Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Why I Love Dramaturgy

Let's face it, I only discovered dramaturgy through the University of Glasgow. Before then, I was a critic, wandering and mumbling in the forest of theatre, hoping to discover something that would make sense of my rambling ways.

Dramaturgy is a relatively new field of enquiry: coined by Lessing in the eighteenth century, it emerged during The Enlightenment as a general approach to the theatrical event. Unlike previous theatre theory, however, it emphasises the production as the focus of study. It's never been that popular as a term, at least within anglophone theatre. In the early 1990s, it was eclipsed by Performance Theory. Even those authors who clearly concentrate on dramaturgical processes don't always describe their work as dramaturgy. Martin Esslin's The Field of Drama doesn't even mention it, although I suppose he'd argue that his area is semiotics. 

The semiotics of drama being another area that lost ground, this time to identity politics in the 1990s.

However, I am enthusiastic about dramaturgy. Partially because it is eclectic - it is less a methodology than a field of study, so it can adapt most approaches within its remit. Then it contains the role of the dramaturge - contains rather than is defined by, naturally - and there is plenty of theatre that 'needs a dramaturge' to cut down its excess. 

But when Lessing came up with his Hamburg Dramaturgies, he shifted the emphasis away from the script towards a look at theatre as it exists in time and space, in front of an audience. Like much Enlightenment thought, it is preoccupied with the event rather than the abstract. Even Aristotle and Plato dealt with generalisations about 'theatre'. Dramaturgical readings prefer, in my definition, to consider productions of a play, instead of the play's script. 

If that doesn't feel like a surprise, I only get excited about it when I compare it to earlier discussions of performance. Take France, before Diderot came along. The big issue back then was whether a play manipulated Aristotle's Unities appropriately. 

Popular criticism is a form of dramaturgical analysis, poking at the specifics of an event. So dramaturgy is what I do, even though I am not a dramaturge.

(I do know a dramaturge, though. He's available for work, I believe.)

There are dangers for a critic, like me, who gets too involved in dramaturgy, though. I've noticed that I am a little more dogmatic about what makes theatre 'good' these days. That might be the result of reading Diderot, who had a bit of an agenda. I also have a habit of referencing productions that I have not seen. I like to show off my reading.

However, there are some good sides to it. Anything can receive a dramaturgical reading - that is, an interpretation of a text towards production. I'm still rambling, but I've got a map. Or a compass. Probably a compass.

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