- The Illuminated Theatre: Studies on the Suffering of Images by Joe Kelleher
What are we to make of a book that welcomes us with the words “For example”? These are the opening words of Joe Kelleher’s new book—surprisingly, his first full-length monograph, given his many contributions to the field. The reader joins Kelleher mid-sentence and is immediately folded into the description of an event (in this case, Rosemary Lee’s Melt Down ) without yet knowing of what this event is being held as an example. It’s a captivating opening, at once energized with the heady sensorium of this (or any) event’s liveness, and simultaneously provisional and tentative, qualified by Kelleher’s acknowledgement of his own subjectivity. And it’s also an opening that encapsulates the approach of the book as a whole: each chapter begins with a particular detail, joining the action as it is already under way, and somehow feeling a little bit late for it. Such a formal structure mirrors the temporal lag that Kelleher describes as characterizing his central subject, the theatrical image and its apprehension, which for Kelleher “may require the spectator [...] to work things out retrospectively, to replay the performance after the event” (4). This book, then, is a series of such replayings: “I remember, and, as I do so, I try to think through,” Kelleher writes (83).
These opening two words might also be read as a mini manifesto, for another way of describing this book would be to say that it is resolutely for example. That is to say, it takes meticulous care with the particular, the specific, in a way that refuses generalization: examples are taken not as exemplary nor as representative, but as distinctive specimens, their effect and efficacy totally bound up within the time and place of encounter as they meet the history and predilection of the spectator. From a small detail—the reference to a barking dog in a story Ernst Bloch tells Walter Benjamin (18–19), say, or the allusion to emperor and theatre maker Nero in the title of a production by Italian performance collective Kinkaleri (56–59)—Kelleher will draw an expanding spiral of connections, such that other theatrical encounters, ideas drawn from a wide range of fields of inquiry, and Kelleher’s own quirks of memory become equivalent interlocutors in a multilayered dramaturgy of thought. In his introduction, he describes this method in theatrical terms, in which each theoretical text will be introduced “like a character in a drama” (12); subsequent chapters are headed by what might be likened to a “cast list” that includes three or four performance works and literary or philosophical texts that will “appear” (so to speak) alongside each other.
At first impression, Kelleher’s performance examples are drawn from theatre’s margins—or places where theatre appears on the periphery of other fields of vision. By definition, UK artists Bock & Vincenzi’s Invisible Dances (2004–2006) withdrew itself from sight; and while Latvian director Alvis Hermanis has had several high-profile commissions for the Salzburg opera, his other projects with the New Riga Theatre require a more dedicated traveler to find them. In [End Page 158] other chapters, Kelleher explores Søren Kierkegaard’s sorry pseudonymous creation who, in Repetition (1843), tries and fails to recreate a previous experience of the theatre; and elsewhere, he takes inspiration from the fleeing witness in Nicolas Poussin’s painting Landscape with a Man Killed by a Snake (1648). Similarly, the critical and philosophical references are often taken from unlikely or unfashionable corners of thought. To be sure, there are familiar touchpoints for the field, but there are also deliberate acts of recovery that suggest we are not quite done with modernity (nor it with us): for example, there are recurring appearances by Gillian Rose and Paul Ricoeur, two great thinkers of late modernity. And considerations of the workings of the image are informed by ideas beyond theatre studies, such as the media theory of Vilém Flusser...