- Postdramatic Theatre
Hans-Thies Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre articulates a new language to critique, teach, and practice theatre. Lehmann argues that contemporary performance continues to move from an Aristotelian dramaturgy toward a more heterogeneous practice that ruptures and relinquishes “the idea of theatre as a representation of a fictive cosmos” (31). However, the conceptual framework through which these contemporary (“postdramatic”) performances can be read by a wide audience does not yet exist; instead, we approach these performances through a lens molded to Aristotelian directives, resulting in manifold misreadings by audiences, scholars, and critics. Appearing seven years after the ground-breaking German publication of Lehmann’s book, Karen Jürs-Munby’s excellent English translation is in many ways long overdue. The absence of a broadly accepted critical language to analyze contemporary performance has stymied the ability of US educators and scholars to adequately articulate the changing theatrical landscapes of our world and communicate them clearly to our students. Lehmann’s paradigm of postdramatic theatre demands a reconsideration of how we teach and practice theatre. Rather than an analysis of “theatre” as primarily a text-based representation (“drama”), Lehmann forges a new language to analyze postdramatic theatre as a multimedia, immanently de-structured processional event that is “more presence than representation” (85). This challenges all of us to question how our teaching and writing can address those contemporary practices of theatre that are nonrepresentational and no longer comprehensible through the critical language of either Aristotle or Brecht.
Through a historical reevaluation, working within the discourse of theatre aesthetics, Lehmann charts a genealogy of postdramatic theatre, examining “[t]he historical drifting apart of text and theatre” (46). In his second chapter, “Prehistories,” Lehmann locates the path away from “dramatic theatre” (a text-dominated, mimetic practice) in post-Hegelian, late-nineteenth-century Europe, finding pre-postdramatic practices in artists and movements one might expect to be cited: Gertrude Stein, the avant-garde, and twentieth-century experimentations in art and performance (17). It is much the same lineage that scholars trace in a discussion of performance art. However, Lehmann argues that this is not simply an alternate path taken in the face of dominant bourgeois practices, but rather that these artists and movements emerge from an essential tension within the Aristotelian-derived theatre form itself—a form that, as he extrapolates from Hegel in his first chapter, “Drama,” contains its own demise. For Lehmann, the irreconcilable tension in drama—which Hegel located between immaterial, universal thought and the material, particular body—must necessarily implode, dissolving from within the paradigm of the “dramatic.” Contemporary theatre is not, in Lehmann’s argument, an aberration that needs to fit into the terms of drama, but, instead, drama must be recognized as a paradigm of limited and now exhausted range.
While Lehmann provides a complexly theorized and provocative argument for this new paradigm, he is less successful in giving us an equally nuanced language of that paradigm; one often feels immersed in endless lists of postdramatic performance qualifications. For instance, in the chapter titled “Panorama of Postdramatic Theatre,” Lehmann gives four “postdramatic theatrical signs,” eleven characteristic traits of “postdramatic theatre,” and twelve examples substantiating and elaborating on these traits and signs (82). While one can appreciate the precise terms he offers for analysis, his extensive categorization of postdramatic elements is often overwhelming. In the end, his resulting construct has the potential to function as coercively as the terms of dramatic theatre to limit rather than expand how we perceive, define, and critique contemporary theatre. Lehmann does, however, provide a helpful framework with which to critique and theorize performance that is not textually driven. For example, his notion of “visual dramaturgy” dispels the hierarchy of the text by facilitating rigorous analysis of the visual image in performance.
In the chapter titled “Performance,” Lehmann parses out the differences between postdramatic theatre and performance art, leading to a more general theorization of performance. His final point, that postdramatic theatre centers on the presence of the performer and the ephemeral moment of communication...