- British Avant-Garde Theatre by Claire Warden
Claire Warden’s most welcome addition to the history of British alternative theatre closes with a discussion of modern documentary theatre and the [End Page 272] expressionist aspects of writings by Sarah Kane and Howard Barker that show the lingering influence of a “distinctly British, distinctly theatrical” strand of avant-gardism from the early twentieth century (4). In particular, the expressionist aesthetic vocabulary and social commentary noted by Michael Billing-ton in Simon McBurney’s 2010 production of A Dog’s Heart (a Russian opera based on the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov) allows Warden to return to The Dog Beneath the Skin, a 1936 collaboration between Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden performed by London’s Group Theatre, which receives close analysis at the start of her study and becomes a touchstone in subsequent chapters. Both plays concern a human being who comes to see the world through a dog’s perspective and therefore must consider radical social change. These shows represent a theatrical modality that for Warden distills the central avant-garde quest to promote both political and aesthetic change.
Joint Stock Theatre Company performed Howard Barker’s fragmented tragedy The Power of the Dog: Moments in History and Anti-History, which is set in Stalinist Russia and whose title also invites a comparison with Bulgakov’s anti-Stalinist satire, in 1984. Warden’s frame for her study resolutely sidesteps looking at aesthetically and politically pointed work in this range of the century’s chronology—the period she covers runs from 1914 to 1956—but the heart of her discussion runs from T. S. Eliot’s Sweeny Agonistes (1934) and Auden’s The Dance of Death (1935) to Ewan MacColl’s Uranium 235 (1946). Her concern with the status of the category of historical avant-garde work today motivates her final thoughts, but her real goal lies in analyzing a specific body of work from the Group, the Worker’s Theatre Movement, the Theatre Union, and Theatre Workshop in order to narrate a trajectory made invisible by a lack of models about a British avant-garde sensibility in theatre to parallel the work done along those lines in regard to poetry, the visual arts, and music (6).
Overall, her tight focus serves her as she navigates distinctions between literary modernism and a theatrical avant-garde and faces down the awful and ill-informed commonplace (see, for example, Christopher Innes’s Modern British Drama: The Twentieth Century) that the British theatre saw no avant-garde movement. The depth of Warden’s documentation about specific shows and the relationship of her case studies to her theoretical framework about performance-based histories bear fruit, especially in her demonstration of dialogues between local theatre scenes and innovations overseas. This is an excellent piece of scholarship—confident, detailed, and bold. The only losses attributable to this model concern two issues: the porousness between events of the 1920s and the 1930s and Warden’s vocabulary for analyzing the avant-garde sensibilities, acknowledged or unacknowledged, of work across the 1970s and [End Page 273] 1980s, as with Joint Stock mentioned previously. Warden’s attentiveness to the impossibility of hard boundaries around ongoing aesthetic dialogues is strong, but in her second chapter, her focus consigns events and artists of the teens and 1920s, like Edward Gordon Craig or Adolph Appia, to the status of antecedents in a way that feels disjunctive from their ongoing influence.
In tune with contemporary historiographical models that are as concerned with rupture as they are with continuity, Warden favors the idea of rhizomatic relationships of events in which links and fractured genealogies emerge and diverge. Her chapters run not by chronologies or themes but by categories of performance elements. In exploring the characteristics of British avant-garde theatre, she first considers approaches to dramatic structure. Here, she pulls apart the issues of plot and naturalism that usually drive dramatic categories and focuses on techniques of fragmentation. She connects ideas about naturalism to Brechtian, episodic structures and draws attention to a British trajectory of epic or...