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The Master of Ceremonies : Dramaturgies of Power

  • Author(s): Brueckner, Laura Anne
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation argues that the theatrical master of ceremonies, an entity seen in many genres of popular theatre across centuries, exists in every instance as the expression of specific understandings of (and anxieties about) coercive social power. By examining key dramaturgical components of this entity, and comparing them to attributes of several modes of real power, I will show how the MC adapts the presentational techniques of power for the stage, producing a phenomenon I call "synthetic authority," and how his appearance, dramaturgical position in the show, and use of space and of speech always refer to sources of coercive power beyond the theatre's walls. This study argues that there are three chief dramaturgical attributes of a theatrical MC. The first is his dramaturgical singularity, which describes both his uniqueness as a figure on the stage and his central-yet-outside position with respect to the rest of the show, especially as it manifests in his practice of interstitial framing. The second is his high onstage status, the result of many visual, sexual, spatial, interpersonal signals and behaviors that serve to align him with economic and other power elites. The third important dramaturgical attribute of the MC as a type is his capacity for direct address. The MC, through his ability to speak directly to a crowd, wields enormous power, literally sculpting with his words the theatrical reality in which the audience participates. This is also his most direct route to the synthetic power that allows him to run the stage: his ability to appropriate the discourses of power elites of many kinds and present them as his own in the course of a performance. Theatrical MCs tend to perform their control of the theatrical environment in one of two main registers: one warm, stable, and paternalistic; one cold, complex, and dominating. While "warm" MCs function conservatively, to reassure audiences and reaffirm existing power relations, the different power of the "cold" MC challenges the audience, making room for critique of the uses and sources of power. Overall, I hope to demonstrate that MCs perform discourses of coercive power originating from sources outside the theatre by appropriating their gestural, vocal, and visual signals, and that out of them, he creates a synthetic authority by virtue of which he controls his areas on the stage, the stage itself; and the theatricalized combination of stage and audience seating area I call the "world of the room." The ultimate goal of this study is to contribute to the dramaturgical (versus historical or theoretical) study of contemporary unscripted American variety theatre, especially by exposing the complexity of its dramaturgies, and developing useful critical language specific to the forms and goals of variety theatre that may be useful as scholars continue to build work on this topic

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