- The Community and Homo CriticusPerformance in the Age of Neoliberalism
The concept of theatrical performance and its relation to the communities in which it occurs has engendered a rich literature, from Aristotle’s identification of catharsis as a primary result of performance in the fourth century BC all the way up to our own time. More recently, the centrality of anthropology to the discipline of performance studies since the 1960s has engaged this relationship highly critically, calling into question the very definition of community itself. Is the audience that gathers for a performance the only (intentional) community affected by the performative act, or does that act have an additional impact on the surrounding (in part unintentional) community in which it occurs? Is the individual consciousness subsumed in some greater collective consciousness, if such a thing even exists? Does the performance place these different consciousnesses in conflict or seek a middle ground of accommodation?
Undoubtedly theatre and performance have been affected, if not afflicted, by the increasing marginalization of such performances in an electronic and digital age that values wider distribution and more passive access through screens rather than a confrontation of one human body with others in a specific place at a specific time. Not to mention, of course, that the success of neoliberalism as a twenty-first-century ideology—valuing a free marketplace and quantifying the “success” or “failure” of a given work of art through its ability to attract disposable dollars and euros—has placed more experimental, less “accessible” work at a considerable remove from visibility. It has become common to define the crises of geopolitical states like Israel as “existential” in the sense that their continuing existence is by no means assured, and performance itself is sometimes pessimistically conceived as facing the same kind of “existential” crisis. Whether this doom-saying is valid may well [End Page 126] depend on one’s own perspective (or mood when one rolls out of bed in the morning), but the fact is that this very doom-saying may have led to a new, perhaps more desperate attempt to reify the necessity of performance to the ongoing health of whatever community may be in question.
Two new books from distinguished academics whose portfolios include criticism of contemporary performance face this existential crisis head-on, contributing to the ongoing debate about performance and community. Both take advantage of recent studies on community by writers such as Agamben and Rancière. That they find the value of performance outside of traditional theatre spaces places them quite centrally in the anthropological tradition of performance studies. While neither author is a doom-sayer, this orientation is indicative of the extension of performance studies outside the realm of intentional performance itself, especially in the view of Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism, and Love by Nicholas Ridout, a reader in theatre and performance studies in the Department of Drama, Queen Mary, University of London, which takes what might be called a neo-materialistic approach to the art and the work of performance.
Community is at the center of Ridout’s book, and so is communism, befitting an examination of theatre within the spheres of work, education, and leisure. Each of its chapters offers a post-Marxist reading of a text, not all of them limited to the four walls of the theatre. Ridout’s study of Uncle Vanya examines the role of the rising professional class in pre-Revolutionary Russia, a class that included Stanislavsky, as Chekhov submits the ideas of work and time to intense scrutiny in both the narrative and the structure of the play. Later chapters extend these themes to a variety of cultures and works: Asja Lacis and Walter Benjamin’s attempts to found a “Proletarian Childrens’ Theater” in 1930s Germany; Jean-Luc Godard’s consideration of the Maoist revolutionary model in his 1967 film La chinoise (a year before the events of Paris 1968); and the Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s four-hour...