Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Death of Dramaturgy: Begins.

Given the way that dramaturgy gets discussed, it's surprisingly easy to find a point of historical departure. Back in the eighteenth century, the so-called Age of Enlightenment, dramaturgy was introduced to the world by G.E. Lessing. His Hamburg Dramaturgy (1767-69) was written as a critical guide to the programme of the German National Theatre in Hamburg, and covered a wide variety of theatrical concerns, including the performance of the actors, the quality of the scripts and the debates raging around theatre in France. Before this point, the debates about theatre relied on Aristotle's Poetics, and tended to consider the script rather than the production.


cool French theatre

The subsequent definitions of dramaturgy have made the subject more complicated - sometimes it refers to the specific strategies employed by an artist in production, sometimes it is dumped for the discipline of 'performance studies'. However, its foundations within the Enlightenment project reveal an interest in the theatre as a phenomenological experience rather than a literary one. In other words, dramaturgy recognises theatre as an event in real time and not a text to be read. Aristotle, for all his virtues, looked at theatre as a form of poetry rather than performance: when he listed the importance of the elements of theatre, 'spectacle' comes in last.

Although there are plenty of specific issues addressed in Lessing's dramaturgy - best of all, his frequent snarky comments on the arrogance of Voltaire - the Enlightenment Dramaturgy focuses on three specific areas. Appropriately for the era, the application of reason is key; then there's an enthusiasm for performance (ranging from notes on the training of the actor to the response of the audience) finally, the notion of  genius. That last one will come back to haunt theatre, and was probably introduced as a get-out clause for those elements of theatre that can't be resolved by the application of reason.


uncool British theatre

Lessing's Dramaturgy is a strange read. He's almost always referenced in studies of theatre, but rarely read. My evidence for this is anecdotal. There is only a single copy in translation held by Glasgow University library, and I've had it out for over a year, with no recalls. I tried to buy it  but the Dover Thrift Edition (published in the 1960s as a cheap copy) comes it at £600 (second hand). For such an influential document, the lack of reprints is... fascinating. 

It does contain moments of superb analysis - his analysis of why audiences mistake shoddy acting for brilliance is, itself, brilliant. However, he gets a bit wandered now and again. He'd make a great blogger: he's not above discussing a tiny point of detail across nine essays. I see him as an inspiration.

Mind you, reading the Hamburg Dramaturgy is like standing waist-deep in a flood of warm water, trying to catch flakes of ice. 


if I might interject...

Between slagging off French theatre - both for its reliance on neo-classical formalism, and the French belief in their cultural superiority - Lessing quotes the philosopher Diderot. Editor of The Encyclopedia, an attempt to categorise all knowledge ever and put it at the service of reason against tradition, social butterfly and occasional playwright, Diderot set out his earliest thoughts on theatre in his erotic novel, The Indiscreet Jewels. Lessing quotes this at length - after apologising for it 'NSFW' content. Lessing also translated Diderot's two plays into German, and calls Diderot 'the equal of Aristotle'. 

Enlightenment dramaturgy could be called the 'Diderot-Lessing dramaturgy', since the key features result from the conversation between these two thinkers. They certainly share an interest in the potential of theatre as a medium for the discussion of ideas, a distaste for the neo-classical drama's reliance on authority, a respect for the genius and a fascination with the on-stage business of performance, rejecting the overly literary language of tragedy and even making suggestions towards a physical theatre. 

Coming Soon: How The Enlightenment Dramaturgy coded its own inevitable death into its theories of theatre...



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