Illegitimate Histories


Illegitimate Histories

[First published in The Stage on 12 May 2012]

I want to think a bit about the traces of the past that persist in the theatre of the present. I want to think about some of the unlikely places that those traces originate, places beyond the margins of what is conventionally considered to be theatre history.

No work is created in a vacuum – regardless of how unconventional a piece may appear, it still contains within in it the ruins of older pieces and older ideas. To begin to excavate those ruins, to see how a piece is shaped by them, can hugely enrich an understanding of that new work.

Take, for example, something like 2.8 hours later, a game soon to be seen in Bristol in which hundreds of players will be chased by zombies through the streets of the city.

Superficially, this game might be assumed to be nothing more than a playful night-time escapade for the thrill-seekers of the south west. But, if we start to explore the traces buried within it of everything from early 20th century situationism to the work of a theatre company like Welfare State International, the piece can be considered in very different terms – as a new manifestation of a very well-established way of engaging with the urban environment, a set of strategies with their own history and their own political resonance.

This kind of understanding doesn’t simply inform an understanding of work as unusual as the game described above. It helps us to unpick the complexities of a much broader swathe of contemporary theatre, all of which is made richer by appreciating the histories that influence it.

The critic Aleks Sierz begins his recent book on the contemporary theatre by (I would argue reductively) isolating “proper” playwriting as his field of study, offering a list of alternative forms (“ensemble acting, physical theatre, devised work, live art” and many more) that he has chosen to ignore.

His doing so I believe has less impact on those he leaves out, than it does on those he includes. To see any work from such a narrow historical perspective is like staring at a Jackson Pollock through a rolled-up newspaper – you may appreciate the shapes and colours while missing the point entirely.

So, what are some of these illegitimate histories, existing beyond the conventional margins of theatre history? One of the most immediate might be the dizzying experimentation of the New York avant-garde of the 1960s. Consider as an example a piece like Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in Six Parts – a disorienting installation-cum-performance that moved the audience between three different spaces divided by semi-transparent plastic sheeting.

Today, the traces of 18 Happenings can be seen in the number of contemporary shows that similarly position the audience as part of a self-contained theatrical environment, from the immersive landscapes of Punchdrunk or You Me Bum Bum Train, to the implied participation of Tim Crouch’s haunting play The Author.

In all these works, there resides an implication that theatre isn’t something that is observed from a position of relative neutrality, but instead a process in which we are all implicated. Theatre is not something we watch, but something we take part in, something we do together. And that is undoubtedly a notion that resonates across the theatrical landscape.

The discordant melee of ideas generated during the 1960s quietly informs so much of what is happening in theatre today. Yet preserving its memory is still too often considered the responsibility of art galleries, assumed to be its natural home. Whether it be the Happenings of the 60s, or the club scenes of the 80s, or the even the mummers plays of the 1700s, I sometimes wish we in theatre were better at acknowledging that these are our histories also.


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