As far as invitations go, this was a quite polite one to a beheading, which from the outset I suspected was intended to be my own. Late last week, I received a message from George Hunka (of Superfluities Redux and other critical and artistic ventures) that read simply: “Certainly worth a look from the both of you, I think” (the message was also addressed to Andy Horwitz) and containing a link to an article recently translated by Theater magazine. Entitled “Post-Dramatic Theater and the Bleeding Heart of the Seventies,” by Berlin-based critic and artist Robin Detje, the piece is…well…I want to call it a jeremiad (the author refers to it as an “essay provocation” in the article and as a “manifesto” in comments on SR, so something strong) against the continued dominance of “Post-Dramatic Theater.” In Berlin, I guess, because postdram (I’ll explain below…) feels like a pretty slim slice of the pie here in New York and even smaller elsewhere in the US.
Thus was the gauntlet thrown down. Post-Dramatic Theater, I suppose, is our bailiwick here at Culturebot, and Detje’s provocation, via George, was a challenge to defend all the things we regularly praise (as well as our occasionally snarky–mainly due to this author–critiques of other practices). I remain somewhat ambivalent even as I write this. Culturebot certainly doesn’t define itself as devoted to “Post-Dramatic Theater,” and I daresay you can find plenty of non-postdram (it’s like I’m back in college rolling my eyes at references to the “Po-Mod Squad,” but I’m lazy and have no intern to do global find-and-replaces) coverage in these digital pages, most self-evidently in the case of dance and choreographic works, which make no claim to the theatrical tradition whatsoever.
As I explained in comments on Superfluities Redux, our attachment to the concept of “performance” here at Culturebot (we normally refer to the blandly neutral concept of “contemporary performance”) is not an ideological statement endorsing Hans-Thies Lehmann (the guy who wrote the book on Post-Dramatic Theater) or any other theorist. Our approach is far more fundamental: we’re talking about live performances. We’re not literary critics (well, that’s what I started out as, but anyway…). We have better things to do than quibble with how well one production or another deals with a play-text. It’s a fun game, I grant you, and one I’ve played before, but at a certain point, we’d just seem like snobbish twats if we devoted all our time talking about whose interpretation of A Streetcar Named Desire was fuller or more apt or most adequately realized the nuances of the text. Whether it’s text-based or not, it’s a fucking play. It needs to be dealt with as a live event, the sum total of the material aspects of its realization, and dealt with on that level. We’re more than happy to apply the same critical standards we employ looking at the Wooster Group or Sarah Michelson to a quality Off-Broadway play. The problem is that from our perspective, the average Off-Broadway play readily submits itself to a whole series of ideologies in terms of how it’s performed. The psychological-realist acting, the way the sets are envisioned, etc., etc.
Idealistic playwrights who take issue with our occasional anti-playwright attitude should perhaps take note of the fact our issue is less with the fact you wrote something as it is the fact you wrote something un-questioningly for mainstream theater production, the same beast so many playwrights find fault with, while never stepping back to think critically about whether the very faults they find with the production model (NPD hell, anyone?) are not informed by a set of ideological assumptions that likewise inform the very aesthetic practices they present onstage.
But with that said, it’s probably true that Culturebot is primarily concerned, at least insofar as we’re speaking of “theater,” with the Post-Dramatic variety. Which I guess is a fine way to define us. Contemporary performance embraces performativity as the fundamental aspect of a live performance; Lehmann’s book–which I must embarrassingly admit to not having read yet, another part of my ambivalence about being drawn into this argument–is seen by most members of this community (if that’s the right word) as essentially arguing that for various reasons we need to embrace the performativity of live performance. All well and good and I guess I can accept the term if that’s what we mean by it. That said, Lehmann’s book is also a history, concerned with certain socio-historical circumstances and making various arguments about them.
Now I get a little more ambivalent. Reading Detje or George’s lengthier essay on Detje, I think these two may both be more narrowly defining theatrical “performance” than I would, in order to make a point. Both are artists, too, neither of whose work I’ve ever seen, but in George’s case, I know that the theater tradition he’s influenced by includes Beckett, Robert Wilson, Heiner Muller, Sarah Kane, and Howard Barker. Which isn’t exactly what I’d call “mainstream theater,” nor outside of the tradition I see myself in. Certainly all those playwrights (and George, I think, identifies himself as a playwright) challenge what I’d define as the mainstream performance ideologies. I may find them more or less revelatory or inspiring, but we’re not in O’Neill-Miller-Wilson territory here.
So, suspecting we might be splitting hairs, I also bothered to go and read one of Detje’s sources–Bernd Stegemann’s essay “After Postdramatic Theater,” published in Theater Heute in 2009, exploring the legacy of Lehmann’s book ten years on (sadly it’s not available online; it was published in English in Theater magazine 39:3, 2009). In it, Stegemann lays out a far more detailed critique. I find it more compelling but ultimately unsatisfying.
Stegemann begins with Muller, writing:
Heiner Muller’s famous saying–”My drama is no longer pertinent” (“mein Drama findet nicht mehr statt”)–is a statement on societal mood, ideological stance, and aesthetic position all in one and could be viewed as a starting point for this new art of the theater. But here the first difficulty in confronting the term postdramatic becomes apparent. For Muller’s statement refers to a crisis of drama, which consists of its apparent inability to convey the complexity of the modern world: the problems of the present exceed the the representational capacity of the situational dramatic art.
Well hell, I’ve never read Lehmann, but no. No, that’s not the issue. In fact, after reading Detje and Stegemann three or four times each, I remain impressed at their willingness to pretend to be painfully ignorant of cultural production beyond the stage. Stegemann at least mentions Kafka, but film–let along TV or video or the Internet–are apparently completely alien concepts to these critics, except insofar as postdram’s engagement with–however fleeting–these rather historically important means of production can be used to label postdram “bourgeois.”
(A side note: I do love the degree to which critical discourse about art–situated squarely within a semi-scholarly or academic context–consists of polysyllabic name-calling, in which the true point of any argument is to prove that someone else is “bourgeois.” It gets my latent Maoist blood boiling. I’ve long felt that our moralistic vision of the brutality of the Soviet Terror, particularly vis-a-vis its treatment of avant-garde artists, has obscured the very real critique that an actually revolutionary society produced of such artists. We pathologize so we don’t have to deal with its conclusions. Mayakovsky may have been an early supporter, but once the Soviets were in power, they quick realized people needed cookbooks that, you know, helped people cook, and furthermore that radical artists whose work was focused on offending bourgeois mores were rather dependent on the bourgeoisie to provide an object to revolt against. Our liberal moralizing about Stalinism obscures the fact that such is likely the fate of provocative/transgressive artists in any revolutionary society.)
The point is that Post-Dramatic Theater could also be seen as just another evolutionary response to new technology. If photography precipitated Modernism in the visual arts and socio-economic Modernity precipitated late Romanticism, we could just acknowledge that Post-Dramatic Theater, with its focus on performativity, is just another response by the non-playwright producers of live performance to adjust to a world in which in the core principles of drama–in Stegemann’s analysis: character and conflict, and, implicitly, narrative–can be better presented through non-theatrical means. This failure of analysis is doubly shocking because in Stegemann’s conclusion, he introduces the concept of “believability” into his critique, writing:
[W]hat makes theater such a gripping event for the audience members that their attention is worthy and rewarded? A concept may help here, even though at first glance it may appear to be an outdated one: when it is believable, theater earns the devotion of its audience.
With all due respect to Stegemann, this strikes me as not so much outdated as hopelessly naive. Note first that by its own logic, it assumes that an audience could–nay, should–find a drama that takes place in a theater, on a stage dressed to be a remarkably huge living room, featuring actors who have to almost yell every line just to be heard, more “believable” than a video of people in an actual living room, speaking at actual living-room volumes. Second, and somewhat more complexly, it assumes that “believable” is essentially the same thing as “verisimilitude”–the photo-realistic presentation of external “life” onstage. A self-aware performance mimicking the style of, say, a sitcom (I’m thinking of David Rabe’s Sticks and Bones here, a decidedly non-postdram work) is apparently not believable, even though anyone in the audience would recognize–and find “believable”–the aesthetic as that of a sitcom. In his attempt to defend drama from the travesties of Post-Dramatic Theater, Stegemann has apparently rejected the possibility of satire and parody as well, which is why he hangs his hat on the completely un-quantifiable concept of “believability” rather than something even vaguely more specific, like “verisimilitude.”
Is this unfair? Maybe. Again, Stegemann–like Detje–locates his definition of Post-Dramatic Theater as a rather narrow band. In fact, in his conclusion, Stegemann’s central complaint is that, within Germany, the wholehearted acceptance of Post-Dramatic Theater as a model has excluded dissenting artists from support in their artistic endeavors. Apparently, according to his logic, by supporting postdram at all I’m endorsing the continued support of Jan Lauwers, Jan Fabre, no doubt some other Belgian “Jan,” a bunch of Germans, and the Wooster Group–all to the exclusion of others. I’m doing no such thing, and the practical issues of state funding in Germany are utterly beyond me, aside from the general sense that attacking a broadly defined artistic practice for the sake of arguing, in essence, that young artists deserve support, seems rather extreme, misdirected, and likely ineffective. (And for the record, Culturebot remains committed to the advancement of form and providing a solid critique of the current funding models in the US–and elsewhere, should a knowledgeable commentator want to offer an elsewhere-perspective.)
But let me turn back to Detje, in order to try to make sense of that essay’s critique of postdram. Detje is also an artist, a practitioner, who positioned the essay as a “manifesto.” What can we make of Detje’s vision for a post-Post-Dramatic Theater?
Well, within Detje’s critique, there’s a willingness to accept the radical impetus of the early practitioners, like the Living Theater, followed only by despair later at the continued acceptance of the particular set of practices ascribed to postdram:
What we’re dealing with here is post-dramatic theater. 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. And on his hard-drive, there is the musty smell of a thousand seminars.
For Detje, postdram is essentially the hangover of a radical experiment of the Sixties and Seventies, when entered “the shamans of revolution (and masturbation).”
Artists wanted to prove they could stand the erotic – and autoerotic – demands of the revolution. Radicalization permits the revolutionaries of theatre and life to do something great: in a self-induced fever, they equate the struggle for liberation with the struggle for satisfaction. 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 now we’ve reached the polysyllabic insult just barely less common than some quasi-Marxist formulation of calling someone else “bourgeois”: accusing them of mental masturbation. Again, I’ll just assume I’m given some credit for being able to detect the difference between self-congratulatory onanistic art and something more important or meaningful or, at least, ambitious. I don’t pretend to defend every work ever conceived that could be labeled “Post-Dramatic.” With that said, I have to express my continued sense that dramatic theater, at least as practiced today, is more often than not guilty of onanistic indulgence.
To stick with our masturbation metaphor, a number of years ago, I was working on an article about pornography and got into a long conversation about cum-shots with a pornographer. For the polite sake of assuming ignorance, I’ll explain: in the world of straight porn, a video tends to end with male ejaculation, most commonly on–rather than in–the actress, with a particular emphasis on facial cum-shots. All on the same page? So, what we got to talking about were the particulars of the facial cum-shot: namely, the obsessive focus on making the actress look at the camera–POV style–eyes open during, or at least following, being ejaculated upon.
My subject had a novel interpretation: for him, this need to see the actress looking at the avatar for the onanist was essentially a moment of empathy, in which the consumer of porn could empathize with the actress. This struck me in many ways as bullshit. For my part, it seemed a classic example of the “Gaze of the Other” (pace Sartre): The reason one would want the object of one’s erotic fantasy to “look” at back at the objectifier is all about power. If you’re quite literally turning another person into an object of sexual fantasy, part of completing that dialectical interaction is having them look back at you, and in that gaze understand yourself to be the erotic actor.
The fascination with the male orgasmic moment as pertaining to theater is actually pretty common. Writing in “From Elements of Style,” collected in The America Play and Other Works, playwright Suzan-Lori Parks uses the male climax-arc as a metaphor for traditional narrative, writing “we all want to get to the CLIMAX,” and side-noting:
in X-vids the cum-shot is the money shot. Yeah but it’s not a question of the way girls cum vs. the way boys cum. I’m not looking at a single sexual encounter but something larger, say, in this context, the history of all sexual encounters all over the globe, all animals included.
In this context, Parks–who’s a sort of liminal figure between dramatic and postdram theater, particularly where her early work is concerned–is setting out her vision of the almost mythic components of works like The America Play. Regardless of whether the narrative occurs on the realist, gender- and temporally-specific orgasmic level, or the mythic, I suppose meta-orgasmic level, the structure of the dramatic endeavor remains committed to some process of sexual satisfaction. The audience will go to the theater, sit, experience a theatrical presentation in which conflict occurs, ultimately resolving in a climactic moment.
But I’m interested particularly in the epistemology of the cum-shot (possibly the least sexy thing I’ve ever said) the audience is proffered at the end. Seen from the perspective I laid out above, dramatic theater exists to create the straight-porno cum-shot: a power moment exists at the end in which the audience is asked to identify with either the objectifying-agent or the object of erotic satisfaction. This moment–much as in pornography–is highly scripted, contrived, and clearly disinterested in the satisfaction of the object of it. Drama, like porn, gives the audience a perspective to identify with and asks them to be identified as such. Within this erotic dynamic, in other words, the play makes its “point”–the resolution of its conflict is designed consciously by the playwright to present the audience with a choice: agree with me, or get a facial.
I know most playwrights aim for something higher, with vague appeals to some hard-to-define sense of “asking or provoking a question” rather than “providing an answer.” They don’t intend–or see themselves–as arbiters of a vaguely sub-dom porno script. And I’ll maybe grant that, at its best, dramatic theater can achieve this, both in terms of its literature as well as its material production. But I’m not much of a dogmatist, either. I remain skeptical that–even accepting the potential for meaningful achievement–dramatic theater, with its characters and conflict and narrative, is somehow inherently superior or more essential an art-form than what gets lumped under the “Post-Dramatic Theater” label.
In fact, I’d argue it’s naive to draw the distinction. To even do so is to ignore that dramatic theater is also a form of performance–one, to repeat myself, with a set of ideological assumptions behind it. These may differ between dramatic forms. Surely we can all accept that there is a difference between the Festival Dionysus in Athens, what happened at the Globe Theater in Shakespeare’s time, and what we could see today at Playwrights Horizons, Signature, or whatever. But the defenders of dramatic theater want to elide these differences, apparently, based mainly on purely mechanical distinctions (and ignoring the inherent Eurocentrism of their argument at the same time, which only further problematizes their argument) regarding the idea of conflict, character, and narrative.
All three are often present in Post-Dramatic Theater, of course. Just not in the same way, or playing the same role within the theatrical presentation. The defenders of dramatic theater imagine their practice is somehow essential–ignoring the realities of film and television and, well, pretty much any other form that can present people having some story happen to them (and another elision I’m also making: the fact that film and video and television all quickly developed a self-referential skepticism despite their efficiency at verisimilitude, further diluting the argument for dramatic essentialism). Post-Dramatic Theater, to make a rather banal point, often takes these stories or representations as a starting point for an exploration, interrogation or–to use an oft-misused term–deconstruction of such a form. One might even be tempted to argue that Post-Dramatic Theater is often animated by a desire to respond to the overwhelmingly vast array of representations contemporary society provides us through diverse media, including dramatic theater.
But that would not, apparently, be Detje’s point (or Stegemann’s). For them, starting from an obsession with identity/character, discourse/conflict, and experience/narrative, Post-Dramatic Theater is apparently nothing more than a celebration of identity and Self, an autoerotic fantasy enacted onstage. From the narrow confines of their critiques, I can admit: yes, sometimes that’s the product, but not inherently a facet of the material process of Post-Dramatic Theater. Reading Detje, with all the references to “heart” (which George finds problematic as well), accusing Post-Dramatic Theater of “emotional anaemia” and an “absence of euphoria,” I get the distinct feeling Detje’s arguing for a sort of nouvelle-Artaudian theater, with all the crucial viscera: the blood and sweat, piss and shit, tears and cum. Detje concludes:
The theatre of the 1970s was still able to play with a bourgeois body wanting ecstatic de-bourgeoisification, and able to romanticize the act of ecstasy as a political act of liberation, a revolutionary deed. Post-dramatic theatre is bodiless: if we prick it, it doesn’t bleed. Its narcissism is all in its concept, in the desire to prove its own modernity—which is all too easily done. It simulates just enough dissidence for us not to run away in fear. But above all, post-dramatic theatre hums the tune we want to hear – the great song of compliance.
What a remarkably backwards–and condescending–argument. Contemporary society–which Detje laments earlier in this same section–is replete with representations, sentimental narratives, emotional excitements, porn. And Detje’s solution is…trying to take these same forms further? The cum-shot is no longer enough to satisfy the complacent contemporary bourgeois consumer; theater must go a step further and start producing German bukkake, I guess.
Can I be forgiven for calling the entire argument nonsense? An anachronistic attachment to visceral experience–which Detje explicitly invokes by writing, “[W]hoever wants a better theatre shouldn’t demand a more traditional theatre but better times. Or worse ones”? That’s not a revolutionary logic, nor even one of resistance, but rather the logic of capitulation in the face of a mass of representations and sign-valuation–the whole apparatus of (I guess I’m a Marxist now) Late Capitalism–thoroughly ignored in an effort to formulate a critique based entirely on the idea that audiences are so stupid that they can only accept–and should only be offered–theater they find dramatically–in terms of character, conflict, and narrative–”believable.”
* * *
The “No Symbols Where None Inteded” Stuff, or, Things That Would Have Been Incorporated (Time and Patience Permitting)
- The story of how Benno Ohnesorg’s assassination was just an extraordinarily successful Stasi plot to destabilize West Germany, thus problematizing Detje’s analysis
- Something about Jacques Ranciere would have been good somewhere…
- A defense of “cheap” sentimentalist (e.g., Hollywood) in dramatic presentation against the pretensions of “High Art”
- A quip about the dependency on “McLuhan” as a modifier of “cool”
- A proper Frankfurtian analysis of of cultural production vis-a-vis contemporary dramatic and post-dramatic theater
- Proper citation of other discussions informing my thought, including an email exchange which read, in part:
I partly think he just regrets the current moment – he doesn’t like that we live in a more and more disembodied social/economic/political world culture – well, too bad. This is the one we’ve got – one where just to try to understand something about how sneakers get made is fucking complicated, and has something to do with the derivatives market and Greek debt and sex trafficking and guerrilla marketing in West Philly playgrounds. I guess we can all be nostalgic for Fordism now? When an Artaudian response to “mechanized man” made sense?