Stephen Wilmer

Title: Aristotelian Cooking, Brechtian Distanciation, and Subversive Affirmation

Abstract: Bertolt Brecht objected to “Aristotelian theatre” as a form that impeded a rational response from the spectator. In his view, it provided a “challenge to thought” by rendering the spectator into a passive observer. Accordingly he developed “epic theatre” to enable the audience to participate in the emotional journey of the play without being totally sucked into it, alienating them periodically from the veracity of what was being depicted on stage so that they could reflect on the structures of society. Augusto Boal took this idea further by developing the notion of the “spectactor”, the spectator who could rewrite the plot as a means towards liberating him or herself. Thus “forum theatre” enables a spectator to role-play in order to find new ways to cope with and overcome oppressive conditions. A more recent mode of theatrical event to engage the audience is that of “subversive affirmation” whereby the performance overemphasizes prevailing ideologies in such a way as to call them into question.

In this paper I want to consider performances that have used forms of “subversive affirmation” with regard to the treatment of the asylum-seeker or stateless person such as those by Christoph Schlingensief and Janez Janša. Both artists, working on the former border between western and eastern Europe, have devised performances to call nationalistic expression into question by imitating and exaggerating it, and emphasizing the “bare life” of what Agamben calls the “homo sacer”. The asylum-seeker occupies both a local and an international position, straddling the borders of the nation-state, an exile of one country and not yet a citizen of another. By definition s/he is, as Deleuze and Guattari might optimistically put it, in a state of “becoming” (passim) or, as Hannah Arendt said of refugees, in “an avant-garde of their people” In the present day, because of the practices of modern governments, s/he is in a liminal state or in a kind of no man’s land, a non-citizen and thus virtually a non-person contained by the nation-state in a specially controlled space, unable to work or function normally in society, effectively deprived of human rights, and subject to deportation at any time. According to Giorgio Agamben, “the status of the refugee is always considered a temporary condition that should lead either to naturalization or to repatriation. A permanent status of man in himself is inconceivable for the law of the nation-state”.

I want to discuss these various performance strategies (Aristotelian, epic theatre, forum theatre and subversive affirmation) as modes of philosophical thinking as they engage with the issue of the stateless person and question what it means to participate in the thought of these performances.

Bio: S. E. Wilmer is Associate Professor in Drama at Trinity College Dublin and author of Theatre, Society and the Nation: Staging American Identities (Cambridge University Press, 2002) and (with Pirkko Koski) The Dynamic World of Finnish Theatre (2006). Other books include National Theatres in a Changing Europe (2008); (with Pirkko Koski) Humour and Humanity (2006); (with John Dillon) Rebel Women: Staging Ancient Greek Drama Today (2005); (with Pirkko Koski) Stages of Chaos: The Drama of Post-war Finland (2005); Writing and Rewriting National Theatre Histories (2004); (with Helka Mäkinen and W. B. Worthen) Theatre, History and National Identities (2001); (with Hans van Maanen) Theatre Worlds in Motion: Structures, Politics and Developments in the Countries of Western Europe (1998); and Portraits of Courage: Plays by Finnish Women (1997). He is also a playwright and a member of the executive committee of the International Federation for Theatre Research.

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