Movement and meaning: Tracing 200 years of change in the human body

In her new book, performance studies scholar Julia Walker shows how modern ways of thinking emerged from five styles of acting.

In her first book, Julia Walker, associate professor of English and drama, situated early-20th-century American theatrical works in relation to communicative technologies like the phonograph and silent film. Her new book, Performance and Modernity: Enacting Change on the Globalizing Stage, widens that historical range to include the mid-18th to the early-21st centuries. Walker zooms in on five distinct performance styles, from Romanticism to psychological realism, to demonstrate how ideas literally take shape first in the contours of the human body. In this Q&A, Walker talks about balancing the sweeping historical arc of her book, the enduring relevance of our bodies in creating knowledge, and her collaborative WashU translation project.



As a cultural history of performance, your second book invites readers to get out their passports, dust off their time travel machines, and embark on a journey. From a traditional early-19th-century London stage to a mid-20th-century movie theater in Rio de Janeiro, the book argues that sites of performance have represented and enacted change. How did you go about managing the ambitious scope of this project?

I love the idea of cultural history as a form of “time travel.” Yes — it’s a big project in terms of both time scale and geographical range. But, once I realized that the phenomenon I had identified in my first book could be seen at work on a macrohistorical scale, I knew I had to write that book, especially if I wanted to demonstrate my overall thesis concerning performance as an aesthetic mode that enacts even as it represents the processes of cultural change. All the same, I was embarrassed to admit my ambition because it seemed either crazy or naïve to take on a project quite so large, so I was purposefully vague whenever asked what I was working on until about halfway through, when I finally figured out a way to make it manageable. That meant identifying five tightly focused case studies which would allow me to be responsible to my materials and keep them more-or-less under control, while tracing the larger historical arc of the book’s argument. Even at that, I ended up chasing many critters down rabbit holes over the course of the 12 years it took to write this book, but I loved every minute of it, even when some of those dives underground yielded only a footnote in the end.


In this fabulous Hold That Thought podcast episode about your first case study, you mention that British actress Fanny Kemble mesmerized the early 19th-century London theatre world with a full-bodied portrayal of her character’s grief. How did Kemble’s vivid change in performance style expose fears audience members had about deciphering between what was “real” and what was “fake” in British society during this time?

I think it had to do with the fact that Kemble — and David Garrick before her — weren’t just interpreters of poetry who used their voices to appeal to the audience’s imagination; they gave fully embodied form to ideas that were also characters, quite literally bringing them to life. The reason it was scary was because this was also a technique of con artists — people whose self-representation purported to be real but was indeed fake, leaving the poor mark duped and, more worrisome, dispossessed of something of value, often money (which is the focus of that chapter). Audiences thrilled to see the skill of such self-transformations safely performed on stage, even as they recognized its devastating potential for life on their side of the footlights if they didn’t spot the artifice for what it was.


You are currently collaborating with several WashU scholars on an English translation of Orfeu da Conceição, the 1956 play by Brazilian poet-playwright Vinícius de Moraes. Along with its 1959 film adaptation Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus), this play is central to your book’s fifth case study on air conditioning and psychological realism. Why is Orfeu da Conceição — and creating a faithful translation — so important to a cultural history of performance?

Well, in reading Moraes’ play to get a sense of the source material for Camus’ film, I became thoroughly engaged by it. I realized that the play is important in its own right — not only because of its historical importance in breaking the color barrier for Black actors in Brazil, but also because it stages a complicated aesthetic appeal that invites white-identified audiences to dismantle a default perspective that is racialized as white. So, dramaturgically, the play is put together in a way that makes the act of reception its own kind of performance in which an audience member is interpellated into an anti-racist perspective to give material form to a new model of self. It may be that the play is very much locked in its own historical moment and that this effect doesn’t translate across time. But, at the very least, it deserves to be read and studied by English-language scholars for the precedent it makes in advancing an anti-racist aesthetic.


In your book’s conclusion you write, “performance tagged by the phrase ‘going viral’ seeks to change a dominant model of self.” How does “going viral” count as a style of performance in the 21st century?

This is a really good question and one I wrestled with as I wrote the book’s epilogue, because the pixelated images of digital media are just that — images. But insofar as they’re put in motion by film and video, they become proxies for thinking about what it means to move through space and time — especially through a virtual space that is so influential in its reach. In that space, the fetishized image stands in for our displaced self, which we then engage as a form from which to abstract meaning about ourselves. 

The pathological risk — to my mind — is the tendency to relocate our sense of reality in our virtual avatars to the exclusion of our actual physical selves which I see aided by a photo-realist aesthetic. By contrast, the pixelated form induces a more self-reflexive understanding of that act of identification and — as an important consequence — asks us to re-imagine what it means to be human.  By replacing the sealed contours of a photo-realist image of the self with the porous boundary of a pixelated avatar, we can adopt a more provisional understanding of ourselves, recognizing that we are multi-celled organisms who share a planet with other such organisms.