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The Impossible Takes a Little Time Herbert Blau This essay was originally prepared for a gathering of British and American playwrights, directors, and critics at the University of East Anglia in Norwich , England in July 1984. For the occasion, Herbert Blau was asked to assess the overall situation of the American theatre as he had done about twenty years before in the opening chapters of The Impossible Theater: A Manifesto. One of the more memorable passages, for me, of the book that made Eric Bentley an enfant terrible was the one in which he referred to a production of Rosmersholm at the Yale Drama School and said that when it was over the students talked about the lighting, costumes, directing, everything in fact but what was being lit, costumed, directed-"Ibsen's lines and Ibsen's meaning"-as if it didn't matter what the play meant. The students at Yale were by the end of the book just summing up the general scene. That was of course about forty years ago, a little before I started working in the theatre. Given the emergence of regional theatres in the fifties and the radical activism of the sixties, I suppose the meaning matters now somewhat more, although one is never quite sure in America where or how it matters, to whom, since it never seems to matter very long. Where it doesn't seem to matter at all-Ibsen's lines and Ibsen's meaning -it's not necessarily anymore because the playwright isn't a thinker, but because he is, and because the actor has become something of a thinker too, encouraged by Brecht and then Grotowski to confront a text 29 and if it goes against her conviction to change the lines and the meaning s/he doesn't like. Meanwhile, the thought of Ibsen and the major modernists has emptied itself into history like a seismic shock or the avalanche in his last play among the awakened dead. As Rilke saw, thinking of Ibsen, that avalanche was always there, running through the capillaries of the canonical text as if the avalanche were language itself. Where that ruptured consciousness exists, expelling meaning, the theatre often seems paradoxically more meaningful than it was before, shifting us through the arbitrariness of the signifier-as they now say-into a period of postBrechtian post-structuralist thought with its bricolage and deconstruction and, assuming the death of the author even when he's alive, the production of meaning by the perceiver and a preemptive view of performance. Certain of the authors, dead or alive, whose consciousness turned us almost inevitably to the performative dismantling of texts, want to do the preempting in precisely their own way. Brecht left behind his model books and Beckett directs his own plays like musical scores, with unyielding rigor. But as far back as his essay on Proust, not to mention the subversiveness of his texts, he was telling another story, like Brecht's Epic depredations upon the texts of older plays. It's been quite a while since we could insist on any theoretical grounds that the actor, who has become the living source of meaning's dissemination, its dispersal, be absolutely faithful to the text, line perfect, as I was taught to say, because the playwright is God and the director his surrogate in a world fixed by Cartesian coordinates in the recessions of a proscenium stage which is if you think about it-not like Eric Bentley but Roland Barthes-a model of repressive power and a sneaky theological space. It's even sneakier when the stage is presumably liberated into a thrust or in the round, reinscribing the logocentrism with the same old oedipal drama. But such theory is far from the thought of the American theatre, which has next to no theory at all. That's so despite a period in which the rehearsal, with its visions and revisions which a minute might reverse, became something more than a preliminary to performance, trying this trying that, sending out inquisitive feelers, then doing it again (what was it?), the emancipated site of meaning's interrogation and deferral, what Derrida calls a "pregnancy without birth...


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