ENGL 552 -- Winter Quarter 2006

Aesthetics of Anti-Theater: from Plato to Performance Art (w/CLit 573A) Blau MW 3:30-5:20

“Seeming, seeming.” --- Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

If the antitheatrical prejudice took its cue from Plato, nowhere has the theater been more distrusted than in the theater itself, as in the history of canonical drama, with its unremitting vigilance over the deceits of appearance, from the blinded Oedipus to the blinded Gloucester to the blinded Hamm in Beckett, or with maximum theatricality in the Grand Brothel of Genet. As for those who prefer to avoid it, there is the closet drama of Mallarmé or Gertrude Stein, or the retreat by Yeats—after his founding of the Abbey Theater, disenchanted with it—to Lady Gregory’s drawing room and the ritual distancing of the Japanese Noh. As for the Alienation-effect of Brecht, with its unempathic way of keeping an eye on too much theater, that might have been appreciated by Ben Jonson, who with all the theatrical virtuosity of the scoundrels in his plays really preferred to see his drama published rather than distorted on the stage. If there is any defense of theater in the theater itself, you might expect that to come from Shakespeare, for whom all the world could be a stage, but with that Hamletic strain in his vision—at the extremity of paranoia in the play-within-the-play—it’s as if the subtext of his drama were an incrimination of theater. He speaks in one of his sonnets of the actor who, “with his fear, is put beside his part,” which may cause us to wonder, too, about an aesthetic form that seems, unavoidably, to require stage fright.

As for the other visual arts or alternative modes of performance, from the classical avant-garde through minimalism and conceptualism to happenings and body art, much of that has emerged from a derangement, derision, or suspicion of theater, which has carried over to critical theory, as in Judith Butler’s notion of “performativity,” which is itself a form of anti-theater. Before that, however, in the emergence of deconstruction, we had instances of theoretical writing that, with sentiments of anti-theater, thought of itself as performance, as with Roland Barthes, whose earliest work was Brechtian, which led him to the Japanese Bunraku, preferring puppets to actors, as if from a revisionist Marxism he were the prophetic Gordon Craig. And as we became aware of the stylistic theatricality in Lacan’s psyching out of “the mirror stage,” Derrida went from Freud and “the scene of writing” (the mise en scène of the unconscious) to Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, and their mutual desire to abolish representation, and with it, outdoing Brecht, the theater as we know it. That’s a sad story attesting, as Derrida had to confess, to the endurance of representation, and through every assault of anti-theater, that of the theater as well, not that theater, however, but—now you see it now you don’t—what can hardly be known at all, what escapes as reality principle at the leading edge of thought. As far as we can in the seminar we’ll try engaging with that.

Readings (to be announced) will come from a wide range of sources, in canonical, modern, and experimental forms of drama, as well as documentation of alternative modes of performance; and there will also be various texts from critical theory.

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