Julia Walker’s teaching interests focus primarily on drama and performance, and range across the broadly defined historical period of modernity (c. late-18th century to the present). Her current book project is a cultural history of acting.
In her first book, Expressionism and Modernism in the American Theatre: Bodies,Voices, Words (Cambridge UP 2005), Julia A. Walker offered a new account of American expressionist drama, challenging the traditional critical narrative of German origins by situating it within the context of late-19th century American culture. Discussing these experimental plays in relation to new communications technologies, Walker demonstrates how they drew their formal vocabulary of disarticulated bodies, voices and words from the mute bodies gesticulating on the silent screen, the ghostly voices emanating out of phonograph horns, and the impersonality of letters stamped by machines. She argues that American expressionist playwrights drew from Delsartean theories of “expression,” which sought to counter the alienating forces of technological modernity by bringing the body’s verbal, vocal, and pantomimic “languages” back into perfect alignment. But, where expressive culture enthusiasts coordinated these three languages, expressionist playwrights counterpointed them in order to represent a dystopic vision of modern life. Examining expressionist plays by Eugene O’Neill, Elmer Rice, John Howard Lawson, and Sophie Treadwell, Walker shows how they gave expression not only to the alienating conditions of modernity, but also to the playwrights’ own fears that these new communication technologies posed a threat to that most embodied of art forms—the theatre. In a moment when mass-produced art forms were emerging, expressionist playwrights helped effect a text/performance split that set autonomous courses for literary and theatrical modernisms.
She is currently working on a second book entitled Bodies of Knowledge: Enacting Change on the Modern Stage. In it, she argues that theatre is where ideas come alive, taking shape not only in narrative but also in embodied form. On its stage, concepts emerge into visibility—sometimes quite literally in the contours of the actor’s body—before dissolving in the glare of house lights that return us to our own provisional reality. Sampling five distinct styles of performance from the historical period of modernity, this book shows how each style enacted, even as it represented, the ideas and experiences that helped modern audiences understand and adapt to a changing world. In the tightly-focused case studies of its five chapters, this book tracks compelling and often surprising relationships between Romantic acting and the circulation of paper money, between panoramic naturalism and the globalizing compass of the railroad, between modernist eurhythmics and nationalist stagings of the body politic, between the self-promotional tactics of the avant garde and commercial advertising, and between the “cool” style of psychological realism and the air-conditioning condenser. Exploring the social meanings of performance form, this book demonstrates how, on a stage both literal and metaphorical, actors helped audiences adapt to the profound economic, technological, political, and cultural changes of a modernizing world by figuring new categories of thought, modelingnew social relations, and enacting new habits of self in the very ways their bodies moved.
In a recent "Hold that Thought" podcast Julia Walker brings the actress Fanny Kemble's 1831 performance of Bianca to life in Henry Millman's play Fazio. Follow this link to hear the podcast.