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Waiting for Foucault New Theatre Theory GeraldRabkin A DECADE AGO, I complained in the pages of this journal ("The Play of Misreading," PAJ 19) that "there has been profound unrest in the larger critical world . . . to which American theatre criticism was largely immune." I was noting the enormous critical energy released into the discursive worlds of literature, film, fine arts, and philosophy by the influence of new European-largely French--theoretical speculation. In a proliferation of new books and journals, traditional humanist and formalist axioms were being challenged and destabilized. Far from undermining criticism, this ferment was empowering because it breached the hitherto firm boundary between art and its interpretation and awarded the critic an equal role in the production of artistic meaning. Theatre discourse (and by discourse I mean the reciprocalcommunication of ideas within a prescribed field), on the other hand, had atrophied. The seventies were a highly productive decade in American experimental theatre, but, by and large, the vocabulary of its critical interpretation was inadequate. Even "advanced" critics usually succumbed to the dominant consumer-reporting journalist model, issuing absolutist edicts proclaiming aesthetic success and failure. I observed, however, that there were signs that the new critical speculation was bearing theatrical fruit: the American publication of European semiological studies such as Elam's The Semiotics of Theatre and Dramaand Pavis's Languages of the Stage, and the emergence of the radical deconstructive voice of Herbert Blau in Blooded Thought and Take Up the Bodies (both 1982). Hopefully, I suggested, there would be a burgeoning of new critical strategies and models to 90 better elucidate contemporary experimental theatre praxis and the general questions of theatre representation it raised. Given the acceleration of post-structuralist influence in the other arts, this took longer than one might think. Intelligent theatre critics such as Richard Gilman, Robert Brustein, and Martin Esslin proved highly resistant to the new ideas. As late as 1986, for example, Esslin, in reviewing PAJs 10th Anniversary issue in American Theatre, complained that "too many pieces . . . approach their subject on an esoterically 'high' level of 'theory.'" Esslin grudging admitted that such thinkers as Derrida, Barthes, and Lacan had made "a valuable contribution to the debate about meaning and the relationship between the writer and his [sic] reader," but he cautioned that, all in all, the new critical "game is without issue or end." Recently, however, this reticence has been overcome. Since the late 1980s the theoretical trickle in theatre studies has turned into, if not a torrent, a steady stream of new critical investigations in journals such as this one, Theatre, and Theatre Journal,and in an array of new books published by American university presses and, to a lesser extent, British houses long hospitable to new theory. From Iowa: The Performance of Powerand Interpretingthe TheatricalPast;from Indiana: Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism, Theatre Semiotics, and Stages of Terror; from Michigan: PerformingDrama/Dramatizing Performance,The FeministSpectatoras Critic,andFeministTheoriesforDramaticCriticism;from Johns Hopkins: PerformingFeminismsand The Audience; from Routledge: Feminism and Theatre. This far from exhaustive list is of books that focus specifically upon theatre as a discrete field of investigation. But since experimental art has eroded the boundaries between forms and genres, studies which subsume theatre under the broader aegis of "performance" greatly widen the available theoretical pool. Hence such books as PA's Interculturalism and Performance, Chicago's The Object of Performance, and the many cross-disciplinary investigations of the social and aesthetic consequences of the enabling (if ambiguous) concept of postmodernism. Clearly, the days of theoretical impoverishment in theatre studies have finally ended. Much of the impulse for change derives from the rise within theatre studies of those with an activist feminist agenda to whom it became increasingly evident that theatre's double text-both verbal and corporealwas particularly needful of new scrutiny. For feminism affirms that patriarchy works as much through modes of discourse and imagery as through legal subordination. Criticism is not, then, a marginal political enterprise; it is fundamental to revealing both the inscriptions of domination and, more positively, the subversive power of women to disrupt their confiscation and erasure (in Greek, Elizabethan, and much Asian performance, 91 an erasure that has been literalized). More on this later; my...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1537-9477
Print ISSN
1520-281X
Pages
pp. 90-101
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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