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Presence and the Revenge of Writing Re-thinking Theatre After Derrida Elinor Fuchs Since the Renaissance, Drama has traditionally been the form of writing that strives to create the illusion that it is composed of spontaneous speech, a form of writing that paradoxically seems to assert the claim of speech to be a direct conduit to Being. That the dramatic text is realized only as spontaneous speech (and all that accompanies speech: cadence, emphasis , gesture) is institutionalized in its teaching, English and Theatre going separate academic roads, Theatre and Speech traditionally joining forces. This scarcely requires comment, but makes all the more striking the emergence of writing-as subject, activity, and artifact-at the center of theatrical performance in numerous recent plays and performance pieces. Writing, which has traditionally retired behind the apparent presence of performance , is openly declaring itself the environment in which dramatic structure is situated. The price of this emergence, or perhaps its aim, is the undermining of theatrical Presence. The notion of theatrical Presence has two fundamental components: the unique self-completion of the world of the spectacle, and the circle of heightened awareness flowing from actor to spectator and back that sustains the world. (The magnetism that a particular performer may exude, what we mean when we say a performer has "presence," is included in this definition.) The physico-spiritual "aura" of theatrical Presence, to use Benjamin 's term,' may always have been an effect of theatre, but became an absolute value only as recently as the late sixties and early seventies, perhaps 163 because its loss was already sighted. In this period both practitioners and theorists became passionate advocates of Presence, and nowhere more enthusiastically than in the United States. In The Theatre Event, published in 1980, Timothy Wiles discusses the case for theatrical presence made by artists of this period who worked under the influence of Artaud or Grotowski or both. The new theorist-practitioners, he says, "posit both theatre's temporal orientation and its affectivity in the present, in its 'presence.' "2In The Actor's Freedom, published a few years earlier, Michael Goldman extols Presence as the unique informing attribute of all theatre. In the theatre, he writes, "we find a present beyond the limitations of the present, a selfhood beyond the limits of self ... We identify with actors because the self longs for clarification, because it longs to possess the present and possess itself in the present, in a way that ordinary space, time and selfhood do not allow." 3 The exalted goal served by the actor was nothing less than the recuperation of full Reality. As Julian Beck put it in a poignant quotation from Eric Gutkind, "God is absent because we are absent ."'4 The Presence cultivated by such theatre practitioners as the Becks, Richard Schechner, Joseph Chaikin, and Peter Brook (and Meredith Monk, while younger, could be included as a transitional figure) was staked on the revelations of the self and a corresponding suspicion of the text. To the positive value assigned to improvisation, audience participation, myth, ritual, and communion they opposed a view of the author's script as a politically oppressive intruder, demanding submission to author-ity. The speech that bubbled up from the inner depths was more trustworthy than the alien written word, and many of them experimented with efforts to slip the constricting knot of language altogether. The desire was to come closer and closer to a center of human experience through a self-exploration of such intensity that it redefined the self. "I have reached into my entrails and strewn them about the stage in the form of questions," writes Beck.5 Though Wiles states that the "movement" he describes "is far from over," the idealization of Presence in the theatre and theory of the sixties and seventies, was almost a rear-guard action. Beginning in the early seventies, a new generation of theatre artists was challenging the absolute value of the "Presence of the Actor" (the title of Joseph Chaikin's book published in 1972). In 1975 Mabou Mines first brought before a New York theatre audience the triple bill of Beckett stagings the group had previously performed only in museums. Instead...


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pp. 163-173
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