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Herbert Blau
ENGL 552
Seattle Campus

Studies in Drama

Class description

English 552A—Seminar in Drama: Thinking Theater / Performing Theory: Symbolism to the Absurd, Alienation to Body Art MW 3:30-5:20; CMU 243 Herbert Blau

“Our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts space.” Maurice Merleau-Ponty

If space is haunted by the body, the body is also haunted by space, sometimes bringing with it the feeling that there’s more than the body there. Some call it spirit, others may call it illusion, or whatever it is that is other than what we usually think of as life. Whatever this otherness is, real or illusory, it is very much there in the theater, which seems to have been troubled from the beginning with some ghostliness of appearance, along with the recurring question of whether all the world’s a stage or life is really a dream. Since the advent of deconstruction, this has often been approached as a delusion of representation, but there were times in Symbolist theater when it was hardly a question at all, or if life remained stubborn and resisted being a dream, the plaintive feeling was so much the worse for life.

In any event, we shall be moving across a landscape of drama that is at first an interior space, strange, sacerdotal, meditative, and unmooring, quite specifically there but indefinite in the mind’s eye, as if in the corporeality of theater there were no body at all. You may feel at times, indeed, that you’re out of this world, or perhaps in a world only too familiar, what Freud called the uncanny, that estrangement of the unconscious that finally brings you home. This was the condition of being, or “soul-complex,” that Strindberg was dramatizing even when he was deeply invested in a theater of naturalism, no less in The Ghost Sonata or A Dream Play, which we’ll probably be reading in the seminar, along with other Symbolist drama, by Maeterlinck, Yeats, or Hoffmansthal—or intended for no other stage but the page, maybe Mallarmé.

The texts are not yet selected, but some of what we’ll be reading may seem, with an esoteric fundamentalism of its own, a kind of born-again drama, as with certain plays of Expressionism or those of the avant-garde, from Jarry to Surrealism, no less the work of Artaud, whose Spurt of Blood is an ecstatic preface to The Theater and Its Double, itself a demonic text not only influential on the most experimental theater practice, but on critical theory as well. “Theater is theory, or a shadow of it,” I wrote in one of my books. And we’ll surely see that not only in plays by Brecht, Beckett, and Genet, and the theater of the Absurd, but in the emergence of Happenings from Action painting, and subsequent manifestations of (non-theater or anti-theater) performance, including body art. In a wide range of such events, from those affiliated with minimalism and conceptualism (Chris Burden, Stelarc) to to aspects of feminist and gender-bending performance (Carolee Schneeman, Orlan) one may have a sense that at the extremity of performance, and no little risk to the body, what’s being performed is theory—which, in its shadow, brings us back to theater. Addendum: following are REQUIRED TEXTS for the seminar: Required texts:

Six Plays of Strindberg, trans. Elizabeth Sprigge (Anchor) ISBN 0385092725

Daniel Gerould (ed.), Symbolist Drama (PAJ Publ.; TCG) ISBN 0933826788 (Originally published with the title Doubles, Demons, Dreamers, & you may find some copies online or in used bookstores; with the new title above, still published by PAJ imprint, but distributed by Theater Communications Group; its website:

Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi (New Directions) ISBN 0811200728

Mel Gordon (ed.), Futurist Performance (PAJ) ISBN 1555540090 Mel Gordon (ed.), Dada Performance (PAJ) ISBN 1555540112 Mel Gordon (ed.), Expressionist Texts (PAJ) ISBN 1555540139

Luigi Pirandello, Naked Masks (originally publ. by Dutton; now by Plume; distributed by Mass Market) ISBN 052548499X

Eugene Ionesco, Four Plays: The Bald Soprano, The Lesson, Jack, The Chairs (Grove) ISBN 0802130798

Samuel Beckett, Endgame & Act without Words (Grove) ISBN 0802150241

Samuel Beckett, Collected Shorter Plays (Grove) 0802150551

John Willett (ed.), Brecht on Theater (originally Hill & Wang; now A&C Black) ISBN 0809005425

Bertolt Brecht, Baal, Man’s a Man, Elephant Calf (Grove) ISBN 080213159X

Bertolt Brecht, The Measures Take and Other Lehrstücke (Arcade) ISBN 1559705442

Bertolt Brecht, Mother Courage & Her Children (Grove) ISBN 0802130828 Antonin Artaud, The Theater & Its Double (Grove) ISBN 0802150306

Jean Genet, The Balcony (Grove) ISBN 0802150349

Jean Genet, The Screens (Grove) ISBN 0802151582

Gertrude Stein, Operas & Plays (Barrytown Ltd.) ISBN 1886449163 Heiner Müller, Hamlet-machine & Other Texts for the Stage (PAJ) ISBN 0933826451 Articles on Happenings, Fluxus, Performance & Body Art—to be photocopied.

Student learning goals

General method of instruction

Recommended preparation

Class assignments and grading

The information above is intended to be helpful in choosing courses. Because the instructor may further develop his/her plans for this course, its characteristics are subject to change without notice. In most cases, the official course syllabus will be distributed on the first day of class.
Last Update by Herbert Blau
Date: 12/26/2007