John Muse

john muse
Director of Graduate Studies; Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature
Rosenwald 415D
Ph.D, Yale University, 2010
Teaching at UChicago since 2010

My research and teaching explore theater as an embodied practice and as a powerful set of aesthetic and social assumptions. I work across periods, from ancient to digital, but with particular emphasis on modern and contemporary drama and literature. A hallmark of my research has been the attempt to understand what theater means in a given period by exploring cases at the margins of the theatrical norm, or at the boundaries between theater and related art forms: plays that are exceptionally short or long, closet dramas, plays that resemble visual art or museum installations, poems or novels in dramatic form, as well as digital and other forms of virtual theater.

Exploring para-theatrical objects and practices, I aim to bring theater into sharper focus, often with surprising implications not only for performance studies, but also for literature, visual art, media studies, affect studies, and the study of digital culture.

My first book, Microdramas: Crucibles for Theater and Time, which won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism, contends that plays shorter than twenty minutes are particularly intense sites for the examination of theater’s capacities. I argue that certain very short plays provide laboratories in which the idiosyncratic operations of lived time and of theater are revealed in their oddity and complexity. Focusing on six influential artists for whom brevity became both a structural principle and a tool to investigate theater itself—August Strindberg, Maurice Maeterlinck, F. T. Marinetti, Samuel Beckett, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Caryl Churchill—the book explores four episodes in the history of very short theater since 1880 in order to underline the importance of the self-conscious embrace of brevity. Subjecting short plays to extended scrutiny upends assumptions about brief or minimal art, and about theatrical experience. The book shows that short performances often demand greater attention from audiences than plays that unfold more predictably. Microdramas put pressure on preconceptions about which aspects of theater might be fundamental and about what might qualify as an event. In the process, they suggest answers to crucial questions about time, spectatorship, and significance.

My current book project, Theater and the Virtual, explores surprising points of connection between traditional embodied theater and a range of virtual theaters, including virtual reality and social media performances, plays written by algorithms, transmedia theater, and so-called mixed reality performances which superimpose digital objects, scenes, or actors onto real-world spaces.