AMERICAN THEATRE | Elinor Fuchs, Peerless Guide to Theatre’s ‘Small Planet’

by Admin
AMERICAN THEATRE | Elinor Fuchs, Peerless Guide to Theatre’s ‘Small Planet’

Elinor Fuchs.

The best theatre critic in the 2,500-year history of the profession—that’s how I describe Elinor Fuchs when the occasion arises, as it has often since she passed away at the age of 91 on May 28. I confess that my claim rests more on love than rigor—something she would have protested—and superlatives are always cause for suspicion. Nonetheless, the phrase speaks to what I want to tell you here, which is that Elinor changed the way I read, watch, and write about theatre, as she did for so many others.

For Shakespeare, all the world’s a stage; for Elinor, every stage is a world unto itself. This insight animates her famous essay “EF’s Visit to a Small Planet.” “A play is not a flat work of literature,” she writes, “not a description in poetry of another world, but is in itself another world passing before you in time and space.”

Honed over decades of teaching and published by Theater in 2004, the essay gives anyone the tools to make sense of what is happening onstage, whether they are reading a script or watching a performance. Rather than focusing on the dialogue of individual characters, she encourages readers to “mold the play into a medium-sized ball” and “squint.” Now you are ready, as the essay’s subtitle suggests, to ask the play some questions about space, time, weather, light, power, and much more.

In class, she would do this literally. As an MFA student in her criticism workshop, I remember her discussing Adrienne Kennedy’s Funnyhouse of a Negro and putting her two hands in front of her face to form a small orb, then bringing it into a soft focus as she asked about the play’s color palette of jet black, ghastly white, blood red, and sickly yellow.

“Small Planet” turns reading plays into space travel—time travel, too. With a simple squint, one can stand before avalanches of text and images undaunted. Black boxes unlock before you. The harder the text, the better. Her syllabi speak to her desire for intensity, density, and lucidity, comprised as they were of Ibsen, Strindberg, Stein, Brecht, Artaud, Witkacy, Beckett, María Irene Fornés, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Reza Abdoh, whom she introduced to many students, me included, who became die-hard fans. These plays require pilgrimages, and Elinor blazed the trails.

The essay also demonstrates some of her unparalleled skills, such as her penchant for pattern recognition. “Find the pattern first!” she tells readers. Ancient Greek tragedies are reversal-recognition-suffering. The Medieval Mystery Cycles are reversal-suffering-recognition. Those lucky enough to number among her students know exactly what that means, as well as the economy of insight that she could bring to millennia of theatre history. (For those who don’t, I encourage you to read “Waiting for Recognition,” in which she offers the only reading of Aristotle’s Poetics, which inaugurated drama criticism, you will ever need.)

But Elinor was no mechanical engineer of interpretation. As a critic, perhaps her greatest gift was her ability to make sense of the odd and the obscure. “Warning,” she writes in “Small Planet”: “Don’t permit yourself to construct a pattern that omits ‘singularities,’ puzzling events, objects, figures, or scenes that ‘do not fit.’ Remember, there is nothing in the world of a play by accident. The puzzles may hold the key.” The emphasis is all hers, and her writing proves it.

In just five pages, “EF’s Visit to a Small Planet” captures the sensibility of a critic whose abiding concerns read like a list of contradictions: patterns and puzzles. Repetition and singularity. The legible and the ineffable. Onstage and offstage. She was exacting about ambiguity and could peer into the unseen. She encouraged attention, precision, and wit, and she was at home in ironies, enigmas, and mysteries. She shied away from nothing so long as it was on a stage.

Elinor Fuchs at her Yale retirement party in 2015. (Courtesy of David Geffen School of Drama at Yale)

At some point, an essay must be written that chronicles Elinor’s achievements as a scholar. To turn a grand narrative into a short story, beginning in the 1970s, she brought French critical theory, psychoanalysis, and feminism to bear on theatre studies, particularly the historical avant-garde and the work being created by the most advanced theater artists in New York City, including Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, Mabou Mines, the Wooster Group, and others. Remarkably, she kept her theory light on its feet, deploying it nimbly in service to her true calling, which was, as she writes in her book The Death of Character, “a theatre critic in search of a language in which to describe new forms.”

Elinor was not unique in this, but she did it with a degree of clarity that inaugurated a new kind of theatre studies. At the very least, she set a new standard. Or maybe it’s just that when I read “Play as Landscape” (about landscape plays and staging in Stein, Wilson, Parks, and others) or “The Apocalyptic Century” (about apocalypse and millennium in twentieth century theatrical avant-gardes), I wonder, How? How did she do this?

What I’m saying is that there will never be another like her.

Elinor’s approach to theatre offers not only rigor but pleasure. She could taste, smell, and touch a play. For her, there is no semiotics without sensuality. In remarks she wrote upon receiving the Distinguished Scholar Award from the American Society for Theatre Research, she calls theatre people the “most semiotically aroused people in the world.”

A theatre person—that is, above all else, how I think of Elinor. She loved the theatre. She was in her 80s when I met her, and she was still pulling two-show weekends, everything from Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns at Playwrights Horizons to Thomas Hirschorn’s Gramsci Monument in the Bronx. She recalled her time as an actor fondly. She taught her final theory course (an astonishing saga) in a room that doubled as the dressing room of Yale Cabaret. She didn’t seem to mind discussing Italian futurism surrounded by costumes that the night before had been soaked in sweat and sprayed with watered-down vodka.

I think this is one reason why she made the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale her academic home. Her students include not only tenured professors and prolific writers but dramaturgs, producers, playwrights, and directors. Her mark on the field is everywhere.

She is gone, and I am still learning from her. No bother; she was suspicious of presence anyway. Her writing is a gift. Avail yourself of it.

There is an end to every life, but, as the final sentence of “EF’s Visit to a Small Planet” reminds us, so long as there is theatre upon this earth, “There will still be more to see.”

David Bruin is the executive artistic director of Celebration Barn. He is the co-editor of A Moment on the Clock of the World and teaches in the department of drama at New York University.

Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!

Source Link

You may also like

Leave a Comment

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.