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Title:Theatre as a Verb: The Theatre Art of Martha Graham, 1923-1958
Author(s):Snyder, Diana Marie
Department / Program:Theatre
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Abstract:In 1958, thirty-five years after she had launched her independent career, Martha Graham choreographed Clytemnestra, the climax of her unique, revolutionary art. She was then sixty-four years old, well past the usual retirement age for dancers; nonetheless, she appeared in this production as the condemned Queen, confronting her own culpability, and consequently attaining rebirth. Graham's performance in this role, as well as the dance itself, inspired exceptionally enthusiastic critical acclaim. Virtually all observers termed Clytemnestra a masterwork; many claimed that it was unsurpassed in the American theatre of the twentieth century.
In fact, while Martha Graham's work has long been acknowledged as vital to the development of modern dance, her contribution to theatre as a whole has been largely overlooked. Critics such as Stark Young and Eric Bentley have pointed out qualities within her dances which they deem theatrically valuable, and which link her with such theatre artists as Edward Gordon Craig, Antonin Artaud and William Butler Yeats. Other observers mention Graham as a practitioner of "total theatre," and even dance critics frequently term her as an actress and a dramatist, whose art expands the particular realm of dance into the broader arena of theatre. Her position within the twentieth-century American theatre has, in fact, been pivotal in many respects, yet no one has provided a comprehensive analysis of her work from a theatrical perspective.
This study is an attempt to place Martha Graham's art within its proper context, that of the theatre as a whole, and to define her particular theatre art which, for all its permutations, consistently centered upon her basic contention that theatre is a verb, an essential reciprocal act, involving both performer and percipient. The dissertation discusses the origins of her convictions in childhood experiences and the evolution of her work, its themes and techniques, from 1923, when she left the Denishawn Company, until 1958, when she presented Clytemnestra. Because Graham created over one hundred and thirty dances during these years, certain productions are used as landmarks, to measure her directional changes and varying artistic emphasis. These works include Heretic, Primitive Mysteries, American Document, Appalachian Spring, Herodiade, Dark Meadow, Cave of the Heart, Errand into the Maze, Night Journey and Seraphic Dialogue, as well as Clytemnestra.
Martha Graham's career as a dancer and a choreographer did not end with this production. She did not retire from the stage until she was seventy-six years old, and she still continues to create new dances. By 1958, however, she has already perfected her singular technique, inaugurated her most significant theatrical innovations, and explored those themes which were to recur in later works. Consequently, Clytemnestra and the major works which preceded it reveal the cynosure of Graham's theatre--her physicalization of the essential dramatic act, the "verb" which, for her, is theatre.
Issue Date:1980
Description:253 p.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1980.
Other Identifier(s):(UMI)AAI8108668
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-12-14
Date Deposited:1980

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