I must say I never expected the names of the self-described feminist critic Jill Dolan of The Feminist Spectator and Howard Barker, often accused of misogyny, to be mentioned in the same breath, but what is life without surprise? Critic Dan Rebellato did the honors on 20 May in a brief essay about Robert Holman’s play Making Noise Quietly, a production of which recently closed at the Donmar Warehouse. Rebellato writes:
Jill Dolan’s Utopia in Performance (2005) argues that [the] “togetherness” of audience and performers in theatre offers an experiential rehearsal for political utopia. Moments where we are brought together by our collective attention and the skill and imagination of the theatremakers give us a sense of what a Good Society might feel like. I like the argument very much and it certainly connects with my feelings about theatre. Though she has been criticised for it, I think she is right to revalue notions like faith, hope, longing, utopia in the book as components of a practical materialist politics, not, as the Left has sometimes felt, evasions of it.
It’s a general principle in contemporary theatre, I think. The more fragmented the form, the more it evokes our longing for wholeness. In his programme note to The Bite of the Night (1988), Howard Barker writes “the play for an age of fracture is itself fractured and hard to hold, as a broken bottle is hard to hold.” Aged 20 I think I only saw the fracture: I missed that Barker presumes that we are trying to hold the bottle. If we lived happily with fracture, a broken bottle would not be hard to hold.
Dolan’s ideas about the individual and the role of communitas in experiencing performance are perhaps diametrical opposites to those of Barker, but I see Rebellato’s point. Dolan conceives of utopia in the theatre not as a closed-ended prescriptive community, but as a process which opens individual and culture to change as experienced in the arena of performance; in doing so, she believes that theatre and drama can avoid the dangers of authoritarianism inherent in the idea of utopia. The communal experience of ecstasy and wonder, she suggests, may open the individual spectator to conceive of new possibilities of self and society. I remain skeptical, however, of even a provisional vision of utopia, and whether this vision would still, like its prescriptive cousin, continue to marginalize certain explorations and recognitions on the communal road to the perfect society, whether one expects to ever get there or not.
Barker’s focus, as that of Richard Foreman, is the individual within a communal structure which not only dictates the role and behavior of the individual, but also limits the possibilities of real spiritual, personal, or political change. The plays and productions of these two artists seem, in fact, to drive wedges between the individuals seated together in the theatre, rather than bring them together, in a project to elucidate and illuminate the various ways in which an ideological conception of communitas actually stifles self-fashioning. The theatre is as ideal a space for this as for Dolan’s conception of communal unity rather than fracture — the experience of dislocation and alienation becomes just as visceral within a group as a sense of belonging to it.
This dissension is especially relevant when applied to contemporary forms of tragedy that reject the necessity for catharsis but retain the distinction and conflict between individual and the community that, in part, created him or her. Just passing over my computer monitor for the past few days is the story of Luka Rocco Magnotta, a Canadian serial killer recently arrested in Germany after a grisly murder spree. His story fuses various kinds of sexual transgressions and criminalities, but most important perhaps is that he as an individual, and the dynamics he represents, is a presence in the community as well. Certainly he is self-invented, and he is also, if the communitarians are right, invented by the society in which he lives and kills. Bernard-Marie Koltès wrote about a similar real-life murderer in his last play, Roberto Zucco. How do plays like this circulate in Dolan’s and Barker’s conceptions of theatre and drama, the individual and community? These plays and tragedies (and others by Kane and Crimp and Shawn, Rudkin and Bond) undermine the search for utopia, suggesting not only that any provisional or prescriptive ideological utopia is a danger to the self, but also that even the search for such a utopia, the idea that it may be more or less concretely realized, contains dangers to the self as well.
I was musing about my own plays in relation to this issue, written (In Public and What She Knew) and planned (plays about Jonestown and Tay-Sachs as a metaphor for tragic experience), and find myself more with Barker than Dolan, for I don’t see in any of these plays a search for a utopic performative experience; I suppose I am after something else. Indeed, my own book, Word Made Flesh, may stand as an anti-Utopia in Performance. I have no doubt that the theatre as an art form is big enough for both conceptions of performative experience. I do wonder though if, for a variety of reasons chiefly having to do with the progressive ideology often found in contemporary theatre, Dolan’s conception is more highly valued and therefore more influential and more likely to receive support than Barker’s or my own. I have no reason to quibble with Rebellato about whether or not the young Sam’s “Thank you very much” in Making Noise Quietly is a far more modest, contemporary “Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.” As Rebellato describes it, the line may well be affecting. But in a sense his argument misses a cogent point: that Barker’s broken bottle, being handled, poses far more of a threat than a comfort to, or hopeful celebration of, the self and the audience.
The first chapter of Dolan’s Utopia in Performance is essential reading and whets the appetite for the entire volume; it is fortunately available from the publisher’s Web site here.