Since the early 1970s critical attention has regularly turned to the rising significance of the visual media and their effect on contemporary Western culture. Raymond Williams and Christian Metz made important early contributions to cultural criticism and film theory by taking seriously the way that television works and impacts on viewers and by analyzing the psychoanalytic operation of film. More recently, major drama critics such as Herbert Blau and Johannes Birringer consider the place of theater with respect to newer, more popular forms of visual entertainment. An ongoing topic concerns the function of dramatic and performance art in a media culture where image-making, commodification and changes in spectatorship are rupturing all sorts of notions about theater. In Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism, for instance, Birringer emphasizes the connection between postmodern culture, theory and contemporary theater practice and argues for the reinvention of a drama that could acknowledge a complex multicultural society (x-xi).
In the context of this larger discussion, I hope to demonstrate that Coming Attractions (play by Ted Tally, music by Jack Feldman, and lyrics by Feldman and Bruce Sussman) operates as a pivotal moment for a reconsideration of the place of theater in the postmodern era, a time characterized by the proliferation of media and information systems, as well as by a general trend toward fragmentation and decentralization. First performed during the 1980 season at Playwrights Horizons in New York, Coming Attractions is a darkly humorous play about a world saturated with violence, sensational crime and the inescapable presence of the media. The play follows the rise to celebrity status of Lonnie, an aimless young man turned serial killer. The numerous murders he commits are designed by Manny, a theatrical agent, to combine crime and "show biz," to attract deliberately the attention of newspapers and cameras. Most interesting, though, is the play's incorporation of Lonnie's story into a dramatic structure that is shaped like network television. The play replicates the hard, glittering images associated with game shows and the continually shifting array of scenes and dramatic units that flicker endlessly across the screen of the TV set.
By inscribing the discourse of television into its dramatic form, Coming Attractions functions as an enactment of a media culture and opens up a variety of contemporary problems currently at issue, such as the way that reality is mediatized, or altered by the influence of the media, and its subsequent effect on the viewer. My approach in this essay begins with an analysis of the play's structure, proceeds to a focus on the "reality" posed in the play world, and ends by theorizing about the impact of that world on the human subject. By drawing on those theories of culture, semiotics and the Lacanian gaze that are associated with theater, television and film, I plan to show that Coming Attractions offers an important contribution to the delineation of a contemporary theater. The play provides a striking critique of the sort of media culture we find ourselves in at the end of the 20th century. At the same time, though, it occupies an ironic position, for its appropriation of what Tally calls "the media circus" (Preface 275) indicates that theater as a cultural force, an institution, cannot be innocent of its own status in the postmodern era.
Indeed, Coming Attractions discovers much of its spirited playfulness precisely in the ambivalent position it has as a theater piece that functions as a performance of media culture and a contestation of such a culture. Throughout its history, theater has often served to critique and correct the social and political milieu, directing its attention in this case to television as the main proprietor among the media of images, commodities and consumer desire. To be sure, one way of approaching the play is to recognize Tally's attempt to satirize the popular media, its consumerism and sensationalism, from a high-culture stance. …