The heat that rises from these debates may give you brain burn, but it’s also thoroughly absorbing. So watch out. Toward the show’s end you may wind up leaping to the stage to join an instant protest movement that illustrates the differences between the single heroic gesture and the same gesture repeated ad infinitum. Even if you don’t know exactly why you’re raising your fist and making like you’re charging barricades, you’ll feel the exhilaration of people caught up in something bigger than themselves.
“Back to the Barricades, Antigone”
The New York Times, 5 January 2012
Robin Detje’s essay (translated by Lucy Renner Jones) “Post-Dramatic Theater and the Bleeding Heart of the Seventies” begins with a description of the 1967 police shooting of Benno Orgesorg in Berlin, which ignited the left-wing terrorism movements in Germany. (I first posted about this late last week; Mr. Detje comments on some earlier discussion here.) He quotes from Ernst Wendt’s article from Theatre heute which juxtaposes this incident and other world events with work from that year’s Experimenta festival in Frankfurt-am-Main, an event not entirely dissimilar to today’s Under the Radar festival that so captured the attention of Ben Brantley and The New York Times this year:
The shot that hit student Benno Ohnesorg in the back of the head was fired during the beginning of Experimenta II: at the Theater am Turm, the Scala Theatre Stockholm was performing the “Song of the Lusitanian Bogey” by Peter Weiss. At the same time as a frustrated city was enacting a drama of its own hysteria and repression, the helplessness of a theatre dubbing itself “political” was revealed. Nothing supports this theatre except its own dogmatic conviction that it is right. While Benno Ohnesorg was dying in Berlin, the actors in Frankfurt were protesting against colonial exploitation, making their manifesto palatable via an eclectic music revue, blues and folklore, in other words, forms of entertainment that had long since become bourgeois. The protest was starring itself. Three days later, the Six-Day War began in the Middle East and was over before the Experimenta had finished trying to prove the existence of a new form of theatre. … While the battle raged in the Sinai Desert, and students on Kurfürstendamm debated for nights on end with the people the tabloid press had incited against them, and while in Frankfurt, thousands marched in silent protest to Römerberg and many more thousands drove on the highway to Hanover – while all this was going on …, youth was playing itself on stage, advertising its attitudes with grating emphasis as the one and only dramatic subject.
As the world then had police oppression, Paris in 1968, the Baader-Meinhof Group, and the Middle East, we have similar global phenomena: police oppression, OWS, the Sudan, and … well, and the Middle East. Detje’s concern in his essay is not necessarily to draw parallels between the two eras, but to investigate the legacy of this period of the theatrical and performance-based avant-garde. It is a worthwhile endeavor to question whether or not things have much changed in either geopolitics or the practice of political theatre since 1968; and theatrical and dramatic form itself, as opposed to its explicit content (which after all is of-the-day), to the extent these two can be separated, provides an avenue for the entry of this question into the arena.
Detje’s “essay-provocation,” as the headnote to his contribution describes it, ultimately comes down harder on the contemporary scene than it does on the earlier generation as exemplified by the Living Theatre and other (dis-)organizations. Detje locates the revolutionary potential of this performance not in its explicitly political content but in the use of the human body itself as a zone of erotic and political potential. He also recognizes the dangers of this potential to dissolve in a self-satisfied narcissism:
The un-erogenous body is a victim of structural violence – and, conversely, the erogenous body is a weapon in the revolutionary battle. Being totally into yourself suddenly passes as a political act. For a short, historical moment, politics and therapy are united under the vague slogan of “liberation.” For the duration of a batted eyelid, theater’s narcissism and its political aims converge.
And that’s how theater’s great minds banged their heads together until they were sore. That’s how mistakes were made and some great deeds were done that nowadays cause shudders (and rightly so). The battle for liberation often ended in a cramp that carried on hurting for decades. But at least they tried. They rose to reality’s challenges. They could put their hands on their hearts because they still had hearts.
As I said, not an entirely negative judgment (though I must also note that the use of the word “hearts” is problematic, especially when it comes to authenticity or truth in the arts). But Detje is not quite finished; indeed, he is only beginning to examine the legacy of these performance practices. Ultimately he seeks to critique today’s “Post-dramatic theatre” from a historically informed viewpoint — whether or not the tropes of this performance style, influenced by a critical and theoretical postmodernist paradigm, have become just as “bourgeois” as the “eclectic music revue, blues and folklore” that Wendt described in his essay on the 1967 Experimenta festival.
If so, the performance practitioners may have become that way quite unconsciously. It is true that few theatreworkers bring their theory with them when they enter the performance space; there are far too many, even thousands, of small practical decisions to be made in the devising of a work of theatre, and to debate and consider each of these decisions against an abstract theoretical construct would cripple the production process, as Brecht certainly knew. But, like Brecht, these practitioners do carry “the musty smell of a thousand seminars” with them as an unconscious context for their practical work. It can’t be left entirely at the door of the rehearsal room. Critically, to fall back on an all-inclusive postmodern acceptance of all possible interpretation is to provide a “plausible deniability” for any given interpretation, which absolves the creators of any kind of ethical or cultural responsibility for the given work.
What are the contemporary equivalents of the eclectic music revue, blues, and folklore that made up the forms of at least some of the performance practice of the 1960s? Detje writes:
Its proponents have prescribed a kind of high-tech medicine for the stage: there is a beeping machine producing discourse, which will be live-streamed onto the stage, and a beeping machine for theory that prohibits all forms of immediacy. Each beeping machine proves that we are in the now. Invariably, post-dramatic theatre can be spotted squatting on stage behind a mess of Macbooks and tangled cables. In this world, the artist is the epitome of the tragic, hyper-networked but lonely monad, flung into a world of technology.
What is missing here is the “heart” (a word that, as I said, is problematic) that Detje finds inscribed in the work of the Living Theatre of the 1960s, of course: in its place is a relativistic irony about all forms of experience and theatre practice rendered shallow by the two-dimensional digitized image. In Richard Foreman’s late work for the Ontological-Hysteric Theater, there was an unresolved tension between this image and the live performer: was it that the two-dimensional image “yearned” to become as three-dimensional as the actor, or did the live actor yearn to become as two-dimensional as the digitized image? Should we accept ourselves merely as yet another manufactured product of our culture, and shrug the rest away? This is, as Detje suggests, a freedom which is not a freedom, a freedom which denies us our individual agency as audience members, as well as theatreworkers:
The greatest achievement of our time is a freedom we perceive as all-encompassing, although it has no liberating qualities. The cultural techniques of the great emancipation movements have turned themselves against us. If we radicalize the theories of the Israeli sociologist Eva Illouz just a little, we can describe therapy as a means of repression – once, it was meant to help us, but now it no longer liberates. Instead, it cements social conventions. Happiness is an economic product and we believe it can be manufactured. Each individual is responsible for its production and maintenance, everyone in isolation, too scared to let artists show us that we might be able to change the world or even contribute to its state – each of us immobilized, unable to act.
It may not be too premature to consider whether this kind of post-dramatic theatrical performance practice has therefore reached a dead end — whether it has found its way down the same cul-de-sac as the conventional dramatic language it seeks to decenter, with no way out towards the larger world outside of the theatre. There is no reason to think that the digital image and gesture are not susceptible to the same amoral co-optation by the Culture Industry as dramatic language. David Ian Rabey cites this quote from John O’Brien: “I don’t think I’ve changed or lost faith in the principle that possibility and power reside in language, but I think I may have been shocked to realise that like all principles it is amoral and will work as well for one purpose as for another. A brief look at the way language has been inverted in the last decade illustrates this thought (revolution, liberal, structural adjustment programme [SAP], democracy, collateral damage, ministry of defence, buy this and save money).”  The image and gesture may be even more easily inverted because they lack the conceptual precision of language.
There can be no final judgment about a particular form of performance practice; but has this practice, as manifested in contemporary culture as presented at our theatres and performance spaces, become just another part of Adorno’s Culture Industry, operating in acceptance of bourgeois limitations on behavior and potential agency rather than in a struggle against them? The quote from the New York Times (a newspaper that describes itself as the newspaper “of record”; to the extent that this is true, it also acts as a record of bourgeois response to aesthetic works) critic that leads this post is instructive. While Brantley describes his own experience of “the exhilaration of people caught up in something bigger than themselves,” I am curious as to whether this is any qualitatively different than the surrender necessary to enjoy a performance of something like Anything Goes or The Lion King — a surrender to an abstraction, to a mass or a crowd, open finally to manipulation by the work itself. What has been surrendered is the ability to resist that absorption as an individual agent, any possibility of potential change generated by the individual confrontation with the artwork to revise perception and permit contemplation. What is presented on the stage is a physical action that can be either progressive and democratic or regressive and fascistic.
Detje does not explicitly mention Critical Theory as practiced by the Frankfurt School and its intellectual and aesthetic legatees as a potential new context for exploration of drama and theatre, but I offer it myself in response to his concluding paragraph:
A critique of post-dramatic theatre would have to start off in a really old-fashioned critique of society: whoever wants a better theatre shouldn’t demand a more traditional theatre but better times. Or worse ones.
And, as Edgar reflects in King Lear, “The worst is not, So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’” So perhaps there is still time.
- David Ian Rabey, Howard Barker: Politics and Desire. Palgrave Macmillan 2009, p. xiv. [↩]