The Art of Confession: The Performance of Self from Robert Lowell to Reality TV (forthcoming this fall from NYU Press)
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.
India & After: A Performing Dictionary by Spalding Gray (manuscript in progress)
Performances, even of traditional drama, rest lightly in the books that capture them. Textual add-ons like speech tags, stage directions, and director’s notes allow us to read a text and imagine how it might be performed—but what if there's no stable text available in the first place? How can the printed word capture something changeable, modular, or driven by chance? This book offers, in solid state, an answer to these questions. It's an experimental edition of one of Spalding Gray's earliest and most breathtaking "talk pieces," India & After.
The premise of India (first performed in the late 1970s) was this Gray would tell stories from the last few years of his life, starting with his 1976 tour of India with the Performing Group, but he would do so under strict regulation. First, his assistant would read a random word and its definition from the dictionary; then she would announce an equally random amount of time from 15 seconds to seven minutes. In the allotted time, he would tell a story related, however tenuously, to that word and its definition. When his time was up, a bell would ring, and he would start the process all over again. Civilian, hurdy-gurdy, setting, friend, time-clock—and so on for over an hour. After the bell rang one final time, his assistant would read aloud a list she had been keeping of all of that night’s seed-words, and the piece would come to a close. Each night the words would change, and therefore so would the performance. India & After, then, names not a monologue but an expansive story-world and a procedure for accessing and arranging its parts.
In this experimental edition, I try to capture the spirit of this piece by interleaving several performance transcripts in the form of a dictionary. Various textual apparatuses help you follow a certain performance start to finish or help you compare different versions of the same story. Fundamentally, though, this is a random-access object—as, in fact, all dictionaries are. Reading India & After, like performing it, means playing with (and maybe against) the form of a dictionary.