Book Review, Vol. 30 No. 2

The Contemporary American Monologue: Performance and Politics

The Contemporary American Monologue: Performance and Politics. Eddie Paterson. New York: Methuen, 2015; Pp. 232.

The Contemporary American Monologue: Performance and Politics by Eddie Paterson offers comparative analyses of solo performance artists Spalding Grey, Laurie Anderson, Anna Deavere Smith, and Karen Finley. In his introduction, Paterson clearly lays out his arguments and the organization of the book, which focuses on the connections between “two trajectories – solo performance as an integral part of US culture, politics, and media, and monologue as it appears in Western dramatic traditions” (1). He examines these artists’ works as uniquely American, at once belonging to their time and commenting upon it as if observing it from a distance. In their own fashion, each of these artists performs politics as a critique of turn-of-the-century neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, and the assumed rightness of privilege inherent in these ideologies.

Paterson is an Australian who came of age after these artists had achieved canonization, and he delivers his analyses with what he calls “the almost obscene benefit of hindsight and with a vision of American culture and performance that comes from afar and…is already mediated and filtered” (3). It is ironic that Paterson describes these solo artists as finding their form and meaning in performance, as distinct from and apart from traditional dramatic literature, and yet finds himself examining them from a remove, without having seen them live. Paradoxically, this vantage point serves him well. While his theoretical and historical contextualization and analysis are strong, and his scholarship is thorough, he is at his best when offering vivid and immediate close-reading descriptions of the performances of these artists.

In his introduction, the author identifies three key features that distinguish the work of these American solo artists from the monologue genre in Western dramatic tradition: parody – ironic commentary on contemporary history and politics; mediatization – the works engage with and are often consumed as video (and sometimes audio) reproductions; and personae – the privileging of the performing personality over traditional character. In all four cases, the reliability of narrator and narration is a central issue.

The first two chapters of the book provide historical context for the works of the American solo artists. First, Paterson traces the monologue as a genre in Western drama chronologically from the Greeks and Romans through the modernists and post-modernists. Building on the work of previous scholars such as Deborah R. Geis, he notes the direct relationship that monologue affords between the speaker and the audience, which often serves to disrupt and subvert narrative. Not surprisingly, Paterson finds in Brecht, Pinter, and especially Beckett the radical transformation of the monologue that informs contemporary work. In the second chapter, Paterson changes direction by arguing that the influences that gave rise to American solo performance owe less to the Western dramatic tradition and more to the oratorical tradition of political speeches, religious sermons, and the like. The “American Jeremiad” tradition began early in the development of the nation to define and uphold the status quo, especially to link together religious fervor with capitalist energies. Nevertheless, progressive voices such as those from the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements have also used these rhetorical techniques. It is these “anti-mainstream American voices” (45) that connect most closely to the solo artists, who each receive a chapter of analysis in the main part of the book.

In examining Spalding Gray’s “confessional monologue,” Paterson notes that Gray’s best-known works, though originally performed live, have been widely disseminated as films and recordings. Paterson seems to have experienced them only in this way. The author posits that the “mediatization and the mass production of these monologues has been examined for the way they break down distinctions between high art and commodity culture” (55). In Gray’s conflation between the stage persona and the “‘real-live’ self,” (59) the charismatic performer ironically presents himself as both authentic and unreliable, obliquely critiquing American politics and culture while simultaneously confessing his complicity “through the eyes of a self-consciously privileged persona: a white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon male” (55).

In contrast to Gray, with his table, chair, and glass of water, Laurie Anderson’s “post-punk monologue” achieves parody by situating her small lone body within massive multi-media environments. Paterson nonetheless recalls the textual content of these technological performances. Focusing on her works from the 1980s, the author shows how they represent a critical response to Reagan-era social and economic policies. Sampling, cutting, and pasting serve to fragment narrative, and electronic voice alteration and androgynous appearance further deconstruct, confuse, dehumanize, and unsex the Anderson persona.

Anna Deavere Smith is unique in this group as a solo performer of verbatim documentary theatre and as directly tied with the American civil rights tradition of monologue performance. Paterson finds that in her “rights monologue” explorations of race, class, and the diversity of American lives and attitudes, Smith’s work is neither overtly ironic nor self-reflexive. Yet, Paterson argues, Smith’s implied objectivity deserves critique. The authenticity of the speaker—who is never the performer herself—is asserted within the performance by her remarkable imitative skills. Still, Smith is the curator, selecting, editing, ordering, and performing. Her “acting practices,” Paterson says, “present identity as changeable, performative, and negotiated,” (116) thus enabling “ironic consideration of neo-liberal and neo-conservative ideology” (125). The persistent disconnection between herself and her subjects is deliberate.

Paterson gives Karen Finley’s flamboyant, colorful, and transgressive performance the name of “radical monologue” because of the degree to which “she joyfully deploys and subverts multiple personae, non-linear texts and the wholesale rejection of coherent dramatic character” to “critique American culture and politics” (128). Paterson’s descriptions vivify the ways in which text and performance engender meaning and how “the real life persona of ‘Karen Finley’ intermingles with the personae performed in the spoken texts” (133). While Paterson quotes some of the more outrageous utterances in the works and notes how Finley’s membership in the NEA 4 made her famous, he understates the radical use she often makes of her own body (such as the infamous smearing of chocolate and honey over her naked self) as a site of ideological contention.

The book’s closing chapter, “Future Monologue,” serves as a summation and conclusion. Paterson predicts the lasting effects of the modes of performance that he dubs “post dramatic” and “post monologue.” This theatrical landscape continues to break down distinctions between the fictional and the real and offers powerful theatrical means of interrogating the cultural assumptions of power.

Paterson’s work is a significant addition to the critical studies of these four particular artists, the historical framework that contextualizes them, and the monologue form. Those who are led by the title to expect a monologue sourcebook for actors (as I was) will encounter much more.

Kevin T. Browne
University of Central Arkansas

The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 30, Number 2 (Spring 2018)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2018 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

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