Postdramatic theatre is composed of many elements, some disputed and some perhaps not even recognized yet. The elements of postdramatic theatre that I would like to talk about in this blog are the involvement/participation of the audience, the focus on the “situation” and the real versus the represented. I will compare these elements to new historicism.

Dr David Barnett, in Reader in Drama, Theatre and Performance at the University of Sussex writes on dramaonlinelibrary.com and states:

“The term ‘Postdramatic Theatre’, which has become an increasingly important one since the publication of Hans-Thies Lehmann’s book Postdramatic Theatre (German 1999; English translation 2006), covers a wide range of contemporary theatrical forms, including devised work and live art.”

Continually, there are a few postdramatic theatre definitions that I have come across in Postdramatic Theatre and the Political: International Perspectives on Contemporary Performance, edited by Karen Jürs-Munby, Jerome Carroll and Steve Giles, which is a volume in the Methuen Drama Engage Series first published by Bloomsbury in 2013:

“There is a shift away from adherence to dramatic text, away from individual psychology, away from referential connection to external reality through mimesis” as stated by Lehmann (14). He continues with “The theatre of sense (or meaning, Sinn) and synthesis has largely disappeared – and with it the possibility of synthesizing interpretation” (17). Jan Deck adds a marxist perspective to the postdramatic theatre definition by stating “the classic division of labour in the production of plays is overcome” (7).

In new historicism, it is argued that history and our view of it is active and ever-changing. New historicism rejects the traditional oppositions between history and literature because history is also a text that can be interpreted and seen as a construction. History is constructed by society and each individuals’ ideologies. Through this constructed history, discourses are produced and, as stated above, can change, and there is no one explanation of history. For these reasons, new historicists assume that no simple causality exists, both texts and readers are shaped by culture, it is impossible to be objective, and there are only representations of history. A new historicist deconstructs discourses and ideologies at play in the construction of man’s greatest novel: history.

As a side note, there is major influence of both poststructuralism and marxism in new historicism. We can see this by the two buzz words: “deconstruction” and “ideologies”. New historicists aim to bring these theories together (among others) to analyze a text about a historically specific moment or situation.

Now that both post-dramatic theatre and new historicism have been given some spotlight, let’s bring up the house lights to discuss how these separate theories have similar stories with perhaps the same characters.

Firstly, the influence of the audience, or reader so to say, is crucial in the analysis of a theatre piece and reading of a historical moment. When viewing/reading, a postdramatist and new historicist recognizes that they have a bias, they have ideologies, and one must acknowledge one’s own personal life and its influence on one’s thinking. Why? Because to ignore these biases and ideologies is to ignore perhaps the only reality that exists. How one views/reads a story, creates the story. See also reader response theory.

Secondly, the word “situation” seems to be recurring between the two theories. On speaking about postdramatic theatre in relation to politics, Lehmann states “it remains essential to acknowledge that the truly political dimension of theatre has its place not so much in the thematizing of politically burning subject matters…as in the situation, the relation, the social movement which theatre as such is able to constitute”. Theatre has the ability to situate. To isolate a situation as well as a discourse on the stage. Important here is the choice. The artists choose what situations they show. Similarly, as new historicists argue, it is impossible to be objective when writing and reading history. The authors and their ideologies will always play a role in the historical situations they choose to write about.

Lastly, the discourse of the real versus the represented is crucial to the understanding of both theories. Dr. David Barnett again on postdramatic theatre states “The orientation provided by recognizable characters or plotlines dissolves, and spectators have to negotiate the production of postdramatic plays by working through a new set of conventions. These tend to be connected with a movement away from interpretation of the play on stage to the presentation of linguistic and gestural material.” Through unstable, unpredictable and often times illogical words and movement meant to represent ideas, postdramatic theatre “dissolves” what has been traditionally classified as “drama”. This dissolution shows the work of poststructuralism, and also the reason why it is fairly difficult to classify postdramatic theatre as one type of theatre.

In a similar way, new historicists question what history is “real”. As stated previously, there is no one explanation or interpretation of history, and the discourses produced can change. Therefore, there is no single truth or center. With the construction of both theatre and history, the audience sees a representation of a particular situation, which brings along with it many ideologies from both the artists/authors and the audience/readers.

What have challenged this new historicist thought are the people who take the history books as the truth. Should American students only be reading and studying history textbooks written by white Americans? Similarly, I argue that American audiences should be exposed to performance art that is created by artists throughout the world, not just the New York City musicals, your annual Christmas Carol at the local community theatre, and not just Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet for the 100th time because it’s a “classic”. Of course, you can do these shows with a postdramatic concept:

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It)
by Dmitry Krymov Lab, 2014

I also find it interesting in the choice of terminology. Why “post” for the theatre, for structuralism, modernism, but “new” for historicism? Both postdramatic theatre and new historicism look at texts and performances that represent situations for many centuries. However, how these texts and performances are received and analyzed has changed in the past century. Postdramatic theory and new historicism have escaped the idea that a literary theory need be bound to a certain time, and while a postdramatist and new historicist acknowledge the choices made by the artists and authors of stories to be biased and influenced by ideologies, whether it be consciously or subconsciously done, the theorists also aim to deconstruct particular situations and discourses seen within these stories from the beginning of time itself.

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