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  • Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure: Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, Elevator Repair Service
  • Ira S. Murfin
Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure: Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, Elevator Repair Service. By Sara Jane Bailes. London: Routledge, 2010; pp. 256.

Beginning with Samuel Beckett's admonishment to "fail better" (qtd. on 1), Sara Jane Bailes tracks failure as a performance strategy that makes visible the limitations of aesthetic expression, while exploiting the indeterminacy of its potential outcomes. As Bailes explains in her introduction (chapter 1), she is interested in failure as an element of composition and a possibility of performance, but the self-conscious strategy of failing to meet conventions of representational coherence is what most animates her project. For her, failure can be a productive means of resisting the status quo.

Outlining a Marxist framework of analysis in her second chapter, Bailes suggests that failure can be understood as a way of envisioning alternatives to political repression and enforced homogeneity. She argues that this vision is especially possible in the theatre, where a breakdown, or failure, of an operable aesthetic may be encountered or even orchestrated. Such failure makes visible the possibility of a future measurably different from the past. Bailes takes slapstick comedy and punk aesthetics as examples of performances in which failure can be productive, arguing that slapstick accommodates failure as a radical disruption, a liberatory, illogical rupture in narrative and representational expectations. Such anarchic moments transform everyday failure into ephemeral, even utopian poetry (for example, in Buster Keaton's choreography). But if slapstick transcends failure for Bailes, she finds that punk employs failure deliberately to invert the aesthetic values that reinforce normative behavior, whether economic or sexual. Bailes sees punk's rejection of virtuosity, coherence, and beauty in favor of an aesthetics of the "bad" as a means to resist commodification and control. In chapters 3 through 5, she proceeds to examine the work of three self-aware, postdramatic performance theatre companies founded between the mid-1980s and early '90s for whom the deliberate use of failure functions to question the limits and value of representation.

In her first case study, of Forced Entertainment from Sheffield, England, Bailes sees failure employed through what she terms a deliberate "radical amateurism" (94). As its name suggests, the company adopts an approach that emphasizes the artificiality of theatrical representation and the uncomfortable, even dangerous risk that its liveness entails. As an example of such risk, she cites the staged kidnappings that frequently interrupt their productions, and the aggressive, panicked confrontations with the audience that follow, situating them within the context of the conservative Thatcher government of the 1980s and the economically depressed mining region where Forced Entertainment works. Refusing narrative closure, spectatorial distance, and even artistic skill, Forced Entertainment "insists . . . on displaying theatre's apparent incompetence" to construct itself as a seamless whole (95). In the aftermath of a performance's inevitable breakdown, performer and spectator alike must "make do" (106) with the precarious though potentially liberating chaos that comprises the provisional circumstances of the "amateur" theatrical experience gone wrong. [End Page 675]

Bailes sees failure at work quite differently in the productions of Chicago's Goat Island Performance Group, whose embrace of the "impossible" transcends the chaos of failure by valuing accident and inadequacy equally with intentionality and virtuosity. In its performances, each action is executed with measured precision and consistent attention, no matter its feasibility or source. A mistake or shortcoming is incorporated and rehearsed "as is" rather than being "corrected," while physically and conceptually impossible tasks (for example, standing still on one leg or translating a building into a dance) continue until they falter and collapse. These interruptions, when an action fails or breaks off and another begins, structure the composition of a Goat Island performance. The endurance and adaptation that its impossible tasks require also model coping strategies for a world where atrocity and disaster incongruously coexist with wonder and bliss. Bailes describes Goat Island's use of failure as articulating a utopian hope by demonstrating "how performance both does what it does, and how it does what it isn't able to do as the example of another way of doing" (111...


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