Kissing cousins: Metatheatre and Postdramatic Irruptions of the Real


The call for proposals for the “Beyond the Postdramatic? The Stakes of Contemporary Performance” working group (organized by Shane Boyle, Matthew Cornish, and Brandon Woolf) at this year’s ASTR conference in Portland, Oregon in November invites prospective participants to consider the genealogy of the postdramatic. Asking “What are the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of postdramatic theatre?” among other similar prompts. I am particularly engaged by this question because it ties in with something else I have been thinking about for a while.

The term “postdramatic” comes to us coined and popularized by Hans-Thies Lehmann in his 1999 book Postdramatic Theatre (translated into English 2006 by Karen Jürs-Munby). In his “panorama of postdramatic theatre” Lehmann invokes as his tenth identifiable characteristic of works in this genre the “irruption of the real” (99). He writes that the “postdramatic theatre is the first to turn the level of the real explicitly into a co-player” (100). This is a bold claim. The questions I ask (and I am not the first) are: Is postdrama really something ‘new’? Is it an extension or augmentation of a previous genre/technique? Is it just a reupholstering of something old or outmoded? Lehmann’s description of real world elements interrupting fictional worlds of drama might well read also as a definition of metatheatre. Whereas the postdramatic is a critical darling of academic circles, metatheatre is distinctly unfashionable. (I think it was unfashionable even in 2003 when I completed my dissertation on the phenomenology of metatheatre in the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.)

Defined strictly by its morphological derivation as theatre about theatre, metatheatre encompasses those moments where the theatrical performance becomes self-aware, taking explicit note of its real-world foundations. That is the key whereby the real enters this definition. Theatricality is about creating a dual perspective between the perceptually constructed fictional cosmos and the real world element used to create that cosmos and which surround it. These are the worlds that I call WorldA — the actual world where the play is an event where the audience lives and WorldB — the fictional world of the play, a provisionally real world where the characters live. Historically, the term metatheatre has not been well served by its scholarly adherents. (Probably shouldn’t get me started on this subject.) Lionel Abel who coined the term metatheatre in 1963, and those who came after specifically James Calderwood and Anne Righter, got off on the wrong foot in my opinion. This early foundational work concentrated narrowly on metatheatre as a thematic element where various theatrical practices and elements were repeated as analogies inside fictional worlds. For example, in this vein, one could examine the inset performance by Hamlet in his madness and think about how performance ability is power in a distinctly performative medium. This is all well and good but is very limited and never really gets to the heart of what makes metatheatre tick.

The first person to offer a really comprehensive formal analysis of how metatheatre works was a Polish literary scholar named Sławomir Świontek — whom hardly anyone in the English academy has heard of. Świontek has a book on metatheatre in Polish, but fortunately for me (since I don’t read Polish) he also has an extensive summary of his core ideas published in French. Briefly, the core idea offered by Świontek is that theatrical enunciation operates on two channels or vectors. One vector resides exclusively within the fictional frame as characters communicate with each other. The other vector runs perpendicular to this first vector, crossing the frame to communicate to the audience. Typically the perpendicular stage-audience vector is present but invisible. When that vector is raised to view through a variety techniques that he enumerates then we get metatheatre. This is incredibly useful because it puts the real and the fictional into conversation with each other. He sketches the core relation of the real and fictional which underpin theatricality and then illustrates how metatheatre brings that core relation momentarily to our awareness.

From this perspective then, metatheatre and the postdramatic don’t look very different, both sharing a core concern with the operations of the subterranean but volcanic real. Lehmann uses the term ‘irruption of the real.’ Bert O. States (Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theatre, 1985 — another ‘lost’ unfashionable book) calls this phenomenon ‘upsurges of the real.’ When States talks about the effect of animals on the stage, he doesn’t say he is talking about metatheatre — but he is.

Ultimately what I need to do, and what I will do for ASTR in November, is to pick my way very carefully and precisely through definitions and applications of these two terms to sketch out the similarities and differences between metatheatre and the postdramatic. This kind of formalist analysis is important, I think, because it will help to position the postdramatic in a larger historical context of theories pertaining to the core duality at the heart of theatricality. If we can see what is new and what is familiar but in a new guise, we can move to thinking about why this is so. What are the effects and implications of this technique? What is the ‘real’ doing in a variety of transhistorical contexts?


Abel, Lionel. Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.

Calderwood, James. Shakespearean Metadrama: The Argument of the Play in Titus Andronicus, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard II. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 1971.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic Theatre. Trans. Karen Jürs-Munby. London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

States, Bert. O. Great Reckonings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theater. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.

Świontek, Sławomir. “Le dialogue dramatique et le metathéâtre.” Zagadnienia Rodzajów Literackich 36.1-2 (1993): 7-44.

Stephenson, Jenn. “Meta-enunciative Properties of Dramatic Dialogue: A New View of Metatheatre and the Work of Sławomir Świontek” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 21:1 (Fall 2006)115-128.

Stephenson, Jenn. (trans.) Excerpts from Le Dialogue Dramatique et le Metathéâtre by Sławomir Świontek Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism 21:1 (Fall 2006)129-144


2 responses to “Kissing cousins: Metatheatre and Postdramatic Irruptions of the Real

  1. Interesting post, Jenn. I like that you’re using the Postdramatic group to think through these distinctions. The promising bit here for me is to both get nuanced about which orders of the ‘real’ are being used here, and to also historicize these responses within different political and cultural moments, the latter of which would take you beyond a strict European formalism. If I can go super meta for a moment, seems to me there’s a real that exceeds formalist theorizing itself, something too contextual, slippery and often extremely fleeting. An example that comes to mind, and that may be a direction for historicizing metatheatre, is in Absurd theatre’s realizations in central Europe, in the plays of Vaclav Havel for instance. Yes, they exhibit all the Eslin stuff about Existentialism and contain thematic self-referencing to the stage, but there’s a whole other level of the real that operated through them as well–the way they rehearsed the drudgery of life under Communism, and developed ‘codes’ onstage that would evade censors by maintaining a fiction while also referencing the audience’s lives– something reflected in the texts and beyond them in the performance. Marketa Goetz-Stankeiwicz’s old book The Silenced Stage discussed this (as long as we’re revisiting old books). But its hard to see any of that as being on par with another Czech performance that happened yesterday, directed by a friend of mine who’s a star in Prague theatre at the moment ( I’m intrigued by what the real is, or is doing, in these different cultural moments. And thinking also about the strangeness of seeing the ‘real’ as the rarefied unusual space, when it’s the ‘unreal’, ordered space of representation that’s the strange space. Is there something here–and I suppose this is in sympathy with Lehmann–about our eroded faith in representation, such that what once were upsurges are now de rigour, expected, dominant?

  2. Pingback: Jumping through the fourth wall: realism and/or the real | Upsurges of the Real: a performance research blog·

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