INTRODUCTION TO SHAKESPEARE, SHAMANS, AND SHOW BIZ (excerpt)
The most important essay in this collection is the last, chapter twenty-four titled “Lost to History,” and you could read it first. It’s an essay about the playwrights and plays that didn’t survive in history (so far) or got dropped from history (so far). Rather than claiming to find what’s lost or reviving what’s forgotten, the last chapter points out that accident, taste, political power, and passing fads are responsible for what makes history. Chapter twenty-four “Lost to History” suggests you should read history skeptically, keeping in mind that what passes for history is always—always—a point of view about the past that comes from the past. You could begin at the beginning too.
Every chapter tries to share what someone working in the theater should know about the past for context in understanding or creating work in the theater today—not everything they should know; what’s here isn’t up-to-date, and it couldn’t be. The year I’m writing this introduction, new plays have arrived, onstage and in manuscript; the year after this, new plays will arrive, as will new ideas and new sources for ideas.
Even if what I’ve written can’t be up-to-date, I’m hoping it has some value in the present moment. Knowing something of what came before the present moment—not just plays, but past standards of excellence, or importance, or beauty—is useful for creating new work now and in the future. Past standards of excellence, importance, and beauty might inspire you or leave you skeptical. To respect or reject the opinions of the past is a choice, and such choices can be based on knowledge rather than ignorance. To respect or reject the opinions of the present is also a choice and could be based on knowledge, rather than ignorance, that includes self-knowledge and a consideration of contemporary pieties. An exclusive insistence on the value of self-approval, self-worth, self-understanding, and self-reference can easily lead to forgetting or willfully ignoring that other values are possible. Questioning what passes for value in the world around you is a powerful way to achieve an understanding of what is of value to you.
My own sense of value includes the value of texts written to be performed for an audience. In my own experience in an audience, in a rehearsal studio, and in a classroom, texts take effect—on the page or on the stage—when they create relationships between those reading, listening, rehearsing, performing, and watching. Beyond my own experience, theater history makes the case that some texts from the past continue to resound with audiences, sometimes in ways unanticipated by their creators or by me—or by you.