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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 301-302

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Book Review

Reading the Contemporary Stage

Postmodern/Drama: Reading the Contemporary Stage. By Stephen Watt. Theater: Theory/Text/Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998; pp. 220. $42.50 cloth.

The title of Stephen Watt's book may be somewhat misleading to those who miss the slash between the words "postmodern" and "drama." The book is not so much about postmodern drama as about the tension between those terms. Watt explores this tension through various definitions and issues, in his introduction and the first three chapters. Not until chapter four does he provide a substantial reading of certain plays, defining Harold Pinter's The Homecoming as modernist with its depth of character psychology, in contrast to Pinter's No Man's Land as more postmodern with surface characters and horizontal narratives (95). The next two chapters briefly mention the work of various playwrights, regarding the influence of postmodern mass media. But chapter five focuses primarily on Jean Baudrillard's Marxist theories and Robert Altman's film, The Player, in relation to plays by Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Arthur Kopit, and David Rabe. In chapter six many more playwrights are mentioned, as influenced by television images, yet Rabe's plays and Karen Finley's performance art are the only stage dramas analyzed for more than a page or two. (Samuel Beckett is considered at length in chapter three, but more for his novels than his drama.) Thus, Watt's subtitle might also mislead, if his readers expect a fuller reading of the drama on the contemporary stage.

Watt does offer important insights on the "problematics" of the phrase "postmodern drama." [End Page 301] As a name for our contemporary stage, in the historical sense, Watt finds the combination of the two words oxymoronic at best (2). He eventually announces the "failure of the term postmodern drama" (25) and claims that it should be "abandoned as a largely empty intellectual marker" (39). The main reason he gives is that postmodernism challenges the privileging of play and playwright as sacred text and Author-God in earlier historical periods (34-35), and undermines the "essential difference" of drama from other forms of literature and art (Esslin, quoted in Watt 4). True, I would say, but this is not a reason to abandon the term as a failure. It shows, instead, the paradoxical value of the ph(r)ase, especially since the performance of drama, both scripted and improvised, from theatre to film, television, and the Internet, has become even more prevalent in the postmodern. The emphasis on film and television in Watt's last two chapters helps to illustrate this--although he never re(ad)dresses the "F" grade for the phrase.

In his introduction Watt also criticizes the "fetishistic desire" of academic consumers, hungry for any book with "postmodern" in the title (29). This might be taken as hypocritical, given the title of Watt's own book (or, in a postmodern sense, as reflectively self-critical). In fact, Watt has recently co-authored another book, with Cary Nelson, entitled Academic Keywords: A Devil's Dictionary for Higher Education (Routledge, 1999), which attacks the political complacency of academics regarding their own institutions. Parts of Watt's Postmodern/Drama bear a similar caustic irony. But the better parts raise significant issues for scholars who apply postmodern theory to current drama, while also showing the values of such an approach, regarding both stage and screen.

Despite the fetishizing of the term "postmodern" and the problematics of the phrase "postmodern drama," Watt still laments the lack of consideration for contemporary drama among postmodern theorists. He places himself on the side of Deborah Geis, as one of the few exceptions to this trend which is exemplified not only by cultural theorists like Fredric Jameson, Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard (16-17), but also by performance scholars Peggy Phelan and Johannes Birringer who give scant attention to dramatic scripts (30). While focusing partly on drama, though, Watt likewise turns toward "intertextual" readings that include novels, other art forms, and current...


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