The Canon of European Theater / Canone teatrale europeo

The guest author of this post is S. E. Gontarski. He is the editor of “On Beckett: Essays and Criticism” published in 2014, and the Series Editor of Anthem Studies in Theatre and Performance.

The idea of a literary canon is generally anathema to most Anglo-American scholars, at least since the critical and theoretical revolutions of the 1960’s. A canon has tended to reify current hegemonies and to assume and enforce hierarchies. Historically, the consequences of this have been more exclusionary than inclusionary, operating as a means of solidifying power structures already in place and so denying a voice to others: ethnic, religious, and racial minorities, as well as women. It was the means of creating something akin to the holy writ of literature. But the idea of a literary canon in this series, particularly for theatrical works, is based on substantially different premises, none of which are exclusionary. It simply assumes that some works of art, culturally, even sociologically and anthropologically, have more impact and generate more commentary, tending to be more influential than others. Much of that impact can be the assertion of common ground but not such that everyone necessarily agrees with its premises, themes, and values. Often it is quite the contrary, since some works generate considerable cultural resistance. A culture may indeed gravitate toward works that reflect the current values of its members, but a work’s influence can be negative as well, at least at first, and so can also provide something of a point of shared resistance.

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The theatrical canon as a concept retains deep social implications in contemporary Europe. As the editors write in their preface to their book series, titled A Canon of European Drama?: “The canon is a way for us to be aware of what has united or could unite Europe, of what could be discarded or exchanged with other cultures in this world of globalization.” In this regard then, this book series, Canone teatrale europeo / Canon of European Drama, is an integral part of the larger issues of European unity and part of the development of Europe’s future. In his study, Penser l’Europe, Edgard Morin writes:

What is important about European culture is not just the main ideas (Christianity, humanism, reason, science) but rather these ideas and their opposites. The European spirit lies not just in plurality and change, but in dialogue between pluralities which bring about change. […] In other words, what matters in the life and Evolution of European culture is the fertilizing encounter between diversities, antagonisms, competitions and complementarities, that is to say their dialogic. [. . .] It is this dialogic that lies at the heart of European cultural identity, not any particular element or moment in it.

Furthermore, in his controversial study The End of History Francis Fukuyama insisted that his vision of liberal democracy was never linked to a specifically American model of social or political organization:

I believe that the European Union more accurately reflects what the world will look like at the end of history than the contemporary United States. The EU’s attempt to transcend sovereignty and traditional power politics by establishing a transnational rule of law is much more in line with a “post-historical” world than the Americans’ continuing belief in God, national sovereignty, and their military.

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In its broadest sense the study of an American theatrical text within the European Union allows us to examine the unfolding of such issues. Tennessee Williams’ second major play, A Streetcar Named Desire, was met with substantial resistance in both the U.S.A. and Europe throughout its initial years. The 1951 film version was subjected to substantial censorship imposed by the self-proclaimed guardians of American public morality. Likewise, Britain’s official censor, the Lord Chamberlain (still operating in 1949), demanded extensive cuts to the play – predominantly of sexually suggestive material – before licensing a British production. Additionally, the American film was restricted to audience members 16 years of age or older in Italy. Despite this, audiences flocked to performances and showings nonetheless, perhaps in some measure because of such resistance, and so attendance was a means of overcoming official opposition. The international draw of A Streetcar Named Desire has been, finally, nothing short of astonishing – despite its subject matter being raw and for some even considered crude, at least for its day.

In its first 50 years, for example, from 1947 to 1997, more than 20,000 productions of A Streetcar Named Desire were staged internationally, and the centenary celebrations of Williams’ birth have renewed international interest on that scale. Somehow, a play about familial sexual tensions in a southern American city, New Orleans, just after the Second World War, has resonated with international cultures and their audiences. It is in this cultural sense that we speak of A Streetcar Named Desire as a canonical work of American theater, of European theater, and of international theater.

S. E. Gontarski is a writer, scholar and director, at whose request Samuel Beckett wrote the short play “Ohio Impromptu” (1981). Gontarski is the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University, where he specializes in twentieth-century Irish studies, in British, US and European modernism, and in performance theory. He is General Editor of the Anthem Studies in Theatre and Performance book series, and his Tennessee Williams, T-Shirt Modernism and the Refashionings of Theatre is forthcoming from Anthem Press in April 2021.