The Fate of the Dramatic in Modern Society: Social Theory and the Theatrical Avant-Garde

Theory, Culture & Society, January 2014 vol. 31, no. 1, 3-24

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Avant-garde theatre is often invoked as the bellwether for a society that has become postdramatic – fragmented, alienated, and critical of efforts to create collectively shared meanings. A theatre whose sequenced actions have no narrative (so the story goes) mirrors a social world where the most conflictual situations no longer appear as drama but merely as spectacle: a society where audiences look on without any feeling or connection. Because only half right, these theses about postdramatic theatre and society are fundamentally wrong. As modern societies have expanded and differentiated, the elements that compose performances have become separated and often fragmented in both theatre and society. If they can be brought back together again, performances are viewed as authentic and meaningful. If (re)fusion cannot be achieved, performances fail to communicate meaning. The aim of this essay is to demonstrate that a shared ambition to (re)fuse fragmented performative elements has defined the most important strain of avant-garde theatre over the last two centuries. Most radical theatrical innovation has sought to open live drama back up to the telos of myth and ritual. Neither in theatre nor social life can the world transcend dramaturgy; it is fundamental to the search for meaning in a world beyond cosmological religion.