European Dramaturgy in the 21st Century

A constant movement

Performance Research Sep 2009English
Volume 14, Issue 3, September 2009, pages 7-11

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Contextual note
This text, slightly adapted for publication, was the opening keynote at the conference European Dramaturgy in the Twenty-first Century, Frankfurt am Main, 27–30 September 2007.

I want to start by going back to the previous century. In 1988 I wrote a text with the title: ‘Wenn ich still stehe, verstehe ich nichts – words borrowed from Hans-Magnus Enzensberger (2006). The subtitle of the article was: ‘Short comments on the notion of European dramaturgy’. Today – almost twenty years of dramaturgical experience later – I still do not know properly what dramaturgy is – let alone European dramaturgy. Not only the subject but also the object is constantly moving, not standing still. If there is one thing we can say with certainty about dramaturgy, it is that it is constantly moving, that it is movement itself, a process. In the encircling movement executed in this text of 1988, an attempt to get a little bit closer to the heart of what European dramaturgy could possibly be at that moment, there was the matter of different artistic points of view, which could be traced in the work of leading European artists of that moment. There was the matter of the fading away of the borders between different disciplines, of a narrativity torn to pieces, of a growing impact of sensuality, of a focus on the materiality of the used elements, of a straight choice for the work-in-progress-method and, concerning the content, of the handling of the paradox of hope. On the organizational level, the conscience was present that production circumstances have an influence on the creative process. Most of the artists mentioned chose not to work in big institutions or established companies. Together with organizers and programmers with whom they shared the same ideas they created their own structures in which they tried to realize their work with as much as possible of artistic freedom.

Where are we today? The world has changed profoundly in these twenty years – I do not need to enumerate the changes we experience, we live through them ourselves every day, we feel them until deep in the twistings of our brains. However, it seems inevitable to me that if we want to get closer to an answer on the question of how to define and actualize the notion of European dramaturgy, we have to focus on dealing with the actual relationship of the artist with this world, on the dialogue, that is or could be held between the artwork and the audience, on the relationship between theatre-practice and its theoretical questioners, on the conversation we have to carry on with or about Europe etc.

Probably I’m not the only person who is worried about the world, worried about what the arts and all other spiritual values still can signify in this world. I do not want to talk about the precarious situation of nature on this planet, nature on which we have inflicted probably irreversible damage. I want to talk on that which I consider being the phenomenon, the motive, responsible for this damage. Since the decline of Communism there has been an overwhelming élan of the neoliberal political and economic forces that – supported by the superfast development of technology – have spread the modules of unrestrained production and consumption all over the globe. The growing attention today for the work of a thinker like  Antonio Gramsci, for instance his theory of hegemony, points to the rediscovery of the complex relationship in a society between the economic basis and her different political, social and cultural superstructures and of the determining influence of the economic organization on culture and on arts.

It seems that one of our first tasks is to examine how the economic foundation determines our daily work. The marketing philosophy has indeed become so powerful in our society that no social sector can escape it. The management philosophy also leaves its mark on the functioning of theatres and companies. Even in Europe it becomes more and more difficult to maintain the level of artistic budgets, although – compared with the United States – many theatre institutions or structures get the biggest part of their income from the support of authorities and therefore still dispose of a relative autonomy, autonomy necessary to be able to create and to take artistic risk. The fact that it is difficult to evaluate artistic matter by quantity is in this context one of our biggest weaknesses but also one of our biggest forces.

Symbolic capital is not the same as financial capital. It functions according to its own rules and laws, however much it is tried from different sides to declare them as equal. For instance, when innovation in the commercial world almost always results in more sales, an innovation in the arts often has the contrary result. Experimental work most likely generates rather less audience than more. Symbolic credit most often is inversely proportional to economic profit. Compared with twenty years ago it becomes every day more difficult to resist the pressure of the marketing philosophy. Nobody is immune to this. We in theatre, we produce too much and too fast; programming is done too far in advance: long before the creation starts, marketable concepts are written down in promotion texts, and after that we fill in these concepts. We produce more and more formats that have proved to be successful; the time for research becomes shorter etc. This pressure is so much heavier, because the production mode inherent in theatre is in fact an aberration, an anomaly in this time. This mode of production, which we can qualify as artisanal, is old-fashioned but inevitable. Each performance is a handmade product, good work is always a pièce unique.

One of the actual key notions in the organization of economic life today is this magic word of flexibility. Workers must be able to function in often varying tasks. Labour is shifting from fixed-function labour to taskoriented labour. Speed, adaptability, short-term vision, superficial knowledge are today the qualities that managers expect from their workers. The building up of experience and the development of a genuine professional history lose all value. In the United States and in the United Kingdom interim employees are already the group of the working population that grows fastest. They are not able to invest themselves in their work, not able to develop long-lasting social relations with their colleagues. Getting to know and to trust the people you are working with, developing an emotional relationship with your task as part of a bigger process – these are all qualities that in a creative process (such as it happens in theatre) play an important part. Artists are longing to research in depth; they need time to construct a language; they have a need to develop themselves in continuity. In Parallels and Paradoxes – the book in which are collected the conversations between conductor Daniel Barenboim and literary and culture critic Edward Said – Barenboim says: ‘I think that in every process, whether it is a cultural or a political process, there’s an absolutely innate relationship between the content and the time it takes’ (Barenboim and Said 2004). The fight against velocity, against the pressure to produce, the fight for time that can and may be spoiled, for time in which research without an aim and deadline can take place, is probably one of the most important battles the arts have to fight today.

But there are more things to fight for. Apart from the economic pressure there is also the  political pressure in the form of increasingly omnipresent social control, of the increasing number of rules, the increasing amount of bureaucracy. This pressure results in imposing, compelling frames by which initiatives coming from the bases of different social sectors are almost excluded. All these small but important forms of freedom and autonomy of the citizen that seemed to be acquired since the period of May’68 are disappearing. A striking example is happening in Flanders at this moment: the renovation – in fact, it’s an act of restoration – undertaken in the public radio and television institute, a media business, entirely supported by the authorities. According to commercial and promotional motives, which they no longer even try to hide, the management, ignorant of the knowledge and the know-how about making creative radio and television programmes, proclaims that from now on everything has to be funny and certainly not too difficult. Expertise is banned, people who through years of hard work have collected experience and inside knowledge in a certain area are dismissed or discouraged and replaced by easily chatting presenters who excel most in promoting and selling themselves.

The mere quantity of how many people listen to the radio or look at the television programmes, supported by many completely useless but very expensive enquêtes on what the people want, justify the renovation of this institute, which probably is the most powerful political and ethical body in our society at this moment. But of course you know about or recognize this kind of story. Never have there been so many people in our society holding a university degree and never have the anti-intellectual reflexes been so strong as today. Instead of choosing the long and work-intensive way of searching which possibly might bring some clearness in the complexity of society, time and again the choice is made for the fast, short-term vision, the easy way of simplification of reality, for clichés and slogans, which popular politicians of all kinds gratefully use. Quantity is more easily achieved than quality. To give more voices the opportunity to express themselves, more time and space is needed than just to give the opportunity to one voice.

Again, nobody – us included – is immune to this kind of phenomena. Do we not have to screen our own practice to see if these social influences are also present in what we do? What about the relationship between theory and practice in the arts, for instance, and more precisely the academization of the high schools involved in arts education. Although during my entire professional career I always tried to bring theory and practice, art and science, closer to each other, I am very suspicious about this rapprochement that takes place in the high schools of arts. Artists suddenly longing to develop an academic career are questionable. The contrary phenomenon, professors or theoreticians suddenly feeling the need to create a performance are questionable as well. I can assert, with a lot of certainty, that the overwhelming majority of talented artists is not interested in making an ‘arts doctoral thesis’. Is this careless handling of expertise the same as what happens with experience, tradition and craftsmanship in other sectors of society? Or is this compelled standardization of art and science hiding some motives of bureaucratic control? Of course the uniform bookkeeping is easier to handle. This bunch of measures, elaborated far from the practical reality somewhere in an office in Bologna, seems to ignore the difference in nature between a place for reflection and distance at one hand and of action and emersion at the other hand. Will these measures not result in a devaluation of the doctoral proof, a proof of autonomy in searching and thinking? And are we not going to breed a group of frustrated people who will be neither scientist nor artist? Is this not a perfect soil to develop and perpetuate a bureaucratic climate? And as we know, bureaucracy is power in its most stupid and probably most dangerous form.

The question is how we can get rid of these kinds of useless pressures in order to spend our energy on the real and permanent conversation  between theory and practice that we urgently need. In his text ‘Eupalinos, ou l’architecte’, Paul Valéry makes his character Socrates pick up a shell early in the morning, walking on the boundary between sea and beach. ‘Un pauvre objet, une certaine chose que j’ai trouvée en me promenant. Elle fut l’origine d’une pensée qui se divisait d’elle-même entre le construire et le connaître’ (Valéry 1924). A poor object, a certain thing that I found while walking. This object was the origin of a thought, which divided by itself between the building, construction, on one hand and the knowing on the other. ‘Construire ou connaître?’: to make, to create something or to recognize, to understand something? How did you become?– this is what Socrates asks the white shell as he revolves it on the palm of his hand. And he realizes that there are two ways, two methods, to find an answer to that question: ‘connaître ou construire?

Perhaps today there are even more possibilities for art and science to meet. Very exciting things, for instance, are happening in the blending of scientific research and artistic innovation. Artists, mainly those who want to work with highly complex technological means, are looking for the help of scientific researchers in order to explore the possibilities of new media and technologies. Vice versa, scientific researchers – often as well-educated in arts as in technology – get caught by the charms of new media as a poetic force. Due to the material needed and the long time needed to explore it, these are very expensive projects and their funding is often realized by joining University funds, artistic and industrial budgets. From these initiatives new ways of producing are emerging on the creative level. People with very different backgrounds, knowledge and capacities are meeting each other in an intensive teamwork. In his book Internet et globalisation esthétique, the Italian philosopher and aestheticist Mario Costa speaks of a transition of the artistic personality into an aesthetical, epistemological researcher, or of teams consisting of technological artists and aesthetical technological researchers (Costa 2003). Science has reached the point at which it is discovering more and more keys to the secrets of life, the secrets of becoming. Does this also turn the existence and functions of art upside down? At least grammatical changes already become visible in the language of scientists.

Researchers, for instance, who are involved in nanotechnologies by developing chips on silicon disks in clean rooms, use the verb ‘to grow’ in a transitive way. Normally we can say ‘we grow’, meaning ourselves becoming bigger or more mature. Or ‘we grow’ in the sense of ‘we make plants’ or ‘we grow crops’ as farmers do. Those researchers, however, talking about their chips say, ‘We grow them.’ This seems exactly the unison of ‘connaître et construire’ in one process of growing, of becoming. Science and art are two different cultures. In fact by using the word culture we could say that in their trying to live together these two cultures suffer under comparable problems as the different ethnic, religious and political groups in our society. In society most often these problems are handled in two different, equally fast and simplistic ways. The two answers are either racism or compelled assimilation. Edward Said remarked about this: ‘I think that the real problem today is that there is no mediation between these two extremes. Either there is homogenization or there is xenophobia, but not the sense of exchange’ (Barenboim and Said 2004).

However fluctuating an identity is, however difficult it may be to define, what is peculiar to a group of people, to a culture – these identities, these difficulties do exist. We can throw stones at each other over the wall separating the two gardens, or we can be forced under control to bring down the wall and declare that all the gardens from now on are one single park. But other alternatives are possible. Approaching each other takes a long time. Perhaps we have to grow a hedge or some bushes instead of the wall. Where the wind can pass through, where between the leaves we can have whispering conversations. We can make small doorways in the hedge, openings where the bushes have disappeared  because we cross them and wear them down so many times. We have to give time to the talks, so that slowly hesitation and fear can turn into clarity and pleasure. Sometimes it will succeed, and sometimes it will not. Will we get somewhere? We’ll see if we get somewhere. Just like Jerôme Bel and Pichet Klunchun who, in the performance ‘Pichet Klunchun and myself’, are together on the stage having a conversation about each of their practices and who absolutely do not grasp what the other one is talking about. But every night, evening after evening, they are able to be on the stage together, sharing their not-understanding with the audience.

Concerning Europe it’s important to consider the whole of the continent, not only the west but also the east, the north and the south, and to stay aware of the rest of the world. Europe has been a colonizer in the past, but there also exists a kind of culture-colonization, and it has a tendency to continue its life long after colonization proper has come to an end. I hope that our Eurocentrism will not be the standard by which we will measure all things. I hope that artistic Europe will remember the possibility of whispering conversations through the leaves.

And to conclude: what about dramaturgy? Twenty years ago we spoke not only about the emancipation of the performer but also about the emancipation of the spectator. Collecting the fragments shown on stage, it was the spectator’s task to construct his own performance. This movement is continued today, but in full consciousness that in these twenty years we were almost drowned in a torrent of images, in full consciousness that media-culture, in all its forms, is dominating our thinking. Looking through a camera or looking through a screen, we are always confronted with something that is framed. The frame has become the basic attribute of our perception, but the frame, inevitably, also means to exclude, to direct a look. First to look at this and not at that. It prevents us from looking in a critical way, from deciding what we want to see and what not, which leads to a de-politicization of our looking. In theatre, however, there remains an opening, a chance to reconquer the political countervoice, the voice of the reflecting individual.

However much the social power of theatre is limited, to question the political importance of theatre all the time also means to question its relationship with the audience. Many theatremakers today are asking questions like ‘How and what do spectators see and hear? How to develop strategies of perception?’ By slowly transgressing the borderlines between visual arts, dance and theatre, installations and performances come into being in which the spectator alternatively is brought into a theatre or a museum context, with an alternation between ‘looking at something’ and ‘walking in something’, an alternation between observation and immersion, between surrendering and attempting to understand. And in this way, the spectator can determine independently his own standpoint. Perhaps more important than the here-and-now-character of the theatrical experience is today the consciousness of the spectator that, in or inside a performance, he can alternatively be alone, individualized, and together with other spectators. The dramaturgy emerging from this situation is a dramaturgy of perceiving, a dramaturgy of the spectator. What more about dramaturgy? Dramaturgy is for me learning to handle complexity. It is feeding the ongoing conversation on the work, it is taking care of the reflexive potential as well as of the poetic force of the creation. Dramaturgy is building bridges, it is being responsible for the whole, dramaturgy is above all a constant movement. Inside and outside. The readiness to dive into the work, and to withdraw from it again and again, inside, outside, trampling the leaves. A constant movement. Wenn ich still stehe, verstehe ich nichts.


Barenboim, Daniel and Said, Edward W. (2004) Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in music and society, London: Bloomsbury.
Costa, Mario (2003) Internet et globalisation esthétique, Paris: L’harmattan. Enzensberger,
Hans Magnus (2006) Ach Europa! Wahrnehmungen aus sieben Ländern, epilogue 2006, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
Valéry, Paul (1924) ‘Eupalinos, ou l’architecte’, in Paul Valéry Eupalinos, ou L’architecte, précédé de L’âme et la danse, Paris: Gallimard.