Alisa Zhulina is Assistant Professor of Theatre Studies in the Department of Drama at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and affiliated faculty member in the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies. Follow her work on Twitter @AlisaZhulina. For the April 2021 issue of the Journal of the History of Ideas (82.2), Zhulina wrote an essay on the relationship between early modern theater and sovereignty, “The Tyrant and the Martyr: Recent Research on Sovereignty and Theater.”

A playwright and theater director, Zhulina also recently collaborated with Floor Five Theatre Company to produce Algorithm, an audio drama podcast. Listen to Algorithm on Spotify, and on all major streaming platforms.

Contributing editor Cynthia Houng interviewed Zhulina about the relationship between theater and sovereignty in the early modern period, as well as in our own time. Zhulina also discusses the making of Algorithm, her current book project, Theater and Capital, and how theater can serve both as an agent of critique and change in contemporary society.

Cynthia Houng: Your Tisch School of the Arts faculty biography describes you as an “artist-scholar.” How do you think about these different facets of your practice? Does your scholarly work inform or influence your creative work, or vice versa?

Alisa Zhulina: My scholarly research and creative work have always influenced one another, although it is difficult for me to pinpoint exactly how the cross-pollination happens. Ultimately, I think that the labels we tend to put on different kinds of writing (“fiction,” “criticism”) are quite artificial. The writing of a play might require archival research and scholarship often relies on the author’s creative imagination. I’ve been fortunate to grow up as part of a generation of theater and performance studies scholars who are also committed to artistic practice, be it playwrighting, directing, design, dramaturgy, or curation. At Tisch, most of my colleagues do both—scholarship and creative work. And we encourage our students to draw connections between their theater studies courses and studio classes.   

poster for alisa zhulina's algorith

CH: Let’s talk about your play, Algorithm. How did this piece come about? Why did you decide to structure it as an audio play?

AZ: I wrote Algorithm in a writers’ lab during my time as a playwright-in-residence at Exquisite Corpse Company (ECC) in the summer of 2016. It was an intense time leading up to the 2016 presidential election, with lots of discussion about political polls, hacking, and Russian bots. I kept thinking about the ways that algorithms shape our world. I wasn’t necessarily interested in the precise technology of AI, although in the later development stages, I consulted Gretchen Krueger, who is a policy manager at OpenAI and whose invaluable advice helped make the play better. In discussions about AI, the focus tends to be on technology—if it will become smarter than humans, if it will ever become sentient, whether it’s “good” or “bad.” But, as a playwright, I’m more interested in the way that we internalize algorithmic logic and treat the world and people around us in formulaic terms. One of the ideas that inspired Algorithm comes from the British philosopher John Lucas, who believed that if AI passes the Turing test, it will happen “not because machines are so intelligent, but because humans, many of them at least, are so wooden.”

At the same time, I was frustrated by the way that we refer to the “free market” as a self-explanatory, indisputable, yet also almost mystical entity. “The market” will take care of this, “the market” will take care of that, as though it were some invisible agent or internalized source of authority. Somewhere along the way, these two ideas—algorithms and authority—got meshed in my brain, and I thought: what if there was this world, sometime in the future, where characters refer to a source of authority called the Algorithm, an authority that knows your DNA, your browsing history, and tries to predict your actions based on your prior behavior? I’ve always been fascinated by human-made systems of sovereignty—the monarchy, the Oracle in Greek tragedy, God, the free market, etc.—and by people brave enough to defy those structures of oppression. I’m also now realizing that as I was writing Algorithm, I was researching the transformation of the invisible hand of Providence into the invisible hand of the market in Henrik Ibsen’s drama, so there’s something of that in this play too. Originally, Floor Five Theater Company had planned to do an in-person production of Algorithm in April of 2020, but that got postponed indefinitely because of Covid-19. In the early fall, the producers got in touch with me and asked if I would be interested in reworking it as an audio drama podcast. I loved this idea because the plot of Algorithm, which (without giving away too much) hinges on the relationship between mind and body, lends itself well to the medium of the radio play. Moreover, it was exciting to have Algorithm become available in this format to more listeners.

CH: Your essay in the new JHI is about the relationship of theater, or theatrical performance, to early modern sovereignty. I want to start a little bit backwards, from the perspective of our contemporary moment, and ask you to comment on the relationship between theater and sovereignty in our current moment. At the end of your essay, you argue that after the nineteenth century, “instead of the absolute monarch, the performing arts would now have to appease and contend with a new ruler—capital.” I’d like to ask you to comment, first as a theorist, and second as a practitioner, how you would articulate this relationship, between theater and capital, today? 

AZ: The book I’m currently finishing—Theater of Capital: Money and Modern Drama—takes on this very question. I argue that since the birth of modern drama in the late nineteenth century, theater has been invested in dramatizing the social implications of the relentless accumulation of capital and the internal contradictions of capitalism. In the second half of the nineteenth century, there were three important historical transitions under way: neoclassical economics was emerging as a separate social science committed to abstract thinking; speculation and investment were becoming legitimate economic activities distinct from gambling; and theater was trying to gain ground as a reputable artistic institution. It was a turbulent time. On the one hand, the fin-de-siècle was a time of mass action in the name of socialism and anarchism, labor strikes, and unionism. On the other hand, the late nineteenth century was also witness to the marginal revolution, which was a reaction both to the classical political economy of the previous century and to the burgeoning socialism of its time.

cover of marx's das kapital

The marginal revolution marked the beginning of the field known today as neoclassical economics. In fact, this was also when the notoriously difficult-to-define term “capital” animated public discussion and when the word “capitalism” entered the European lexicon, acquired its contemporary meaning, and became a topic of debate in the wake of the publication of the first volume of Marx’s Capital. Thus, many of the socioeconomic issues that the playwrights of the fin-de-siècle (such as Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, Hauptmann, Benedictsson, Shaw, and others) were diagnosing are still with us today. Many of our economic problems, such as unbridled financialization and the insular world of business ethics, are toxic inheritances from the nineteenth century. 

Put simply, theater today is part of the capitalist system. Yet many theater scholars and practitioners (myself included) would argue that it is precisely theater’s entrenchment in the culture of capitalism that makes it politically valuable. Some of the most important scholars working in this intersection of theater and economic thought include Tracy C. Davis, Michael McKinnie, and Nicholas Ridout. In short, theater can display the internal contradictions of capitalism in a powerful way that is difficult for audiences to ignore. What I call “theater of capital” performs the work of the immanent critique of political economy by revealing to its audience that the market economy is a social construct (just like theater), exposing the rhetorical strategies of economics, laying bare the process of its own apparatus, and exploring the dynamic relationship between capitalism and critique. 

CH: In your JHI essay, you discuss the relationship between royal patronage and the development of early modern theater. Who are the patrons in contemporary theater? What is the role of patronage now? Has the pandemic year reshaped this relationship at all?

AZ: It depends on where theater is made. Historically, European theater has benefited from state subsidies, while American theater has relied more on production companies, theater ownership groups, and private donors and foundations (the 1935-1939 Federal Theatre Project is a notable exception). A combination of public and private funding is also possible, as in the case of New York’s cultural center The Shed: both the city and Bloomberg Philanthropies financed the project. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, we have seen neoliberal policies destroy the heritage of state-subsidized theater in many European countries. Brandon Woolf has an excellent new book coming out this June about this development in Germany—Institutional Theatrics: Performing Arts Policy in Post-Wall Berlin. Here, in the United States, the pandemic has exposed the abuses and nefarious activities of many producers (and I don’t just mean the recent event of Scott Rudin stepping back from Broadway). Fueled by the George Floyd protests, there has been a real reckoning (at least on the level of discussion) of power structures, especially that of white supremacy that underpins so many American theaters. In early June 2020, the “We See You White American Theater” collective published a twenty-nine-page document calling for a complete restructuring of American theater, a dismantling of the white supremacy of the stage, and the inclusion and leadership of Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color. Many of their demands explicitly involve economic questions, namely new ways of organizing the various institutions of theater. Thus, their demands include but are not limited to making sure that BIPOC constitute “the majority of writers, directors, and designers onstage for the foreseeable future,” ending security contracts with police departments, limiting the salary of top paid staff members to no more than ten times the salary of the lowest paid workers, and providing on-site counseling for everyone working on productions that deal with “racialized experiences, and most especially racialized trauma.” In August of 2020, Chelsea Whitaker published an important article proposing a path toward an “anti-policing theater,” reminding us that the Nederlander Organization, which regularly donates to political leaders who uphold white supremacy and which owns 20 percent of Broadway venues, can “police what BIPOC narratives get produced.” Similarly, Soraya Nadia McDonald has called for more diverse staffing and leadership (among many other crucial ideas) in her brilliant piece “How to Get More Black on Broadway.” It remains to be seen whether American producers will meet these demands (some of the recent announcements about what is coming back to Broadway have been disappointing in this regard). Still, I believe we’re at a pivotal moment in American theater history, as there is a passionate collective desire and call for change.

CH: In your article for Performance Research, “Performing Philanthropy from Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates,” you argue that for the ultrarich, like Andrew Carnegie, the performance of being a philanthropist is both a tool (“a cultural weapon in promoting the values of unbridled capitalism”) and a mask. Plays, like George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara, both dramatized and critiqued these performances. Did theater serve a similar role of critique and resistance in the early modern period? 

AZ: One of the central points of my essay in the JHI is that immanent critique is intrinsic to the capitalist process. This premise can often lead thinkers to mistrust critique, branding it as thoroughly bourgeois. For example, in my discussion of Reinhart Koselleck’s Critique and Crisis, I show how Koselleck locates the emergence of critique in the political crisis of the Enlightenment. According to Koselleck, the Enlightenment failed because it gave into a Utopian aspiration instead of solving concrete political problems. By contrast, in the Communist Manifesto, Engels and Marx call the bourgeoisie revolutionary because the very same critical frame of mind that encouraged the bourgeois to topple feudalism could now attack bourgeois values, including private property. For Engels and Marx, immanent critique is thus a necessary but insufficient (on its own) step in the revolutionary transformation of society. Given that the early modern period saw the transition from mercantilism to capitalism, it is not surprising that critique and resistance characterize its theater as well, particularly the cat-and-mouse games that its dramatists play with the sovereign. Are they praising or critiquing the monarch? This is the question that one is left with in that extraordinary scene in Molière’s Tartuffe, when the unseen King makes his will known through the mouth of the Officer. On the one hand, the King wields total power. On the other hand, he does so through the authority of the police and by way of the deus ex machina, or as Walter Benjamin calls it, “the banal equipment of the theater.” Molière thus unveils “the scaffolding of sovereignty,” to borrow Zvi Ben-Dor Benite, Stefanos Geroulanos, and Nicole Jerr’s productive term.

CH: Why did royal courts tolerate—and even encourage—the performance of works that presented ambivalent—and even openly critical—attitudes towards the reigning sovereign and his/her court? For example, you note that the poet Aleksandr Sumarokov presented, at the court of the Empress Elizabeth, plays that dramatized Elizabeth’s seizure and consolidation of Russian sovereignty in her hands. In these plays, under the guise of dramatizing political trials, “defiant subjects” questioned the legitimacy of Elizabeth’s succession to power. In the English context, marginal spaces like the “liberties of Early Modern London”—provided sites where Londoners could question and critique the prevailing powers. What role do these performances play in the construction of early modern sovereignty? 

empress elizabeth of russia
Vigilius Eriksen, Empress Elizabeth of Russia, 1757

AZ: At the court of the Empress Elizabeth, the tragedies of Aleksandr Sumarokov served as a kind of pressure valve for all the unresolved tensions between the empress and her courtiers. In Terror and Pity: Aleksandr Sumarokov and the Theater of Power in Elizabethan Russia, Kirill Ospovat shows how performances at the court broached questions about succession and explored anxieties about royal favor and terror under the watchful eye of the sovereign.

In this way, theater at the court co-opted the rebellious energy of the subjects and redirected it from action into art. The case of the liberties of early modern London is different. Here we encounter a truly liminal space, as Steven Mullaney argues in The Place of the Stage: License, Play, and Power in Renaissance England. The liberties belonged to the city of London, but were outside its control and jurisdiction, generating a unique set of historical conditions that placed the Renaissance stage at a critical distance from the sovereign.  

CH: Towards the end of your essay, you ask, “What notion does theater on the cusp of the rise of the bourgeoisie promote?” With this question, you take us through a thumbnail history of the fall of Absolutism and the death of early modern theater. Here, I’d like to turn our attention to the future. For some time now, observers have been predicting—with a twinge of melodrama—the end of bourgeois theater, and the rise of new forms of performance and new concepts of perfomativity. The year 2020, with all of its attendant ruptures and upheavals, appears to have quickened desires for deep and profound social and structural change here in the United States, and perhaps in other places as well. In what ways do you see theater and performance changing to meet the needs, and the challenges, of this moment?

AZ: I’ve already touched upon the ways that BIPOC artists and critics have called upon theaters to dismantle white supremacy undergirding their structures and policies and introduce concrete measures regarding inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility. Similarly, audiences are putting pressure on theater institutions to deliver this change. When it was announced in late March that a stage adaption of Game of Thrones is in the works with an eye on Broadway, social media erupted with discontent (no offense to the fans of Game of Thrones). There is a pervasive desire that when in-person theater returns it should be more inclusive and more daring, namely not just stage adaptations of commercially successful films. Incidentally, I’ve been using Broadway in most of my examples not because I think it represents all American theater but because it is its most commercial version and so it puts the relationship between theater and capital in stark relief. Smaller theaters too have had to grapple with the ruptures and upheavals of 2020, as the recent labor and racial reckoning at the Flea Theater demonstrates. Another important way that the pandemic has reshaped theater is by making it available on more digital platforms. Making theater and performance digitally accessible to audiences around the world has been a trend that dates to before the pandemic, but the closure of theater venues due to Covid-19 has accelerated the process. (That said, we should be careful not to immediately associate online theater with accessibility.) This past year, I was able to watch shows from London, Berlin, Moscow. We have now experienced first-hand that theater need not be a luxury available only to those who live in certain cities and who can afford the expensive tickets. There is no going back. 

Cynthia Houng is a writer and scholar living in New York. She is a contributing editor to the JHI Blog and a founding editor of Ars Longa, an independent journal focused on Early Modern art history and visual culture. Learn more about her research and creative projects. Find her on Instagram @cynthiahoung.

Featured Image: Vigilius Eriksen, Portrait of Empress Elizabeth, 1757.