John Muse

John Muse
Associate Professor
  • Department of English
  • Committee on Theater and Performance Studies
On leave 2019-20
Rosenwald 415D
(773) 702-2196

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.

Related teaching interests include media studies, performance studies, digital performance, Renaissance drama, and global theater history. Academic profile.

Affiliated Departments:

I am delighted to be affiliated with the Committee on Theater and Performance Studies (TAPS), which offers a unique joint PhD program with English and other partner departments.

Work with Students

In my graduate classes and advising, I aim for a balance of training in academic disciplines as they now exist and imagination about how and why we might reconceive them. I have advised doctoral dissertations on stuck time in modernism, on modernist art and poetry, and on Samuel Beckett, and masters theses on Twitter performances, postdramatic stagings of Hamlet, Virginia Woolf and photography, absence in Lorca’s plays, and stage directions in Suzan-Lori Parks’s plays, among others. Students have written BA theses with me on Beckett and decomposition, on the aesthetics of tourist sites, on durational performance, on dramatic chapters in novels, and on post-internet literature.


2019-20 Courses: On leave 2019-20

Graduate: Staging Modernism; Virtual Theaters; Beckett and Media; Short Attention Span Fictions

Undergraduate: Theater About Theater; Impossible Theaters; Beckett—Page, Stage, Screen; Approaches to Theater 1—Ancient to Renaissance; Approaches to Theater 2—Late 17th Century to the Present; Introduction to Drama; Text and Performance

Selected Publications

  • “Virtual Theater, Virtual Spectatorship: On Jonathan Ball’s Clockfire,” Theater 48.1 (Winter 2018): 79-89
  • Microdramas: Crucibles for Theater and Time. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017.
  • "Performance and the Pace of Empathy," Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 26.2 (Spring 2012).
  • "140 Characters in Search of a Theater: Twitter Plays," Theater 42.2 (Summer 2012).
  • "Flash Mobs and the Diffusion of Audience." Theater 40.3 (Summer 2010).
"Dimensions of the Moment: Modernist Shorts." Modern Drama 53.1 (Spring 2010).
  • "Eons in an Instant: The Paradoxes of Suzan-Lori Parks's 365 Days / 365 Plays." The Journal of American Drama and Theatre 22.1 (Winter 2010).


Ph.D., Yale University, 2010. Teaching at Chicago since 2010.

Muybridge: Animal Locomotion Eadweard Muybridge. Animal Locomotion, Plate 163, detail.