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."

—Publisher's Weekly

 
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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)

 

As I wrote The Art of Confession, one question arose again and again: How do media technologies assist people in creating and sustaining a sense of self—of who they are? As confessional artists rebelled against the two-dimensional norms of “autobiography,” they began to engage with all sorts of media. They came to conceive of a “self” as something you built across platforms—in what performance artist Eleanor Antin called a “dialogue with a medium.” (She really means all sorts of media at once.) In the past few years, I’ve grown interested in the prehistory of this idea. Studying the performance “careers” of various media technologies, I’ve discovered that what we call “realist” character was, in fact, forged precisely through “a dialogue with a medium.” In the “telegraph scenes” of 19th-century plays, artists groped toward a new understanding of the theater—of stage “liveness,” of dramatic “subtext,” and of the “quiet method” of acting that deployed these novel sensations in the service of a new kind of character. Not much later, the “telephone scenes” of early 20th-century theater and film taught actors, as one put it, how to behave “subconsciously” onstage. Taking machines for scene partners, in other words, actors learned new ways of being human.

Refined Mechanicals expands on this research, starting 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 itself): what I call the “rude” and “refined” perspectives on the human machinery. The “rude mechanical” is (as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) a simple straw man of bad acting, an image of the artist hollowed out by the dumb repetitions of performance. The “refined mechanical” is the “responsive” realist actor—who, by the way, sets the standard to which roboticists now aspire. My goal in writing this book is to show how performance (not just literature)  can be necessary cultural archive for theorists and historians of media technology.

copyright 2015, Christopher Grobe