PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 25.1 (2003) 111-118
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The Impossible Theorist
Three Recent Books by Herbert Blau
Nothing in Itself: Complexions of Fashion, Indiana University Press, 1999; Sails of the Herring Fleet: Essays on Beckett, Univer-sity of Michigan Press, 2000; The Dubious Spectacle: Extremities of Theater, 1976-2000, University of Minnesota Press, 2002.
"We must be hard-nosed about art."
—Herbert Blau, The Impossible Theater (1964)
Since the publication of The Impossible Theater, throughout the course of his variegated career, Herbert Blau has remained nothing if not a hard-nosed reader of culture. While to be "hard-nosed" may seem at odds with Blau's penchant for drawing out the elusive or the disappearing aspects of performance forms, such a potential paradox only points to the rich intricacy of his thought. Blau's work is positioned where the materiality of performance meets its inevitable vanishing point. From the interstices of this indeterminate space, he directs his diffuse prose in a dizzying number of directions while continually invoking and reworking his own particular preoccupations. Blau's work is prominent within performance studies, but he is a singular thinker who refuses easy answers or formulaic arguments, and more often than not brushes against the grain of prevailing modes of theorization. If performance is the optic through which cultural theorists increasingly read the world, Blau's work is a mote in that mindset's eye.
Blau wrote the words quoted above nearly 40 years ago in his "manifesto" on the moribund state of American theatre. Since that book and his work with the Actor's Workshop in San Francisco, where he tried to imagine a theatrical alternative to the tyranny of Broadway, through his experiments with the performance group KRAKEN as well as his turn to a career in academia, Blau has continually revisited and tweaked the basic sense of hope and rage that move The Impossible Theater, and in the process produced an oeuvre that is both central to and continually one step ahead of postmodern thinking about performance. His writing on the ontology and phenomenology of theatrical practice has gone from being a reference point among theorists of theatre and performance [End Page 111] to even being a subject of scholarly interest in and of itself.
While it's hard to deny we live in an age of scholarly over production, Blau makes a case for the virtues of being prolific. In the last 4 years, he has released three books, Nothing In Itself: Complexions of Fashion, Sails of the Herring Fleet: Essays on Beckett, and The Dubious Spectacle: Extremities of Theater, 1976-2000. The books' titles define their ostensible subjects as fashion, Samuel Beckett, and theatre, but there is considerably more going on in each, and a wide overlap between them. All three offer timely and stubbornly hard-nosed critical thinking about cultural manifestations of the "unnamable" in a world of appearances.
The Dubious Spectacle brings together 20 essays written since 1976, along with an original introduction. Blau's interests in these essays hover over the theatre, which as an idea and a practice is the starting or ending point for just about all of them. And yet to say the book is only about theatre would suggest that the collection is much narrower in scope than it really is. Theatre in The Dubious Spectacle is the thing that continually fans out and draws in, engaging a wide breadth of performance events and their full social context. This is perhaps indicated by the subtitle of the book, "Extremities of Theater," for throughout this collection, theatre is more than a Broadway proscenium, a black box space, or a SoHo loft. Blau's sense of theatre pushes boundaries, and is at varying moments a commercial institution, a confused academic discipline, a site for cultural debate about government and the arts, a mode of political action and frustration, and a life commitment that both enables and exhausts creative energy.
Along these lines, The Dubious Spectacle contains essays that consider the theatre in...