Vital Signs

Modernism's Stage Debut

For the critic, the sad inevitabilities are death and taxonomy. He cannot avoid genres, isms, and zeitgeists, unless he wants the past to be unintelligible and the present to seem as random and strung out as an evening of "performance art." "Victorian art" did pass away, and its heirs were "modernists." While reports of modernism's demise remain premature, there are plenty of "postmodernists" happy to accompany the poor old thing to the lawyer's for a bout of will-making—if only they could find a law office in this maze of deconstructed street-markers. It is summing-up time.

But taxonomic generalizations, however unnecessary, always oversimplify the realities of the individual artwork, the event as it happened, the actual artist with his unique history and sensibility. Anthologies like Daniel Gerould's sampler of 15 one-act "Symbolist" plays remind us of the dangers of classification. To frame elegant schemata about "the rise of modern drama" is a whole lot more pleas ant than knuckling down to an unfamiliar play like, say, Andrei Bely's Jaws of Night and trying to work out not only its meanings and structure (the easy part) but also its worth either for its own time or for ours (the hard part). Gerould has done a salutary job to the extent that his selected plays call into question even his own prefatory generalizations about Symbolist drama....

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