As I continue to write Erlkönig I’ll be republishing several entries to keep the fire here going.
Originally posted on 18 October 2010.
In Schopenhauer’s conception of knowledge and the world, mankind is phenomenon par excellence, the object through which subjectivity can be known and the will as thing-in-itself recognized, if not described or describable in the symbol-system of language available to the individual. The will itself, because it is not describable, can’t be characterized as tragic, but this locution is available to describe the phenomenal world in relation to that will. Only that which can be directly experienced by the individual can be said to exist: it is far preferable to the abstract concept as a valid recognition, as a valid object of knowledge. Just as color cannot be described to the blind, or music to the deaf (for the vibrations under foot and hand at the concert hall are not in essence dissimilar to the vibrations of the subway or the earth), one who does not experience an extreme or a quality cannot recognize it as something known. The individual body through which the will can be recognized, and the words with which it can be explored, become the instrument of exploration and experience.
This places particular weight on the theatre and drama as aesthetic means of this exploration of the phenomenon; it is a quality of the art which most theatre practitioners (dramatists, directors, producers and critics alike) and audiences today are loathe to admit. It makes of the art a far more urgent discipline than they’re comfortable with, in that it renders the entertainment, amusement and business that attaches to the form irrelevant, especially in the forms of mimetic social realism or ironic post-modernist distance that attach to its practice even today. Obviously, in this conception, theatre and drama are the truly experiential arts, for the mediation is through the body, not the page or canvas, and it is the body that is the primary vehicle for experience. Apart from music, tragic drama is at the apex of the aesthetic imagination as conceived by Schopenhauer.
Schopenhauer was prophetic in more senses than one, inspiring many of the artists, writers and composers of the Expressionist school that arose in Austria and Germany beginning in the late 19th century. But there is a New Expressionism as well, and one which has its philosophical roots in the old. David Ian Rabey in his English Drama Since 1940 identifies a stream of post-war drama which he names a “New Expressionism,” which predated In-Yer-Face theatre, an off-shoot of this New Expressionism, by several decades, citing the work of David Rudkin, Heathcote Williams and other dramatists. “This involves a consciously heightened form of presentation which is unapologetic about its anti-conventional strageness, in which often ‘exterior facts are continually being transformed into interior elements and psychic events are exteriorized,’ in a passionate expression of, and search for, individual regeneration. … This form of renewal is prioritised as preliminary to epic theatre’s foregrounding of social relations to address the political collective. [Emphasis mine] … Unlike Absurdism, which may reflect a loss of faith in language, reference, action and consequence, Expressionism recreates an unconventional faith in consequence: the power of individual defiance to trigger wider seismic upheavals of power, countering ‘information’ and passivity with a demonstrative capacity for active transformation.” (Rabey 128) 
Rabey’s description takes in a broad swathe of post-1970 drama in his book, but it is also a useful corrective to the characterization of a dramatist like Samuel Beckett as “absurdist,” especially when it comes to Beckett’s prose and drama after 1960, when the novel How It Is and the play Play marked a division between his early work and his later; especially in the late plays Catastrophe and What Where, political and ideological considerations are secondary and founded upon a metaphysical ground. What’s more, all of this later work, especially pieces like Not I, are experiential rather than discursive, and the subjective psychic events are those which provide the necessary sensation. Because they also exhibit “a demonstrative capacity for active transformation,” they are immediately relevant to a consideration of the plays of Howard Barker, David Rudkin and Sarah Kane.
The later work of Beckett and the plays of Barker, Rudkin and Kane are beyond considerations of optimistic and pessimistic. Or, more accurately, they may be both. A capacity may exist, but it may or may not be fulfilled, and possibility may or may not become probability or ever realized: it is these that are demonstrated in the theatre; it remains to the individual spectator to fulfill or realize these capacities and possibilities in their own lives, having first recognized them through the aesthetic experience. But it is this capacity and possibility that is demonstrated in the theatre, and because it is beyond the currently fashionable Procrustean formal beds of social realism or post-modern irony, it remains marginalized, however awesome may be its power to transform both the art of theatre and the experience of those who attend it.
The “In-Yer-Face theatre” that emerged in the 1990s, and of whom Sarah Kane is a common (if inappropriate) exemplar, is described by Aleks Sierz; it is interesting to note in this context, since it too is a theatre founded in experience:
[In Yer Face theatre] is any drama that takes the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message. It is a theatre of sensation. … Questioning moral norms, it affronts the ruling ideas of what can or should be shown onstage; it also taps into more primitive feelings, smashing taboos, mentioning the forbidden, creating discomfort. Crucially, it tells us more about who we really are. Unlike the type of theatre that allows us to sit back and contemplate what we see in detachment, the best in-yer-face theatre takes us on an emotional journey, getting under our skin. In other words, it is experiential, not speculative. [Emphasis mine] (Sierz 4)
This is correct in so far as it goes, but I would insist that it is this theatrical experience itself that becomes the object of speculation; it must do so, if it is not to remain a solipsistic sensual experience which ends at the theatre door. Howard Barker’s conception of theatre as a crucible for moral speculation certainly does not obviate the practice of extreme and excessive stage activity and dramatic language. Indeed, speculation and experience revolve and feed upon each other on the New Expressionist stage. The theatre remains an arena of contemplation and speculation, even as this is generated by the experiential events that take place between performer and spectator, mediated by the symbol-system of dramatic language.
It is my hope in this series of posts to explore this conception of New Expressionism as described by Rabey and Gritzner, and trace its development back through the original Expressionist movement to its philosophical origins in Schopenhauer’s metaphysics and aesthetics. This is not to say that Beckett, Barker, Rudkin and Kane share much beyond these bare outlines. Beckett’s constricted, de-eroticized landscape is a far cry from Barker’s expansive, even excessive, re-eroticized imagination, and they are barely recognizable, perhaps, as exemplars of the same school. But it seems to me that their emphasis on the subjective experience, their deliberate intent to operate as far outside the Culture Industry as it may be possible to do, is a critique of the same metaphysical, moral and aesthetic stance in which that Industry stands as was Schopenhauer’s opposition to the ameliorist Enlightenment of his time.
All four dramatists begin with dislocation: dislocations of narrative and character. These dislocations are similar, if not identical, to the freeing of dissonance — that is, the thing-in-itself allowed liberty to express itself phenomenally — that defines the work of Arnold Schoenberg, that twentieth-century composer who provided the underscore to the Expressionist movements of the first quarter of the twentieth century.