Writing for Performance
performatised secrets, performatised selves
by John Freeman

There are clear distinctions even divisions between performance writing and dramatic writing. Much performance writing manifests a concentration on the performative self: a self which is articulated as being at once realistically transparent and overtly artificial.

It is useful to begin with definitions, even when those same definitions are anything but fixed: We can say that traditional dramatic writing in the West remains linked to the idea of the creation of presence via illusion. This is the premise on which this paper is based. Illusion here is not linked to style or genre: in this way, Beckett's Vladimir is as traditional an invention as Aristophanes' Lysistrata or Osborne's Jimmy Porter. Because the actor is patently not the character, dramatic writing strives tirelessly to suspend and subvert our knowledge of this fact. That this is not the case with the 'deep' and shamanistic performances referred to by Schechner and Ekman is not in doubt.[i] Neither is it meant to suggest that mimetic performance is somehow less worthy than the equally illusory presentation of a performative self. We know, however, that genuine examples of submersion and transformation are anything but the norm in a Western theatre where terms such as 'becoming the character' and 'living the part' are often uttered with an absence of thought or consequence.[ii] When Michael Kirby told us that "To act means to feign, to stimulate, to represent, to impersonate"[iii] he exemplified the point via a proposed continuum of five performative stages made up of Nonmatrixed Performing, Symbolized Matrix Performing, Received Acting, Simple Acting and Complex Acting.[iv] It is to the first two stages along this line that this paper is drawn, and it is no accident that the term 'performance' is preferred here by Kirby rather than 'acting'.[v]

Few if any of the distinctions between performance and acting are watertight, and where they leak the leaks are deliberate. All that we can rely on are indications, absences and an assessment of intentionality. Performance is related to theatricality, without being reliant upon it. Marvin Carlson begins his book Performance by stating outright that performance is an "essentially contested concept".[vi] Erin Striff writes that 'our understanding of performance is largely based on what we recognise as theatre, but performance may lack any or all of the signposts we associate with a theatre production.[vii] Similarly, Philip Auslander locates performance as something joined at the hip with theatre: "The theatrical metaphor has a long history and is deeply ingrained in our thinking about performance, and, arguably, in performance itself."[viii] Herbert Blau goes further when he writes that "It is theatre which haunts all performance whether or not it occurs in the theatre".[ix] It is clear that performance is related to theatre as performance writing is related to dramatic text. It says much, in fact, for the power of theatre across the centuries that performance has come to be regarded as a sub-genre of theatre rather than the other way around.

What we do is where we do it. The expectations we bring to the Performing Garage are radically different to those we take with us to the RSC. Different spaces carry with them their own protocols, which impact on the ways in which performance work can be presented. Protocols determine what is and what is not acceptable within the space; they suggest the mechanisms that govern the actions and words to be performed and also the ways in which they are received. Protocols are expressed through the performance codes adopted. These codes encompass, primarily, the use of language, the role of narrative and the relationship of performer to her or his role. Protocols orient the spectator to the work. That is to say that protocols invite, even integrate the spectator into the world of the performance, rather than assuming an automatically external and 'passive' act of looking on the spectator's behalf. Protocols are never final, never fixed. Nevertheless, the conventional theatre space will usually function as a metaphor for 'elsewhere': a battlefield, a garden in Moscow, the chambers of a dying king the actors endeavour to make us buy into illusion via false beards, costumes and learned line. (This is not intended as a criticism or a slur: Spalding Gray's plaid shirt is every bit as much a costume as Uncle Vanya's frock coat). Representation is problematised by theatrical performances that rely on a disturbed performative presence, to be sure. But the fact remains that the position articulated succinctly by Peter Brook that "In everyday life 'if' is a fiction In everyday life 'if' is an evasion, in the theatre 'if' is the truth"[x] is still the axis on which mainstream theatre spins.

And it's hard to disagree with Brook. Mainstream theatre is all about ifs, all about artifice, all about lies albeit lies in pursuit of a greater truth. For with all the good will in the world, the 'if' is never also the 'as'. Milly Barringer's chapter on 'Theatre Language' in her book Theatre: A Way of Seeing, includes analyses of writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Shepard, Weiss and Mamet and yet she is able to summarise by writing that "All contribute to the overall illusion that life is taking place before us".[xi]  Theatre, since the time of Aristotle, has pursued nothing so much as notions of unity, coherence and consistency. Like the well-practiced liar that it is, it knows that one slip will lead to disaster: one misremembered line and the fourth wall it has so painstakingly constructed will tumble into the stalls.[xii]

Unlike a conventional script for drama, performance writing concentrates on exploring ways of disturbing and destabilising presence. It is able to do this precisely because the presence of she or he who performs is notnecessarily illusory in the same regard as she or he who acts. Performers stand before us in space and they are first and foremost themselves. The situations they speak of are their own. They present a performatised presence, but not a performatised and fictional 'other'. This was not always the case, as Josette Feral wrote in 1992

      Where performance art in the seventies was simply refusing the
      representation of a real it tried to attain in its immediacy
      performance art in the nineties has renounced the play of illusion.
      It has chosen to return to the real as a construction of the political,
      and to show the real as necessarily bound to the individual.[xiii]

This is not about 'truth', and it is certainly not about making a claim for the integrity of one approach at the expense of another. Rather than elevating performance to an expression of who the performer is, we might more accurately regard performance as one event that is written across the palimpsest of the performer's self.  Viewed in this way, the performer becomes a manuscript that has been written on repeatedly, with the previous lines incompletely erased and often still legible.

The fundamentally postmodern approach to performance being advocated here is one that acknowledges that we cannot successfully reach out for the real beyond the performance. All that we can ever know is the reality of the performance itself. This is the only 'realism' we can catch, and it comes without a chase. It is from this perspective that performance writing assumes a degree of importance within postmodern culture.[xiv] For whereas the grand narratives of mainstream dramatic invention are held to reveal (timeless) truths about the world, performance writing is a practice that self-reflectively challenges the rationalising assumptions of a modernist mindset. It does so by emphasising that the language forms it utilises are never hermetically sealed. Performance bleeds into performance, as personal experience and the images we value as part of our private lives can be effectively worked through to produce a public and resonant articulation. The relationship between the public and the private is not offered through performance as an either/or. It is not so much a dichotomy or a binary opposition as it is an oscillating displacement, wherein identities are constituted from the interface between multiple spheres. 

Performance writing can be regarded as differing then from at least the bulk of dramatic texts inasmuch as the subject of articulation is likely to be regarded as being in process, as something provisional, contextual and unfinished, as a performative rather than a constative narratology. Rather than being regarded as an autonomous being, a character, who reflects on the world from a position of privilege, the performing self is no more than one caught up in the flow of many. In this the performance does not try to state the 'truth' through narrative so much as it enacts what it seeks to say about narrative whilst itself using meta-narratological forms. As Auslander writes about the ways in which members of the Wooster Group performed in L.S.D., the "blurring of identity nullified the possibility of characteristic projection. It also suggested the construction of the subject under mediatization; the mediatized self-in-alterity, rather than some conception of an 'authentic' self, became the grounding."[xv] This position poses a challenge to those principles of dramatic writing that aim at revealing the presentational truth of a representational subject: the characteristically modernist approach that would have it that the 'real' the essentialist truth about the world and its people can be successfully conveyed through narrative. That is to say, that fictionalised narrative drama is able to faithfully represent a 'real' that lies beyond the phenomenology of the spectator and performer together in space.

Times change and as an agent of deconstruction, time is changing what it is that we view as art. Sensibilities shift, and what was at one time non-art can be transformed into art through little more than the passing of years. Once determined, examples of visual art are preserved, kept safe in frames, on plinths, flattened behind glass and protected even from flash photography. We add value onto value. We choose what to keep and in choosing thus we determine and not least for others what it is that is not only 'art' but also 'good' or 'important' art. In keeping only that which we decide is worthy of preservation, we encourage an increase in value according to uniqueness that is often determined by forces other than those imposed by the artist. In this way, a mass-produced print is worth no more than the paper it is printed on, until such time as all other copies have faded away. Then, and only then, does the once mass-produced achieve (or have ascribed to it) the status of art. Because a print may be of as fine a quality as an original, we know that the quality of reproduction is not an issue. The issue is one of reproduction itself.

The twentieth century saw a number of artists and art movements rebelling against this idea of the uniqueness of the art object. What happened, perversely, was that in striving to destroy the uniqueness of art the artists themselves became celebrated in an entirely new and different way. In turning their backs on the idea of alchemy artists became alchemists like never before. Lauding Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa was one thing, proclaiming Duchamp's L.H.O.O.Q. as an art object in itself was quite another. When Warhol and later Koons made kitsch copies which were worth more than the originals on which they were based the art world stepped out off the edge of previously held notions of certainty. As artists whose medium had hitherto been the creation of permanent objects began to crave the ephemerality of performance distinctions between 'art' and non-art' became even more difficult to determine. The difficulty now was one of immediacy. Because the work could not be preserved, judgements had to be as of the moment as the work itself.

The art of the twentieth and twenty first centuries has become the realisation of Jean Malaquais' dictum that once there were enough artists in the world, the artists would become their own works of art. In collapsing distinctions between the maker and the made, we have slid into a post-Duchampian world where, true to Kurt Schwitters' beliefs, anything an artist spits is art. This may be fine and good, but what makes Schwitter's spitter an artist in the first place? What makes one human being an 'artist' and another not? The difficulty stems from the shift away from immediately discernible quality. We recognise a four-minute miler as an athlete and a plodding jogger as not because we make considered and relatively common judgements as to what constitutes athletics. The jogger on a racetrack is a non-athlete engaged in athletic pursuits, whereas the miler remains an athlete no matter how slowed down the pace may become. The distinction is clear. Even when debates range as to whether, for example, the throwing of darts at a board should be regarded as an Olympic sport we are not regarding darts players as athletes, any more than we would use the term to describe pool or chess players. An athlete then is defined by a degree of physical achievement aligned to potential. They can do that which we cannot (or could not, under similar circumstances) and, crucially, they demonstrate this ability often enough to impress the distinction upon us.

Because actors act and playwrights write plays, we are able to locate and make assessment of their abilities within a relatively secure contextualising frame. How does Treat Williams' Stanley Kowalski compare to Marlon Brando's? How does Henrik Ibsen's work compare to Arthur Miller's? We compare like with like even when we know that the comparison is flawed, when we know that like is not very much like like at all. We do so because whilst so much else has changed the ideas of imitation and otherness have remained relatively constant. We can compare the art of Rembrandt to that of Francis Bacon, whereas to attempt the same with Francisco Goya and Jackson Pollock would be an act of diminishing reward. Notwithstanding the variety of its manifestations imitative art seeks that suspension of disbelief that is the staple of dramatic writing and dramatic performance.

Dramatic presentation is reliant upon certainty. The certainty that what we see is not for real: the whiskey is cold tea, the sword point is blunted off, the seeming once only is part of an ongoing season of rep. These certainties shift beneath us with performance.[xvi] They shift to a point from where the performer might say - as Michel Foucault did when he was asked what position he wrote from: "I am not where you are lying in wait for me, but over here I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face."[xvii]

Bruce Wilshire suggests that 

      Because there is an element of performance in all human skills and
      professions, the performers who are most vital will tend to push out
      the limits of their performances into borderline areas in order to test
      for increasing ability in the outlying actual world: to test, confirm
      and constitute their very selves.[xviii] 

This idea of the 'actual', 'real' and 'unreal' worlds of life and performance is central to any debate, for if performance is able to overlap at will with everyday behaviour then the imposition of terms of definition is inevitably flawed. Conversely, if we choose to embrace an 'anything goes' idea, then the study of performance at the edges drifts away and back and away again on nothing other than whim. If one is able to frame everyday behaviour as art, merely by dint of one's saying so, then we are thrown back on ideas of quality as the only supposedly sound barometer of art. 

And yet, if art has no rules of reception-as-definition, not even rules of dismissal, then everything is placed in the hands of the artists. So that anyone can say that any object is art, any moment performance and any text performative, whilst no one can say that anything is not. A case not so much of 'what is art?' so much as 'when is art?' For those of us in search of some kind of authority to cling to this is something to avoid rather than engage with. As Schwitters returns to release or enslave us it is small wonder that we feel ourselves stumbling in either the darkness of confusion or the false light of certainty. We can see that the opening up of 'theatre' into 'performance' takes us on journeys to the very edges of possibility. The only limits that remain are the limits of our own ingrained sense of what it is that constitutes performance, alongside the limits of self.

Self is never fixed. And this unreliability is brought to the fore though performance writing. Any incoherence emerges not as the absence of something vital, so much as an acknowledgment that in opposition to invented characters - coherence is the one thing that the self will always lack. The performatised self is a series of performances and any claims for truth are tempered by this fact: autobiography is always also a form of alibiography. "Even though (the performer) is ostensibly present before us in his own person, we get the sense that the figure we are seeing is the performance persona which is caught up in a complex and reversible relationship with the performer."[xix] The performatised self is then as illusory as the dramatised other, but its illusion is countered by the irrefutable fact of the self in performance: of presence.[xx] As the self is less overtly illusory, so too is the performance space. Performers are drawn towards spaces on the basis of particular constituent features, through a desire to complete themselves as subjects. In one sense the writer is the first and spiritual space in performance, supplemented by the physicality of performer and location. We cannot, however, distinguish between what the performer brings to the space and what the space brings to the performer, precisely because the distinction is not fixed. What takes place and where it takes place possess significance in performance that is vastly dissimilar to the where and what of theatre.

The fact that technological forces might increasingly mediate the type of performance that emerges within a given space does not mean that one must embrace the post-McLuhan claims that 'the medium is the message'.[xxi] It is only rarely the case that the success of a performance will be predicated on its technical wizardry. Effective performance is likely to rely less on technology per se than on an ability to fashion a space of creative articulation from the realms of imaginative self from which it is constituted. Performance writing needs to address the role of technology within a proliferation of cultural contexts that inscribe the space wherein the subject performs, but not to become its slave. What is of most potential interest is the interaction between those technological forces which are embedded in the space of the performance and the blunt physicality which the performer brings and filters through the space.

Performance writing is able to "inscribe its text in space and sound, rather than to produce it as a separate entity as something to which an entire production will be subsequently subsumed".[xxii] Performance writing is wedded to the process of performance making it is not separated from it in the way that much dramatic writing is constructed. There is an implicit order in dramatic writing if not always in the writing itself then in a reverence and respect for the written word. This is not just a Western phenomenon, although we feel it sharply. The words 'author' and 'authority' are linked by more than etymology: they speak of order and of status.

Everything returns to time. Forms and approaches fit their times. Classical Greek theatre suited the ethical messages of their newly formed democracy. Shakespeare's richness of tongue, with his blending of polysyllabic Latin and Anglo-Saxon wit played to royalty and groundlings in a way that ensured both patronage and box office receipts. Chekhov's naturalistic drama endorsed the logic of Europe's increasingly psychoanalytical understanding of the world. The 'Kitchen Sink' drama of 'Look Back in Anger' allowed middle class British audiences to fool themselves that they were seeing something of a slice of life. And now performance writing, with all of its lacunae and self-referentiality, with all of its slippage and its provisionality, is manifesting the displacements, fluidity and selfishness of our own twenty-first century time. A time of extraordinary communication, where, lost in a world of Reality Television and Internet Chat, it can seem that all that we have to communicate is banality. A time where, with all the space in the world to tell our stories, we often find ourselves with nothing much to say.

Lest this paper appears to be heralding the death of narrative, let it be stressed that this is not the writer's intention. On the contrary, it is because our lives are being increasingly lived as "future narratives of the past"[xxiii] that performance work is able to foreground self in ways that would until recently have been dismissed as 'self-indulgent'.[xxiv] Through differing narrative approaches - including declared fictionality, ironic imitation and the performer/role relationship - differing attitudes towards the authority of narrative are suggested and worked through. The signature of the writer/performer carves for itself a greater space to be made explicit. It is no longer automatically placed, as would be usual in visual art practices, at the bottom right hand corner of the work, at the last point at which the eye, conditioned to the reading of a page from top to bottom and from left to right, will reach. The last 'word' in every sense. Neither is the name, like an author's, on the front cover, spine and title page of the work, eminently visible yet always a part of the frame rather than the work. The signature, the writer/performer's name, is at once enunciator and enunciated. The subject of the artist takes for itself the position of the subject-proper, both part of the frame and also that which is being framed.

All performances are self-portraits to a large extent: the selves of the director, designer, writer, performer et al. Of these, it is the performer, usually but not always, who is the most highly visible and yet the least powerful. The performer performs other people's stories and the name, above the title or at the bottom right hand corner of the canvas, is rarely the name of the artist (of the subject) who is seen. As Laura Marcus states in Auto/Biographical Discourses 'The self does not pre-exist the text but is constructed by it the self 'finds' itself in its acts of self-expression.'[xxv] This idea of self is one of the key elements of contemporary performance writing.

Catherine Elwes has described performance as "the real life presence of artists who take no role but their own. They are author, subject, activator, director and designer. When performers speak within the performance tradition, they are understood to be conveying their own perceptions, their own fantasies, their own analyses."[xxvi] By putting one's own body and experience forward within a live space, the artist becomes both object and subject within the frame of the work, and, as a consequence, this situation allows the artist to interrogate and articulate that relationship. The reference to the 'real life' persona of the artist is the stuff of performance. Striff reminds us that that "we are, in fact, encouraged to read the (performing) artist as being fundamentally present in his or her own work."[xxvii]

After Auslander, we can say that the performing of oneself (if not quite one self) is a feature of performance, even something central to it, whereas the submergence of self into character is a defining trait of acting.[xxviii] We can also say that - as theatre is the place for the well-told lie so performance may now be the place for revelations of a slippery kind of truth.[xxix] This is a large claim it calls for questions of the nature (and possibility) of truth itself, which fall beyond the scope of this paper. What is meant is that performance allows for the possibility of revealing ourselves without the consequences such 'truths' would lead to in our daily lives. We can tell our secrets to strangers because it doesn't really matter to us what those strangers think. 

And this, again, is about time. The world is shifting and the dramatic stage is in danger of becoming inert by comparison.[xxx] Brecht told us this in 1938, when he wrote that 

      time flows on methods wear out, stimuli fail. New problems
      loom up and demand new techniques. Reality alters; to represent
      it the means of representation must alter too what was
      popular yesterday is no longer so today, for the people of
      yesterday were not the people as it is today.[xxxi] 

When performance makers such as Robert Wilson, Reza Abdoh and Elizabeth LeCompte tell us that theatre was never really an influence or inspiration for them, but that raves and the Internet and movies and television are, they are not just speaking for themselves. They are speaking for part of a generation for whom theatre is in danger of becoming an anachronism. A tired form.[xxxii]

The late theatre critic and scholar Jan Kott wrote that theatre is not an imitation of the world, so much as the world is an imitation of theatre. His words have always rung a little uneasily. They sound so ultra-smart as to make us believe that there's a deep philosophical truth hidden in the words. Something he had spotted but the rest of us had missed. Truth is, the world is not imitating theatre because there is no longer any distinction between one state and the other. We do not need Baudrillard to tell us that everything we do and see is always already second-hand. We know that with a certainty we can none of us shake. 

Kott notwithstanding, theatre and dramatic writing aspire to imitation. But we have to wonder what is it that they seek to imitate? Earlier imitations?  For if no originals exist then all things are already imitations and intimations of representations. Photocopies of photocopies, blinding us to the fact of their own core of emptiness. Pictures of pictures. Shadows of shadows. Traces of that which is only ever the trace of something never even there.[xxxiii]

The role of the artist as performer is one which allows for the assuming of a series of transitory identities at the same time as the artist's own live presence is being signalled. As Dwight Conquergood has it: "Performance privileges threshold-crossing the transformative over the normative, the mobile over the monumental."[xxxiv] No less complex, though in rather different ways, is the role of the performer as 'self' and representer of an unseen, writerly and directorial 'other'. When a performer speaks of 'I', which 'I' is being referred to? To which artist does the 'I' refer? Spalding Gray's 'I' is clearly his own, and yet not his own[xxxv] just as the actorly Uncle Vanya's 'I' is Chekhov's and also the actor's. The device of 'I' is generally held to be an attempt at the expression of self, a self that is particular and irreducible, and yet the 'I' is available to any individual spectator - just as it is to each and every performer. It can therefore be regarded as the least particular of all words.[xxxvi]

Just as notions of self are confused, so too is memory. If performance writing, like performance itself is concerned in part with the truth of experience, then how that experience is remembered is vital. There is a distinction to be made here, which relates to the process of memory and also to its twin, 'remembering'; it is a distinction, suggested initially by Freud, between remembrance, memoire involontaire, to use Freud's term, and memory, or memoire volontaire.[xxxvii] Whilst memory serves to put the past into some semblance of chronological order, absorbing that which is being remembered into a deliberate continuum, which locates the distant past at one end and the present at the other, remembrance destroys the separation of past and present. In other words, at those moments when images from the past are set off or triggered by sensations which are being experienced in the present, remembrance manages to fuse the pastwith the present. In this way the linear continuity that is generally seen, viamemory, to exist between past and present is taken apart, deconstructed. Linear time is no longer then accepted as a given of tradition, so much as its destruction becomes an accepted fact. Time that was lost may in this way no longer seem to be so, for through remembrance that past is not made subject to an act of revival but one of renewal. 

The distinctions between 'what took place' and how it is remembered, and documented are unclear. As Luis Bunuel told us

      Our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading
      our memories; and since we are all apt to believe in the
      reality of our fantasies, we end up transforming our lies
      into truths. Of course fantasy and reality are equally
      personal, and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter
      of only relative importance.[xxxviii]

If the past is/was a lie then the present can be regarded in some ways as a cure - as the antidote of honesty or the therapy of recognition - and this 'cure' is made manifest in the fashion of self-narration. Whilst there are innumerable ways of dealing with narration per se, there are, principally, two ways of dealing with self-narration. We can either collapse away the distinctions between narrative and meta-narrative, writing ourselves into the wider world and exposing the act of writing as we do so. Or, as Claire MacDonald suggests, we can elevate the fragmented and partial narratives of our own lives to a point whereby those lives are presented as things of considerable importance.[xxxix] Linda Hutcheon identifies this as a type of mimesis in reverse, a condition wherein our lives begin to imitate the stories we read and see rather than the vice versa of stories which attempt to relate to our lives.[xl] 

If a flawed and increasingly suspect memory continues to prove central to performance making then we can also say that memory is the mainstay of art.[xli] This is because all imaginative thought is in one vital way an exercise of memory. We are not able to imagine anything that we do not already know.[xlii] Through this we can suggest that the ability to imagine is actually the ability to remember. We remember that which we have already experienced and we apply it to a new situation. Creative imagination is thus comprised of an ability to harness memory to invention. It is an action of the mind that produces a new idea or insight from out of the known. Chaos, contradiction and confusion are central features of contemporary practice. Chaos and order, like the here-and-now of memory and the there-and-then of the remembered are not contradictions so much as vitally important aspects of the creative process.

As with the notion of presence, uncertainty is made possible and inevitable through, on the one hand, the increased certainty that what we are experiencing as performance is connected vitally to the self of the performer and the uniqueness of the space, and on the other, that concepts of self and space are never fixed.

The language of performance writing is central to the development of new work. For too many years performance has caught itself up in an anti-language position. In its search for ideals of 'total theatre' or 'pure performance' performance itself has remained either self-indulgently obscure or overwhelmed by its own sense of a semiotics out of sync. Carlson tells us that:

      In the early 1970s performance art was, like the earliest cabaret
      performances, futurist evenings, or dada exhibitions, created by
      and for a very limited artistic community (with) an interest in
      developing the expressive qualities of the body, especially in
      opposition to logical and discursive thought and speech.[xliii]

The legacy of this has been an overdose of gesticulation in place of articulation, of a seeming difference for nothing more than the sake of change. Not only has this delayed the development of performance writing as a genre, it has made it possible for mainstream theatre to tap into performance practices as (mere) production devices. We have seen this, for example, in the mass popularity of the stage adaptation of The Lion King, a work that borrows shamelessly in its physical expressivity from fringe and off-off-Broadway. This superficial use of performance 'styles' in mainstream theatre has perpetuated rather than transformed the kind of textual practice still at work in our theatres. In opting for the 'look' of performance as part of its mainstream practice, theatre bypasses the ideas and ideologies that inform performance. What remains is little more than a form of textual harassment. A worrying at the edges of theatre in lieu of more radical change.

If performance writing is to be regarded as an important element that helps to shape, celebrate and circulate a complex and interwoven world of ideas it should not dwell too long if at all on the 'rules' laid down by traditional mainstream sensibilities of convention as the conventional. It should, instead, apply itself to finding and exploring further those ways of speaking and of formulating the space and places that performance is able to bring to the fore. And just as the only voice that we can ever speak authoritatively and honestly with is our own so the most vital performance presence may now belong to the performers who present their own selves. This is so because autobiographical performance makes a claim for truth that cuts through the layers of mediatisation that exist elsewhere. At the stubbed out cigarette end of postmodernism's multi-channel, multiplex filled world the last thing we need is another dose of artifice. 

Ultimately, perhaps all that performance has going for it is that it provides a space for looking. Performers stand in front of us and we can watch them until the lights fade out to black. We can look at them, and the performers can look back at us. It is at once the most selfish and most selfless act: to look at one another. It is an opportunity too rare to squander on the fake.

 In arguing for tolerance towards texts that transcend the representative protocols of dramatic writing, the last words of this paper are given over to a playwright. To Howard Barker:

        The very writing (of a play) presuppose(s) an audience, and this
        audience has habits of perception, reflexes, expectations, which
        must be accommodated .. Because the audience dominates the
        playwright, he is unlikely to be the instrument by which theatre
        undergoes profound changes of function. The poet on the other
        hand, may lead the audience into new relations with the stage
        . Only by infringing the rules of playwrighting was the theatre
        able to shed its utilitarian functions.[xliv]


[i] See Schechner, R Performance Theory. Routledge, New York & London, 1988. 'Magnitudes of Performance' pp 251-288.

[ii] See Auslander, P. 'Just Be Your Self' in Zarrilli, P. B. Acting (Re)Considered. Routledge, New York & London, 1995 pp.59-67. Auslander acknowledges that

"The problematic of self is, of course, central to performance theory. Theorists as diverse as Stanislavsky, Brecht and Grotowski all implicitly designate the actor's self as the logos of performance; all assume that the actor's self precedes and grounds her performance and that it is the presence of this self in performance that provides the audience with access to human truths." p.60

Auslander's reading of self in performance is both informed and informative, and there is no doubt that the achievements of these named theorist/practitioners changed the ways that acting is regarded in the West. Notwithstanding this, this paper stems from a belief that acting, in its usually encountered form, bares scant resemblance to this type of transformative and liminal work. As Brecht told us, a good idea, badly presented dies a long time. That his own once-revolutionary practice has been reduced to the staging-by-numbers of countless mock-ensembles is terrible witness to this truth.

[iii] Kirby, M A Formalist Theatre. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia. p.3

[iv]ibid pp 6-7

[v] We can say that the performing of oneself is a feature of performance, even something central to it, whereas the submergence of self into character is a defining trait of acting. Auslander describes this as 'The blending of real and fabricated personae and situations that occur when performance personae assume the same functions as "real".' Auslander, P. Presence and Resistance: Postmodernism and Cultural politics in Contemporary American Performance. University of Michigan Press, 1994 p.78

[vi] Carlson, M. Performance: a critical introduction. Routledge, New York & London, 1996 p.5

[vii] Striff, E. Performance Studies, Palgrave, 2003. p.2

[viii] Auslander, P. 'Evangelical Fervour' TDR, vol. 39. 1995 pp 179-80

[ix] Blau, H. The Eye of Prey. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1987 pp 164-5

[x] Brook, P. cited in Luckurst, M. 'Drama: Writing for Stage and Radio' in The Creative Writing Handbook. Singleton & Luckhurst, Palgrave, 2000 p.245

[xi] Barranger, M. S. Theatre: A Way of Seeing. Wadsworth, California 1995 p.217. Barranger offers nine dramatic conventions that are commonly used by playwrights: stage directions, exposition, point of attack, complication, crisis, resolution, simultaneous plotting and the use of dramatic versus actual time. These conventions have remained broadly constant from the time of Aristotle.

[xii] This is not to suggest that all Western theatre conforms to the Stanislavskian ideal of fourth wall realism. However, the idea of the fourth wall has become such a given of theatre that when it does not 'appear' we tend to speak about its absence. That 'breaking the fourth wall' is as commonplace a term in theatre as it is shows just how prevalent the practice of performing to a supposedly unseen other has become.

[xiii] Feral, J. 'What is Left of Performance Art?' Autopsy of a Function, Birth of a Genre' Discourse vol. 14, 1992, pp148-9. In Carlson (1996) p.151

[xiv] Whilst it has been commonplace for some time to hear cultural theorists suggest that we are living in a postmodern condition, the characteristics and indeed the status of that condition continue to arouse heated debate. For the purposes of this paper, the prime aspect of the 'postmodern condition' is taken to be the challenge to the liberal humanist paradigm, which views people as rational individuals able to identify and reflect upon universal regimes of truth, art and knowledge.

[xv] Auslander (1994) p.97

[xvi] In 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeni issued a fatwa that sentenced the British writer Salman Rushdie to death for apostasy and blasphemy against the faith of Islam. In response Rushdie gave a television interview where he said "Doubt is the central condition of a human being in the twentieth century. One of the things that has happened to us is to learn how certainty crumbles in our hands."[xvi] The further from our hands that certainty slips the greater it seems is our desire to fashion it anew.

[xvii] Foucault, M. The Archaeology of Knowledge (trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith) Tavistock Press, London, 1972. p.17

[xviii] Wilshire, B. 'The Concept of the Paratheatrical' TDR, vol. 34. 1990 p.169

[xix] Auslander (1994) pp 80-1

[xx] This is not to suggest that the performing self is always 'present' in an uncomplicated sense. The work of Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic, Orlan and Stelarc, among others, would give lie to this claim.

[xxi] See McLuhan, M. The Medium is the Message. Penguin, UK, 1967

[xxii] Bergvall, C. in Grey Suit, Summer, Cardiff, 1994

[xxiii] Currie, M. Postmodern Narrative Theory. Macmillan Press Ltd, London, 1998 p.98

[xxiv] Currie, after Derrida, refers to this narrativising of one's own life as 'archive fever'. ibid

[xxv] Marcus, L. Auto/Biographical Discourses. Manchester University Press, UK, 1994. p. 180

[xxvi] Elwes, C. 'Floating Femininity' in Catherine Elwes & Rose Garrard (Eds.) About Time, London, ICA, 1980. p. 42

[xxvii] Striff (2003) p.9

[xxviii] Auslander describes this as 'The blending of real and fabricated personae and situations that occur when performance personae assume the same functions as "real".' Auslander(1994) p.78

[xxix] A 'lie' in this sense is not regarded as something negative. Rather, as Picasso had it, art is a lie that tells the truth.

[xxx] Gerry Robinson, Chairman of The Arts Council of England, The Creativity Imperative, 2000. p.13:

"Too much (theatre) still relies on the recollection of a post-war golden era, which claims a status that has long since been lost. Some theatre professionals have not fully recognised the changes taking place around them. Contemporary theatre has lost a generation and needs to get back in touch with young people. You ask most 16-25-year-olds whether it's either fun or fashionable to go to the theatre and you will get a very clear answer."

[xxxi] Brecht, B. The Popular and the Realistic (1938) Reprinted in Brecht on Theatre ed. And trans. John Willet, Hill and Wang, New York and Methuen, London, 1964. pp 108-110

[xxxii] See Freeman, J. 'I Accuse', Guardian, 4-10-200

[xxxiii] In the midst of all this imitation we will occasionally witness something spontaneous. Theatre may be the one and only place on earth where spontaneity is at once celebrated ad infinitum and denied. Life is spontaneous. One step outside our doors or through them stepping in and life hurls its game of chance at us and we respond. The telephone rings and we answer; a face from the past appears around a corner. Beset at every turn by life and death and all between we improvise so effortlessly that the term itself becomes bereft of meaning. We never speak of improvisation in the world outside the theatre because ordinary and extraordinary responses to ordinary and extraordinary stimuli are the very stuff of life. Ad-lib in the theatre, respond in the moment, and an audience will applaud as though you've solved the riddle of the sands. And what is this if not a tacit admission that theatre is not an enhancing of life so much as an act of reduction?

[xxxiv] Conquergood, D. 'Of Caravans and Carnivals: Performance Studies in Motion' TDR 148, 1995 pp137-138

[xxxv] Spalding Gray was a member of The Wooster Group for several years, developing ideas of his own self through the work, to the point where he now describes himself as a 'monologist', teller of the tales of his own life. The impetus for this work found a focus through his mother's death, which became a central aspect of The Wooster Group's performance of Rumstick Road (1976). The confessional tone of the work upset many critics, and a thorough description of both the work and the subsequent response can be found in David Savran's Breaking the Rules, TCG, New York, 1988. pp. 74-101. The development of Gray's work, away from 'character-acting' is chronicled in his own book Swimming to Cambodia, Picador, London, 1986.

[xxxvi] See James, W. 'Sameness in the Self as Known' in Psychology. World Press, New York, 1948.

[xxxvii] Freud, S. Art and Literature. Penguin, London, 1985. pp. 66-68.

[xxxviii] Bunuel, L. in The Surrealist Connection: An Approach to a Surrealist Aesthetic of Theatre. David G. Zinder. UMI Research Press, Michigan, 1976. p. 40.

[xxxix] See MacDonald, C. 'Assumed Identities: Feminism, Autobiography and Performance Art' in The Uses of Autobiography. J. Swindells (ed.), Taylor & Francis, London, 1995. pp. 187- 195.

[xl] See Hutcheon, L Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox, Methuen, New York, 1984. pp. 17-35

[xli] Williams, B. Problems of the Self. Cambridge University Press, 1973. p. 13.

[xlii]ibid. p. 17.

[xliii] Carlson (1996) p.100

[xliv] Barker, H. Arguments for a Theatre. Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1989. pp151-2

©2003 John Freeman

John Freeman is an actor, writer and a PhD Senior Lecturer in the School of English & Performance Studies at De Montfort University, UK. He performed in the world premiere of Edward Bond's 'Jackets', and with Insomniac in their award-winning piece 'Clare de Luz'. He was a member of the Optik, Red Rose and RAT theatre companies. He also performed in a variety of television programmes for the BBC and Channel 4. His writing includes: Articles in 'Studies in Theatre & Performance' (Writing the Self) 'Research in Post-Compulsory Education' (Suffering From Certainty) The Guardian (I Accuse + Exit Stalls Right) 'Journal of Dramatic Theory & Criticism' (TellingSecrets to Strangers) Higher Education Review (The Location and Theory of Looking), 'Consciousness, Literature & the Arts' (Autobiographical Spectatorship) . He was the founder and former editor of 'Performance Practice'. Associate editor of 'Body, Space & Technology'.  A book, 'Tracing the Footprints: Documenting the Process of Performance' is out now with University of America Press. And...  he's currently shaping an interview with Steven Berkoff into articles for The Guardian and the magazine 'Jack'.   He's scheduled to speak at the Hawaii Conference on International Education in January 2004, in person, not halographically.


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