Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Death of Dramaturgy: Begins Again

The story so far: dramaturgy was invented in the 18th Century as a reaction to the dominance of neo-classical drama. 

dramaturgy will save drama!

Going back to the origins of a word isn't always the best way to find out what it means: 'epic poetry', for example, has evolved through the generations as new authors give it a twist (Homer to Virgil to Dante and Milton...). However, in the case of Lessing, the publication of Hamburg Dramaturgy does mark a defining moment in theatre history, in which the emphasis moved from literary to phenomenological study. Diderot's thoughts on theatre, meanwhile, were determined to put the arts at the service of a specific political agenda. Neo-classical drama, in France, was the adored medium of the absolutist monarchy, and Diderot saw the potential of a new drama that could promote bourgeois culture. And while the pair of them never get too systematic, both Lessing and Diderot noticed that the form of an art could define its impact as much as the content. 

a tableau, beloved of Diderot

The Enlightenment dramaturgy is a big deal, a revolution in the way that theatre was considered. Following on from Diderot's ideas, a new form of theatre did emerge - all be it briefly. The Marriage of Figaro became a cause célèbre for its attack on aristocratic values, and the 'weeping play' became a thing. Lessing wrote one or two of these himself. Although the content of these plays - which Diderot imagined as a hybrid of comedy and tragedy - was important in presenting bourgeois values, the rejection of Aristotle as an absolute measure and the five act format revealed the revolutionary intentions as clearly as all the commentary on the role of father or the lover or whatever.

got beef with the aristocracy?

At the first, dramaturgy isn't just a neutral term to describe an area of study: it is an expression of Enlightenment values that are bourgeois, anti-authority (as embodied in a monarchy) and liberal. Lessing would later write Nathan the Wise, a morality play that promotes inclusivity and reason over religion. Diderot's plays took on family relationships and performed virtue for the masses. 

Some days, the whole invention of dramaturgy seems to come down to a single question: given that tragedy is supposed to conform to Aristotle's laws about unity and so on, why is Shakespeare so successful? That's not just a throwaway: when Voltaire visited London (he was in trouble for his opinions in France), he encountered British theatre. And, despite himself, he quite liked it. He wasn't alone: before we messed it up with Brexit, UKIP and sundry other arrogance, the British were loved in Europe. Anglophilia was a thing in the 1700s. 

Eventually, Voltaire would decide that 'too much Englishness' in theatre (blood, extreme emotions, anything that broke good taste, really) was a bad thing. But he did introduce a few Shakespearian aspects to his scripts (including the ghost of a father, which did not end that well). And Shakespeare was introduced to the continent, and the Europeans loved him. In fact, the Germans liked to say that Shakespeare was a German.

they conspired to make theatre great and relevant

If Shakespeare, who seemed to do whatever he liked in his scripts, was so good, the old standards, set by Aristotle and enshrined by the neo-classicists like Racine, clearly failed to describe what makes for a good show. The lack of a complete system - the series of fragmented ideas - probably reflects the reluctance of the Enlightenment dramaturgy gang to rely on fixed rules. They made suggestions. They allowed for genius.

This was their eventual downfall. 

what is next?

In the next episode: the three pillars of dramaturgy...

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