacles, and various forms of failure.[6] The impediments that this cluster details include political upheavals, capricious funding, fraught collaborations, hostile audiences, state intervention, incompatible laws (especially regarding copyright), bad translations, and trenchant forms of prejudice. At the same time, however, when performing artists discovered the limits to their movement—be they national borders, social prohibitions, or chance misunderstandings—they found ways to artfully bend and pirouette around those apparent barriers. Across these essays, the contributors show how modernist performers developed resourceful and inventive strategies for navigating the cultural contingencies that shaped their movement. This collection thus figures the modernist world stage as a scene of dynamic misconstrual that gave rise to new forms of cultural hybridity and expression.

To extend this cluster’s ideas we recently interviewed Carrie Preston about the intersections of modernism and performance. In this hour-long conversation with Rebecca Kastleman, Preston discusses her innovative scholarship on modernist theater and dance while more broadly assessing the challenges and opportunities of working across these fields. Bearing in mind performance's inconsistent and ephemeral archive, Preston and Kastleman discuss new tactics for scholarship, particularly with collaborative projects and with new digital tools for tracking and engaging with performance histories. You can download, stream, and listen to the recording here


[1] Carrie Preston, “Introduction: Modernism and Dance,” Modernist Cultures 9, no. 1 (2014): 1–6, 1.

[2] Susan Stanford Friedman, “Planetarity: Musing Modernist Studies,” Modernism/modernity 17, no. 3 (2010): 471–99, 474.

[3] Michelle Clayton, “Modernism’s Moving Bodies,” Modernist Cultures 9, no. 1 (2014): 27–45, 29, 31.

[4] Rebecca Schneider, Performing Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York: Routledge, 2011), 9.

[5] Richard Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 36.

[6] Katherine Biers and Sharon Marcus, “Introduction: World Literature and Global Performance,” Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film 41, no. 2 (2014): 1–12, 1.