Jens Hoffmann, formerly director of the California College of the Arts (CCA) Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, is deputy director of exhibitions and programs at the Jewish Museum, New York.
In his book Postdramatic Theatre (1999), the German theater historian and theorist Hans-Thies Lehmann developed a critical framework with which to understand the experimental practices that had taken shape since the late 1960s. Drawing on diverse examples—including the Wooster Group, Jan Lauwers and Needcompany, Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña, Michael Laub, Jan Fabre, and Robert Wilson—he advocated for a positive definition of contemporary theater and a deeper understanding of its contexts and stakes.
In framing his argument, Lehmann returns with frequency to Bertolt Brecht, who in the early twentieth century sought to radicalize theater by interrupting its passive consumption. Employing alienating mechanisms such as dual roles, choruses, visible set changes, and announcements, Brechtian performance distanced the audience from the action in order to enable critical thought and combat alienation in society at large.
While building on some of Brecht’s tenets—the performative over the performance, text over plot, and function over form—Lehmann makes the case that the Brechtian separation between performer and viewer can be understood as a continuation of (rather than a departure from) traditional dramaturgic roles. Even when the fourth wall is broken and the audience is made aware of the constructed nature of the play, Lehmann argues, the fictive “world” of the play is left largely intact, spinning around a central fable. In addition, the moral and critical reactions that Brecht aimed to incite were akin to the Aristotelian goal of catharsis, though achieved through different means. In both approaches, the audience is apart, affected.
Despite heavy doses of distance since Brechtian intervention was conceived as a political tactic, the spectacle is alive and well. Awareness of the spectacular nature of contemporary society has not led to liberation from it, and yet the assertion that political consciousness can emerge only once the blinders are peeled away remains a common critical refrain. As transparency has motivated many an avant-garde interruption, it has also padded corporate mission statements and stump speeches, demonstrating that it cannot be an end in itself. For Lehmann, postdramatic theater had the capacity to go beyond exposing its own mechanisms; it could unmask our mutual mortality.1 The radical potential of theater lay not in fostering a breach between audience and performer but in exploiting the precondition of shared time and space and drawing out what others would later postulate as an essential aspect of humanity: recognition of vulnerable interdependence and precarity—instead of alienation, collapse.
Lehmann acknowledged that the proliferation of technological-social forms was likely to challenge theater’s unique stake in the visible. Since 1999 his premonition has come to pass. Social media have caused time and space to cave in, impacting bodies and the politics that govern them in ways no one could have foreseen. The spectrum of the performative has expanded to include the political theater of the 140-character pronouncement and the meticulously curated profile. As myriad minor interactions perform the productive disintegration of distance billions of times a day, a challenge that Lehmann foresaw hovering over his own understanding of the postdramatic is playing out. He wrote, “What is a real cause of concern for the theatre . . . is the emerging transition to an interaction of distant partners by means of technology (at present still in the primitive stages of development). Will such an increasingly perfected interaction in the end compete with the domain of the theatrical live arts whose main principle is participation?”2
The “increasingly perfected interaction” anticipated by Lehmann has indeed resulted in extreme—and extremely efficacious—forms of participation. While emancipatory elements of social media have been proven, critical distance has suffered a blow. Users now find themselves producing all the time, not only by composing but also by reacting. As reactions accumulate in the form of likes, shares, and reposts, algorithms narrow one’s field of vision, veiling heterogeneity and creating a kind of self-cultivated feedback loop. Far from the monolithic naturalistic theater that Brecht challenged, the new form of specious realism is a customized aggregation of mediated opinion, an echo chamber that reaffirms one’s own perspectives while seeming distinct and external.
The mechanism by which this echo occurs remains obscure to most who hear it. Neither the content nor the form functions to highlight the material conditions that make a tweet possible or the automated logics that pull certain like-minded opinions to the forefront while forcing others below the fold. Interruption no longer seems a valid answer, as time and space continue to break down on their own. As information splinters into smaller and more numerous consumable parts, reuniting these bits into a comprehensible narrative and reigniting the promise of mutually engaging and vulnerable exchange may be the challenge of a post-postdramatic performative age.
Jan Fabre, Sweet Temptations, 1991.
Robert Wilson and Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach, premiered July 25, 1976, at the Festival d’Avignon, France.
Jan Lauwers / Needcompany, The Snakesong Trilogy, 1994–98.
Heiner Goebbels, Ou bien le débarquement désastreux (Or the hapless landing), 1993.
The Wooster Group, BRACE UP!, 1991.
Rimini Protokoll, Karl Marx: Capital, Volume One, 2006.
Jérôme Bel, Le dernier spectacle (The last performance), 1998.
René Pollesch, Splatterboulevard, 1992.
Frank Castorf, Räuber von Schiller, 1990.
Christoph Marthaler, Murx den Europäer! Murx ihn! Murx ihn! Murx ihn! Murx ihn ab!, 1993.