- Essential RupturesHerbert Blau’s Power of Mind
From the 1950s until today, some six years after his death, Herbert Blau has been regarded as one of the United States’ most significant theatre intellectuals. That rare combination of theorist, educator, and artist, his career spanned more than six decades, twelve books, three performance companies, numerous distinguished academic appointments, and countless students and collaborators. As a stage director, he introduced American audiences to Samuel Beckett, Bertolt Brecht, and Jean Genet. His San Francisco Actor’s Workshop production of Waiting for Godot, at San Quentin State Prison, launched him to widespread attention by appearing prominently in the introduction to Martin Esslin’s Theatre of the Absurd. During the 1960s, he called for a desublimated future free from state repressive violence: the marriage of socialism and surrealism. He denounced the commercial American theatre and proposed its decentralization in his influential book The Impossible Theatre. Later, as co-artistic director (with Jules Irving) of the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre, he stuck his finger in the eye of New York’s banker class with a production of Danton’s Death, tailor-made to outrage his patrons. Drummed out of town, he founded innovative training programs at CalArts and Oberlin and nurtured the careers of Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, and María Irene Fornés, to name just three. When European poststructuralism arrived in North America during the 1970s, it entered theatre (and later performance) studies largely through Blau’s intervention. It risks understatement to say that his life was one of enormous creative fecundity.
The 2018 volume, The Very Thought of Herbert Blau, edited by Clark Lunberry and Joseph Roach, provides an excellent introduction for readers unfamiliar with Blau’s work and serves as a Festschrift for those already better acquainted. It features contributions from leading American scholars and theatre artists in the form of personal reflections, critical analyses, poems, correspondence, and wide-ranging dialogues, including a reprinted 1992 PAJ interview. Together, these inclusions shed light on a thinker whose work actively reshaped debates [End Page 1] in the field of contemporary performance in ways that continue to reverberate. As Elin Diamond writes in her essay on Blau, noting his vast field of interests, “Meditations on appearance, repetition, bodily texts, temporality, history, and the illusory and elusive workings of power are central to Blau’s theatre theory,” as are “modernism, Shakespeare, psychoanalysis, the politics of the left, [and] deconstruction.” To these, I would only add two abiding meta-questions that concerned Blau persistently. The first had to do with what Blau called “the future of illusion” (borrowing a phrase from Freud), and by this he meant both the future of theatre as such and the future relationships between ideology and performance beginning to be glimpsed in theory during his own lifetime. (His 1992 book To All Appearances explores this link most exhaustively.) Blau’s second major enduring question was less overtly political and more phenomenological in orientation, concerning the relationship between theatre and the activity of consciousness. As he put it, “To start thinking is already to be theatrical,” and when thought recognizes itself as “carnal, skin-close, intestinal, pulsed,” it occasions itself in performance.
Despite his tremendous body of work, it is to Blau’s credit that his thinking never quite settled around any single, handy concept or portable buzzword. Rather, from his earliest writings in the 1960s on the deplorable state of the regional theatre, to his later works in which first contacts with “theory” were enacted, Blau’s thought seems always to rove and writhe in a state of continual agitation, never tarrying too long with any single notion (“occlusion,” for example, or “occasion,” important though those terms were to him in his book Blooded Thought). Some found his prose as clotted as the coagulated blood that drew his theoretical attention in the introduction. But it also had moments of fine, coruscating, Brechtian wit, as when he observed, in the opening pages of The Impossible Theatre, that “while the theatre can’t carry the whole weight of the world on its back, like any other human enterprise it ought to carry its proper share.”
Trained originally as...