- Dramaturgy of Sound in the Avant-Garde and Postdramatic Theatre by Mladen Ovadija
Despite its title, this historically dense and superbly researched book is not about dramaturgy per se, as the term applies to the principles of dramatic construction, but rather about the radical transformations sonic experimentation wrought on modernist and postmodern theatrical performance. Drawing a line of descent from a rather narrowly conceptualized “historical avant-garde” (futurism, both Russian and Italian; Dada; and Bauhaus) to contemporary performance (in which Robert Wilsons looms eminently), Mladen Ovadija draws on his own experience as a radio producer to investigate how sound has come to be a formative element, “an oral/aural semiosis,” of text in performance.
In the theatre historical context, this book makes a compelling argument that modernist experimenters transformed sound as text and environment much as a previous generation—notably Adolphe Appia and Gordon Crag—had done with stage lighting. Sound, we are reminded, is “an independent, simultaneously concrete and abstract element of theatre” that comprises vocal utterance, music, and noise, the latter a pervasive consequence of industrial modernity. A wider conception of the avantgarde might examine how human sound in performance meets and integrates the sounds of the non-human world. This is one of the deep issues in R. Murray Shafer’s vast Patria cycle, with its immersive operatic performances in forests and on lakes. It was Shafer who introduced the term soundscape in 1964—a term much used in this book, although Shafer himself receives only one glancing mention.
Ovadija finds his way through his immense topic—immense because it deals with the entire historical experience of theatre in the twentieth century—by focusing on close examinations of key moments and figures [End Page 450] in the historical avant-garde as it blossomed across the metropolitan art capitals London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, and Moscow (the author has little to say about New York). Familiar figures cross the stage: Hugo Ball, Kurt Schwitters, Wassily Kandinsky, Filippo Marinetti, and Oskar Kokoschka are all here, but a strength of the book is the attention it pays to artistic revolutionaries who are less known today. Lucid analyses of Russian zaum poetry, Dadaist sound poetry, and futurist cabaret bring to life an art movement that still has the power to shock, as this reviewer discovered when showing a video of The Triadic Ballet to a class of undergraduate theatre students.
The author’s primary goal is to theorize formative moments that released sound from its containment as an aural illustration in the theatre to become an element of insurrection, disruption, and, ultimately, reformation. He is less concerned with historical and political contexts, and says little about the impact of the commercialization of sound as an industrial commodity. Artistic visionaries who sought to wrestle performance into modernity by liberating its sonic capacity had no less revolutionary counterparts in figures such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.
The examination of sound in contemporary “postdramatic” theatre is somewhat cursory, although the book makes a persuasive case for a genealogical line from the European avant-garde to today’s polysemic avant-garde performance. A consideration of the impact of modernist sonic revolutionaries on contemporary dramatic theatre might expand our understanding of Samuel Beckett’s disintegrating language, Harold Pinter’s creeping silences, and—iconically—Mother Courage’s silent scream, a sound seen but not heard.