Post-dramatic theatre

The term 'Postdramatic Theatre', which has become an increasingly important one since the publication of Hans-Thies Lehmann’s book Postdramatic Theatre (German 1999; English translation 2006), covers a wide range of contemporary theatrical forms, including devised work and live art. When considered in terms of plays, postdramatic theatre more specifically registers a dissatisfaction with drama’s two fundamental processes: the representation of the external world and the structuring of time. To take each in turn: representation is, by definition, selective and subjective. Playwrights have to choose what they include in their dramas and this choice is necessarily made through the blinkers of their own perspectives. Time in drama is also always structured: without this type of organization, there would be no tension and no sense of progression from a play’s beginning to its middle and its end.

In the early twentieth century drama started to signal its dissatisfaction with its defining processes. For example, Chekhov’s plays distinctly refused to engage with ‘action’ in favour of atmosphere and mood; Pirandello called the theatre’s ability to represent real life into question in his metatheatrical experiments; and Brecht interrogated the ideological pressures that informed representation in both his plays and his theoretical writings. It is not surprising, then, that by the 1960s, more sustained and fundamental attacks were visited upon dramatic theatre.

Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience (1966) features no named characters, just four speakers who playfully articulate what the audience may or may not encounter in the performance itself. Heiner Müller’s The Hamletmachine (1977) is a dense fusion of text and intertext, much of which is not directly attributed to a single named speaker. By the 1990s, British playwrights revealed their own interest in what would soon be understood as postdramatic forms of writing. Martin Crimp’s Attempts on her Life (1997) is ostensibly a collection of seventeen representational scenes that all discuss a person who never appears on stage, Anne. Yet each scene carries no character attribution, just a dash to indicate a different speaker, and so the very question of what or who is being represented is left radically open. Similarly, Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis (1999) avoids characters to offer a non-individualized examination of mental illness.

Plays thus need no longer be classed as ‘dramas’, although postdramatic plays should not necessarily be conflated with postmodern plays, which may still engage in more orthodox forms of representation to suggest uncertain states of reality. Postdramatic plays differentiate themselves from representational theatre by offering actors and audiences theatrical experiences that are not tied to the vicissitudes of either character or plot but seek to investigate broader issues, free of drama’s limitations. Clearly, postdramatic plays ask much of performers who are no longer so much concerned with depicting people, action and places than assuming the role of ‘text bearer’. A further implication of the postdramatic paradigm shift is a greater integration of the audience into the meaning-making process. The orientation provided by recognizable characters or plotlines dissolves, and spectators have to negotiate the production of postdramatic plays by working through a new set of conventions. These tend to be connected with a movement away from interpretation of the play on stage to the presentation of linguistic and gestural material. The stage becomes a generator of shared experiences rather than knowledge, and spectators are confronted with the question of how they deal with such phenomena.

by Dr David Barnett, Reader in Drama, Theatre and Performance, University of Sussex