TEXT review

‘Monologuing performance’

review by Peta Tait


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Eddie Paterson
The Contemporary American Monologue: Performance and Politics
Methuen Drama Engage Series
Enoch Brater and Mark Taylor-Batty (eds)
Bloomsbury Methuen Drama Imprint, London 2015
ISBN 9781472585042
Pb 232pp AUD28.99


In succinct but comprehensive coverage, this engaging book offers the reader new perspectives on monologue. It sets out the origins and function of the dramatic monologue from historical precedents through to contemporary developments. The ambitious and largely successful ambit of the book means that it will appeal to theatre practitioners as well as researchers. Eddie Paterson presents the accepted ideas of theatrical monologue and then, in careful, thoughtful analysis, he explores how these were expanded through solo performance from the 1980s. Importantly, The Contemporary American Monologue treats monologue as a type of performance – and therefore best illustrated with the type of solo performance that emerged out of the United States.

Four in-depth case studies explain how monologues by leading artists came to be at the centre of recent provocative and political performance. I have seen each of the four artists perform live. I admire Spalding Gray’s verbal virtuosity, and I became a dedicated fan of Laurie Anderson, though a somewhat tentative viewer of Karen Finley’s sexually explicit art work. However, I found Anna Deavere Smith’s work extraordinary and her solo performances stand out in memory as remarkable. I have lectured on these artists in the past, and my students would have benefited from such a coherent and comprehensive resource as The Contemporary American Monologue.

This book traces the origins of late twentieth-century monologue as a genre with numerous components that draw from literature and drama (9). In a trajectory from early drama, it updates the whole concept of monologue into the twenty-first century; the background about American oratory tradition is relevant to how solo performance monologue developed in the USA. The term ‘post-monologue’ indicates recent expansion and the political purpose of questioning dominant practices and institutions, and it usefully locates recent monologue in relation to other conceptual ‘posts’ (4). Monologue developed out of the narrative device of rhetorical delivery – and the multi-faceted Shakespearean soliloquy – to depict individuality, and modernist depictions of the conscious self in theatre. Then it evolved to present the experience of fragmented subjectivity (15). The theatrical monologue now has multiple variations.

Paterson finds that the post-monologues of the 1990s into the 2000s reflect contemporary performance rather than theatre in presenting personae within parodic and mediatised forms. He builds on the work of Deborah Geis explaining that such performance blurs the boundaries of biography and fiction as it makes marginalised identities and stories visible (9). But, as Paterson explains, there are also pragmatic reasons for the resurgence of the monologue form, to do with how artists need to make a living, funding shortages and other practical circumstances.

Although Paterson writes about the performance of monologues, the analysis still relies to some extent on the scripts of productions. One strand of commentary about the development of twentieth-century dramatic writing argues that the monologue is easier to write than dialogue. Monologue has been considered a less sophisticated technique in, for example, Chekhov’s plays and he uses less monologue in his last plays. Perhaps issues arising from dramatic form have been sidelined by the short, cinematic dialogue of much contemporary theatre. Granted, direct address may better suit the writer-performer who can deliver the material with unique dynamic inflections.

The monologue of a performer-writer is often changeable text even though its delivery compounds its meaning (78). Spalding Gray performs a version of Spalding Gray and the insights about his work reveal the complex layering between autobiography and solo performance. They also encompass mental distress (60). Gray suggests that it is the awareness of extreme emotional capacity that assists his performance with parallels to depictions of madness. The monologue captures a sense of fragmented experience and points to the consequences of claiming truth (66). Paterson considers that Gray’s works undermine the status quo through an ironic naivety; one performance seems to be a type of ‘war therapy’ for Gray. His later work exposes undercurrents of personal fear and dread, and fear for the nation, in a happy (American) life.

Laurie Anderson is the most internationally well known of the case studies, because her work critiques mass-media culture. She is an accomplished performer-writer-musician who was an early adopter of electronic technology. Anderson’s performance might not be conceived of as monologue but it corresponds with Paterson’s revised definition and particularly her use of found text. Her cyborgian voice and ambiguous gender conveys depersonalisation, and at times in a sardonic tone. Paterson’s analysis is strong in its explanation of Anderson’s capacity to reveal American militarisation following up on her purpose of providing an ‘off shore’ view of the USA (82).

Anna Deavere Smith is an Afro-American performer who can transform herself into a white policeman or a Korean shop owner or an American President. As many as thirty identities can appear in one of her solo shows, through her physical versatility and capacity for mimicry. This creates some of the most extraordinary work that I have ever seen. In particular it disturbs the premise of embodied identity itself. Deavere Smith creates carefully crafted texts composed from verbatim interviews, often around major conflicts, and then performs as each of the people whom she interviewed. The text can be considered a form of verbatim theatre or documentary theatre. While it is definitely performed by Deavere Smith as monologue, the scripts have multiple identities and I have seen one script performed by a group of young actors.

The ethics of Deavere Smith’s performance are complex, in what is termed here as ‘curated diversity’ (112–13). The ideological positioning is implicit, as Deavere Smith appears to simply present a diverse group of people in a seamless way although she has carefully selected and crafted the interview materials. While Paterson’s competent analysis of technical and conceptual meaning is valuable, the sheer epic scale of Deavere Smith’s art work is not easily contained by ideas of monologue as her brilliant mimicry underpins these scripts as solo performance. The live show adds a dimension that Paterson might not have fully captured in his respectful commentary. The spectator sees Deavere Smith but hears other people and sees their facial and gestural habits in an uncanny disturbance of assumptions about the physical containment of race and gender. Her work upsets the whole concept of embodied difference and can be confronting for spectators; I have sat next to Afro-American spectators who were uncomfortable with this process. There are a panoramic range of views, so there is no clear morally right or wrong position. Yet there is something immensely powerful about how one physical presence can speak as these polarised identities and embody them so that such fluidity means that the power to control others seems diminished.

Karen Finley’s capacity to shock is not in doubt and there is a weighty political strategy in her confrontational and parodic style; she is also a visual artist. As Paterson points out, her use of blasphemy and humour uses bad taste to effect a radical politic. I was familiar with her early work and I was interested to read about more recent work, including The Passion of Terri Schiavo in 2005. This is based on media coverage of actual events arising from family and medical decisions around a woman who was in a coma, Terri Schiavo. If Finley is mocking the media and reality TV, it is also necessary to make very clear that this is her purpose in order to justify what happens in her show (152).

Ultimately Paterson locates recent innovative monologue within post-dramatic performance. Whether it stands alone as each case study illustrates, or it is one aspect of a text about a fragmented world, monologue remains prominent and is increasingly widespread. The possibilities of the monologue form are evident in the way it is inspiring a new generation of artists, including Australians. I look forward to the sequel of this very good volume.



Professor Peta Tait, La Trobe University, is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Her recent books include: Fighting Nature: Travelling Menageries, Animal Acts and War Shows (Sydney University Press 2016) and the co-edited The Routledge Circus Studies Reader (Routledge 2016) and her most recent play is Eleanor and Mary Alice about Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary Alice Evatt.


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Vol 20 No 2 October 2016
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste