Leopold Lippert, Performing America Abroad: Transnational Cultural Politics in the Age of Neoliberal Capitalism. Universitätsverlag Winter, 2018.
Leopold Lippert’s Performing America Abroad provides a survey of a broad range of topics in relation to American performance and the implications it carries when crossing geographical boundaries. Lippert uses neoliberal capitalism as a lens through which to understand three performances of American culture abroad: Austrian singer Hans Kreuzmayer as “Waterloo,” an “Indian persona”; LGBTQ+ events in Austria that refer to and re-enact the Stonewall riots of 1969; and three versions of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, as performed in Germany and Austria in the 2010/2011 theatre season. Lippert prefaces these three case studies with an exploration of American Studies in the 21st century and how, with the expansion of the discipline—and even the idea of America—beyond the nation’s borders, this transnationalism is bound up with neoliberalism. As he writes, both of these concepts “rely on ‘difference’ as a common discursive framework in which their respective cultural politics can be articulated and negotiated” (9). The scope Lippert provides is considerable, but this also creates the main problem with the book—the three case studies do not relate sufficiently to one another, and so there is occasionally a lack of coherence to the overall narrative.
The first case study, on Kreuzmayer’s “Waterloo” character, explores the imperative within neoliberalism not only to perform but also to optimise, and so transform, oneself. Lippert writes that contemporary subjectivity “is an ongoing modulation of the self [governed] by constantly shifting enticements to perform” (69), which is embodied by Waterloo. He sees the literal transformation via performance not only in Waterloo but also in the character’s addresses to his audience, in which he “teaches his audiences to optimize their capabilities as human resources” (115). He places the character in the context of representations of Native Americans in Germany and Austria, in particular the popular novels of late-19th/early 20th-century writer Karl May. This leads into a discussion of “Indianthusiasm” in Germany and Austria, with citations to Frank Usbeck and Katrin Sieg to show its importance in German culture. Not only, according to Lippert, is “playing Indian” a way to acknowledge the Holocaust—while simultaneously ignoring it—by addressing a prior genocide, but he also refers to Usbeck’s arguments that the Nazis claimed similarities between their own tribal purity and that of the Native Americans. This is the most engaging chapter of the three, as he provides an overview of the lengthy career of “Waterloo” as a performer in Austria and of several of the live and recorded events in which he has participated. It is the one chapter in which his core vision of neoliberalism, which requires one to consistently “improve” oneself for the marketplace, is addressed through his subject. The popularity of Native American narratives in Germany and Austria comes as a surprise, as it undoubtedly will to many outside of German-speaking countries, but Lippert does not seem to be aware of this and so does not acknowledge that a white man performing as a Native American will be viewed as problematic by many. He writes, “Waterloo’s performance has always been immediately recognizable as performance, not as pretend embodiment” (106), but for an international reader, further elaboration would be appreciated.
The second case study deals with the legacy of the Stonewall riots on LGBTQ+ politics, wherein he broadens them from an American to an international event. While some, including Barack Obama in his second inaugural address in 2013, have tried to co-opt the riots into a national narrative of progress, Lippert instead points out that the advancement of LGBTQ+ politics came in opposition to, not congruence with, state power. He writes that “the political legacy of the riots [has become] fundamentally imbued with the fantasy of American exceptionalism, the commodification processes of transnational capital, and the neoliberal commensurability of difference” (145). This chapter is commendable for his refusal to allow the riots to remain solely as symbolic American events, as he places them in a wider context, underlining the importance of the cultural impact of the riots beyond national borders. He at times displays something approaching naivety in relation to America’s position as the world’s hegemonic cultural and political power, however. Discussing John D’Emilio’s accounts of the history of American LGBTQ+ politics, particularly post-Stonewall, Lippert critiques D’Emilio on the basis that “what is rhetorically framed as an account of ‘our’ post-Stonewall activism is essentially a history of ‘U.S.’ post-Stonewall activism, and accordingly, an American narrative clearly shaped and delineated by the confines of the nation-state” (149). It is striking that in a book dedicated to the study of how America is performed outside of its borders, Lippert fails to acknowledge that one of the defining characteristics of American culture, no matter the social or political group involved, is its insularity. As scholars from abroad, we should not expect American scholarship on America to be as international as our own. His critique of America’s propensity to whitewash its own history, while more necessary now than ever, is insightful and engaging, but it is unrealistic to assume that American institutions or movements would act in a way that fails to reflect the country’s instinctively inward-looking tendencies.
Lippert introduces his discussion of Salesman with an examination of the “American Dream,” calling it a “quasi-mythological set of narratives that forms a core component of the national imagery of the United States [which] puts forward an unwavering belief in liberal meritocracy and upward mobility” (179). In his reading, the idea is malleable and most likely meaningless, as it can apply equally to people across various identities—“a nationalized narrative of upwards mobility and consumer gratification might make sense affectively to a non-white female immigrant careworker in a similar way as it would to a white male middle-class entrepreneur” (179). With regards to Salesman, Lippert views the scene in which Willy Loman becomes excited about the prospect of his sons going into business together on the strength of a loan they are in fact unlikely to receive as paradigmatic in establishing the play’s relationship with the American Dream—“we might argue that the affective structure of the American dream is that people who invest in it attach to the feeling of its exuberant promise, regardless of its actual content, and derive immense pleasure from the mere inspiration of its optimistic narrative” (181; author’s emphasis). In relation to Willy, Lippert writes, “He is euphoric about the prospect of his sons’ future investments, and is unconcerned with the fact that most of Biff and Happy’s claims turn out to be entirely unsubstantiated” (181; author’s emphasis). Like Willy’s refrigerator, Lippert views the American Dream as something that is only and necessarily purchased on credit.
The three performances of Salesman Lippert cites deviate, to varying extents, from Miller’s play, in particular the final piece of his study, Tod eines Bankomatkartenbesitzers (“Death of a Cardholder”). This is a site-specific performance in which actors visit shopping centres and ask to borrow shoppers’ cards, due to their own personal finance problems. He admits that this link is “comparatively tenuous,” and that aside from the title, it “only indirectly relates to the 1949 Salesman” (215). This lack of a relationship with Miller’s play should not detract from Lippert’s analysis and conclusions, but it does point to the book’s main problem, and that is the attempt to cover too much ground. For example, there is almost no engagement with Miller scholarship, and his assertion that “Miller seems to assert that despite the all-pervasiveness of capitalist individualism, there is still a stark moral contrast between the exhausted Lomans who pursue a phony dream and the successful neighbors [sic] Charley and Bernard who have a more solid grasp of reality and know the importance of a good education” (185-186) leaves itself far too open for criticism. The idea that Miller’s play is an affecting anti-capitalist work is a common one, but it ignores the simple fact that Willy Loman never sold anything—he always inflated his status and skill as a salesman, and he has not been fired for his sudden inability to make money for his company. Miller was highly influenced by the plays of Clifford Odets and the Group Theatre of the 1930s, whose works were obvious critiques of capitalism, but reducing Salesman to an anti-capitalist work diminishes the potential of the play and suggests that Lippert would have benefitted from further examination of the play and its scholarship. Recall, for instance, Willy’s inspiration for becoming a salesman, Dave Singleman, who “at the age of eighty-four [could] pick up a phone and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people” (180)—acceptance and admiration is what he has always craved, not necessarily financial rewards. Dennis Welland, as far back as 1979 in Miller the Playwright, noted that the scene in which Willy is fired “engenders a mix of pity and exasperation rather than the indignation that we would expect of ‘party-line literature’” (40).
Given the diverse nature of these three topics, it is likely that this will prove to be a helpful resource for students across different areas of study—performance studies, queer studies, site-specific theatre, critical race theory, and more—as well as a valuable text in approaching contemporary American Studies from a continental perspective.
Miller, Arthur. Collected Plays. Cresset Press, 1958.
Welland, Dennis. Miller the Playwright. 3rd ed., Methuen, 1985.
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