Congratulations to James Fisher on the publication of his new work entitled Historical Dictionary of American Theater: Beginnings (Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts), 2015.
James, can you tell us more about the thinking behind this volume?
I had previously worked on two “Historical Dictionaries” – the first, co-authored by Felicia Hardison Londré, covered “Modernism (1880-1930),” was published in 2007. Following that, I went for it alone on “Contemporary (1930-2010),” which was a huge project – two volumes long and published in 2011. The publisher (Rowman and Littlefield) invited me to do “Beginnings (American Theatre prior to 1880)” and I jumped at the chance for a number of reasons, not least because it was the era I felt least comfortable with as far as my own knowledge is concerned, so I knew I stood to learn a great deal preparing for and working on the project. On a more important level, when Felicia and I signed on to do “Modernism,” I relished the idea that limiting the time period to a fifty year window meant we could go much more broadly and deeply than similar works are usually able to do, since so many are single volumes covering the entirety of theatre in America. I also have great admiration for Felicia Londré, whose work as a scholar was a real model for me when I began my career. When we finally met, we hit it off and became fast friends. And that led inevitably to a desire to collaborate. In addition, I learned so much from her working together. She has an extraordinary knowledge of the American stage in the modernist era. And the good news is that Rowman and Littlefield has just asked us to expand and revise the “Modernism” book, so we’ll get to continue what was, for me, a very happy collaboration.
Would you tell us about the research process and types of resources you consulted?
Well, of course, there’s so much out there and I went into this having my own very good library of sources on the American theatre (and it has grown enormously during the time in which I’ve worked on these books), but I wanted, as much as possible, to dig very deeply. The internet, of course, is wonderfully helpful. I spent many afternoons reading some little-known early 19th century American plays conveniently available on-line. Digging in old newspapers and periodicals, old stage memoirs and biographies, historical and critical studies, you name it, but as yet the internet remains only a beginning – a useful tool, but many hours were spent in the library. My own personal goal was to try even with the most familiar entry on an individual or play or theatre space or term, to provide something unique and, perhaps, previously unavailable in prior reference works. Which, of course, meant a great deal of digging. It was also a great challenge to decide who and what to include – certain entries would be obvious inclusions, while it was also a goal to include obscure and little-known entries in hopes of providing through those choices a glimpse of a certain moment in the history of the American stage. On “Beginnings,” for example, I really loved the opportunity to read a lot of Irish-American plays from the first half of the 19th century and I had similar pleasure exploring the Yiddish theatre for the “Modernism” volume. These are just examples and one of the pitfalls of working on a project like this – and I fell into it frequently – was getting fascinated by a particular person or play and spending an enormous amount of time on what turned out to be an entry of only a few lines. However, I have no regrets – those tangents were great fun and very revealing. There is such a rich and diverse tapestry in a study of American theatre history and I truly hope these books point interested students and young scholars toward some very exciting corners of the history of the American stage. If a user of the dictionary could be encouraged to find such excitement or at least to find the book useful, I would feel very good.
Will there be a digital version?
Yes, there will be – the publisher hasn’t indicated when it will be offered, but there will be a Kindle version.
James Fisher is Professor of Theatre at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he served as Head of Theatre from 2007-2014. His books include The Historical Dictionary of American Theater: Beginnings, The Historical Dictionary of Contemporary American Theater, Understanding Tony Kushner, The Historical Dictionary of American Theater: Modernism (co-author: Felicia Hardison Londré), bio-bibliographies of Spencer Tracy, Al Jolson, and Eddie Cantor, The Theatre of Tony Kushner: Living Past Hope, The Theatre of Yesterday and Tomorrow: Commedia dell’arte on the Modern Stage, four “In an Hour” books on Eugene O’Neill, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller, and Tony Kushner, and he has contributed essays to many publications on theatre and film. Fisher edited To Have or Have Not: Essays on Commerce and Capital in Modernist Theatre, “We Will Be Citizens”: New Essays on Gay and Lesbian Theatre, and Tony Kushner: New Essays on the Art and Politics of the Plays. Also an actor/director, he acted in and/or directed over 150 productions. A long-time member of the Theatre Library Association and other professional organizations, he is the recipient of the 2007 Betty Jean Jones Award for Excellence in the Teaching of American Theatre from the American Theatre and Drama Society. In 2010, he was elected to membership in the National Theatre Conference.