Ruth Maleczech at Mabou Mines: Woman’s Work. By Jessica Silsby Brater. Methuen Drama Engage Series. Series editors Enoch Brater and Mark Taylor-Batty. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama Press, 2016; Pp. 255.
The Methuen Drama Engage Series “offers original reflections about key practitioners, movements and genres in the fields of modern theatre and performance.” Prior to the publication of Jessica Silsby Brater’s Ruth Maleczech at Mabou Mines: Woman’s Work, the series published books on Ibsen, Brecht, and Howard Barker. As the first book in the series to assess a woman in theatre, Ruth Maleczech at Mabou Mines underscores the importance of an ongoing commitment to recuperative scholarship that plumbs the archives, asks new questions, and approaches subjects in deliberately interdisciplinary ways. Ruth Maleczech’s own interdisciplinarity as a performer, director, and co-artistic director informs the content and structure of the book.
What are the lived experiences and public profiles of women in collaborative performance ensembles? How is artistic and logistical labor distributed and documented? Yolanda Broyles-González has taken up these crucial questions in her work on El Teatro Campesino (1994), while Helen Krich Chinoy’s posthumously published research on the Group Theatre acknowledges such power imbalances (2013). Silsby Brater’s project contributes to this mode of inquiry, her subtitle “Women’s Work” signaling that Maleczech’s labor was gendered. Maleczech, along with other company members mainly known for performing, was consistently sidelined by critical and journalistic privileging of Mabou Mines co-artistic director Lee Breuer (Maleczech’s former husband and the father of her two children).
The project is indebted to now-canonical feminist theatre studies frameworks forged in the late 1980s and 90s, as well as James Harding’s more recent analysis of feminist performance and the American avant-garde (2012). In addition, Silsby Brater builds on Mabou Mines scholarship by Iris Smith Fischer (2011), Alisa Solomon (2002), and Bonnie Marranca (1977, 1996). She focuses on Maleczech’s work from 1980 until her death in 2013 because it was from the 1980s onward that Maleczech’s independent vision as a director developed (27). In her assertion that the the book “functions in part as a recuperative history,” (28) Silsby Brater contends that “the full significance of Maleczech’s work has been ignored in part because she was a woman and in part because she was best known as a performer” (28-29). The fact that theatre and performance scholarship often privileges writers and directors over performers further demonstrates the importance of interdisciplinary analyses of interdisciplinary artists.
In her multivalent approach to Maleczech’s work, Silsby Brater draws on video documentation of a dozen productions and several interviews with Maleczech, her family, and other collaborators. These oral histories reveal a dense, interconnected web of personal and artistic affiliations. Silsby Brater is writing at the intersections of ethnography, performance studies, and theatre history, accessing her mentee/mentor relationship with Maleczech by combining intimate knowledge of the subject with expertise in the subject matter. The book’s eleven production stills bring another dimension to the work, showing readers a diversity of staging approaches. From the glass flasks and beakers used to play Marie Curie in Dead End Kids (1980) to the ethereal puppetry and trapeze in Red Beads (2005), Mabou Mines’ avant-garde aesthetics show Maleczech’s facility with various performance modes over decades.
Founded in 1970, Mabou Mines, The Wooster Group (founded in 1975), and, of course, The Living Theatre (founded in 1947) have become increasingly canonized as the key collaborative ensembles of the American avant-garde, even as they are marginalized in traditional accounts of US theatre history. Each group represents a different permutation of influence by Europeans working outside the aesthetics of realism, most prominently Antonin Artaud, Bertolt Brecht, and Jerzy Grotowski. Silsby Brater’s introduction offers basic biographical information and places Maleczech in her cultural context, identifying the similarities and differences she shares with other key women of the US avant-garde based in New York City, including Judith Malina, Elizabeth LeCompte, Ellen Stewart, and JoAnne Akalaitis, a Mabou Mines co-artistic director. This helpful treatment allows readers to consider the specific aesthetics and innovations sometimes obfuscated by broad terms such as “American avant-garde” or “downtown performance.” Silsby Brater contends that Maleczech’s “singular focus on the representation of women on stage sets her apart” (10) from her contemporaries. In addition, Silsby Brater details Maleczech’s investment in the work of Samuel Beckett, and the influences of the Berliner Ensemble, Herbert Blau, and Grotowski on Maleczech’s expansive oeuvre.
Maleczech’s body of work is analyzed in four thematically organized chapters that focus on the roles women play on and off stage. Chapter One, “Ordinary Women,” takes up Maleczech’s performances as Annette in Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Through the Leaves (1984) and her turn as Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (1996) to argue that Maleczech elevated the seemingly unimportant, i.e. women without social status. In the second chapter, Silsby Brater flips the script by focusing on “Extraordinary Women.” Her evaluation of Dead End Kids, Belén: A Book of Hours (1999), which Maleczech directed, and Lucia’s Chapters of Coming Forth by Day (2007) allows Silsby Brater to thematically connect three distinct performance histories across decades. The chapter highlights Maleczech’s non-hierarchical collaborative directing approach, which contrasts with Akalaitis and Breuer’s styles.
“Family Drama,” the third chapter, reads Mabou Mines’ production of Lear (1990) alongside the autobiographical Hajj (1983) in order to explicate how the two very different shows unsettle “the traditional notion of the father figure” (109). The theme of financial resources in both works allows Silsby Brater to discuss the stress Mabou Mines experienced in “keeping the company solvent” (114). Artistic issues were often family issues. The fourth chapter, “Mother-Daughter Collaboration” extends scholarship on productions written and directed by Breuer involving performances by Maleczech and their daughter, Clove Galilee. Silsby Brater also takes up Maleczech’s second and third directing projects, Wrong Guys (1981) at The Public Theater and Samuel Beckett’s adapted short story Imagination Dead Imagine (1984), which featured a levitating hologram image of Galilee. With her interdisciplinary approach and use of oral history, Silsby Brater offers the reader remarkable stories of motherhood in the avant-garde. Mabou Mines’ pathbreaking approach to collaboratively funding childcare still seems progressive today. Silsby Brater then pivots to close reads of the work that so often masks the reproductive labor required to bring it to fruition. In this, her scholarship contributes to theatre studies’ increasing attention to the unresolved dilemmas of combining family life and theatre.
Silsby Brater not only places Maleczech more fully within the American avant-garde, but within the theatre history canon, connecting Maleczech’s actor-manager-director status to performance traditions including noh and commedia dell’arte, and to specific figures such as Caroline Neuber and Molière. Ruth Maleczech at Mabou Mines: Woman’s Work explicates the aesthetic and interpersonal complexities of a sustained avant-garde performance practice and the invisible labor women often shoulder. It will interest researchers of experimental and avant-garde performance, women in theatre, US performance history, and New York City’s downtown theatre scene. In addition, I hope it inspires more scholars to recuperate neglected figures of theatre history.
Catherine M. Young
New York University, Tisch School of the Arts