I’ve spent some of this weekend thinking about what draws me as an artist, critic, writer, and unabashed enthusiast — not to mention as all of these wrapped up, along with everything else, into what we might call “my person” — to the plays of three very disparate English-language dramatists: Richard Foreman (b. 1937), Wallace Shawn (b. 1943), and Howard Barker (b.1946). Readers of Superfluities Redux will be aware that I’ve written about all three at some length, and at first glance the work of all three writers seems to share little in common. The unique idiosyncrasies of approach, language, and form of each of these writers forestalls extended comparison, either with each other or with the work of other playwrights of the period. I’m not entirely sure that if you put all three of them in a room together, they’d even have much to talk about, and might even regard each other with some suspicion and ambivalence.
But there may be more linking these dramatists than first meets the eye. It is no coincidence, I think, that all three first emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Foreman’s first Ontological-Hysteric play, Angelface, premiered in 1968, and Barker’s professional debut, Cheek, came only two years later. Our Late Night, written in the early 1970s, opened at the Public Theater in 1975. All three writers matured in the political, cultural, and sexual storms of this most chaotic and revolutionary period, and their work reflects a confrontation and negotiation with these storms; they also matured as theatre was turning from traditional dramatic texts to explore more experiential strategies in the forms of performance art developed by a variety of practitioners.
So much can be said for so many playwrights, but Foreman, Shawn, and Barker share more than this. Foreman and Barker, of course, saw the need to form and lead their own companies apart from the institutions of both commercial and non-commercial theatre for a continuing exploration of their very individual projects, and Shawn has similarly devoted a great deal of his professional career working outside the confines of mainstream theatre. But beneath this there is more, I think. I gingerly describe a few strains of similarity below.
The theatres of all three dramatists are text-based; their plays first originate in the generation of a text for the stage created by an individual author. The three dramatists in question accept the primacy of written and spoken language as the driving force of the theatrical experience. Similarly, their approach to language is lyrical, rather than dramatic, epic, or narrative: it is an approach that suggests a vertical rather than horizontal approach to the confrontation with language, an absorption in the individual moment of experience rather than a story. Language creates character; characters do not “speak” their own language, and notions of subtext take a subservient role to the explicit sound and surface of language itself.
The theatres of all three dramatists employ strategies of post-Brechtian estrangement — literally, a “making strange.” Foreman’s description of his plays as a series of “unbalancing acts” and Barker’s notion of a “theatre of catastrophe” indicate an impatience with, and repudiation of, accepted norms of theatrical and dramatic experience: an effort to undermine the preconceptions of both theatre and culture with which audience members enter their theatres. Similarly, Shawn’s plays confront his audiences with a series of shocking, disturbing images and linguistic structures that aim to unsettle the audience’s sense of a predictable and comforting self.
The theatres of all three dramatists suggest all-encompassing landscapes of experience largely divorced from realism and naturalism. While none of these dramatists have written what might be called “site-specific work” — plays written for performance in a particular non-traditional space — they nonetheless situate their plays in scenic environments that challenge norms of narrative drama. Both Foreman and Barker direct and design their own productions, generating unique landscapes and soundscapes for the presentation of their texts; and while Shawn does neither, his work has been staged in a variety of non-theatrical environments, including individual apartments and disused gentlemen’s clubs, for example. They are more interested in providing theatrical and dramatic environments for exploration rather than telling stories or preaching to the converted.
The theatres of all three dramatists center in a contemplation of eroticism and death. If these three dramatists explore the extremes of experience, they do so through presenting the fragility and the ecstatic potential of the human body. All three dramatists press against the confines of cultural taboo and transgression, and they do so through the most intimate physical and spiritual of the body’s potentials, sexuality itself.
The theatres of all three dramatists aim to explode conventional notions of consciousness in an effort to free the individual spectator to think for himself, providing the promise of change and rebirth, rather than as a collective — they are politically, socially, and culturally anti-ideological. Taken together, the above characteristics represent a challenge to culturally conventional ways of thinking about experience, and ways of experiencing thought. They do not seek to teach or explain; they do not seek to provide catharsis; they do not seek to tell a story (though they still seek to amuse and entertain in the most profound definitions of these words; if anything else, they are showmen). Instead, they intend to provide a theatrical experience that undermines convention and provokes new ways of seeing, new forms of consciousness that are more inclusive of the world’s possibilities and impossibilities than traditional theatrical and dramatic forms. They are, in this sense, radically open works that repudiate closure. While they do not exclude or dismiss the necessity of living within a collective, they place emphasis on the individual consciousness and the ways this consciousness impinges on the definition of collectivity itself. Additionally, the plays of these three dramatists undermine and parody Cartesian definitions of existence that would divide consciousness into thinking, feeling, or spiritual experience. The dramatists encourage thinking with the body, feeling with the intellect, recognizing the spiritual in the material, the quotidian in the noumenal, and so on.
Foreman, Shawn, and Barker, then, each in their own idiosyncratic ways, provide examples of the revolutionary potentials for the 21st century drama, theatre, and culture: revolutions of perception and consciousness that, in the wake of the disastrous social and cultural revolutions of the 20th century, may provide new promise for experience and redemption. I do not find it mere coincidence that these writers came of age in the chaotic but uniquely promising 1960s, nor that their work became increasingly complex and confrontational as the 20th century progressed towards its technocratic, postcapitalist, electronic and digital end: their projects of dramatic and theatrical revolution always were conceived in confrontation with and in opposition to these impulses.
It is not necessary to fit them into aesthetic or critical boxes or definitions to recognize certain interesting similarities. But tracing these threads allows us to see the broader implications of their work for the theatrical and dramatic art of the 21st century, and hope for a renaissance of theatrical and dramatic sensibility in a culture which increasingly seems to be hostile to it.