Avant-garde theatre


The Takeover  

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Described as a 'dance of death' akin to the works of Strindberg or Genet. Set in a decaying haunted house where a group of mad and half-mad women plot against each other for the decaying remains of a once-elegant mansion.  

The Threepenny Opera (Modern Classic)

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

Brecht’s adaptation of John Gay’s eighteenth century The Beggar’s Opera anatomises bourgeois capitalist society with a sharp cocktail of comic satire, musical profanity and social criticism.

First staged in 1928 at the Theater am Schiffbauerdamm in Berlin, the musical is set in the seething criminality and desperate romanticism of mock-Victorian Soho. Peachum is a racketeer who controls, exploits and outfits London’s beggars, and has turned pitiable misery into an art form. He is horrified to discover his daughter Polly has married the notorious criminal Macheath, or Mac the Knife.

Under pressure from Peachum, the Chief of Police betrays his friendship with Macheath, who is arrested in the middle of a song in a brothel. Despite the efforts of his adoring wife and equally adoring fiancée, Macheath is condemned to hang, and the play is only diverted to a comic ending by Peachum’s call for a deus ex machina.

With Kurt Weill's unforgettable music – one of the earliest and most successful attempts to introduce jazz to the theatre – Brecht’s revolutionary satire became a popular hit throughout the western world.

Term applied since the end of the nineteenth century to theatre as well as other arts and practitioners involved in introducing original and experimental ideas, forms and techniques. Examples range from Jarry and Apollinaire to Cage and Robert Wilson.

A loose term, often meaning Experimental Theatre, that has been widely used since the middle of the twentieth century and has gone by many other names: ‘event’ or ‘Happening’ in the 1950s; ‘multimedia’ in the 1960s; ‘visual theatre’ in the 1970s; Performance Art in the 1980s; Live Art in the 1990s. Rarely have these names been chosen by the practitioners; they have for the most part been coined for the sake of critical convenience, often (particularly in Britain) because when critics are confronted by theatre which is not a play – by work not based in text – they see it as so foreign to their tradition that it must be defined as separate, an ‘experiment’. They have been unable to develop a vocabulary which can cope with the physicality and volatility of experimental performance or its multiplicity of meaning. (The work of Robert Wilson, for example, was reviewed in one paper early in his career by its dance critic.)

A glance at the history of world theatre, however, reveals the dramatic play as a comparatively recent and primarily European preoccupation. There is another, ancient tradition at work in the great folk theatres of the world; in Commedia Dell’Arte, Music Hall and popular Musical Theatre; in the consummate combined artistry of kabuki; even in Greek theatre, the other elements of which have been largely forgotten in the single legacy of the text. It is in this other tradition that theatre now defined as ‘experimental’ has its roots, a tradition which seeks to yoke together as a single live event all the necessary but disparate skills of spectacle – design, music, choreography, performance and text. Such theatre has always been – and still is – a compromised art of process, a mucky, mutable, dirty, competitive, collaborative business. From within this ancient and variegated work, the development of printing permitted the recording of just one element: the text. Theatre no longer had to be discovered or taught in the body. It had achieved a means of distribution through the immutable word from which other productions could be reconstructed. Soon, the word preceded production, the solitary task of the writer was born, and the intellectual domination of the play took hold.

The making of a play can be the most authoritarian theatre process: in the beginning of rehearsals is The Word; the director is the Papal power that interprets The Word, and guides all others in service of It. There is a less authoritarian approach which leaves more to the individual conscience – to the actor, for instance, at an extreme in the devised theatre work of Mike Leigh. But even in comparison with this approach, experimental theatre is truly heretical. For here, at the beginning of rehearsals, there is no word – there is nothing but the artists and the potential work which they will uniquely create together.

By the end, the music may drown out the text, the performers may be reduced to ciphers by the design, the demands of the choreography may condition all other aspects of the work. It is by virtue of the unpredictability of the creative process that such theatre is most appropriately dubbed ‘experimental’. And the most successful experiment is likely to allow equal significance to design, music, performance, choreography and text.

Just as the process of experimental theatre differs from playmaking, so does the product. A play’s performance aims at singularity of meaning. It seeks to control all the theatrical elements in an accurately repeatable form, proposing an interpretation of the writer’s meaning with the greatest precision and clarity. Ask ten different members of an audience about this meaning, though, and paradoxically they will probably come up with ten different interpretations and ten more if they go to see it again. That is one of the joys of the richness of theatre, and one which experimental work turns to advantage. For here there is a conscious multiplicity of meaning. The work is poetic, allusive, ambiguous, possibly contradictory, certainly asking its audiences to trust their own perceptions as to its truth for them. It is also fluid and rarely ‘finished’.

Discoveries are made through performance, and the final showings are likely to be very different from the first. Thus each performance is a development of the work as product. By comparison, a play is fixed. In an age dominated by the recorded media of film and television – dead drama – experimental work keeps live theatre at its liveliest.

The confusion between experimental theatre and dance is innocuous; the confusion with performance art, however, is not. Performance art is a term of the fine arts, with a fully documented tradition of its own, and, at the end of the twentieth century, displaying a vigour which experimental theatre lacks. Here, artists use themselves as material. They do not necessarily adopt the mask of character, nor make fictitious use of time and space. These are qualities of theatre. To misunderstand such distinctions is not simply professionally inept – it points to a history of journalistic criticism which has constantly ducked issues of theoretical analysis.

Experimental theatre is born of long creation periods, and the single-minded commitment of genuine ensemble companies has become a rarity – such circumstances have long since become a financial impossibility. Many of those who might once have advanced experimental theatre now work in the equally innovative and collaborative fields of opera, video, television or film. Those few who continue to experiment do so increasingly intermittently, or as solos or duos.

from John Ashford, Marvin Carlson, The Continuum Companion to Twentieth-Century Theatre, ed. Colin Chambers (London, 2002).