Stuff I have learned.

I’m trying to write after I finish books (or collections of articles) as a way of processing thoughts and putting things together. But I am either out of practice, or there’s not enough coalescing in my brain after reading 1-2 books. But here is some stuff I’ve learned about theatre/performance theory so far.

It seems (though this may be a limited perspective) that performance theory in Europe/England/North America in the last century or so has been mostly dominated by realist and non-realist traditions. So on the realist side is the idea that plays ought to be mimetic of reality (Hamlet’s ‘to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature’ comes up a lot around this point). From what I remember from my lit crit/lit theory classes, this is a pretty age-old concept that has roots in classical dramatic and aesthetic traditions (see Plato, Aristotle, Dryden, etc). Realist theatre is also influenced by the character development ideas of Stanislavksy (or he is influenced by realist theatre?) which suggests that when on stage the actor is subsumed into the character she or he portrays (and seems the basis of method acting principles?).

The other major performance theory seems to be Brecht’s (or heavily influenced by him). I’ve read a bit of Brecht before in a class on Jewish modernist philosophy. Brecht was himself a Marxist/socialist, and so he believed that theatre’s job was to show audiences the social relations that resulted in certain events/conflicts. Rather than being lost in a narrative, identifying with characters, and being brought to some emotional catharsis audience members should be invited to see how actors create characters, theatre apparati create theatrical and narrative effects, and, through the concept of gestus (repeated, signifying gestures or actions), how characters and events are the result of social conflict.

My reading right now is focussed on the way that contemporary critics have adapted different performance methods and ideas to represent gender. So far what I’ve gleaned is that realist theatre has the potential to highlight the lived realities of women (but doesn’t necessarily question the social constructedness of those realities). Brechtian theatre (non-realist theatre) has the potential to highlight the way that social relations construct ideas around gender, to show how these ideas might be changed/changeable. But perhaps non-realist theatre creates less of an emotional impact for the viewer (I’m not entirely clear on how this strand of theory makes a place for emotional connection between audience and stage)?

I’m also trying to think through how these modern ideas make sense of early modern play texts. On the one hand, I’m really interested in looking at contemporary productions of early modern texts, which are obviously heavily influenced by modern performance theory. But I also want to balance that consideration by thinking about how these texts might have existed and been presented on their own stages (since contemporary productions most always work with theatre historians and early modern critics while preparing productions for the stage, as a way of better understanding their meaning, and how to make connections between ‘original’ meanings and contemporary situations and audiences.

But mostly I’m wondering if I should go back and read Brecht and early performance theory. I’m never very good at drawing liens around these things.

29 September 2016

[Caveat: I probably don’t really know what I’m talking about yet.]


Dolan, Jill. The Feminist Spectator as Critic.Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991.