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“A maid to the dead and living poets”: this, according to Lothar Schreyer, was the condition of feminized artistic servitude to which the European theater had descended by the first decades of the twentieth century.1 Schreyer’s name may be unfamiliar even to those acquainted with the German expressionist circles in which he worked, despite the fact that Walter Gropius appointed him to teach theater arts at the Weimar Bauhaus.2 However, his complaint that the modern stage had been unjustly subjugated by tyrannical, text-wielding playwrights will be known to anyone conversant with early twentieth-century theater theory and practice.3 As early as 1901, Georg Fuchs had protested that European drama had become too literary; in 1909, the title page of his Die Revolution des Theaters announced his campaign to “RETHEATRICALIZE THE THEATER!” by renouncing novelistic naturalist plays and poetic closet dramas and exploiting the material resources specific to the stage.4 In that same decade, Edward Gordon Craig gained international notoriety with his own essays, in which he called for the “art of the theatre” to liberate itself from literary domination by reducing or eliminating the words penned by dramatists.5 F. T. Marinetti and his fellow Italian Futurists were even less polite to playwrights. Their manifestos denounced the “prolix” modern drama, which they argued “highlight[ed] the inner life, erudite cogitations, libraries, museums, boring struggles with conscience, and the stupid analyses of feelings.”6 It was, of course, Antonin Artaud who devised the period’s most pungent insult for the playwrights he believed had oppressed the stage by flooding it with scripted dialogue: “human snakes.”7 [End Page 407]

For Schreyer and many in the theatricalist avant-gardes, the word “literary” served as a capacious term of condemnation, an all-purpose slur they directed at plays, directors, and productions afflicted with a number of distinct but related ills: an excessive reliance on spoken dialogue to achieve dramatic effects; a corresponding suppression of the mise-en-scène; a novelistic concern with individual psychology; an extreme deference to authorial texts; and an individualized, intellectualized, and disembodied mode of audience reception. Although these directors and performers proposed different remedies at different points, each remedy conditioned by different national and regional traditions, they generally agreed on the disease they believed was crippling the modern theater. Drama’s double life in print and performance has always been a source of theoretical and practical tension, but it was not until the first decades of the twentieth century that so many artists and theorists espoused anti-literary sentiments in such revolutionary terms.8 The sense of crisis apparent in their demands reveals the extent of modern theater’s media problem—a problem with deep historical roots, but one that acquired a new urgency after the turn of the century. Theater’s inherent media-mixing had vexed theorists since Aristotle, but this heterogeneity posed a particular (and productive) challenge for modernism in both its emergent and developed phases.9 Indeed, for the strand of modernist aesthetic theory and practice most invested in medium specificity, theater didn’t just have a problem; theater was the problem.10 That discourse itself emerged in response to the volatility of a media ecology experiencing a rapid population increase. Among the new media developed and commercialized during this period was one uniquely threatening to theater: film. Even as avant-gardists like Vsevolod Meyerhold hailed the arrival of film and saw in early cinema’s techniques and modes of audience address a model for a modernized and revitalized theater, others like Craig, Artaud, and Schreyer recoiled from the new medium, which seemed fully capable of swallowing drama whole.11 Partly in response to this threat, the theatricalist avant-gardes conducted an acute inquiry into what distinguished stage performance in the era of the “photoplay.” In so doing, they mobilized a discourse that valorized to an unprecedented degree the effect that critic Philip Auslander would later term “liveness.”12 A substantial portion of the early-twentieth-century avant-gardes and their inheritors in Europe and the U.S. attempted to rescue theater by recasting it...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6601
Print ISSN
1071-6068
Pages
pp. 407-428
Launched on MUSE
2014-06-23
Open Access
No
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