By Hans-Theis Lehmann. Translated by Erik Butler
Reviewed by Ross Stuart*(Canada)
Review a new book by Hans-Theis Lehmann? Of course I would.
Professor Lehmann is much-talked about in European academic circles, less well-known in North America. His previous book—Postdramatic Theatre (1999)—“groundbreaking” was one description, pushes back the boundaries of theatre art today and was one of the first studies to try and straddle the diverging realms of theatre and performance studies.
My reading began with Lehmann’s very long introduction, but right there on page one was confirmation that I’d made the right decision to write this review. Lehmann writes: “This book seeks to bring back the theatrical dimension to the discussion of tragedy and even to demonstrate its centrality.” Early on, he even tackles the venerated Aristotle, still the foundational figure for the majority of post-secondary courses in Dramatic Theory. From the beginnings of theory and “notwithstanding the vast body of writing on tragedy and the tragic, there hardly exists a theory of tragedy in the narrower sense—one whose arguments follow from the study of the theatre” (2).
So Prof. Lehmann is in my camp; I’m a fervent believer in understanding plays, exploring the theory of drama even, through the study of the plays within the theatre past and present. Plays? Again, Lehmann is very catholic, allowing that “contemporary postdramatic forms include brilliant documentary theatre, installation theatre, comedy, political theatre, the theatre of images, theatre bordering on performance art (2).”
The study of tragedy is important, but tragedy is not the soul and meaning of theatrical art. Fair enough. Tragedy is not literature; nor is it “reality to be found in life” (3). But tragedy is not necessarily “dramatic theatre,” a “pleonasm” (3), [from the Greek, meaning excess], although changing fashions over the centuries especially in Europe have tried to make that connection.
What? Or, in the vulgar, “WTF”? It’s page 4 now, and I’m getting bogged down in dueling definitions and counter arguments, and I’m still searching for that dreaded nemesis of undergraduates, the “thesis statement.” Maybe it can be found in this observation, “Today, dramatic theatre continues to exist alongside postdramatic phenomena–which raises the question whether, and in what way, authentically tragic experience is (still) possible” (4). Or, in this concept, that “every aesthetic experience that merits the name contains an element of reflection” (5).
But wait a minute, “no general criterion exists for where, or in what form” the act of reflection occurs. We need to reflect. We don’t know how to reflect. We . . . , well, we see the challenge we face in opening this book.
Enough quotations! But it is important that the reader knows what lies ahead. Tragedy and Dramatic Theatre is a good book. Possibly, it is a great book. But it is a book that presupposes the reader who is active, open to the deep debates on page after page, and, frankly, is patient, willing to reread sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph composed (or translated) in dense, sometimes almost impenetrable English. There is nothing simple about the book, from the complexities of the argument to the many Germanic references (Schiller, okay, but how are you on your Holderlin or von Hofmannsthal?), to the continual intertwining of the musings of philosophers, ancient and modern.
After the early chapters laying out a few of his overriding conceptions, the book settles into a more roughly chronological arrangement. Aristotle is derided for his inability to understand the lyric and mimetic function of the chorus, the most theatrical element of Greek tragedy. Plato is mostly dismissed for missing the importance of theatre altogether. Seneca in English translation is hailed as the real father of modern tragedy, especially revenge tragedy, vis-à-vis the Elizabethans.
Most of a long chapter delves into Hegel, a frequent reference point, especially for his “insistence for the relation of the aesthetic to the Concept,” which can become a guide to an understanding of the tragic as it applies to postmodern varieties of performance. Nietzsche “thinks from the standpoint of the theatre, and he understands the language of drama as an essentially deficient mode of theatricality, namely of gesture or music” (34). Lehmann includes a section using Nietzsche’s striking attack on words as being like “stammering in a foreign language” (34).
As he moves forward in time, Lehmann traces his view of the rise of the drama as opposed to the tragic post Schiller and into the nineteenth century. Later, he deals with the lyrical and symbolic plays of writers such as Yeats and Maeterlinck. His final chapter introduces Artaud, Reinhardt, Brecht, and mentions Muller. And, in his concluding sections, he lays out his assertion that the tragic experience continues into postmodern activities, whether told in movement, music, image or language.
Despite Lehmann’s position on the necessity of understanding tragedy within the context of performance, of the living theatre, this is not a book full of insights into the theatrical approach to this tragedy or that.
Having just finished Nicholas Hytner’s Balancing Act, his newsy and self-congratulatory overview of his years at the Royal National Theatre in London, what stood out for me were some of his perceptive notes on his readings of Shakespearean tragedy, Hamlet in particular, that he incorporated into his productions.
Yes, there is a short chapter on Antigone in Tragedy and Dramatic Theory. But there is little that will help the actress or the director of that challenging play except possibly a thorough critique of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic approach to the text. Medea gets a mention, for defining excess. There are scattered insights about a handful of Shakespeare. Richard III reveals, at the end, that his “whole struggle for the throne and power has been for nothing at all” (74). A nihilistic interpretation, certainly, but worth some pre-rehearsal consideration. A few German classics are brought up as are some works from the twentieth century. But, all in all, this is not a practical book for the theatre maker.
Rather, Professor Lehmann’s world is that of academe, erudite and, it must be said, surprisingly convincing, despite my initial reservations. By the end of the book, I was convinced that in the history of “European theatrical discourse, the sensory is admitted only as the double—the inherently deficient double at that—of logos (28)” [from the Greek, to convince or persuade by employing reason).
In other words, that text has taken primacy over performance. From Plato onwards, the debate has been between text and theory to the exclusion of the theatrical, which should be pivotal to a true understanding of the tragic experience. Theatre history is littered with instances where aesthetic debates have been superseded by the necessity for justifying the very existence of theatre per se. Unfortunately, we are still having those battles/discussions today.
*Ross Stuart is an Emeritus Professor of Theatre and Dramatic Literature at York University in Toronto.