Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Bird that Flew Away

Remember the smash hit play Bird of Paradise? You remember, right? It made a huge fortune, was influential in plagiarism legislation, and was very important to the integration of foriegn dance and music into American Drama.

Theatre criticism often casts a suspicious eye on financially successful plays, but in a 2005 issue of Theatre Journal, Christopher Balme examines just how it can happen that incredibly successful commercial theatre projects can disappear almost completely from the indexes kept by theatrical historians as well.

Using Richard Walton Tully's The Bird of Paradise, Balme tracks the gradual vanishing of almost any record of the play in theatrical annals.

The fact that it has disappeared can only be explained by theatre
history's undue reliance on what historians have termed "modernism's master narrative of culture," which means a history of culture focused on "artistic production, individualism, originality, genius, aestheticism, and avant-gardism." In this narrative, only those works that programmatically defy commodification find a place in the archive.

That theatre historians have internalized modernism's master
narrative of aesthetic progress can be demonstrated by the entry on Oliver Morosco, the producer of
The Bird of Paradise, in the Cambridge Guide to the Theatre. The authors note that Morosco's own plays were "all undistinguished," and close with the following sentence: "The Morosco Theatre, however, took its place in history in 1920 when Eugene O'Neill's first full-length play, Beyond
the Horizon, was presented there as a matinee." Although hardly a major work, Beyond the Horizon
nevertheless ensures Morosco a place in history. A minor work by a modernist master ultimately rescues a key theatre figure of the early-twentieth-century American stage from obscurity. This perspective is a major cause of why and how theatre history forgets. Its frames of reference are still conditioned by a definition of theatrical canonicity in which attention is focused on the aesthetic component defined by the players themselves.

In case you don't want to read the whole article, (it is only free for a short time,) I will point out that Christopher Balme is very VERY clear that he not arguing for a critical reappraisal of the work, and he is also not lamenting the play's exclusion, critically, from the theatrical canon.

1 comment:

Scott Walters said...

Thank you so much for this link -- I look forward to reading the whole article. My reaction to the quotation you offer is an enthusiastic huzzah! Modernism's master narrative has, indeed, dominated theatre history, to the detriment of some very, very important artists and movements (the Little Theatre movement of the early part of the 20th century is one example, and the community-based theatre movement of the late 1970s to now is another).