David Savran’s “Highbrow/Lowdown”: A Preview

In anticipation of METC’s May 18 evening with Professor David Savran…

One of the many privileges of studying at the CUNY Grad Center Theatre department has been to work closely and frequently with a scholar as at the top of his game as is David Savran.  Having already made an estimable reputation in the 80s and 90s as a chronicler of experimental theatre (his now-classic Wooster Group history Breaking the Rules) and groundbreaking applications to theatre of gender and queer studies, he is now forging an entirely different, though no less radical, path.  My first class with David in 2005 was in American Musical Theatre–a field he had long taught in but only recently began publishing on.  So lucky was I to first encounter him at this very moment when he was working on Highbrow/Lowdown, his ambitious wedding of neglected musical theatre history to modern sociological analyses of class and taste.  This uniquely “Savranian” matching of methodology to seemingly unlikely subject matter was a thrill to watch in action.

And now we can all read it, too.  Hardly a culmination of all of David’s important musical theatre scholarship, Highbrow/Lowdown gives us a fascinating case study of the role of jazz in the formation of American theatrical taste in the 1920s.  In my journey through the book so far, I am most stimulated by the intensity (“symbolic violence” as David’s guiding spirit Pierre Bourdieu calls it) of the cultural battles it relates: between musicals and dramas, between jazz and classical, between populist and elite, and between “legitimate” and “popular” venues of performance.  Most surprising of all is how his narrative marches toward such a foundational moment in US drama as the emergence of Eugene O’Neill–an artist as far from the American Musical Theatre tradition as there is.  But by that point in the argument, O’Neill’s entrance onto the stage makes perfect sense as the triumph of drama over music, as it were, that has come to define the historiogaphic trajectory of “US Modern Drama” ever since.

There’s much to look forward to in Tuesday night’s event–where David will be joined by another fine CUNY professor who has become indispensable in the study of musical theatre of this era, John Graziano (from the music department), as well as my friend Kevin Byrne (the newly baptized “Dr. Byrne!”) whose recently completed dissertation on the persistence of minstrelsy into the early twentieth century will no doubt soon follow David’s book onto the shelf of essential reading in theatre studies about the period.  (I also understand there will be live music performed? Stay tuned…)

I suppose what I most look forward to David elucidating is exactly how he manages to pull off the extension of jazz studies into so many areas of US theatrical and cultural history.  While the book certainly makes its own case quite clearly, I must say the (deliberate) audaciousness of the book’s subtitle still astounds me: “Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class.”  I mean, “the making of the new theatre audience” would have been ambitious and intriguing enough.  But to raise the stakes to the fate of an entire social class–well that’s quite an opening gambit!  The title itself, thus, launches us well beyond just theatre studies into a promise of interdisciplinary inquiry that begs us to keep reading.  A good reminder to us “emerging” scholars to always tell our readers why our arguments matter–the so-called “so what?” element of the classic thesis statement.

So I hope you will join me Tuesday night to see one of our finest teachers walk this daunting scholarly high-wire.

-Garrett Eisler

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