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  • The “Intercultural” Work of Lee Breuer 1
  • Iris L. Smith (bio)

The American theater has never found a way to integrate its avant-garde artists into the larger world of theater the way Europe did, by giving them a place in their major institutions after they’ve proved their worth, nor even the way that the film, literary, and art establishments/industries have done here. In theater, the avant-garde spirit is made perpetual outcast.

— Bonnie Marranca

French cultural theorists and American theatre critics may rarely agree, but on the cultural position of the avant-garde, editor and critic Bonnie Marranca might be paraphrasing Pierre Bourdieu. Marranca sees contemporary American avant-garde theatre as economically dominated (“made perpetual outcast”) but symbolically dominant (“they’ve proved their worth”), a distinction Bourdieu draws for the nineteenth-century avant-garde in his essay “The Field of Cultural Production.” In the United States, the contemporary “avant-garde” includes artists who came to maturity in the 1960s and 1970s, often working in theatre collectives or in collaboration with artists from diverse media; familiar names include Richard Foreman, Maria Irene Fornes, Philip Glass, Megan Terry, Meredith Monk, Jean-Claude van Itallie, The Wooster Group, Elizabeth Swados, Yvonne Rainer, and Mabou Mines. This avant-garde is largely white, often but not always straight, female as often as male, and mature, both in age and artistic experience. Now part of an established avant-garde, if such an oxymoron can be entertained, the group continues to struggle financially, despite recognition as artists who have long since arrived. Had they come to maturity in Europe rather than the US, as Marranca notes, they might have been running major theatres, as Heiner Müller did the Berliner Ensemble. Some of these artists, not comfortable being considered avant-garde, have tried to dispense with the ghettoizing label. Others would argue that the term has not applied since the 1950s, when accommodation with mass culture began to mark the work of avant-garde artists, and public response to the work shifted from anger to acceptance. In other words, the artist cannot be avant-garde when the public refuses to be shocked by what s/he produces. While artists like Sam Shepard, Spalding Gray, and Philip Glass have embraced (not without irony) their acceptance in the mainstream—on Broadway, at Lincoln Center, or in Hollywood—for most of them a confrontational stance toward the status quo in theatre, dance, and music remains characteristic of their work. [End Page 37]

A number of artists, among them playwright and director Lee Breuer, have turned to interculturalism to redefine “American theatre,” modifying avant-garde strategies of confrontation to address their own continuing marginality in the United States. Despite widespread recognition for productions with Mabou Mines, of which he is a founding member, and for independent work as varied as Lulu and Gospel at Colonus, Lee Breuer remains unaffiliated with any regional or commercial theatre. His outsider position, added to his knowledge of the theatre and funding worlds, makes him a useful commentator on the current status of the so-called “established” avant-garde. While theorists of intercultural performance have written off these artists as cultural imperialists, Breuer uses his position to stage genealogies of cultural stereotype. Unable to reverse or erase these stereotypes, Breuer plays them to the hilt. As his work has evolved, its tendency to allow stereotype to stifle the experience of cultural difference has been replaced with a reading of social and ethnic difference through discourses that have informed interculturalism, most prominently discourses of gender.

In his 1991 article “The Two-Handed Gun: Reflections on Power, Culture, Lambs, Hyenas, and Government Support for the Arts,” Breuer outlines the situation of the contemporary American artist. As a young writer, Breuer felt that the artist was solely defined by his aesthetics—“Give me a metaphor or give me death” (89)—but he now sees the cultural context shaping that attitude as American, Calvinist, capitalist. While art was removed to an elitist, privileged realm, the artist was situated as capitalist. If not as useful a commodity as a toaster, the product could at least be assigned to “high” culture, a safe realm in the doxology of bourgeois...

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