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Theatrical Deconstructionists: The Social "Gests" of Peter Sellars's Ajax and Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach KURT LANCASTER Such contemporary directors as Peter Sellars and Robert Wilson are theatrical deconstructionists - postmodems whose work not only challenges conventionally staged dramas but also uncovers dominant social, cultural, and political ideologies. When analyzed closely, both of these directors - with widely contrasting production techniques - can be seen to use a mode of deconstruction stylistically and theoretically influenced by such early-twentieth-century modernists as Adolphe Appia (1862-1928), Vsevolod Meyerhold (18741940 ), and Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), people not associated with postmodernism or deconstruction. It could be argued, to some extent, that these modernist directors actually foreshadowed the practice of deconstruction as defined through today's theatrical postmodemism. Literary philosopher Roland Barthes (1915-1980), arguably one of the most influential postmodem theorists, presented his theory of semiotics as a way of deconstructing dominant ideologies, or mythologies. Before becoming what was to be known as a semiotician - one who deconstrucis ideological signs connoted' through texts - Barthes was a theatre critic. He observed Brecht's plays and was aware of his experiments in both playwriting and staging practices - activities that would foreshadow the postmodem theatrical deconstructionists of the later twentieth century and, to some extent, Barthes's own semiotic theories. Semiotician Marshall Blonsky, a student of Barthes, even contends that Barthes was "very much a Brechtian." Barthes argued that the role of the semiotician, the deconstructionist, is to challenge or "undo the signification of the myth." seeing it as an "imposture" - where the "meaning" of a "signifier" is not inherent in its fonn but a discrete identity that becomes distorted when a meaning is imposed on the form (128). This distortion, whereby an idea is used to manipulate an image, constitutes what Barihes calls mythology: "everything happens as if the picture naturally conjured up the concept, as if the signifier [the image] gave a foundation to Modern Drama, 43 (Fall 2000) 461 KURT LANCASTER the signified [the concept]" (I2~30). In Barthes's definition of mythology, the concept becomes the dominant ideology, which is born when specific ideas are used to manipulate images. For example, in the theatrical world at the beginning of the twentieth century, the dominant ideology of theatre maintained "slice of life" naturalism and realism, as promulgated most prominently by Stanislavsky. (This ideology still dominates most of Western theatre, as well as television and film.) Blonsky contends that to be "avant-garde is to say no to the natural, to denounce the arbitrariness of the sign." When such avantgarde directors as Appia, Meyerhold, and Brecht developed their own unique styles, experimenting with anti-Stanislavskian, non-realistic forms of production , they were challenging the "mythology" of theatre - the need for it to be grounded in realism. Brecht described realism as an "essentially static" form that, while showing the "world as it is," can communicate to an audience only "through its emotions " (79). He characterized conventional theatre as a form of "[wlitchcraft" producing "hypnosis," wherein the spectator "becomes a passive (suffering) part of the total work of art" (38). In challenging realism, Appia understood the importance of light in conveying the expression of atmosphere in a production : "Light is to production what music is to the score," he contends. I Meyerhold felt that the actor's body - expressed through a "pattern ofmovement ," not through words - was best suited to convey the meaning of playtexts : "The essence of human relationships is determined by gestures, poses, glances, and silences," Meyerhold writes. "Words alone cannot say everything " (56). Brecht wanted to uncover - deconstruct - dominant social and political forces (what Barthes would later refer to as mythologies) through "criticism, craftiness, irony, propaganda" - qualities comprising a production 's "social gest" (105). Through their practice, Appia, Meyerhold, and Brecht created a theatrical form of deconstruction that later theatre practitioners - such as Sellars and Wilson - would borrow. Both Sellars and Wilson resist naturalistic theatre, deconstructing conventional production styles as well as challenging what realism means in a postmodem age, reflecting not only postrnodem literary theory (as seen in the work of Barthes, among others) but also this theory's roots within the work of these modernist directors. Peter Sellars's quintessential...


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