Thinking Theater / Performing Theory: Symbolism to the Absurd, Alienation to Body Art
Cross-listed with Comp Lit 573
"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, haunted by introspection or with sensations of the abyss, by Maeterlinck or Hoffmansthal, or with an Orphic love of the infinite, in Yeats’ The Shadowy Waters.
Some of what we’ll be reading may seem, with an esoteric fundamentalism, a kind of born-again drama, as with certain plays of Expressionism or those of the avant-garde, from Jarry’s Ubu Roi to Dada and 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 some years ago. And we’ll surely see that not only in Brecht, Beckett, and Genet, and the theater of the Absurd, but in the “continuous present” of the wordplays of Gertrude Stein, as well as 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 a self-punishing conceptualism (Chris Burden, Stelarc, Orlan) to aspects of feminist and gender-bending performance (Carolee Schneeman, Karen Finley), or the transgressive scandals of Viennese Actionism, 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 reflective shadow, brings us back to theater.
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