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An Aristotelian Verfremdungseffekt; or, the rejection of the Poetics in Postdramatic Theatre

Emma Cole

Hans-Thies Lehmann, in his 1991 monograph Theater und Mythos, claims that the postdramatic theatre of (post-)modernity is the antithesis of the pre-dramatic theatre of ancient Athens. In his subsequent study of the postdramatic, he maintains that this movement is characterised by a rejection of Aristotelian ideas about drama and, in particular, of Renaissance interpretations of the Poetics. Lehmann’s argument that the Poetics should be thought of as a primarily descriptive text and not a set of normative rules adheres to a wider shift within academia, which has seen scholars more consistently, and comfortably, think about tragedy without reference to Aristotle. Yet the tripartite relationship between postdramatic theatre, the Poetics and ancient tragedy is much more complex than Lehmann indicates, not least because of the numerous postdramatic reinventions of Greek tragedy currently being staged.

This paper considers whether postdramatic receptions of Greek tragedy can be considered as outright rejections of Aristotelian ideas. The paper begins by demonstrating how difficult it is for a theatre movement to claim it is anti-Aristotelian, by exemplifying how various elements of the Poetics are present even in Brecht’s Epic Theatre – a prominent forbear of the postdramatic. Brecht rejected the core Aristotelian goals of mimesis and the achievement of catharsis through empathy, and instead sought to draw attention to the artificiality of performance and create active observers whose capacity for action was aroused; nevertheless, the conventional dramatic form of the scripts and the traditional ideas of plot and character to which Epic Theatre adhered testify to Aristotle’s lasting influence.

The paper then moves on to explore the degree to which the postdramatic movement rejects Aristotelian notions of drama through an analysis of Zecora Ura’s Hotel Medea (multiple venues, London and Edinburgh, 2009-12). This postdramatic durational performance—which took place from dusk until dawn—fully immersed the audience in the world of the play and explicitly rejected the Aristotelian unities, alongside ideas of character consistency and narrative linearity. Immersion, as Gareth White has argued, implies access to the inside of a performance in some way, and my paradigmatic example marketed itself as offering a unique form of experiential access to the inner world of ancient tragedy. It employed participatory techniques, encouraging free-flowing conversation and interaction between the actors and audience members, and even positioned the spectators as, at times, active characters within the world of the tragedy. Close analysis of this radical form reveals that Lehmann’s strict dichotomy between so-called ‘pre-dramatic’ and postdramatic theatre is somewhat misleading. Rather than rejecting Aristotelian ideas, Hotel Medea inverted such concepts, taking literally the conceit that tragedy takes place across one revolution of the sun and creating a type of theatre that is mimetic, not to naturalistic theatrical conventions but to action and interaction in modern life. The paper concludes by returning to Brecht and proposing that his Verfremdungseffekt—the effect of making the familiar appear strange—is a useful metaphor for analysing classical reception within postdramatic theatre. Hotel Medea does not reject Aristotelian ideas about drama, but makes them appear strange, just as postdramatic reinventions of tragedy do not reject the ancient texts, but radicalize and reconfigure them. Although a rhetoric of rejection serves as an effective way of marking a performance reception as controversial and avant-garde, such a label should not deceive scholars; it can mask a creative engagement with the classics. 

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Rejecting the Classics: Rupture and Revolution

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