Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Death of Dramaturgy: Strike One

Let's kill this thing, already.

Brief note: the point of the Enlightenment dramaturgy was to focus attention on the event, not the script, to politicise theatre towards a bourgeois agenda and escape the tyranny of neoclassicism.

It could be argued that any political performance - take Blow Off as an example - is a resurrection of this dramaturgical dream. Reports of its death are deliberately exaggerated to make a point.


Any respectable study of the Enlightenment will end with a chapter on the French Revolution, and ask whether the Enlightenment has to take responsibility for the displacement of the monarchy, the terror and the rise of the Napoleonic Empire. By pointing out that Rousseau, a big player in the whole Enlightenment Project, was made practically a saint after 1789, and how his suggestions for huge civic parades were taken up by the revolutionaries - and citing the rather paranoid thoughts of a Jesuit in the nineteenth century - it can be claimed that the age of revolutions is the consequence of the Enlightenment project.

A real genius, though


A brief survey of Napoleon's attitude towards theatre reveals that he banned anything that could be read as political, reverting to the kind of neoclassicism that had the support of the now-dethroned (and dead) monarchy. Earlier, n 1792, the Comedie-Francais adopted Diderot's idea of the tableau and, at the climax of an appropriate show, did a tableau vivant of a popular painting by David. It was a statement of sympathy with the revolution's aims, the crowd went wild and the actors, who were suspected of having aristocratic sympathies, were embraced by the mob. 

Yet a couple of years later, the actors were booted off the production of a national parade - the favoured medium of performance for the revolutionaries - for messing about. The artificiality of theatre was deemed inappropriate for this kind of event, which was all about seriousness and celebrating the real achievements of the revolution. The theatre itself was suspect, let alone the kind of engaged dramaturgy that Diderot imagined.

Diva or genius?

So much for France... what about Germany?

It didn't take long for the Romantics to pick up on the idea of genius, ignore the rest of Enlightenment dramaturgy, and start making over-emotional plays (known as the sturm und drang). These tended to be about some individual who felt so hacked off with society that their main interests were making a fuss and committing suicide. Everyone has heard of the Romantic poets, the Romantic composers like Beethoven: the genius expressing their innate genius became the only game in town. When Goethe wrote something like Gotz, he was following the dramaturgical pattern, but this was quickly submerged beneath a flood of Romantic dramas. Less than a century later, Zola moaned that the shift from neoclassical to romanticism was simply a costume change. 

The genius was an excuse for playwrights and productions to ignore structure and privilege self-expression over engagement with ideas. Dramaturgy was dead before it had even gotten started. 

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