Postdramatic Theatre

Just finished reading the rather dense Postdramatic Theatre by Hans-Thies Lehmann. It was a tough read, reader(s), so I’m going to do us both a favor and spare you the full report. But basically the gist of it was this:

In part because of our increasingly mediatized society a new form of theatre has emerged—a form he calls the postdramatic. By which he means theatre that no longer has the drama as its central pillar. By drama he means the narrative or literal text. So postdramatic theatre is (among other things) fragmented and impressionistic. It subverts an attempt to impose coherency or logical meaning. More or less. He works his way through various avant garde theatre practitioners (the usual suspects: Peter Brook, Heiner Muller, Robert Wilson, Gob Squad) and chronicles some of the guiding elements of these practitioners to construct what he refers to as a panorama of the postdramatic.

I mentioned that I had recently finished Lehmann’s book to one of my faculty members at CUNY (yes! I am chatting with the faculty! The slow grind of the behemoth CUNY bureaucratic infrastructure has begun to take its course and eventually, maybe, in fits and starts, I will start my classes and be on my way.) and her reaction was one of, well, how should I put this?–enthusiastic disdain? The phrase “I don’t mean to say you’ve wasted your time” might have crossed her lips. Her main criticism was that Lehmann uses a very particular subset of avant garde theatre artists to construct a theory that is perhaps too broadly intended. But isn’t this is the problem with theory generally at this juncture? Any time you start looking at something through a certain theoretical lens you start spiraling down a wormhole of– well, yes, but what about this or that lens, and aren’t I so subjective, isn’t my ideology shaped by xyz??– and then the theoretical task starts to feel rather quixotic.

So I’m not inclined to be quite so hard on Lehmann. He’s fighting the good fight and trying to identify some larger trends in what seems to be an increasingly fragmented academic world view (ironic that the larger trend he is pointing out is fragmentation). And he hits on this idea which we all as theatre artists wrestle with—especially since theatre has come into competition with television and film—which is what makes theatre unique? What is fundamentally, inalienably theatrical? How do we preserve and foster that theatricality to make ourselves vibrant, and necessary and true to our art form?  How do we incorporate technological advances and mediatized attention spans?

I think back on the shows I’ve seen this year– on and off broadway, fringe shows, park shows, the good, the bad, the ugly—and many, if not all, seem to be wrestling in some way with this issue of theatricality. Of what exists a bit beyond the text—maybe not in Lehmann’s postdramatic way, because all are still working with some level of narrative, but perhaps in an extradramatic way.  Shows with apparitions and character doubling (Clybourne Park) and weird—possibly inexplicable–dance breaks (Love’s Labour’s Lost), and post apocalyptic zombies (So Go The Ghosts of Mexico), and metatheatrical conceits (We are Proud to Present). And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it seems to me that many folks are trying to find ways to utilize the narrative and the non narrative in the pursuit of the theatrical, the meaningful, and the relevant.

I suppose one could argue that these elements represent a trickling down of the postdramatic avant garde. That more mainstream theatre (though not all of the shows I mention above are particularly mainstream) is adopting some of the techniques that have come to define the avant garde movement.

But, like my faculty member, I’m not so sure that postdramatic is the epochal trend, though it is certainly part of it. Perhaps this is naive, but I’m not convinced we’re ever going to abandon narrative in theatre altogether. We might flirt with the non narrative, we might make great use of it, but I feel like the impulse to tell stories, to explore the world and ask questions in a way that is interpretable by the audience will never go away. I wonder if perhaps the next big trend (or really what is occurring now) is not one of fragmentation, but of hybridization? This would seem theoretically consistent with ideas about globalization and intellectual trends towards transcultural studies, interdisciplinary studies, etc. Rather than, as theatre artists, distancing ourselves from what other mediums do, perhaps we can incorporate and embrace these other media—so instead of creating an identity based on negation (where postdramatic implies non-dramatic), perhaps there is a richer, fuller identity and form found in inclusion and incorporation, in transculturation?

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