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Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 449-465

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Manifesto = Theatre

Martin Puchner


In his "Ontological-Hysteric Manifesto I" (1972), Richard Foreman evokes the equation between theatre and manifesto without however committing to their identity. Both terms, manifesto and theatre, refer to the act of making visible: "manifesto" is derived from the Latin verb manifestare, which means "to bring into the open, to make manifest" and "theatre" from the Greek theatron, "a place of seeing." But this kinship, this alliance in visibility, does not justify something as absolute and categorical as a mathematical equation. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Foreman deploys the formula manifesto = theatre hesitantly or rather, he takes its three components (manifesto, =, theatre) and reassembles them in a more open-ended fashion [Fig. 1]: 1


When reconfigured this way, manifesto and theatre are not said to be same, and they cannot, as a simple equation would have it, be transformed effortlessly into each other. Instead, they are placed in a parallel relation, each equipped with its own equation sign.

Our eyes move to the right side of Foreman's page, looking for what manifesto and theatre might be equated to; we find three more equations: "life = move towards"; "Art = suspension"; "Our craft = how suspend in place, make 'em rise." The proliferation of equations is not the only difficulty we encounter in reading Foreman's manifesto, for it is written in two modes: printed matter (letters and mathematical signs) and hand-markings. There are arrows, underlinings, drawings of people and houses, and a graphic chart. These drawings set the background or scene for the printed words; they also comment on the words, reinforcing and questioning their meaning. An unsteadily drawn line, for example, separates the "Manifesto = / Theater =" formula from the three equations on the right. And while the manifesto begins with a reflection on the manifesto and its relation to the theatre, it concludes, like a play, with the words "The End." As this putative manifesto progresses, the boundaries between manifesto and theatre become increasingly porous, so that some of the sketchily drawn scenes that appear amidst the text are labeled "manifesto," [End Page 449] while the more straight-forward manifesto parts are called "theater." It is as if this unusual manifesto sought to make visible and manifest through its own structure the fact that theatre and manifesto are firmly entangled in each other, if not mathematically the same. [End Page 450]

In order to understand what is at stake in this entanglement between manifesto and theatre it is necessary to consider both components separately. I will therefore first examine the history of the manifesto, with an emphasis on the manifesto's particular form of performativity, before engaging in an analysis of its interaction with the theatre.

I. The Performativity of the Manifesto

The manifesto is one of the least understood and at the same time most important inventions of what is now called the historical avant-garde. Its morphology includes such features as numbered theses; denunciations of the past; an aggressive attitude toward the audience; a collective authorship; exaggerated, shrill declarations; varied, often bold, letters; and a mass distribution in newspapers, on bill-boards, and as flyers. These features characterize the avant-garde manifesto from Marinetti to the seventies and beyond, spanning what one might call the era of the manifesto. The manifesto becomes the primary instrument through which the different avant-garde movements present themselves and compete with one another. No movement, it seems, can do without a manifesto; the result is a veritable manifesto-war that leads to ever more extreme proclamations and attention-mongering rhetoric.

Most important, however, is the temporality of the manifesto, its construction of a history of rupture. As a political genre, the manifesto had been geared toward a revolution, a cut in the historical process, an act that attempts to change suddenly the course of history. The avant-garde manifesto adapts this desire for a revolutionary event and imports it into the sphere of art. Futurism breaks with Symbolism; Vorticism breaks with Futurism; Dadaism breaks with everything that came before; Surrealism breaks with Dadaism; Situationism breaks...


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