Postmodern Performance – Opposing The Aesthetic (An Introduction)

Postmodernism, particularly in the theatre, has no precise definition and it is increasingly obvious that the theories of postmodernism and postmodern theory are dependent on what the individual perceives the postmodern to be.  Dave Robinson claims that, “Nobody really knows what the label ‘postmodernism’ means … [it] is perhaps just a convenient label for a set of attitudes, values, beliefs and feelings about what it means to be living in the late 20th century.”[i]

If we adopt this notion that postmodernism is the condition of contemporary culture, then, by definition, all culture produced in our time is inherently postmodern.  With such an open interpretation of postmodernism, how can we begin to understand it both stylistically and in a theatrical forum?

An Introduction to Postmodern Performance

Although postmodernism cannot be defined, it is still possible to understand the term as an artistic field by observing the components and influences of performances we understand to be ‘postmodern’.  The intention of this writing is not, by any means, to attempt to define the term postmodernism, but rather to consider what postmodern performance is, how it opposes traditional theatre aesthetics and why it does so.

Before we can begin this study let us first consider what we understand a postmodern performance to be, from here we can begin to look at the influences and principles behind them.  So, to borrow the opening passage of Brecht’s ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, “The following sets out to define an aesthetic drawn from a particular kind of theatrical performance which has been worked out in practice over the past few decades…”[ii]

Postmodernism in performance is, as it is understood today, a dramatic form that is based on a semiotic understanding of traditional theatrical practice.  The semiotics are frequently deconstructed thereby opposing their original interpretation and leaving them open to translation.  In this style of theatre the performer is more of an artist, seldom a character like an actor, and the content rarely follows a traditional plot.  It is a non-narrative, non-representational theatre in which the traditional forms, genres and practices are abandoned and non-linguistic modes of practice such as gestus become key components.  Dialogue is frequently forced to compete with other elements on the stage, such as music, sound effects, gestures, sets, props, lighting, mime and mask.

“The performance might be a series of intimate gestures or large-scale visual theatre, lasting from a few minutes to many hours; it might be performed only once or repeated several times, with or without a prepared script, spontaneously improvised, or rehearsed over many months.”[iii]

Also, the professional distinctions of actor, playwright, director, stage-manager and spectator are broken down changing and altering their roles thus opposing the aesthetics of traditional theatre. Under postmodern performance we can incorporate experimental theatre, the Avant-garde and performance art as each of these genres breaks free of the conventional theatre and strive to continually create works that challenge and astonish or shock their audiences; depicting what we understand to be postmodernism.

Victor Turner terms these styles of theatre to be liminal, a term derived from the Latin word for threshold, limen, which he describes to be marginalized performance since, liminality refers to chaotic, fertile nothingness, that is potentially full of possibilities, that strives after new forms and structure.[iv] In understanding the elements inherent in postmodern performance it is important to gain a familiarity with the developments against traditional theatre aesthetics over the last century.  From these we can begin to understand where conventions of postmodern performance derive from and how they affect postmodern theatre directly.

Upcoming articles will consider the roles played by Bertolt Brecht and Antonin Artaud, who have both influenced postmodern performance, in opposing the conventional theatre.  From this we can begin to draw on some common elements that are recognisable in postmodern theatre.

In developing our understanding of these common elements we shall discuss the work of poststructuralist Jacques Derrida who, together with his idioms in deconstruction, logocentrism and différance, is widely cited in the theoretical approach to postmodernism both in literature and theatre.  However, to understand the role of deconstruction in the theatre we must consider the use of semiotics and language, therefore we shall focus on two main contributors to the semiotic field – Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles S. Pierce.  Both studied sign systems in depth and have developed formulae for the understanding of their systems.

Once we have gained a clear understanding of these influences, theories and ideologies we can begin to apply them to the postmodern stage.  We will begin to consider how the theories and ideas are practised by observing the works of Robert Wilson, Pina Bausch and DV8 Physical Theatre.

By looking at these practitioners we will explore the common elements used in these works and will investigate how they are presented.  Above all, we will attempt to understand the methods these practitioners use to oppose conventional theatre norms.  Also incorporated in these articles will be a look at censorship and how it potentially threatens postmodern performance and culminates in an insight to the controversial work of Annie Sprinkle, a self proclaimed Post Porn Modernist.

Check out our next article Theatres of Revolution – Brecht & Artaud

[ii] Brecht B Brecht on Theatre (trans John Willett) Ch.38 p.179
[iii] Goldberg R Performance Art Intro p.8
[iv] Counsell C & L Wolf (eds) Performance Analysis Ch.8 p.206