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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Negative Theatrics: Writing the Postdramatic Stage

  • Author(s): Jarcho, Julia
  • Advisor(s): Jackson, Shannon
  • et al.

"We must get rid of our superstitious valuation of text!" Antonin Artaud's disdain still echoes in an ongoing theoretical discussion: what role, if any, should writing be understood to play in theatrical performance? Current theater scholarship, in both German postdramatic theory and American drama studies, tends to promote a paradigm wherein actual performance inherently exceeds or surpasses any text it puts to use. Despite its great appeal, this model threatens to obscure the ways writing can, so to speak, produce its own theater: both by simulating the dimensions of theatrical experience and by constituting an alternative site that undermines the totality of performance's here-and-now. The modernist works analyzed here construct theater as a medium whose heightened exposure to the present provokes an equally heightened contestation of that present. In these texts, theatricality becomes a negative relation to the actual.

More concerned with formal experimentation than with suspenseful storytelling, these works can benefit from the "postdramatic" critical framework that has developed in theater studies during the past two decades. Yet postdramatic discourse frequently identifies the postdramatic departure from storytelling with a liberation from the "dominance" of the script. Likewise, the postdramatic is often characterized as a theater where presence supplants representation. In order to challenge these assumptions, this dissertation returns to Peter Szondi's and Bertolt Brecht's critiques of drama. For these earlier theorists, drama itself relentlessly affirms the present; it thus becomes possible to reconceive the postdramatic as a theater that rejects presentness. Within such a theater, text acquires a heightened, not a diminished, importance. Directing us towards an "elsewhere" of poetic composition, and hence providing an intense sense of what is not present amidst performance, experimental playwriting constitutes a vital component of the postdramatic landscape.

In order to conceptualize this development, I draw on Theodor W. Adorno's aesthetic theory. Although Adorno is rarely engaged as a resource for thinking about theater, his work provides a framework for understanding the written script as a negative, critical structure that resists the real-time event of performance. The first chapter of the dissertation introduces Adorno, Brecht, and Szondi as theoretical interlocutors, situating their work in relation to postdramatic discourse and the problematic status of the theater text. Having argued for a modernist theatrical tradition that is both postdramatic and highly literary, the study then traces this tradition through a series of modernist and contemporary works. A model of theater as distraction, rather than presentness, structures both the late fiction of Henry James and the landscape plays of Gertrude Stein. In Waiting for Godot, this negation of the present becomes dialectical: Samuel Beckett intensifies dramatic presence to the point of exhaustion, constructing theater as the utopian desire for that which is not yet present. In the last two chapters, I show how two contemporary American playwrights have adapted this modernist legacy. Suzan-Lori Parks finds ways to construct writing as a site of performance in its own right, alternative to the presence of the stage. Mac Wellman devises a text that consistently refuses the economy of communicative transaction, figuring a yet-unimagined mode of collectivity. Through close readings of their work, "Negative Theatrics" shows how all these writers enact a profoundly critical theatrics of the page.

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