News Item 153
27-Nov-11 - John Durang: Man of the American Stage has been published! Watch the fascinating interview with author Lynn Matluck Brooks
Watch this brilliant video taken at John Durang Puppet Museum in the delightful Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre, which shows Professor Brooks discussing the research behind her book.
Below is a transcript of the interview:
Question: Why did you decide to write this book?
RESPONSE: I decided to write John Durang: Man of the American Stage because it allows me to bring together several passions in my life: American history, dance, and theater. The exciting realization I had while researching John Durang’s life and work is that he lived through the transitions in American history that shaped our national identity: he was born of immigrants in the colonial period, he was a lively and attentive youth during the War of Independence, in which his father fought, he experienced the early struggles of the nation and represented its trades in a celebration of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, and he helped lay the groundwork for theater in cities and towns of the newly established nation. His life exemplifies not only the struggles of nation-forming and identity-building, but of the arts – particularly the performing arts of dance and theater – to participate in that process. The critical navigation between cultural foundations and newly glimpsed frontiers of expression was clearly in evidence in the theater that John Durang, his family, and his colleagues created.
Durang’s story is also a story of performance, which of course, I love. The fact that we could realize this story in a mixed-media puppet production here at Hole in the Wall Puppet Theatre, under the artistic directorship of Rob Brock, is evidence of how intertwined Durang’s life was with performance – with different modes of theatre (puppets, dance, acting, management, music, acrobatics, equestrianism, pyrotechnics, and scenic and costume design). The vibrancy of his professional life emerges clearly from his Memoir, as does his good-hearted enthusiasm for theater, for performance, and for many of his stage colleagues.
Question: What do you hope your readers take away from your book?
RESPONSE: I myself was surprised by several aspects of Durang’s story and I hope that these surprises will give readers pleasure in the discovery, but also pause to think further about the role of theater in this period. First, the close intertwining of political philosophy with theatrical representation was fascinating to undercover, with its impact on social, economic, and cultural life in the early American period. Second, the incredibly difficult labor that went into the making and presenting of theater in this period was brought home to me powerfully in the course of this research: trekking long distances in uncomfortable coaches, sleds, or boats, or on barely trod paths through the woods; building the theater in which you would be performing; marketing and managing the production; pulling together scripts, performers, rehearsals, sets, and costumes; and pleasing the ever demanding and vociferous audiences – this all took heroic exertion. Third, the personal stories of Durang and his family members and colleagues drew my interest enormously: their efforts to establish themselves as citizens and to create homes and professional profiles in this newly evolving society, unsure of itself in some ways and very cocky in others, yields rich plots and wonderful characters to encounter.
Question: What other research do you believe is needed on this topic?
RESPONSE: I would love to know more about the actual movement that the performers did. This is always so hard to capture from historical records. The interplay of music and theater is fascinating and could bear further research, although a few excellent sources are available. The early circus is an area for further research, particular its American manifestations and the roles of figures like John Bill Ricketts and John Durang in establishing it. Details of American legislation and theater are available but could be further analyzed in terms of political philosophies and the evolution of the nation’s cultural shifts. And I do wish we could know how John Durang altered scripts and scenes for his tours to the “hinterlands” to meet the languages and cultural expectations of the various groups for whom he performed. John’s son Charles Durang also deserves a full biography. He was a central figure in Philadelphia’s dance and theater scene in the early to mid nineteenth century. American theatrical dynasties––one of which Durang established––would be an interesting subject for further study. These are among the many areas of research that might continue the story of John Durang and the American stage.