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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 336-338

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Contours of the Theatrical Avant-Garde: Performance and Textuality. Edited by James M. Harding. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000; pp. 301. $60.00 cloth, $24.95 paper.

As James Harding points out in his introduction to Contours of the Theatrical Avant-Garde, academic study of the avant-garde has been to many artists antithetical to avant-garde aims, identity, and politics, which for the most part have been anti-institutional. [End Page 336] "[T]he looming question for scholars of the avant-garde," Harding states, "becomes how to avoid metaphorically and/or literally reinscribing avant-garde performance into its textual and institutional antinomies" (4). It is arguable whether academic reinscription can be avoided totally, but in the structuring of his book Harding blunts the marks made by critical constructs and succeeds in providing a sense of contours, as promised in his title.

The eleven articles and one interview comprising the book offer a variety of viewpoints from which avant-garde performance is analyzed. Most people will browse this book, or zero in on specific articles; however, for those who read it from cover to cover, the cumulative effect of the anthology is akin to that of a cubist painting. As the book's editor, Harding has accepted pieces that sometimes contradict one another, or coexist jarringly—disarranging or displacing subjects under discussion. The book as a whole resembles the uneasily faceted features of a Picasso portrait. But this is not a complaint. Not only are readers made aware of the multiplicity of avant-garde thought and theatrical movements, but the distortion and complexity of critical discussion about the avant-garde, in a sense, is made experiential.

The essays are arranged in four sections. In the first of these, "Text and Antitext in the Historical Avant-Garde," the avant-garde's redefining of text and performance is examined, particularly in its rejection of and opposition to established literary and dramatic authority and authorship. Laurence Senelick's "Text and Violence: Performance Practices of the Modernist Avant-Garde" deserves to become a must for early modernism/avant-garde reading. With superb attention to detail, Senelick discusses how a rejection of textuality dynamited meaning into the context of performative experience, radically restructuring the roles of author and audience member. In "Antonin Artaud and the Authority of Text, Spectacle, and Performance," David Graver places Artaud's work in the context of modernist experimentation in the theatre while giving a cogent explanation of Artaud's ideal of liberating performance. The Theatre of Cruelty becomes a springboard to the post-WWII avant-garde (the focal period of the bulk of the essays in Contours of the Theatrical Avant-Garde) in Christopher Innes's "Text/Pre-Text/Pretext: The Language of Avant-Garde Experiment." Innes describes the search of performance groups in the 1960s for an innovative, universal theatrical language that might expose and stimulate the raw nerves of primal experience desired by Artaud.

"Theorizing Antitext and Beyond," the second section of the book, involves the inescapability of textuality in performance. Erika Fischer-Lichte, in "The Avant-Garde and the Semiotics of the Antitextual Gesture," sees in many early twentieth-century theatre directors' experiments, not a rejection of text, but a redefinition of it as a creation "constantly in flux" (93). Patrice Pavis answers his question, "Which Theories for Which Mise-en-Scènes?," by offering a "theoretical oxymoron" modeled on music. In "Fluxus Art-Amusement: The Music of the Future?" Philip Auslander examines 1960s music performances wherein "events from daily life" were "textualized . . . and given added meaning by their relations to the scores" (122). "'Mais je dis le chaos positif': Leaky Texts, Parasited Performances, and Maxwellian Academons" is a conceptually exciting essay in which Michael Vanden Heuvel presents thermodynamics as a structural metaphor for modernist "relations between textuality and performativity" (136). Increasingly, arts historians are discovering illuminating parallels between contemporaneous scientific/mathemetical models of thought and creative or historical frameworks; however, cross-disciplinary discussions sometimes require clarifying technical explanations, and Vanden Heuvel assumes a familiarity with entropy theory...


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