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Reviewed by:
  • Postdramatic Theatre
  • Elinor Fuchs (bio)
Postdramatic Theatre by Hans-Thies Lehmann. Translated by Karen Jürs-Munby. London: Routledge, 2006; 214 pp. $43.95 paper.

Published in German in 1999, and becoming almost at once an essential critical text in Europe, Hans-Thies Lehmann's Postdramatic Theatre lost its first English translator and was published in English only in 2006.1 In part because of this delay (but only in part), for the English language reader the book by now has the peculiar fate of being both prophetic and behind the times. One doesn't even have to read the book to adopt its central term. As anyone familiar with contemporary theatre practice in Europe and the United States can attest, "postdramatic theatre" does work that "total theatre," "alternative theatre," "theatre of images," "landscape theatre," "neo-avantgarde," and all the "posts"—post-narrative, -humanist, and -modern, for instance—have never quite succeeded in accomplishing. If that weren't enough, the book stirs a certain awe for its Hegelian inspiration and sweep, coming at a time when such audacious totalizing had long been crushed into deconstructive rubble.

Dramatic theatre, described by Lehmann in the past tense "was the formation of illusion."

It wanted to construct a fictive cosmos [...] the principle that what we perceive in the theatre can be referred to a "world," i.e., to a totality. Wholeness, illusion and world representation are inherent in the model "drama" [...]. Dramatic theatre ends when these elements are no longer the regulating principle but merely one possible variant of theatrical art."


As the imaginary dramatic universe shrinks, Lehmann later observes, attention shifts to the real theatrical situation: "Proceeding from [the] well-known duality of all theatre," which simultaneously turns to itself in intra-scenic absorption, and out to the theatron in relation to the spectator, "postdramatic theatre has drawn the conclusion that it has to be possible in principle to make the first dimension almost disappear in order to reinforce the second dimension and to raise it to a new quality of theatre" (127).

Lehmann's leap of insight reorganizes the theatrical enterprise of the entire 20th century. He reads the first half of the century as an extended preparation: Maeterlinck, Stein, Witkiewicz, Brecht, the Absurd, even the documentary theatre of the 1960s—all yield clues to the postdramatic to come. And conversely, from the perspective of the postdramatic, Lehmann reverses once-common knowledge and reinserts once-radical movements and writers back into the [End Page 178] dramatic tradition, for instance Brecht: "What Brecht achieved can no longer be understood one-sidedly as a revolutionary counter-design to tradition. [...I]t becomes increasingly apparent that [...] the theory of epic theatre constituted a renewal and completion of classical dramaturgy" (33).

With a single term, Lehmann re-creates three or more generations of theatrical outliers as a movement. Virtually every contemporary theatre artist and group of international note is here identified as a practitioner of the postdramatic: Americans Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, Lee Breuer, Elizabeth LeCompte and the Wooster Group; Canadian Robert Lepage; Belgians Jan Fabre and Jan Lauwers's NeedCompany; the Dutch Toneelgezelschap Dood Pard and Theater Antigone; the British Gob Squad and Forced Entertainment; the Polish Tadeusz Kantor; the Spanish LaFura del Baus; the Austrians Peter Handke and Elfriede Jelinek; the Italian Romeo Castellucci; and the Germans—almost everyone from Heiner Müller on.

The heart of the book is a 66-page section, "Panorama of Postdramatic Theatre," assembling many of the performance traits of postdramatic theatre in a series of short, titled parts, such as "Play with the density of signs" (89), "Plethora" (90), and "Irruption of the real" (99). This section demonstrates the range of postdramatic theatre by showing that it can contain all moods and modes—hieratic and profane, hermetic and popular, abstract and concretely physical. In the semiotic terms favored by the German critical tradition, Lehmann levels the traditional hierarchy of theatrical signs and at the same time multiplies sign systems. On occasion the section seems to risk self-contradiction. For instance, one must read closely to understand that while postdramatic performance gives "preference to presence over representation" (109), it also dismantles "the classical theatre ideology...


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pp. 178-183
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