- The Real and Its Outliers
In preparation for reading Jenn Stephenson’s Performing Autobiography, I decided to engage in high-risk, twenty-first-century ways of knowing by asking my much-maligned friend Siri: “What is autobiography?” Siri responded with a yellowing image of a cover of the first English edition of Benjamin Franklin’s 1793 autobiography The Private Life of the Late Benjamin Franklin, LL.D. “originally written by Himself,” followed by an entry from her equally libeled buddy Wikipedia (as of 30 September 2014): “An autobiography is a written account of the life of a person written by that person.”1 Wikipedia subheadings for “Autobiography” include “Origin of the Term,” “Autobiography through the Ages,” “Nature of Autobiography,” and “Fictional Autobiography.” Under “Origin of the Term,” there are some factoids that may be partly or entirely wrong, but are nevertheless interesting. The word autobiography, Wikipedia says, was first used derogatorily as a “hybrid [End Page 135] term” (auto/biography?) in a 1797 issue of the English periodical Monthly Review. In 1809, the Romantic poet Robert Southey used the term in its present sense: writing based on the writer’s memory and thus closely related to memoir.
The Wikipedia entry also includes mention of autobiography being related to apologia, in the sense of self-justification. Of course, St. Augustine’s Confessions makes an appearance, as does Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s similarly titled Confession. Other luminary autobiographers mentioned in the Wikipedia entry via Siri include Charles Dickens, Henry Adams, John Stuart Mill, Cardinal John Henry Newman, and finally P. T. Barnum, a man after my own heart.
Today, life narratives and narratives taken from life are proliferating at an unprecedented pace. They help candidates get elected, feature on daytime television shows, are used in self-help groups and group therapy, are often employed as an element of actor training, and appear as a literary form. Digital technology is partly responsible both for the proliferation of new forms of autobiography and for the blurring of fiction and nonfiction, as print-based, private journals and diaries yield to virtual versions featuring prose and pictures on a variety of open data platforms, such as Twitter, blog sites, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and, yes, Wikipedia. Social media provide the opportunity for reimaging, rewriting, and reimagining in the form of mash-ups, wikis, folksonomies, and tag clouds. Former definitions of autobiography, as well as documentary, do not account for what is going on now.
The movement away from theatre about real events as a stable enactment of offstage worlds has generated new structures and styles, especially when media are employed. The lens of the authors is as much a part of the subject of the performance as the real-world stories that are told. This postmodernist turn toward complex, multivalent, and contradictory ways of seeing informs how we experience both reality and theatre and can include a critique of postmodernism itself. Some theatre of the real is connected, at least ideologically, to the historical avant-garde, while other takes the form of orthodox contemporary realism. The articulation of a defined and knowable truth in theatre of the real has given way to works like those of Rabih Mroué, which stage a radical uncertainty about understanding and the actual occurrence of events. The only consensus about the real is that the current fascination with it is in the context of abiding simulation and the similarities and differences between fiction and nonfiction in live performance.
Even as the field has shifted from assertions of stable and knowable truth, some artists and theorists continue to make claims for experiential testimony. There is a move to sort theatre of the real into a precise nomenclature of kind and type and to parse its appearance into historical...