Looking at Postmodern Performances of Canonical Plays

Activating the Inanimate: Visual Vocabularies of Performance Practice

Dismantling the conventional plot-character-space unity that characterizes drama in general and neglecting the role of narrative embedded in it has lately become the axis of postmodern performance practice. Defined by Hans-Thies Lehmann as ‘postdramatic theatre’ and by Elinor Fuchs as the kind of theatre in which character is dead or dying, it emphasizes the conspicuous prioritizing of the visual upon the textual typical of this era. Among its main qualities, realized by means of visual constructs which include the replacement of the dramatic character by a body in space, is the cancellation of the focused referential frame or logocentric logic often offered by drama, thus becoming presentational, i.e. presenting the elements of performance as themselves, rather than re-presentational of the real. Followed by a multiplication of frames, or rather by the annulment of frames altogether, the result of this cancellation is the emergence of a multifarious range of possible ‘looking standpoints’ that leave the spectators’ expectations for coherence and integrality unaccomplished. The specific case of staging canonical plays, which presupposes not only the presence of a written text in performance but one that is at the very core of accepted cultural practices and beliefs, problematizes the issues of visualization and looking, placing them at a conflicting crossroads. Seen as ‘the true art of memory,’ as defined by Harold Bloom, staged canonical plays would seem to retain their representational status and their evocative power despite postdramatic visualizing strategies. The question is then, whether the visual signs of such performances, intertwined with representational attributes, can nonetheless function as unreferential autonomous entities and objectify the spectators’ look. Thomas Ostermeier’s version of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler (2005) and Mabou Mines’ DollHouse, directed by Lee Breuer (2003) will serve as my main examples in dealing with these issues.


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