Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2010

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Morris, Adalaide

First Committee Member

Marra, Kim

Second Committee Member

Stecopoulos, Harilaos

Third Committee Member

Stewart, Garrett

Fourth Committee Member

Worthen, W B


"Poetry 'n Acts: The Cultural Politics of Twentieth-Century American Poets' Theater," focuses on the disciplinary blind spot that obscures the productive overlap between poetry and dramatic theater and prevents us from seeing the cultural work that this combination can perform. Why did 2100 people turn out in 1968 to see a play in which most of the characters speak only in such apparently nonsensical phrases as "Red hus the beat trim doing going" and "Achtung swachtung"? And why would an Obie award-winning playwright move to New Jersey to write such a play in the first place? What led to the founding in 1978 of the San Francisco Poets Theatre by L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writers, and why have those plays and performers been virtually ignored by critics despite the admitted centrality of performance to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writing's textual politics? Why would the renowned Yale Repertory Theatre produce in the 1990s the poetic, plotless plays of a theater newcomer twice in as many years--even when audiences walked out? What vision for the future of theater could possibly involve episodic drama with footnotes? In each example, part of the story is missing. This dissertation begins to fill in that gap.

Attending to often overlooked aspects of theater language, this dissertation examines theatrical performances that use poetic devices to intervene in narratives of cultural oppression, often by questioning the very suitability of narrative as a primary means of social exchange. While Gertrude Stein must be seen as a forerunner to contemporary poets' theater, chapter one argues that the Living Theatre's late 1950s and early 1960s anti-authoritarian theater demonstrates key alliances between poetry and theater at mid-century. The remaining chapters closely examine particular instances of poets' theater by Amiri Baraka (known equally as poet and playwright), Carla Harryman (associated with West Coast poetry), and Suzan-Lori Parks (a critically acclaimed playwright). These productions put poetic theater on the backs of tractors in Harlem streets, in open gallery spaces, and in more conventional black box and proscenium architectures, and each case develops the importance of performance contexts and production histories in determining plays' cultural effects.


performance studies, poetry, poets' theater, theater, twentieth-century drama


viii, 213 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 202-213).


Copyright 2010 Heidi R Bean