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Intertextuality in American Drama

Critical Essays on Eugene O'Neill, Susan Glaspell,

Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller and Other Playwrights


Edited by Brenda Murphy & Drew Eisenhauer


Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2013

Paperback. vi+262 pages. ISBN 978-0786463916. $55.00


Reviewed by Ana Fernández-Caparrós Turina

Universidad de Extremadura


The term intertextuality was first coined by Bulgarian theorist Julia Kristeva in the article “Bakhtine : Le mot, le dialogue et le roman”, published in 1967 in the journal Critique. In it Kristeva imparted her so-often cited thesis that “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another. The notion of intertextuality replaces that of intersubjectivity, and poetic language is read as at least double”.(1) The reality addressed by this term was as old as literature itself, but the critical and analytical possibilities opened up by the acknowledgement that any text –understood now as a paradigm and not as an object – should be interpreted in light of other texts was of great significance. The most famous outcome – Drew Eisenhauer reminds us in his introduction to the volume – was the 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” written by Kristeva’s mentor Roland Barthes, but the term spread swiftly and produced a great number of critical reactions that led eventually to establish it as an essential concept in contemporary critical theory.

Given the ubiquitousness of the term and its relevance in literary and cultural studies, it is surprising that, as a critical concept, it has been rarely applied to drama. As Eisenhauer suggests, such reticence might be related “to the persistent question as to whether or not works of theatre or performance are, in fact, ‘texts’ at all. The dramatic text is often seen as only an element in the theatre – the blueprint of a play – and a written text is sometimes absent completely in avant-garde or art performance” [1]. The volume edited by Eisenhauer and Murphy is an attempt to fill this critical gap, understanding the term in its broadest sense, for, in fact, however represented, performed works are cultural texts showing often an informed use of language and, on the other hand, dramatic texts are not just connected to other works within the medium of the theatre but also to a “myriad of other writings, media, and cultural references through processes linguistic, aesthetic, historical, visual, technological, and epistemological” [1].

The first part of the book includes essays dealing with literary intertextuality, with an opening section, “Poets”, dominated by the figure of Eugene O’Neill. Both the first and second essay deal, interestingly, with O’Neill’s 1924 adaptation of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and what is engaging about placing these texts together to open the volume is that if intertextuality is in itself a malleable complex concept, the interpretation of an intertextual relationship can also encompass very diverse, even contrasting readings, as it is the case in Herman Daniel Farrell’s and Rupendra Guha Majumdar’s articles. The first one examines that particular moment in the playwright’s writing as one “of voluntary diminution of agency by the author” [11] in deference to the construction of dramatic arrangement of Coleridge’s poem, and offers a very compelling structuralist analysis of this peculiar experiment in theatrical devising, directed and designed by Robert Edmond Jones, a pastiche incorporating, beyond the poem, Noh Drama images, cinematic reference, pageant form and music structure, an “intertextual epiphany” [10] that was bluntly and brutally criticized by contemporary reviewers but had the value of  experimenting and engaging with horizontal intertextuality, referencing works from other genres. Majumdar’s essay, on the contrary, examines the genesis of “O’Neill’s apparently ‘unsuccessful’ adaptation of a powerful Romantic text” [25] as only a deceptive failure, for it points “to the potential of a poetical resource that would gradually acquire a mythic significance of sorts in O’Neill’s imagination” [25]. If Majudmar shows in his essay that the engagement with Romantic symbolism is a profound one that was protracted throughout all the O’Neill’s corpus, and he provides numerous examples illustrating it, in the next essay Aurélie Sanchez analyses, more specifically, the Shakespearian and Keatsian echoes of A Moon for the Misbegotten.

The first section of the volume ends with two essays devoted to the work of Susan Glaspell. The first, Michael Winetsky’s “Trailing Clouds of Glory : Glaspell, Romantic Ideology and Cultural Conflict in Modern American Literature” is yet another reading that explores the influence of Romantic writers, which in the case of Glaspell’s oeuvre, Winetsky’s argues, was a way of negotiating cultural hierarchies and can be seen as a way to “track the evolution of the concept of culture during the first half of the century in the United States” [53]: Glaspell herself “never gave up on her work of producing culture” [60], but through the analysis of Romantic allusion in her work, including the 1945 novel Judd Rankin’s Daughter, the author suggest that the heroines of Glaspell’s late novels offer stark contrast to the heroines in the writer’s early work “who are directly involved in the arts, in politics and in the sciences” [60]. Finally, in a movement from the general to the particular, in “On Closets and Graves : Intertextualities in Susan’s Glaspell’s Alison’s House and Emily Dickinson’s Poems”, Noelia Hernando-Real’s uses Dickinson’s poems “The grave my little cottage is” and “They shut me up in prose” to offer a very enlightening reading of the theatrical transposition of the images of the closet and the grave in Glaspell’s play as a way of reconsidering the inspiration Dickinson played in the modernist playwright.

The second section within the first part of the book centered on literary intertextuality, entitled ‘Playwights and Performance Texts”, opens with an essay by Kristin Bennett on the tragic heroine in Thornton Wilder’s plays, the latter being then vindicated in the essay following, as an important source of inspiration for Arthur Miller: Steven Marino offers a very interesting account of this underestimated relationship. Finally, to close the section, Jason Shaffer’s “And I am changed, too : Irving’s Rip Van Winkle from Page to Stage” explores the intertextual interactions taking place at the intersection of literature, theater and oral performance in a revisionist account of the performance history of Rip Van Winkle, paying particular attention to the way the textual meandering of Rip’s story culminated in the life of American actor Joseph Jefferson III. The contributions in this second part are certainly interesting and intellectually engaging but it feels less harmonic or more thematically heterogenous than the first one on ‘Poets’.

Part Two of the book deals with cultural intertextuality, and the third section, as was the case for the first one ‘Poets’, is dominated by a single figure, that of playwright Susan Glaspell, as three of the four essays in this part deal with her work. Firstly, Franklin J. Lasik explores the embodiment and creation of female utopia in the expressionist play The Verge, using Charlotte Perkins Williams’s novel Herland as the main source to build a frame to explicate the concept and to explore then whether Glaspell’s drama addresses utopian issues in the same fashion. Secondly, Sarah Withers analyses the frontier as a space of revolutionary inheritance in the play Inheritors, and how the play wrestles with a fundamental question, “one that sits at the heart of American identity, namely, how does one inherit revolution?” [127]. Thirdly, Emeline Jouve’s “Intertextual Insanities in Susan Glaspell’s The Verge” dexterously untangles some of the social, artistic and philosophical allusions woven into Glaspell’s play – namely, Sigmund Freud’s “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria”, Robert Wiene’s 1920 film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave – using thus intertextuality “helping the audience to ‘fill out’ the play’s gap on the issue of mental derangement, as a method of interpretation, a hermeneutic of madness” [155]. The section also includes a very erudite exploration by Annalisa Brugnoli of the deus absconditus leitmotiv as recurring intertextual reference in O’Neill’s “published, unpublished, fictional and non-fictional work” [142], proving that “the idea of God’s deliberate absence or unbridgeable distance from the human world… [is] central to an understanding of O’Neill’s biographic and artistic personality” [142].  

The scholars whose essays are included in the final section of the collection, “Cultural Context”, “look at how the reception of plays and our knowledge about given playwrights, often thought to be permanent, universal and well established, in fact change in direct proportion to the cultural intertexts of which they become a part”, Eisenhauer clarifies in the Introduction [6]. Lisa Hall Hagen brilliantly explores how Susan Glaspell, Maurine Dallas Watkins and Sophie Treadwell, when they re-created and re-imagined crimes for the stage in their plays Trifles, Chicago and Machinal, brought to light the broader conversation taking place in the media and society on the early twentieth-century, creating “destabilizing and investigative narratives out of a potentially conservative form, the mainstream press” [169] in plays that were culturally subversive, for they summoned an intertextual space that allowed for a nuanced critique of gender and society. As in Section Two, the next two essays delve again into the figures of Wilder and Williams. Firstly, Jeffrey Eric Jenkins reconsiders Wilder’s Our Town, how the play came into being and the playwright’s intention in order to suggest that the play draws “its 1938 contemporary context into sharp relief even as it lulls its audience into a nostalgic stroll” [189]. Secondly, Ramón Espejo Romero combines his ample experience as a scholar and as translator of Arthur Miller to call attention to the fact that if it is true that there are in Death of a Salesman’s many references understandable across cultures, which have certainly guaranteed the play’s international success, there are many other dark spots under which Miller’s message to his contemporary audience is concealed “to more and more people as the play moves farther across cultures and leaves behind the moment for which it was written”[208].

The next essay in this section is a brilliant reading by Graham Wolfe of John Guare’s 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation a play-text that according to the author “does not merely establish connections with other texts, opening into their worlds, but simultaneously explores the complex nature of our connections to texts, as the role of texts in connecting people to each other” [219]. Wolfe uses psychoanalytical critical theory from Lacan and Zizek to accept Guare’s invitation to wander through intertextual doorways and underscore how the play encourages its audiences to explore the desire for connections and the complex way in which connections create desire. Finally, the book closes with a final study on Glaspell’s intertextual practices with Sharon Friedman’s analysis of the playwright’s treatment of American nationalism. Friedman shows how Glaspell’s response to the different discourses on nationalism (nativism and the eugenics movement; assimilation and “Americanization”; and cultural pluralism) is rendered metaphorically in her short stories published in Harper’s magazine and more explicitly in her drama.

Eisenhauer explains in the introduction that the volume was originally an outcome of a collaborative exchange project among five member societies of the American Literature Association: the American Theatre and Drama Society (ATDS), the Arthur Miller Society, the Eugene O’Neill Society, the Susan Glaspell Society and the Thornton Wilder Society. This circumstance, clarified in the first page of the collection, is crucial, however, when it comes to consider the potential readers of the volume and its success in filling a critical gap on the issue on intertextuality in the field of American Drama studies. The essays composing the collection prove that a critical focus on intertextual relationships open up a fecund field of research that deepens our understanding of the theatrical tradition of the United States. Yet, as broad as the understanding of intertextuality is, the array of playwrights and plays addressed in the collection is, on the contrary, much more limited. There is a single yet wonderful analysis of the work of a contemporary playwright, Graham Wolfe’s “‘Doorways’ and ‘Blank Spaces’ : Intertextual connection in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation”. It would have been desirable to widen the spectrum to include more essays on the many other important figures of the twentieth century. On the other hand, if this is then a volume particularly suitable for those readers with a special interest in the theatre of the first half of the twentieth century, it will be more so for those interested in the figure of Susan Glaspell, who might be, one has the feeling after reading the whole book, the hidden protagonist of this collection. In this regard, Intertextuality in American Drama is truly an advisable reading and reference book.

(1) Kristeva, Julia. “Word, Dialogue and Novel.” Desire in Language. New York: Columbia University Press, 1980 : 64-91.


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