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Odd, Anonymous Needs: The Audience in a Dramatized Society Herbert Blau This is the first part of a two-part essay. The second half will appear in PAJ 28. "No audience. No echo. That's part of one's death," wrote Virginia Woolf in her diary at the start of World War II. She was working on Between the Acts, in which the audience-"orts, scraps and fragments like ourselves"-is brutally and equivocally mirrored in its dispersion. Her dread over "this disparition of an echo" is a conspicuous deepening of one of the major anxieties in the history of modernism, extending into the indeterminacies of the postmodern. If the audience is not altogether an absence, it is by no means a reliable presence. When there is, today, the semblance of a gathered public, it is usually looked at askance by the most seminal practitioners in the theatre, as it was by Brecht and Artaud, and by social and critical theorists. Such an audience seems like the merest facsimile of remembered community paying its respects not so much to the stillechoing signals of a common set of values but to the better-forgotten remains of the most exhausted illusions. There are times, it seems, when the only signal to be heard is a residual friction of self-reflection in the orts and fragments-the bricolage of specular consciousness-which is the echo of Narcissus. "For we never knew, never knew what joined us together," writes John Ashbery at the start of the seventies, on the selvedge of a solipsism which soon became the scene. "Perhaps only a congealing of closeness, deserving of no special notice." What we do notice, however, through the closeness in the congealing is a thinning out of the public sphere. This is not at all surprising, though it may seem ironic, in a world supersaturated with information and, mirror upon 199 mirror mirrored, totalizing itself as theatre. Entranced by image, we are emptied into theatre. Only the stage has been dismantled and its characters dispossessed. Once looking for an author, they are now looking for a text which has grown indifferent to character in the dissemination of the plot. With an autonomy of its own, performance spreads by deconstruction not only from theatre to other disciplines, but across the binaries of art and life, picking up momentum from critical theory-obsessed as it is within the "overflows, leaks, shifts, slips" and eroticized staging of dispersion itself which cancels aesthetic distance. As we may gather from the image-repertoire of Barthes by Barthes, spectacle seems to have become, with the body as irreducible difference, "the universal category in whose aspect the world is seen." There is, in this suffusion of theatre coeval with urban sprawl, not only a confusion of genres but a demoralization of roles. When we think of the scale of awareness required to live consciously in this world, we're not entirely sure, in the illusory passage of current events, whether we are spectators or participants. It is a confusion out of which we tried to make theatre in the sixties and early seventies, as experimental groups lined up on the side of participants who-after the whole world which was watching grew tired of the scene-receded into reluctance and the present abeyance of the political. It's probably just as well that a certain pragmatic impatience , as well as the unconscious vigilance of habit, wards off like an overdose the incessant sense of our performing. If there are times when we are particularly conscious of the theatricalization of everyday life, we can also be as adept at disguising the traces as if we were Method actors. There is also the need in a state of emergency to be there for someone without playing around with identity. What's in a name? You want to believe then it's precisely the one called for. The theatre itself has worried over the years that making too much of theatricality may be something of an intellectual vice, as in Jacobean drama. Yet the rhetoric of theatre is also by now habitual, the curtain always falling upon the dream of a common language whose pure transparency...


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pp. 199-212
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