Julia A. Walker
In her first book, Expressionism and Modernism in the American Theatre: Bodies,Voices, Words (Cambridge UP 2005), Julia A. Walker offered a new account of American expressionist drama, challenging the traditional critical narrative of German origins by situating it within the context of late-19th century American culture. Discussing these experimental plays in relation to new communications technologies, Walker demonstrates how they drew their formal vocabulary of disarticulated bodies, voices and words from the mute bodies gesticulating on the silent screen, the ghostly voices emanating out of phonograph horns, and the impersonality of letters stamped by machines. She argues that American expressionist playwrights drew from Delsartean theories of “expression,” which sought to counter the alienating forces of technological modernity by bringing the body’s verbal, vocal, and pantomimic “languages” back into perfect alignment. But, where expressive culture enthusiasts coordinated these three languages, expressionist playwrights counterpointed them in order to represent a dystopic vision of modern life. Examining expressionist plays by Eugene O’Neill, Elmer Rice, John Howard Lawson, and Sophie Treadwell, Walker shows how they gave expression not only to the alienating conditions of modernity, but also to the playwrights’ own fears that these new communication technologies posed a threat to that most embodied of art forms—the theatre. In a moment when mass-produced art forms were emerging, expressionist playwrights helped effect a text/performance split that set autonomous courses for literary and theatrical modernisms.
She is currently working on a second book, Modernity & Performance: Enacting Change on the Modernizing Stage. It begins with the premise that, if the historical period of modernity is marked by unprecedented waves of experiential change, and if strategies for understanding such changes were expressed in modernist art, then temporal art forms, including—and especially—the aesthetic form of performance must have encoded such strategies in their processual form. This book thus examines five distinct styles of performance that emerged over the course of the modern period in relation to five socio-cultural developments that radically changed the lived experience of modernity. Its five chapters track compelling and often surprising relationships between the Romantic “point” style of acting and the circulation of paper money, between panoramic naturalism and the globalizing compass of the railroad, between the choreography of modernist eurhythmics and the sociometrics of the modern nation state, between the self-promotional tactics of the avant garde and commercial advertising, and between the “cool” style of psychological realism and the air-conditioning condenser. Exploring the social meanings of performance form, it demonstrates how, on a stage both literal and metaphorical, performers helped audiences adapt to the profound economic, social, political and cultural changes of a modernizing world by figuring new categories of thought, modeling new social relations, and enacting new habits of self in the very ways that bodies moved.
In a recent "Hold that Thought" podcast Julia Walker brings the actress Fanny Kemble's 1831 performance of Bianca to life in Henry Millman's play Fazio. Click the image to hear the podcast.