- Theatre, Sacrifice, Ritual: Exploring Forms of Political Theatre
In 1963, Erika Fischer-Lichte witnessed theatrical history when Gustav Gründgens gave his last, unofficial performance of Prince Hamlet in Hamburg. In her Auto / Archive for the October 2005 issue of Theatre Journal, she describes Gründgens as "a lifelong tightrope-walker and gambler . . ., aware that at each and every moment death might happen" (560). While Gründgens performed his balancing act onstage, Fischer-Lichte has accomplished a similar acrobatic performance in her critical efforts to reshape the field of theatre studies. By shifting focus from the dramatic text to an embodied semiotics of the theatre, her work has broadened the field to considerations of cultural performance. In her wide-ranging History of European Drama and Theatre (1990 / 2002) she clarifies this distinction by defining drama as dealing with individual identity. Performance speaks a different language, an idea that she develops in The Semiotics of Theater (1983 / 1992) by refocusing on the interrelationships between spectators and performers in the event. The dialogue between bodies in space replaces the textual dialogue of the play. Theatre, Sacrifice, Ritual explores the political impact these complex relationships have.
Fischer-Lichte's new book traces the departure of twentieth-century theatre practices from questions of individual identity to the body's political potential. Divided into three parts and spanning Max Reinhardt's Theatre of the Five Thousand, Nazi Thingspiel, and 1960s performance art, Fischer-Lichte offers an erudite reading of both theatrical and political spectacle as instances of sacrifice in search of utopian communities. Each of the performance sites she investigates has performers and audience enter into a new affective relationship and discover reorganized performance spaces. The passive spectator, furnished previously with Lessing's empathic bond to the protagonist, makes way for an audience of participants in the spectacle.
Initially, Fischer-Lichte develops this ritual aspect of performance by using Max Reinhardt's Oedipus Rex to trace the decreasing importance of textual meaning in the theatre. This shift allows the spectator to experience "the vital force of the performer and, at the same time, . . . his own vital force" (63). Reinhardt's use of the actors' bodies in space creates an act of transformation rather than imitation. The theatre creates the liminal experience of a ritual passageway for the individual to enter the social group; it enacts the sacrifice of individuality for the community. By sacrificing their identity, the [End Page 372] actors become bodies, transferring their vital force onto the audience.
What is only a temporary aesthetic community in the case of Reinhardt's theatre gains political poignancy with the mass spectacles of the interwar period, also the most fascinating part of Fischer-Lichte's comparative analysis. She radically challenges our understanding of cultural divides and alliances by linking the following co-existing interwar theatres: the Soviet mass spectacles in the early period of the communist revolution; the Nazi Thingspiel, heavily promoted by the party until the mid-1930s; and the 1930s–1940s Zionist pageants that emerged in the United States. Strikingly, her argument stresses their shared aesthetic dimension in performance over the diametrically opposed political contexts. The triangle of ritual, politics, and theatre emerges most clearly in Fischer-Lichte's discussion of the 1919 Soviet production of The Overthrow of Autocracy. Here, the community that comes into being in performance reenacts revolutionary events. The boundary between stage and auditorium collapses; the audience is called on to participate and add their experience to the performance. Sacrifice here means the self-sacrifice of the individual spectators in the name of a "self-organizing and self-organized" (105) community that lies outside of hierarchical structures.
Most important is this last characteristic that extends to all mass spectacles discussed: "[O]ne could argue that the performance is brought forth by and made forceful due to a self-referential and ever-changing auto-poietic feedback-loop" (111). This auto-poietic feature lies in the ungovernable interrelationship between spectators and performers. Based in participation, the mass spectacles do not lend themselves to political manipulation...