- Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure: Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, Elevator Repair Service
It can be very difficult to write about postmodern performance. Sara Jane Bailes, in her book Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure, argues that just as attempts to comprehend or analyze such productions can miss the mark, such shows themselves are often constructed around the very idea that theatrical representation is always imperfect, and the possibility that failure can be intentionally productive. Bailes begins with Beckett, who sparked her interest in avant-garde theatre and who she sees as the father of such performance theatre; she argues that he sees failure as “a constituent feature of the existential condition that makes expression possible” (1) and thus allows audiences to question expected outcomes. Looking to J. L. Austin’s concept of infelicitious or misapplied, badly executed acts, Bailes argues that performance, because it is predicated upon liveness and impermanence, at times exists in a constant state of failure. She goes on to suggest that contemporary theatre groups such as Sheffield-based Forced Entertainment (founded 1984), Chicago-based Goat Island (1987–2009), and New York-based Elevator Repair Service (founded 1991) have used and constructed failure as an integral part of their performances.
In the second chapter, “World(s) After a Different Image: Marxism, Slapstick, Punk,” Bailes examines some of the many theoretical concepts she uses to underpin her studies of the aforementioned theatre groups. Marxism, she argues, calls for alternatives to rich, polished professionalism—a centerpiece of Brecht’s epic theatre. Bailes defines slapstick—that long-time performance staple—as the failure of a [End Page 246] seemingly simple task that is nevertheless bungled optimistically. Bailes connects this theatrical style to the history and aesthetics of punk, the musical movement that expressed the disillusionment that followed the 1960s and opposed itself to harmony, virtuosity, and material success.
The following chapters each examine one company’s work in detail. In “Profane Illumination: Theatre and Forced Entertainment,” Bailes examines a company that often plays with ideas of coercion and the apparent requirement that theatre entertain its audience. She discusses how the company members “refus[e] to demonstrate their own skill” (108) in shows such as Club of No Regrets (1993), in which the use of an inept narrator reveals the inadequacy of theatrical conventions. Bailes also explores the company’s politics, juxtaposing Forced Entertainment’s avant-garde drama with Thatcher’s conservative vision for Britain. The author notes that the company has faced significant resistance from conservative forces; based in the former mining town of Sheffield, Forced Entertainment has become an artistic lightning rod for class tensions in the U.K.
The fourth chapter, “News from Nowhere: Goat Island Performance Group,” also examines a politically motivated performance group. Starting with a discussion of Ernst Bloch’s conceptions of “openness and non-fixity . . . hope and possibility” (116), Bailes examines a company that created shows that consist of a “non-hierarchical inventory” (136) of characters, images, and actions latticed around a particular social theme. Goat Island’s shows were often based around the theme of a particular social trauma, such as the suicide of Paul Celan (When will the September roses bloom? Last night was only a comedy ), and contained long sequences of “impossible dances” in which the company members dramatized their production process. Through her analysis of Goat Island, Bailes argues that failure is both necessitated by the theatrical form, and also simultaneously oxymoronic and impossible in the theatre, since whatever happens onstage in front of the audience indeed happens, imperfect as it may be.
In her final chapter, “Dislocations of Practice: Elevator Repair Service,” Bailes examines this company’s “made work . . . created from disparate ideas, sources, and formal ideas” (168), situating their work within a somewhat broader discussion of New York’s “downtown” theatrical scene. Instead of discussing any of the company’s more famous later works such as Gatz (2006), Bailes focuses on Elevator Repair Service’s earlier works, Cab Legs (1997...