BMCR 2006.03.22

All Theater Is Revolutionary Theater

, All theater is revolutionary theater. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005. 1 online resource. ISBN 9781501720994 $39.95.

This book purports to demonstrate that drama (not theater, despite the title) poses a revolutionary challenge to the inherently conservative institution of literature. Drama attacks the integrity of literary texts, Bennett argues, by introducing the idea of performance, whose “brute social reality” undermines the essential structures on which literature depends. Chief among these are the ideas of genre (offering a complete system of types) and hermeneutic stability (guaranteeing communicable and interpretable meanings), which insure that “writing can never mean anything fundamentally different from what it has meant” (p. 58). The revolutionary potential to disrupt these assumptions resides in any dramatic text, regardless of its subject, content, the views of its author, or the political and commercial interests that may have prompted the work’s production. For Bennett, “all theater — whether it will or no — is revolutionary theater” (p. 48).

Bennett develops this unlikely thesis in a series of densely argued chapters dealing with specific texts, both dramatic and theoretical. Following a brief introduction, Chapter 1 examines Aristotle’s effort in the Poetics to understand drama as a genre of poetry, a task riddled with inescapable contradictions because it “de-theatricalizes” dramatic literature. Bennett enlarges on this problematic in Chapter 2, drawing on the claim made by Jennifer Wise ( Dionysus Writes, Cornell 2000) that the new technology of alphabetic writing provided the sine qua non for the birth to Attic tragedy.1 Chapter 3 moves to European drama of 1850-1950, with which Bennett is most familiar (he is Kenan Professor of German at the University of Virginia). Bennett uses Brecht’s Leben des Galilei to demonstrate how drama attacks the tyranny of writing “by exposing it to performance” (p. 61). We come to understand the Discorsi, which Galileo passes on at the end of the play, as a text like any text, subject to “the irreducible arbitrariness … of literary signification” (p. 66) and dependent on future performances (by scientists, rulers, patrons, popes) for whatever scientific or cultural authority it may have.

In Chapter 4, Bennett develops parallels between Brecht’s and Artaud’s radical assault on psychological realism, a revolutionary project he finds manifest in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and Wedekind’s Frühlings Erwachen. Eliot’s self-denying Thomas and Wedekind’s troubled children (with their opaque consciousness) reveal the inaccessibility of another person’s subjectivity, an accessibility that linguistic communication (strictly understood) wrongly assumes. Generalizing from these (and other) specific cases, Bennett asserts that the impenetrability of human behavior informs all dramatic performance. The presence of real people (actors) on stage frustrates the audience’s best efforts to recognize a comprehensible character behind the words. The “intrinsic alienation” of dramatic performance arises from the doubly unknowable nature of characters who won’t sit still on the page, and who are played by actors whose thoughts and emotions are even more inscrutable than the roles they perform.

Extending the argument to dramatic literature that emerged with no particular theater or theatrical performance in mind, Bennett explores how Büchner’s Woyzeck and Dantons Tod challenge the notion of the individual self, whether viewed as personal integrity, authenticity, or psychological coherence. The theatricality endemic to Woyzeck — the fair, the medical theater, voyeurism in various forms — exposes the autonomous individual as an imposter. For Bennett this theatrical dimension represents “a perversion of the attempt to remedy social injustice,” because we watch an experiment on a human being that proves human nature is nothing but an experiment. In the process, we come to realize our own complicity in entertaining the (always already) corrupt question “What is man?” (pp. 105-8).

Advancing the ontological assault from the individual to the idea of an “original,” Bennett devotes Chapter 6 to Hofmannstahl’s “theater of adaptation.” By insisting on the non-original, Hofmannstahl’s dramatic versions ( Jedermann, Das gerettete Venedig, Ödipus und die Sphinx, König Ödipus, Elektra, etc.) demonstrate that performance is ultimately not of anything but itself. Any illusion of communicable meaning evaporates before “the qualities of disorder, disconnection, contingency, lack of satisfying resolution — qualities that resonate with the general unregulated centerlessness of the theater of adaptation” (p. 119). Hofmannstahl’s Das Salzburger Grosse Welttheater approaches Bennett’s ideal, “the absolute or radical performance, with no regulating or ordering framework” (p. 121). Given that the actor who plays the Beggar is “not simply playing a beggar; rather, he is playing the playing of a beggar” (p. 123), he can get his part neither right nor wrong. In this liberated world, to which Bennett believes all theater aspires, there is no “there” beyond what’s there, no structure of meaning or prior referent to suck the play back into the realm of meaningful communication on which the conservative institution of literature relies.

Because sheer acting allows us to appreciate the fundamentally histrionic nature of human identity, Bennett takes up Diderot’s Paradoxe sur le comédien in Chapter 7. He compares Diderot’s actor (who exercises control over himself and others) to an effective politician who also understands that his power relies “on his knowledge and manipulation of others’ emotional submissiveness” (p. 142). After discussing Shaw’s later plays, where unrealizable stage directions confound reader and spectator alike, Bennett turns to the drama of Samuel Beckett. Here he finds the clearest indication that “the meaning of the play has very little to do, except negatively, with the meaning of the text” (p. 157). Even as Beckett’s dramas withdraw from materiality, they continue to need actors whose bodies are at odds with the meaning of the text, which tirelessly asserts that stable identity is an illusion. But actors that they are, Beckett’s characters can “never become sufficiently marionette-like to satisfy their own self-knowledge” (p. 167).

These considerations lead Bennett to explore in Chapter 8 the way that performance defies hermeneutics, the repressive system that always demands interpretation and always finds some meaning. According to Bennett, theatrical matter and bodies stop hermeneutics in its tracks by distracting the audience, refusing to serve the text that calls these bodies and objects to the stage. By denying hermeneutic space, the theater opens up a much freer “performance space” that unleashes “a radical critique upon all forms of dogmatic or authoritarian reading” (p. 185). But what of theater that has little or no relation to a readable text? Bennett addresses this question in his last chapter on the “post-dramatic theater” of Robert Wilson, suggesting that public discussion about a Wilson performance might provide the collectively available content that otherwise would be missing. In a brief conclusion Bennett repeats his claim that the accident and arbitrariness of the theater redeem literature of its conservative tendency, and he speculates that these qualities might allow us to rethink nationalism as reflected in the notion of national literatures.

Given the extraordinary claim of the book’s title (and the effusive praise on the cover from Harold Bloom, Herbert Blau, W.B. Worthen, and Martin Puchner), resistance — if not outright revolt — seems an appropriate response. Let’s begin with the straightforward question, Is theater, all theater, intrinsically revolutionary ? What might one mean by “revolutionary?” Unless we mean “going around and around in a circle” (some readers might ascribe this kind of revolution to Bennett’s argument), the term suggests the overthrow of a system of political power, an action that has demonstrable impact on normal people, as in the French, Cuban, or Sandinista revolutions. Alternatively, the term can suggest a radical change in the way we understand or approach the world, as in the Copernican or the industrial revolutions. In these examples, the content of the revolution matters, allowing us to differentiate struggles for liberation from their opposite, the “counter-revolutions” represented, for example, by the US-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba (and the ongoing embargo), or the arming of the former Somoza National Guard, christened as “freedom-fighters,” who terrorized the Nicaraguan countryside and eventually restored a US friendly government. But for Bennett’s revolution, content doesn’t matter; the medium is the message. The court masque, a pro-Nazi script, a minstrel show, the most traditional religious drama are all revolutionary, provided they have a pre-existing text (or public discussion, in the case of non-dramatic theater) from which a performance might differ. One would hope that the winds of change blow more strongly than this.

The fact that Bennett’s revolution takes place within the system of literature, and doesn’t alter the way things are or have been, makes it a tempest in an academic teapot, one that loses strength as it whirls within its confinement. Discussing Wilson’s work, for example, Bennett claims that public discussion might imbue it “with the quality of ‘dramatic text’ in a degree sufficient to produce a categorical distinction from performance . . . [Such] theater remains basically dramatic — in the sense of my argument — and evinces a liberal or revolutionary potential” (216). Besides the strain in the argument (what kind of text is public discussion?), Bennett merges liberal and revolutionary as if they mean the same thing (a ploy he repeats elsewhere in the book), while reducing the “revolutionary” criteria to the preservation of a distance between what is imagined on the page and what is realized on (some real or virtual) stage. As Eliot (one of Bennett’s exemplars) reminded us long ago in The Hollow Men, “between the dream and reality / between the image and the action / falls [not revolution but] the shadow.”

We might test Bennett’s thesis by applying it to other scripted “institutions” that the possibility of performance could conceivably undermine. Take the challenge posed to classical music by opera, with its strong linguistic element as well as its implied trajectory to the stage. Adapting Bennett’s argument for drama, we might insist that opera is not a genre of classical musical composition, or, if it is, it is one that demands performance. But opera is not a genre of dramatic literature either, or, if it is, it is one that also demands materialization on stage. A quick declension suggests that opera offers even greater revolutionary potential than drama, for it poses radical challenges to two“oppressive systems” — literature and (composed) music. A musician or singer might respond that the performance of opera does not constitute any such thing, but rather an effort to fulfill the intention that the work be seen and heard.

But we needn’t go so far a field to challenge Bennett’s analysis. Is literature — for all its history and tradition and genres — as inherently conservative as Bennett assumes? One can point to many examples of texts that have fostered revolutionary struggle and radical change; for Bennett, however, the system of literature can never escape its own hermeneutic oppression, bound as it is to the already written. But even if we leave content (and historical efficacy) behind, critics have long argued that the (not so simple) act of reading liberates written texts from any claim to absolute authority. Among other Rezeption theorists, Wolfgang Iser has explored the processes by which readers construct, negate, and fill in the text, using the communicative gaps to create a world both grounded in the text and unique to each encounter with it. Could reading itself represent an act of liberation from the (presumed) tyranny of the written word? If so, in the case of dramatic literature, performance would accomplish precisely the opposite of what Bennett wants it to. The “local habitation and a name” of a given production replaces the “airy nothingness” of a freely imagined Woyzeck with an actor who looks precisely the way he looks onstage. A performance of Man and Superman substitutes the imagined setting with a drawing room that looks exactly like it does. In the theater, the audience confronts a set of givens far more constrained than what they might have dreamed up, assuming they had read the play previously as dramatic literature. For Bennett that fact represents a revolutionary challenge to the institution of literature; in fact, it might represent a conservative challenge to the free imagination of the reader.

And here we reach what I take to be Bennett’s major problem: his failure to engage the “theater” of his title. Even a glimpse at the reality of the stage indicates what Bennett’s abstractions fail to grasp. Actors work on texts, trying to understand what they are saying; designers and directors grapple with meaning (not any meaning); collaborative decisions get made with real consequences in mind, at least for the performance and the audience that come. It matters from whence actors arrive, how they speak their lines, what they wear, how they move. Far from denying the specificity suggested by a drama, the stage tries to realize it, in a material and embodied manner. The broad issues that attract Bennett’s attention — the theatricality of (all) human behavior, the histrionic nature of things in general, the instability of personal identity — rarely if ever take the stage, because they’re not specific enough. Literature, too, demands specificity; a poem depends on this word, or rhythm, or image, not that one. Bennett knows this, and his readings of individual plays have much to offer. But his thesis pulls him inevitably to the abstract, and that’s why the “theater” of his title remains a theater of the mind.

In Bennett’s fear of literature’s authority and his escape in the potential of performance, we detect a trace of the deconstructive aporia celebrated by the literary-theoretical establishment in the recent past. The ultimate nihilism of radical plurality or persistent slippage kept the critical wheels revolving, in spite of the claims of the impossibility of meaning. On several occasions Bennett seems to share in this effort, stating his clear preference for what he sees as the potential nihilism of performance — denying communicable meaning — over the oppression of an identifiable textual meaning, as if that were somehow liberating. If literature is sure of its communicable powers, and that constitutes a problem, then a generous reader might conclude that Bennett’s book offers a solution. But in a world where suffering and oppression are real, where “hunger is ugly and souls are forgotten,” as Bob Dylan puts it, what purchase should such a “problem” have on our attentions? Confronting the real problems that plague the world we live in, what might a revolutionary make of such a book?


1. According to Wise, writing also gave birth to a host of other things, including the notion of the visual, ideology, self-consciousness, competition, and the mind/body problem. See my review, University of Toronto Quarterly 69 (2000) 167-8.