The postmodern swoon
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The Postmodern Swoon
The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater after Modernism. Elinor Fuchs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

In The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater After Modernism, Elinor Fuchs has produced an engaging, synoptic user-friendly guide to the vertiginous movement of modernist drama into what the author calls postmodern “desubstantiation.” The book opens with a critic’s conversion experience. Having fallen into a “postmodern swoon” during a production of Des MacAnuff’s Leave It to Beaver is Dead in 1979, because the play vehemently refused even minimal theatrical expectations of character and plot, Fuchs’s study recounts, through elegantly rendered readings, analyses, and anecdote how twentieth-century theatre got itself, and consequently, her, into that unsettling and critically poignant condition. A long-time reviewer for the New York alternative press (Soho News, The Village Voice) and, more recently, American Theatre, as well as a university professor, schooled in critical formalism and passionately addicted to live theatre as an art form and as a telling barometer of cultural trends, Fuchs brings the best traits of her reviewing to The Death of Character. That is, she works to account fully for the blips, scratches, silences, and even the static that hundreds of powerful theatre encounters have produced on her perceptual screen. It is that phenomenological encounter that distinguishes this study, the lifts and turns of deeply felt impressions that produce thoughtful observations and suggestive juxtapositions which are, in turn, carved into precise formulations, destined to carry us effortlessly and pleasurably toward a thematic point.

The overarching thematic point is of course the death of humanist conceptions of character, which Fuchs traces to Nietzsche’s proto-deconstructive rejection of German Romantic devotion to “inwardness.” From this, she argues, three “tendencies” emerge: first, the “modernist mysterium” (individual character replaced by allegorical patterning, from the symbolists to Strindberg to Beckett); second, a Brechtian tendency (with its postmodern inversion into culinary excess which Fuchs calls “theater as shopping”) and third—and most persuasively [End Page 111] —“theatricalism,” this century’s “favored dramatic mode to express the relative and multiple nature of self-identity.”

Postmodernism at the end of her critical story turns out to be what Blau, Debord, Baudrillard and Deleuze, despite Fuchs caveats about the latter two, have been telling us it is, and which Fuchs expresses as “that moment in culture when the last ontological defenses crumble into theater.” If Fuchs’s overall mapping contains few surprises, the “death of character” offers a credible vantage point from which to view the changes in dramatic form. It also serves the author as a window onto, generally speaking, cultural trends. Indeed, in the introductory chapter Fuchs reinstates delicately but firmly the theatrum mundi metaphor, borrowing Bruce Wilshire’s happy figure of “standing in”: the actor stands in for character, the spectator stands in for “the community”; and changes in the representation of character on the western stage stand in “symptomatically” for “change[s] in the larger culture concerning the perception of self and the relations of self and world.”

There are advantages to this approach. Fuchs is free to pick her symptoms and she is adroit at doing so (about which more in a moment). She is also free to place theatre at the center of discussion where, as she and many of us know, it rarely is, and ought to be. On the other hand, this disarmingly mimetic approach allows her to breeze by some contentious issues. No critical anxiety here about mediating between aesthetic practice and social-political realities. Tellingly, Fuchs expresses puzzlement about the critical projects of Jonathan Dollimore and Francis Barker, British cultural materialists who, in the mid-1980s, “denature[d]” Shakespeare by refusing to read the latter under the rubric of “psychological depth.” For these critics, inheritors of the same methods that influenced American cultural and performance studies, drama may cut a vivid swath through a given ideological-historical nexus but its significance emerges only through a careful exfoliation of that nexus. Implicitly or explicitly, in many of the discussions here, Derridean deconstruction “stands in” for Fuchs’s cultural nexus, the author casting herself as the reader’s sensitive stand-in, confronting a nihilistic if...