Carnegie Mellon University

Constructing the American Activist: Twentieth-Century Political Performances and Discourses of Social Change

Author: Emily Klein

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary and Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2010

Very few activist theatres or performers have managed to garner both mainstream recognition and socio-political influence in the Americas over the last 70 years. In this dissertation I argue that the groundbreaking leaders of unusually successful groups have used both traditional and emergent theatre forms to construct and quite literally, rehearse new models of activist identities. Through the analysis of archival materials such as scripts, production notes, and internal memos I examine emblematic moments in American theatre history, from the Federal Theatre Project’s innovation of the Living Newspaper program in 1935, to El Teatro Campesino’s appropriation of the diasporic carpa tradition in the 1960s, to Eve Ensler’s V-day campus initiatives in the 1990s. I argue that in order to realize both their political and popular goals, these cultural producers had to enact two reciprocal and parallel campaigns through their work. First, they used theatrical conventions and potent metaphors circulating in popular culture to represent competing discourses surrounding the vital role of the activist in a participatory democracy. Second, they also used classed and gendered language about the arts to promote theatre as an essential civic institution, echoing Cornell West’s Habermasian notion that art can constitute a public space. Simultaneously using theatre to promote an ideal model of participatory citizenship, and using democratic ideals to promote the civic value of the theatre, these groups were each immersed in a double-barreled campaign to restore to public life two tandem models for political engagement that may have never existed outside of the national imaginary.

This project contributes to the fields of performance and cultural studies by bridging these historically disparate areas of study. While rectifying the theatre’s long absence from the cultural studies canon, this work moves activism out of the solitary domain of political science and asserts the political exigencies of studying democratic participation across the disciplines. Through its focus on problems of female citizenship and gendered representations of activist agency, this project also contributes to the fields of women’s and gender studies. It is no accident that women theatrical activists are often at the center of my story; while women have not always been embraced as cultural producers in the more highly capitalized forms of culture such as radio, film, and television, theatre has been a more accessible platform for feminist activists across the Americas. Feminist theories of performance and performativity are central to this project as I rely on Judith Butler and Diana Taylor’s distinct concepts of performativity to interpret this history of promoting engaged public citizenship on the stage.