USF Sarasota-Manatee Assistant Professor of English Valerie Lipscomb was nominated for the Vera Mowry Roberts Research and Publication award with her essay “’Putting on Her White Hair’: The Life Course in Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner”, which was published in the January 2014 issue of the Age, Culture, Humanities journal. This award is presented through the American Theatre and Drama Society (ATDS), an organization that meets annually at the conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.
“’Putting on Her White Hair’: The Life Course in Wilder’s The Long Christmas Dinner” analyzes Thornton Wilder’s play The Long Christmas Dinner (1931), which holds a unique place in American drama, as it covers 90 years in the history of one family. Actors perform the aging of characters from young adulthood to death in just a few minutes of stage time. The one-act play captivated composer Paul Hindemith, who collaborated with Wilder to adapt The Long Christmas Dinner as a short opera by the same name in 1961.
“I’m very grateful for this nomination, as it recognizes that the study of aging can make a significant contribution to theatre research,” said Lipscomb. “USFSM has been very supportive of this work, and I believe this acknowledgment signals that studying age as a performance is valuable to a broad spectrum of efforts to fight ageism.”
Lipscomb’s analysis notes that one element of ageism is the perception that changes of age entail major changes in identity. In Wilder’s play, although the actors use props that stereotype the changes of age, such as a white wig or wheelchair, no major transformation of identity is evident. Lipscomb’s analysis supports the idea of individuals maintaining a stable identity across their lifespan. The play is short enough that the audience never forgets that one actor embodies a character from young adulthood through death. Thus, Lipscomb argues, the onstage life course becomes a natural continuum marked by milestones of experience, rather than an alienation of the aged. Each aging character remains central to the family until death. The essay asserts that stage portrayals such as these can help combat ageism as they offer models of age equality.
Lipscomb’s groundbreaking work is recognized in academic organizations throughout the U.S. and Europe. She has integrated age studies into American Society for Theatre Research conferences, is a founding organizer and current executive committee member of the Modern Language Association’s Age Studies Discussion Group, and a founding member of the North American Network in Aging Studies. At USFSM, Lipscomb teaches British and American literature.
About the Vera Mowry Roberts Research and Publication Award
This award offers a cash prize and a one-year membership in the American Theatre and Drama Society (ATDS) , for the best essay published in English, which has appeared in a refereed scholarly journal or edited collection.