- History in Postmodern Theater: Heiner Müller, Caryl Churchill, and Suzan-Lori Parks
A play is a blueprint of an event: a way of creating and rewriting history through the medium of literature.—Suzan-Lori Parks
History becomes a human history only to the extent that it involves the human, that it is accentuated by and refigured through human activity; thus goes the conclusion of Paul Ricoeur’s three-volume discussion of the ways in which the order of human temporality and the world of action get transformed into a narrative.1 In theater, one may extend this line of thought, history becomes “humanized” and “workable” by/in the very act of performance. The latter is always a “state of emergency,” the chronotopic point at which our personal and social being is excited, ex-centered, and sometimes, Bertolt Brecht hoped at least, brought to awareness of its historical condition. This refiguration of historical time into “human time,” or “time of initiative” happens even when the aims of a play are professedly apolitical, indeed even when a play is denied (by its author or its critics) its own status as a work of theater and/or work of history, as often happens in recent theatrical production.2
This article argues that the recent reassessments of history in postmodern theater address what is also the crucial tension-point in contemporary philosophy of history and historiography: the attempt to fuse the history of long-time spans and the history of events. Alongside the much-discussed exposure of the narrative character of history (cf., the important work of Michel Foucault, Hayden White, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Paul Veyne, and others), the ethical primacy of the history of long-time spans over the history of events has been the second major topic in the debates about history since the [End Page 446] 1950s. The latter debate was initiated by the proponents of “devaluation” of great historical events (most notably, the Annales School) who claimed that the hegemonic history of events deprived us of any notion of a time which was not the time of our, i.e. human, “making” and “record.” They proposed in its stead the concept of “long-time spans,” a conceptual framework which would allot discursive attention to a much broader field of natural history and implicitly recognize the multiplicity of differently embodied histories. Other thinkers, such as Paul Ricoeur, warned that a history of time-spans might sever historical time from the (human) understanding of the past, present, and future, thereby also precluding human initiative in time. Thus they argued for a revised, activist history of events, a continuously re-transcribed history which would account for our multiple temporalities and examine historical events—recorded and unrecorded—in their complexity. Surprisingly, the presence of this debate in postmodern drama and performance has remained largely unnoticed. I would argue, however, that this effort to think out the hyphens of the history of long-time spans and the history of events presents one of the major structuring themes in contemporary theater.
Postmodern theater approaches the revision of the concept of history through the questioning of teleological stories and linear patterns. Much in evidence in contemporary theater, the ruptures in dramatic linearity have made the multiple temporalities of theater performance conspicuous, but they have also elicited an awareness of the simultaneous existence of heterogeneous histories. What has been abandoned in these artistic attempts to recognize the multiplicity of differently “paced” global histories is W. F. Hegel’s very working site: the comprehension of the world history as a completed whole, as the “realization of the Spirit in history,” guaranteed by the agency of Reason.3 In fact, postmodern theater is interested in its very obverse: those for whom the great whole of history has proved to be a “great hole of history.”4 To advance this critique, postmodern theater texts compulsively, and frequently traumatically, invoke axial historical events and attendant historical gaps, probing the ways in which these re-inscribe identities; this summoning is performed through the re-enactments of the event or examinations of the event’s effects on the lives of the participants or their heirs. The experimental strategies most...