- Acts and Apparitions: Discourses on the Real in Performance Practice and Theory, 1990-2010 by Liz Tomlin
How can theatre be real when there’s no such thing as reality? How can performers communicate truthfully in an era when critics, scholars, and artists alike have rejected the concept of stable truths? And without agreed [End Page 284] upon ideas of reality and truth – in other words, in the aftermath of post-structuralism’s shattering insights – how can performance hope to advance a political agenda, or even to challenge spectators’ perceptions of the world around them?
These essential questions lie at the heart of Liz Tomlin’s insightful new study, Acts and Apparitions: Discourses on the Real in Performance Practice and Theory, 1990-2010, which investigates contemporary performance practices that question ideas of reality and truth. Both reality and truth, Tomlin argues, have long been central to politically radical philosophies – from Marxism’s promise to expose the truth of exploitation beneath capitalism’s illusions to Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum, concealing not a foundational reality but rather the lack thereof. Politically radical performance, then, must necessarily identify and confront the realities it hopes to affirm, expose, or undermine onstage.
But what constitutes radical theatre, Tomlin argues, is not as obvious as it may seem. Examining performance in the wake of landmark twentieth-century philosophers – particularly Derrida, Debord, and Baudrillard – Tomlin intervenes in what she views as a troubling scholarly discourse that too easily categorizes devised performance or postdramatic theatre as inherently radical, while viewing text-based theatre as conservative, no matter what political perspective it advances. She challenges readers to reconsider the “ideological binary” (12) that uses form as the criterion for dividing contemporary performance into the categories of radical and conservative, arguing that deconstructive performances and devised work are no less vulnerable to the trap of presenting apparently seamless realities than is conventional or naturalistic theatre. Just as important, Tomlin argues, the impulse to label increasing numbers of artists “postdramatic” has, in turn, distorted perceptions of the dramatic theatre, allowing a circumscribed notion of social realism to stand in for all text-driven theatre.
In pursuit of this double mandate – to examine radical performance in relation to the real and to undermine received distinctions between conservative and radical forms – Tomlin shapes each chapter around particular modes of radical dramaturgy that challenge notions of reality, authenticity, and truth. Her opening chapters establish historical and theoretical foundations for the contemporary artists under investigation, beginning with twentieth-century modernists’ visions for theatrical forms that could confront reality directly – particularly, the models proposed by Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud. For Brecht, fulfilling this mission meant tearing away capitalism’s illusions to reveal its exploitative truths, while Artaud envisioned replacing a fictive drama with a real theatrical event in the present. Tomlin goes on to trace a series of intellectual and scholarly interventions in questions of reality, authenticity, and radical performance, describing Richard Schechner’s foundational theorization of performance studies as a [End Page 285] discipline. Over decades of evolution, Tomlin suggests, too many scholars have accepted the premise that “performing” is inherently liminal and emancipatory, while sidestepping the insights of theorists, such as Jon McKenzie, who have argued that, to the contrary, performance can too often serve to further late capitalism’s inroads into everyday life.
The following four chapters examine the aesthetics and politics of reality in the works of specific contemporary artists (Tomlin’s analysis treats many UK-based companies and playwrights, such as Forced Entertainment and Howard Barker, but also extends to international artists such as Roland Schimmelpfennig and the Wooster Group – and her discussion is broad enough to apply usefully beyond her purview). In the chapter, “Quoting Quotations,” Tomlin employs Derridean insights and builds on Elinor Fuchs’s landmark study, The Death of Character, to discuss citational acting: the work of performers such as the Wooster Group, who frequently quote characters, rather than seeking to fully embody them, and thereby provoke questions about what character...