Performing American culture: Notions of emotion and self in two American theatres

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




John Burdick


Culture, Emotion, Self, Performance

Subject Categories

American Popular Culture | Social and Cultural Anthropology | Theatre and Performance Studies


In this dissertation I examine theories about emotional expression for what they reveal about ideas of selfhood in mainstream American culture, through work with actors and actors-in-training. My exposure to different modes of enactment in India, the one based in the body and the other in psychology, lead me to consider the question of what these encoded at the level of understandings of physicality, emotionality and individuality. I carried out fieldwork in two theatres whose philosophies mirrored the distinctions between a body-based and a psychology-based approach. I call these "Teatro Physica" and "The Quill", respectively. My methodology consisted of creating links between actors' theatrical training and their personal understandings of emotional expression. I found that actors' interpretations of when to express emotion and when to control it, ignored the differences of theatrical philosophy and lifestyle, gender, and age which separated them. These congruencies were reinforced in their correspondence with prescriptions of emotional management offered in the popular media. When these are taken together, and when they are contrasted with cross-cultural anthropological research and juxtaposed with the findings of cultural historians of America, they reveal culturally salient patterns of thought about emotion and self in the United States. I argue that it is not the idea of individualism per se which is peculiar to the culture of the United States. However, in the United States these are based on the assumption that individual and society are separate. Although actors at Teatro Physica and The Quill saw themselves as outside of mainstream culture, with Teatro Physica lying on the fringes of the mainstream theatrical world, they subscribed to this framework. Actors also reflected the larger culture when they privileged the realm of the individual over the social. I argue that the directives to express oneself and be in control of oneself, to be "emotional" and "rational", are bound by a single logic based in the belief in an autonomous individuality. I argue that the emphasis on an individualism opposed to society, has led to a primarily rational, even scientific, approach to the self and emotions in the United States.


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