- The Aesthetics of the Ephemeral: Memory Theaters in Contemporary Barcelona by Jennifer Duprey
Jennifer Duprey, Barcelona, Catalonia, Ephemeral, Theater, Memory, Josep Maria Benet i Jornet, Sergi Belbel, Jordi Coca, Carles Batlle, Jameson, Francoism, Immigration, Edgar Illas
When Sharon Feldman published In the Eye of the Storm: Theater in Contemporary Barcelona, in 2009, we thought that we had the definitive study of contemporary Catalan theater. Feldman’s study is still conclusive in many ways. Jennifer Duprey’s superb The Aesthetics of the Ephemeral, however, undertakes the complementary task of approaching some of the same prominent Catalan playwrights to reflect further on four theoretical and political questions: “the production of ruins in contemporary cities, the violence and the precariousness of justice and life in war and post-war predicaments, the complexities of immigration processes in a globalized world, and the continuation or destruction of intellectual legacies in our present” (2).
Duprey approaches theater “as a material praxis or as a thinking topology” (xvii) where ideas and history can appear, albeit in an ephemeral form. Her study on Catalan plays written between 1996 and 2004 articulates two central concepts. On the one hand, she adopts the notion of “memory theaters” from Italian philosopher Giulio Camillo to conceive theatrical performances and texts as visual symbolizations of the present and the past. Through their textual and performative manifestations, memory theaters materialize time in space, and make visible, or at least offer a fleeting glimpse at the concealed structures of historical reality. On the other hand, Duprey adopts Christine Buci-Glucksmann’s notion of “the aesthetics of the ephemeral.” Rather than understanding the ephemeral as a melancholic lament of the futility of human life or the uneventfulness of history, Duprey argues that in the Catalan plays that she studies, the ephemeral is a “modality of time,” which “leads to renewal, transformation, and hope” (11). The ephemeral, in other words, is a form of political engagement with both the past and the future, with both memory and action.
The political aspect of the aesthetics of the ephemeral becomes thematized as a search for the utopian content of the plays. Following Jameson, who proposes to make the totality of history appear “in what must inevitably be an ephemeral apparition or glimpse” (xvii), so as to detect the utopian possibilities contained in cultural artifacts and social conjunctures, Duprey’s analysis of the plays puts [End Page 325] forward four forms of utopian thinking. These forms pursue “[t]he end of the processes of gentrification, the possibility of another form of justice that does not stem from the reification of law and its rule, an understanding of immigration qualitatively different from the present one, and the possibility of the existence—within their continuous transformations—of cultural and intellectual legacies” (xii).
After a first chapter with a helpful historical overview of modern Catalan theater, chapter 2, “Ruins, Loss, Rebirth,” examines Josep Maria Benet i Jornet’s Olors and the question of ruins in the commodified landscapes of post-Olympic Barcelona. The play recovers through the text, and also through the use of photography on the stage, the memories of the old neighborhood of El Raval. Instead of limiting her analysis to the common assumption that ruins are traces of the past of a city whose memory is being erased, Duprey takes a more productive path in search of the “transformative potential” (78) of the spectator’s gaze over the ruins and the reclaiming of “one’s political space” (79).
Chapter 3, “Tragedy, Violence, Justice,” discusses Jordi Coca’s contemporary version of Antígona, which Duprey reads as an allegory of the inherited Francoist past and the obliteration of the vanquished of the war and the dictatorship. Rather than focusing on Antigone’s civil disobedience, Duprey emphasizes her crossing of the city’s walls and the search for justice, the justice of memory, beyond the spaces or nomoi of the law. Again, Duprey highlights the constructive rather than the melancholic effects of this search. Antígona compels Catalan and Spanish citizens to properly bury the bodies...