Subtracting the spectator: Antitheatricality, the real of revolution, and the political ontology of avant-garde theater
Hatch, Ryan Anthony
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Subtracting the Spectator: Antitheatricality, the Real of Revolution, and the Political Ontology of Avant-Garde Theater examines the political stakes of avant-garde theater artists' ongoing struggle to reinvent the play-text and the art of the mise en scène as paradoxically antitheatrical forms. Beginning with Brecht's Weimar era anti-Aristotelian "learning plays" -- works meant for the producers rather than the consumers of art -- the antitheatrical imperative gives rise to a wide variety of textual, spatial, and scenic innovations. Taken together, these innovations unequivocally imply the annihilation of the very position of spectatorship on which theater uniquely depends, and thus they point to an unprecedentedly radical redefinition of the theatrical medium as such. My reading of these innovations contests the common notion that theater is directly linked to emancipatory politics, or that it is most effectively political when it engages its spectators as a surrogate community. To this end, I demonstrate that revolution, defined here as the central constitutive form of political modernity, is itself an antitheatrical kind of event -- something whose unfolding conventional and experimental theater alike have been categorically unable to dramatize or otherwise stage with aesthetic or political conviction. I draw support for this argument from contemporary philosopher and playwright Alain Badiou's important Rhapsody for the Theater: A Short Philosophical Treatise, in which Badiou argues that although it is structurally isomorphic with politics, the theater is in fact the one artistic medium that does not have access to revolution, "the real" of politics. Understood here in its simplest sense as a mode of address that eclipses its addressee, antitheatricality is strictly speaking not an invention of avant-garde theater, but rather part and parcel of the logic of revolution, as first articulated by the Jacobins and subsequently radicalized by the communists of the Paris Commune onward. When experimental theater artists seek to participate in the ethics of revolutionary politics, therefore, they must do so obliquely, by reenacting not its content, which remains unstageable, but rather the antitheatrical form of its unfolding. Through close readings of works by postdramatic writer-directors Bertolt Brecht, Richard Foreman, and Young Jean Lee, and theater-director-turned-conceptual-artist David Levine, I suggest that the theater's most radical potential lies in the tendency to subvert the basic contract that founds the theatrical medium -- not to break the fourth wall, but to actually build it. Working with and against thinkers such as Martin Puchner, Samuel Weber, and Claire Bishop, I argue that avant-garde antitheatricality must finally be read as an aesthetic translation of the violent assault on spectatorship that has defined modern revolutionary thought since Robespierre famously announced to the National Convention, at the height of the Jacobin Terror, "anyone who trembles... is guilty."
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