English | Special Studies in English & American Literature
L780 | 26981 | MacKay

L780  26981  MACKAY (#6)
Special Studies in English & American Literature

2:30p – 5:30p R


This course begins by remembering that even A. M. Nagler, the
founder of the American discipline of theatre history and surely its
most positivistic practitioner, recognizes that “the very essence of
the theater is absolute transitoriness.” More recent theorists have
put the point more finely; performance, writes Peggy
Phelan, “becomes itself through disappearance” and thus is defined
by its resistance to the “claims of validity accuracy endemic to the
discourse of reproduction.” To scholars interested in prior stages,
rituals, rites, pageants, and far less categorizable forms of
performed and performative expression, the dilemma is clear: how can
we reckon with an object of study whose most telling characteristic
is its utter absence? If the archive enacts “the first law of what
can be said” in a given discipline, as Foucault has written, then
what do we do with a past that lacks a record?

We will begin, then, with the question: how does one do a history of
performance? But this inquiry will necessarily lead us to discuss
the limitations that historiography imposes on the nature of
eventfulness. Hence, we will tackle with equal gusto two related and
pressing matters: How can we make performance recountable as
history? And how do we make history accountable to performance? We
will consider in some depth what claims of influence can be made for
occasions that only pretended to happen, and/or whose testimony
fails the smell test of ‘good’ historiographic practice. Theory,
philosophy and criticism (both canonical and emerging) from a range
of inderdisciplinary approaches will fuel our inquiry; among the
works we will consult are Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit,
Massumi’s Parables of the Virtual, Benjamin’s The Arcades Project
(along with some excerpts from The Origins of the German Tragic
Drama), Derrida’s Specters of Marx, Phelan’s Unmarked, Taylor’s The
Archive and the Repertoire, Yates’ The Art of Memory and West’s
Theatres and Encyclopedias in Early Modern Europe.

Because the theatre has proved such a vital staging ground for new
philosophies of history and for radical conceptualizations of
performance’s consequence, the dramatic centerpiece of this course
will be Shakespeare’s underappreciated first tetralogy (Henry VI
Parts 1, 2 & 3 & Richard III) and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America:
The Millenium Approaches and Perestroika. This double focus on
modernities both early and post- means that this course will count
for early period coverage. But our aim will not be to recover an
accurate version of a long-gone or recent past. Instead, by pursuing
a few key tropes in historiological imaginary—for instance, the
ghost, the remnant, the hallowed site—we will put under scrutiny the
mechanisms of capture that keep history ‘alive’ in undisciplinary

As is customary, the course will require intensive reading, lively
discussion (prompted by student presentations) and an original
research paper of approximately 20 pages. More experimental is a
digital component, in which students will attempt to curate an
exhibit of the irrecuperable past.

This seminar is designed as the second half in a year-long sequence
that began with Shane Vogel’s offering of L680 “Performativity and
Performance.” While that course is not a prerequisite to this one,
students who enroll in the full sequence will have the opportunity
to immerse themselves in the field of performance studies and deepen
their ideas over the span of a year.