The current exhibit pays homage to the extensive collection of theater and performance history at the Sutro Library.


Performance is a central component to our experience.  In fact, many scholars have, and still do, study culture through the lens of humans as actors – ‘performing’ their lives with meaning and purpose. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) claimed that “a ritual, a tall tale, a performance, a symbol, or an event” can be treated as ‘text.’”  Within this context any aspect of the social world is something to which we can explore, and to which we can search for significance: about our lives and our connections – to each other – to symbols – and to the world.


Maya Angelou believed that the stories we create and the tales we tell come from the same origins as our impulse to “walk, talk, climb mountains or swim in the oceans.” Creating narratives is thus an essential component of our humanity.  Gilles Ste-Croix, cofounder of the Cirque du Soleil, similarly explained “since human beings started to gather in groups and communities, they sensed the necessity to transmit their experiences and knowledge – fundamentally – through storytelling.” All this is to say that humans have engaged in performance of some variety, either through cave paintings, ritual, oral tradition, dance, theater, circus, magic, and story-telling, from the start.


For this exhibit, we chose items which touch upon these myriad aspects of performance and theater. To that end, we included images and books on ancient Greek and Egyptian temples, plays, images of actors, circus performers, books on magic, ventriloquism, as well as caricature (political theater).


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We also wanted to touch upon the notion of “spectacle” so we included items on magic, ventriloquism, and circus performance. In Aristotle’s Poetics ‘spectacle’ is one of the six components of drama, and refers to elements such as costume, music, scenery, etc., basically all the parts of a performance which are not dialogue. This sensory part of a performance is worth discussing, examining the circus has merit as a subject for study in that it is almost pure spectacle. One can easily imagine, “in a way, circus…[to be] the contemporary, real-time, real Avengers, Marvel comic version of theater – not in its lightness or playfulness necessarily, but in the fact that it features people, special people, super heroes, people doing things that aren’t normal – yet they are normal people.”

family trapeeze

As for caricature and satire, it has been and continues to be a potent force in which to perform protest. It can be a powerful tool against power, but also as a tool for discussing culture. The kind of images presented by the caricaturist are designed to provoke emotion. And emotion is a key component of human behavior. Our exhibit includes caricature from nineteenth century Mexico, the American Civil War, and eighteenth century Britain.

Gillray 2

Caricaturists use techniques such as symbolism, exaggeration, labeling, analogy, and irony to convey ideas, opinions, etc. The image above is by James Gillray (from 1790s), considered to be one of the best political caricaturists in Britain’s history. His use of exaggeration (i.e., features which are overdone and overblown) is especially pronounced, as well as humorous. And his employment of symbolism is complex and multi-layered.

With this in mind, when discussing caricaturists, on one level the artists are themselves performing (creating a narrative through one or several of the techniques previously mentioned). On another level the audience (reader) is also involved in the performance adding meaning to the narrative of the creator. This interaction can reveal a great deal about the social world in which they inhabit, and their relationship to it.

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Our exhibit also features an array of wonderful and fascinating images of actors posing, dancing, and singing. It runs through the end of October, 2019. We hope to see you there.


Special Event

The last Wednesday of October Sutro Library will be hosting a very special event: Inside the SFSU Actor’s Studio. It will feature advanced San Francisco State University theater students using the original text of Shakespeare’s First Folio, 1623, to workshop performing a scene. The second part of the event will have these actors actually perform 3-4 scenes. We hope to see you there. Refreshments will be provided.



Online Sources Used

What Makes Us Humans? Yaron Lifschitz on Contemporary Circus

Theatre, Performance and Society




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