JFA 24.2 (2013)

Editor’s Introduction

“Introduction: ‘Should we poke it with a stick?’: Approaches to Fantastic Performance”
Jen Gunnels and Isabella van Elferen

Performance and the fantastic have had an ongoing, fruitful relationship for several millennia. The fantastic has inspired theatrical performances ranging in history and type from the Abydos Passion Play shown on the Ikhernofret Stone (1868 B.C.E.) to the ritual dances and dithyrambs leading to Greek tragedy (according to Aristotle’s Poetics c. 335-323 B.C.E) to Mozart’s Magic Flute (1791) and contemporary stagings of Klingon narratives (Gunnels 2012). Moreover, fantastic performance is not limited to the theatrical stage, extending to genres like musical performance, dance, and public life, such as Dia de los Muertos parades. Thus, while the cultural significance of “fantastic performance” is evident from the historical entwinement of both genres, it is hard to find a clear definition for it. Performance itself, of course, is a messy category. It’s a gooey amalgam of arts in various combinations and emphases—an organic, cohesive, ephemeral whole which is always in the process of passing into oblivion. The fantastic also defies unambivalent categorization, and it, too, is comprised of a messy conglomerate of genres and styles, borrowing from and coupling with one another to produce more work that shuns definition.

Traditionally the term “performance” is used to signify a theatrical event being studied like “a performance of Swan Lake.” However, such events really are meta-texts made up of multiple, specialized discourses (music, light, movement, set, costumes, etc.) of which a literary text may not be a part, or if it is, that particular text is one of many and not always the most informative at that. The “text” of, or in, a performance, therefore, can signify a script, a score, sound, lights, costume, and many other forms of multimedial discourse—on their own or in multiple combinations, on the stage or in the public space. Performance evades and elides definitions, which gives it an interdisciplinary commonality with the fantastic. This makes any study of performance messy by default, since the subject matter itself cannot be neatly nailed down with definitive analysis.

When discussed in critical terms, performance therefore often becomes even more messy and fraught. As Hans-Thies Lehmann notes, modern performances have moved past traditional notions of script (among other elements), and critics in the field have difficulty finding a way to define and uniformly discuss new kinds of performance and the elements that comprise them. More importantly, with the advent of new technology utilized in productions, recordings, and remote audiences the old stand-by definition of performance as outlined by Eric Bentley in The Life of the Drama—A (performer) does B (some character/some kind of activity) for C (spectator) in X (a space for the performance)—doesn’t hold anymore. Does A have to be a human or even be alive? Is B a character if there is no longer a reliance on a linear dramatic script? Does C have to be physically present at the time of the performance? Does the venue, X, have to be a physical space? Part of what performance analysis has struggled with over the past two decades is the question of whether or not performance can be situated in organic “liveness” (Auslander). The academic debate, too, expands over the borders of theatrical performance: as the advent of recording technology, for instance, has radically changed the ways in which we experience musical liveness, the same problems have been addressed in the study of music (Sexton).

The articles in this special issue of JFA demonstrate the ways in which the study of the fantastic—which, despite its multivalent entanglements with performance, is still primarily analyzed through literary and cinematic approaches—can benefit from methodologies and viewpoints generated in performance criticism and analysis. Since the “performative turn” in the 1990s (Parker and Kosofsky Sedgwick), the appropriation of performative methods of inquiry into fields such as literary and cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, and psychology has led to new insights in complex cultural phenomena such as identity, gender, communication, and creation. In which ways can the analysis of the fantastic—in all its fantasy, science fictional, Gothic, and horror forms and shapes—similarly lead to new insights in that genre and its cultural manifestations and significance? Just because fantastic performance is a messy category, in other words, that doesn’t preclude a rigorous methodological approach. This JFA issue brings together a range of possible methodologies for the study of this genre.

The authors in this issue discuss multiple forms of fantastic performance and performativity with methodologies originating from multi-disciplinary backgrounds, from theatre studies to musicology, film studies, and critical theory. Our issue begins in the theatre with articles by Graham Wolfe and Robert Lublin. Wolfe examines Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s play, The Shining City, to reveal how performed specters foreground the ghostly aspects of the characters’, and by extension our own, lives. Lublin engages with recent productions of the Faust mythos and illustrates how these reflect a more postmodern idea, “the death of man,” using a fantastic mirror. Moving from theatre to dance, Adam Guzkowski’s article focuses on the political potential of dance and dance imagery in theatre, studying the ways in which this potential is mobilized within two science fiction texts, Stardance and The Merro Tree. Moving from choreographic to cinematic uses of music, James Wierzbicki proposes a musical reading of James Whale’s 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein. He examines how and why Frankenstein’s monster, by means of early adaptations of the novel for the stage, came to be portrayed as an overtly expressive music lover. The next article by Tanya Dean similarly proposes a musical reading, but this time of a theatrical performance, David Greenspan and Stephin Merritt’s musical adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Dean explores the ways in which theatre can serve as a catalyst for active fantastic creation. Joshua Hjalmer Lind’s article takes the performative dimension of music to the level of critical theory. Combining methodologies from psychoanalysis and Gothic criticism, Lind argues that the “ghost-Father” that haunts contemporary Gothic is present in the lyrics and musical setting of three heavy metal albums. Pawel Frelik delves into metal music as well, taking a broad survey of the music’s relationship with science fiction through its use of alien conspiracies, cyber-rupture, space black metal, and sf concept albums.

What we have gathered here barely scratches the surface of what can be done and what is possible in utilizing performance criticism and theory for various fantastic media. Like the slippery, multi-faceted subject matter of fantastic performance itself, the methodologies offered here for its analysis are necessarily cross-disciplinary, hybrid, and flexible. Amalgamating analytical principles from various performative theories, the analyses in this special issue invite readers to think over the borders of their own discipline: to think of theatre in terms of sf virtual reality, of film in terms of musical horror, or of songs in terms of ghostly performance. No uniform analytical approach for fantastic performance can—or should—be prescribed: instead, the utility of a pluriform methodology lies in both its plasticity and its co-option into multiple disciplines—a sonic screwdriver offering multiple types of tools for opening and analyzing fantastic performance in innovative ways.

Works Cited

Auslander, Philip. Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. London: Routledge, 1999. Print. Bently, Eric. The Life of the Drama. New York: Atheneum. 1964. Print.

Chapple, Freda and Chiel Kattenbelt. “Key Issues in Intermediality in Theater and Performance.” Intermediality in Theatre and Performance. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006. 11-25. Print.


Introduction: “Should we poke it with a stick?”: Approaches to Fantastic Performance
Jen Gunnels and Isabella van Elferen

Staging Everyday Ghosts: Conor McPherson’s Shining City
Graham Wolfe

Faust and the “Death of Man”
Robert Lublin

Movements in Space: Science Fiction, Dance, and the Politics of Performance
Adam Guzkowski

How Frankenstein’s Monster Became a Music Lover
James Wierzbicki

Piano Guts and Other Mothers: Staging Fantasy in David Greenspan and Stephin Merritt’s Musical Adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline Tanya Dean

The Ghost-Father in 1980s Heavy Metal
Joshua Hjalmer Lind

Dark Matters: Mapping Science Fiction on the Extreme Metal Continuum
Paweł Frelik


Angela M. Smith’s Hideous Progeny: Disability, Eugenics, and Classic Horror Cinema
Rev. by Kathryn Allan

Emily E. Auger’s Tech-Noir Film: A Theory of the Development of Popular Genres
Rev. by Angela Chiang

Anne Morey’s Genre, Reception, and Adaptation in the “Twilight” Series
Rev. by Melissa A. Click

Bruce Thomas Boehrer’s Animal Characters: Nonhuman Beings in Early Modern Literature
Rev. by Suanna H. Davis

Elton Honores’s Mundos imposibles: lo fantástico en la narrativa peruana
Rev. by Aaron Dziubinskyj

Thomas M. Sipos’s Horror Film Aesthetics: Creating the Visual Language of Fear
Rev. by Perin Gurel

Grace L. Dillon’s Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction
Rev. by Adam Guzkowski

John Cheng’s Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America
Rev. by Andrea Krafft

Tom Tyler’s CIFERAE: A Bestiary in Five Fingers
Rev. by Sha LaBare

Katherine A. Fowkes’s The Fantasy Film
Rev. by Emily Midkiff

Asa Simon Mittman and Peter J. Dendle’s The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous
Rev. by T. S. Miller

Lawrence R. Samuel’s Supernatural America: A Cultural History
Rev. by John W. Morehead

Kenneth B. Kidd’s Freud in Oz: At the Intersections of Psychoanalysis and Children’s Literature
Rev. by Gretchen Papazian

Aviva Briefel and Sam J. Miller’s Horror After 9/11: World of Fear, Cinema of Terror
Rev. by Emily Lauren Putnam

Kimberley McMahon-Coleman and Roslyn Weaver’s Werewolves and Other Shapeshifters in Popular Culture: A Thematic Analysis of Recent Depictions
Rev. by Amy J. Ransom

John C. Tibbetts’s The Gothic Imagination: Conversations on Fantasy, Horror, and Science Fiction in the Media
Rev. by Joshua Richardson

Gary Westfahl’s The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969
Rev. by Don Riggs

Dean A. Kowalski and S. Evan Kreider’s The Philosophy of Joss Whedon
Rev. by Joseph Michael Sommers

W. Sullivan III’s Heinlein’s Juvenile Novels: A Cultural Destiny
Rev. by A. Bowdoin Van Riper

Leigh Ronald Grossman’s Sense of Wonder: A Century of Science Fiction
Rev. by Jason P. Vest

Robert W. Fenton’s Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan: A Biography of the Author and His Creation
Rev. by Matt Yockey