The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater after Modernism

By Elinor Fuchs | Go to book overview

Introduction

MY THINKING ON theater after modernism originated in the practical context of seeing new work in the theater and writing accounts of it for weekly newspapers in New York City. It clarified as I began to teach students of theater, and deepened as I read “theory.” But its abiding approach has been that of a theater critic in search of language in which to describe new forms, forms that have appeared both in actual theaters and in the theatricalized surround of our contemporary public life and discourse.

Its precise beginning came with an experience in the theater in 1979. I was assigned to review a play being presented in a workshop production at the Public Theater. This was Leave It to Beaver Is Dead, of interest because the same 26-year-old artist had written and directed it, composed the music, and was performing in the band that appeared in—or instead of—the third act. It was considered a difficult work, and the producer Joseph Papp was sending it up to the press as a trial balloon. If it “flew,” a full production might follow. The New Tork Times effectively killed it the next day. My excited review some days later in the Soho News came too late to help. The unknowability of the characters, the strangely synthetic language, the truncated structure, the abrupt shift from play to rock concert, and most of all the frightening relativism of the work’s projected universe, seemed almost to suggest the outlines of a new culture or a new way of being. The “new culture” was suggested in the layers of the title, which, in the logic of a world twice-removed, stages real mourning for a false image. My evening in this neorealist world without external referent left me in a prolonged uneasiness, as if my basic ontological security had suddenly become a false memory or the latest disposable product. I had fallen into the mental swoon of postmodernism.

For this vertiginous new perspective, at once artistic and broadly cultural, I lacked at the time a name, much less an adequate vocabulary and grammar. The older categories of fantastic, theatricalist, and the “absurd,” whose effects realism underwrites through contrast, had little explanatory power. However, browsing in a bookstore the day after seeing this production, I stumbled upon the “Schizo-Culture” issue of the journal Semiotexte. Presently I discovered the(then, to me) fiercely difficult October. In this way I began to familiarize m yself with a set of related ideas derived from the world of French critical, psychoanalytic, and feminist theory: Lacan’s insight into the symbolic construction of subjectivity, Foucault’s announcement of the “end of man,” Derrida’s attack on the “metaphysics of Presence,” Roland Barthes’s “death of the

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The Death of Character: Perspectives on Theater after Modernism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Drama and Performance Studies ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Introduction 1
  • Part I- Modern after Modernism 19
  • 1- The Rise and Fall of the Character Named Character 21
  • 2- Pattern over Character the Modern Mysterium 36
  • 3- Counter-Stagings Ibsen against the Grain 52
  • Part II- Theater after Modernism 67
  • 4- Signaling through the Signs 69
  • 5- Another Version of Pastoral 92
  • 6- When Bad Girls Play Good Theaters 108
  • 7- Theater as Shopping 128
  • 8- Postmodernism and the Scene of Theater 144
  • Reviews and Articles 1979-1993 Reports from an Emerging Culture 159
  • Notes 199
  • Index 218
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