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The Theatricality of the Van-Guard Ideology and Contemporary American Theatre Timothy Murray "Politics, the life of the people in its collective manifestations, the City-as tragedy, satire, celebration, farce-is not only what theatre is about but its chief glory." Richard Schechner wrote these reflections about the political essence of theatre in his essay lamenting the loss of such politics in contemporary American performance. Schechner's view is that the apolitical nature of the "formalist" and "privatized" work of Foreman, Breuer, Wilson and others has resulted in the stalemate of a politicized avant-garde theatre. Reminiscent of Peter Burger's argument in The Theory of the AvantGarde (Minneapolis, 1984), this interpretation of the new wave experimental theatre maintains that today's formalist artistic practices divorce theatre from any avant-gardist confrontational stance with the goal of returning art to the praxis of social life. What remains of the avant-garde can be recognized by Schechner only in the dramatic images of its decline and fall in the American theatre. For lively responses to Schechner's pronouncement of the death of the American avant-garde we need but turn to the pages of PAJ [issues 15 and 16] where this obituary first appeared. Although some respondents dispute the validity of the death certificate of the avant-garde, little attention has been given to Schechner's emphasis on the political role of post-sixties American theatre. Nor have we read any detailed analyses of how Schechner 's essay exemplifies our tendency to believe in the avant-garde as a privileged artistic forum of political praxis. It is my opinion that the social import of this death certificate will remain hazy without further reflection 93 on the alliance or lack thereof of politics and art in the guise of the avantgarde . In a re-markable passage in For Marx (London, 1977), Louis Althusser provides the frame for the following remarks on ideology, the avant-garde, and performance in contemporary American theatre. In a footnote to his chapter on "The 'Piccolo Teatro,' " Althusser writes that "in the theatrical world, as in the aesthetic world more generally, ideology is always in essence the site of a competition and a struggle in which the sound and fury of humanity's political and social struggles [are] sharply echoed." Althusser asks us to acknowledge the fact that politics and art always share the site of social struggle. As such, any aesthetic production, regardless of its formalism or personalism, occurs within a naturally psycho/political realm. By citing Althusser in contrast to Schechner, I wish to initiate a discussion of how this psycho/political realm-representation-is marked, italicized, framed, and presented with special rhetorical force in current American experimental theatre work. I maintain that the echoes of sound and fury fill the theatre spaces occupied by the Foremans, the Wilsons, and the Akalaitis's. Together with the recent Barakas and Kennedys, these theatre makers lay bare the ideological formations of the avant-garde's charged interest in the function of the formalist apparatus as representational device and even image . But to clarify the political foundations of these performances of the dead avant-garde, we first need to question the ideological investment of the avant-garde as it shares the terrains of contemporary theatre and politics. To some degree, all contemporary American theatre work is inscribed in the ideology of avant-gardism. This is especially pertinent in terms of Nicos Hadjinicolaou's discussion of this ideology's alignment with capitalism, and its five points of aesthetic investment, which he published in Praxis (1982) as "On the Ideology of Avant-Gardism": 1) a linear conception of history; 2) some indication of historical determinism: change will occur as a historical necessity-thus the theatrical apparatus is in "forward drive"; 3) the move forward is progressive, representing an evolutionist/revolutionist conception of history; 4) novelty is the criterion for aesthetic evaluation : the work of art is produced to surpass the present; 5) forward movement , like the military corollary of the forward lines, can only be performed and read by a trained elite. Enframed by these codes, the ideology of avantgardism finds itself bound in a complicated kind of hegemonic and Hegelian...


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pp. 93-99
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