Christopher Grobe

Assistant Professor, Amherst College

The Art of Confession

The Performance of Self from Robert Lowell to Reality TV 


What do midcentury “confessional” poets have in common with today’s reality TV stars? They share an inexplicable urge to make their lives an open book, and also a sense that this book can never be finished. Christopher Grobe argues that, in postwar America, artists like these forged a new way of being in the world. Identity became a kind of work—always ongoing, never complete—to be performed on the public stage.

The Art of Confession tells the history of this cultural shift and of the movement it created in American art: confessionalism. Like realism or romanticism, confessionalism began in one art form, but soon pervaded them all: poetry and comedy in the 1950s and ’60s, performance art in the ’70s, theater in the ’80s, television in the ’90s, and online video and social media in the 2000s. Everywhere confessionalism went, it stood against autobiography, the art of the closed book. Instead of just publishing, these artists performed—with, around, and against the text of their lives. 

A blend of cultural history, literary criticism, and performance theory, The Art of Confession explores iconic works of art and draws surprising connections among artists who may seem far apart, but who were influenced directly by one another. Studying extraordinary art alongside ordinary experiences of self-betrayal and -revelation, Christopher Grobe argues that a tradition of “confessional performance” unites poets with comedians, performance artists with social media users, reality TV stars with actors—and all of them with us. There is art, this book shows, in our most artless acts.

“I must confess: I love The Art of Confession. In clear and stylish prose, with gusto and flourish, and through original arguments about the compulsion to confess and the compulsion to perform, Grobe has produced a stunning book. Broadly engaged, yet sharply focused, this work is cultural criticism of the highest standard.”
—Nick Salvato, Cornell University
“With this ambitious and engaging book, Christopher Grobe elucidates the centrality of confession to performance, poetry, and reality TV, deftly unfolding the often-paradoxical politics of making and sharing secret selves.”
—Peggy Phelan, Stanford University
"Grobe traces the history and evolution of modern American confessional art in this impressive and wide-ranging debut ... an engrossing, dense work of literary scholarship for the 21st century ..."

—Publisher's Weekly (full review here)

"In this work, Grobe ... explores 'the performance of self' ... with just the right balance of theoretical acumen, playfulness, tongue-in-cheek observations, and historical, literary, political, and cultural accuracy..."
Library Journal (starred review)

India & After

The Lost Monologue of Spalding Gray

(edited manuscript in progress)


How do you publish a play if it changes each time it’s performed? For Spalding Gray—acclaimed actor, storyteller, and writer—the answer was: you don’t. You just wait until it’s all done changing, and then you finally commit it to print. For most of his career, Gray’s confessional monologues joined this same steady march toward the printing press, but one monologue by Gray never fell in line. India & After, a piece developed alongside Gray’s earliest monologues, was built around dictionary definitions that an assistant chose at random in front of our eyes. The result was a thrilling performance—a game, an ordeal, a high-wire act of storytelling.

Although the topic of India & After was the same every night—personal stories from Gray’s travels across India and America in the mid-1970s—its content and form was always changing, so it never made sense to publish anything more than an excerpt or two—until now. Based on one-of-a-kind archival recordings, this book offers an authoritative text for India & After, but it also attempts to capture the spirit of Gray’s performance.

Like Balderdash or Fictionary, India & After is a game that Gray played (that you play) with a dictionary. This book allows you to explore the vast story-world from which Gray built each performance of this piece. It shows you how to follow the paths Gray carved through this material on different nights, but it also sets you free to blaze your own trail.

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Refined Mechanicals

The Realist Actor and Other Technologies

(critical monograph in progress)


New technologies can change the way people understand—or even experience—their own humanity. Think, for instance, of how our sense of human intelligence is changing in an age of “smart” phones, TVs, and homes. Realist actors, those experts in the art of seeming human, are excellent barometers of such changes in the cultural atmosphere. When they take a new technology for their scene partner, they don’t just test its affordances—they also push at the limits of their own performed humanity. Perhaps that’s why people have often been wowed by actors who play opposite new machines. When theater-makers first put the telegraph machine onstage, for instance, people marveled at the acting that performers achieved in its presence; they obsessed over what we’d call “subtext” and thrilled to what (later) they’d learn to call theatrical “liveness.” And when characters on stage and screen started talking on the phone, critics were shocked by how deep and convincing it always was. (“Perhaps it is easier to act with a telephone than a man,” one declared!) These actors show us what it means to get entangled with technology—and to feel ourselves changed by the encounter. This phenomenon is not unique to the performing arts. In real life, too, person and thing might dissolve at their edges when they meet, then precipitate anew. The world might be shaken, but then it soon sifts out into new configurations of the human.

Refined Mechanicals will be the first cultural history of this process to take performance as its primary cultural archive. It begins with the insight that realist theories of acting both prohibit and require “mechanical” acting. For example, Konstantin Stanislavsky’s favorite word for bad acting is “mechanical,” but he also insists that every actor must become “sensitive, responsive, mobile—like a well oiled and regulated machine.” Behind this seeming contradiction lie two visions of acting (and of humanity): what I call the “rude” and “refined” perspectives on the human machinery. The “rude mechanical” is (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) a straw man of bad acting, someone hollowed out by performance and all its deadening repetitions. “Refined mechanicals,” by contrast, are “responsive” creatures—machine-like inasmuch as they are “sensitive” to stimuli and “mobile” in response. Exploring topics that range from 19th-century acting theories to their use in contemporary social robotics, Refined Mechanicals offers a new intellectual history of realist acting—and a performance-minded contribution to the history of science and technology.

copyright 2015, Christopher Grobe