Reality as Ideological Illusion

three d moviesIn her book Acts and Apparitions: Discourses on the Real in Performance Practice and Theory 1990-2010, Liz Tomlin begins with the premise that reality is persistently exposed as ideological illusion. What does she mean by that? Tomlin begins by looking back to mid-twentieth century performance and reactions to naturalism. Whereas naturalism sought to represent through accurate and detailed mimesis the world beyond the theatre, the avant-garde movements that come after were generally suspicious of representation and attempted to develop non- or anti-representational forms as alternatives (Tomlin 20). In Brecht’s view, for example, the ‘real’ created by mimetic practices were an ideological illusion. Naturalism exhibited what was, what is, and by extension what always will be. Capitalist reality then was inevitable and unchangeable. This argument also lies at the heart of feminist critiques of realism. As Michael Vanden Heuvel writes, “Realism simply replicates existing–and therefore arguably bourgeois, patriarchal, racist, oppressive, and oedipal–discourses, and functions as a mode of conciliation, assimilation, adaptation, and resignation to those discourses (48). (See also Elin Diamond “Brechtian Theory and Feminist Theory”). Brecht’s response then to this normative repressive representation is to expose both the illusion at the heart of the theatrical representation AND of the reality to which it referred (Tomlin 20). Artaud takes a similar approach when he calls for the rejection of theatrical illusion substituting visceral experience to enable encounter with a more authentic reality. acts and apparitionsAs Tomlin writes, “If the reality beyond the theatre is a constructed illusion, then mimetic representational practice that seeks to replicate reality and confirm the latter’s ontological status as the real can only serve to uphold the deception” (20). This is a rather exciting idea. To this view, representational practice in art is in collusion with cultural powers that have constructed the reality of the world in accordance with a particular ideology.

I am going to skip here the full backgrounder on how and why the world that we live in, that we take for real, is itself of course and necessarily a construction. Since the mid- to late-twentieth century a number of philosophical threads postulate this idea that reality is a cultural construction. A short, name-drop reading list would include Guy Debord’s The Society of Spectacle (1967), Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation (1981),  Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), poststructuralist theorists like Jacques Derrida and his “Signature, Event, Context” in Limited Inc. (1988) and Of Grammatology (1967), and psychoanalytical writer Jacques Lacan. I will have to unpack this all at some length in the book; here however, I will spare blog readers the literature review. For now the takeaway is that the really really real is inaccessible to us –Plato was right and we really are in the cave — and in its place we construct/perform realities in language and in images. The world is itself a representation. And beyond that, not only is the really real inaccessible, but certain theorists like Baudrillard argue that it doesn’t exist at all. There is no foundational referent for our representations. “The emergence of the simulacrum as the new paradigm of the real marks the end of any confidence in a metaphysical certainty that might offer recourse to a reality lying beyond the ideological constructs of the spectacle, and with it comes an end to the old distinctions between truth and falsehood, the real and the fictional” (Tomlin 29). YUP. So now what?

With this premise in hand, the question for Tomlin is: Can a radical political opposition be sustained? Can postmodern art do more than just deconstruct and expose the strategies that sustain illusions of reality? Neither embracing nor rejecting the oppositional, redemptive narrative of poststructuralism, Tomlin aims to show that “radical practice should be based…on a self-reflexivity which can serve to always and already destabilise its own claims to authority, wherever these might lie” (12). “For every notable strategic departure from traditional dramatic methods of representing the real, there are many possible and divergent ideological readings” (12). Tomlin’s focus is on how radical practice operates in this poststructuralist climate of interest in the real; how avant-garde performance strategies acknowledge and question their own ideologies. In the main body of the book, she progresses chapter by chapter to consider representational models of characterization (Chapter 3), the paradox of documentary theatre in a culture of scepticism (Chapter 4); audiences as participants who must reconfigure newly constructed realities (Chapter 5); and performance environments that break down performer/audience dichotomies (Chapter 6).

I find the book fascinating and appreciate Tomlin’s many insights into the same kinds of things that I am interested in. She is a very stimulating intellectual travelling companion. (Her examples are mostly British and European.) However, we are heading toward different destinations. (Which is a good thing!) In addition to being a scholar, Tomlin also is a practitioner, her focus is influenced by this perspective, I think. She is looking at the current state of (and future of) radical performance. Her aim is to “inspire future self-reflexive innovations in practice” and to insist that artistic practice, regardless of which ideological narratives it upholds, will have real political consequences. (208-209).  “In a world where we are increasingly asked to construct our own reality, let us assess with some care what the implications of the reality we choose to construct might be” (209).

For more about Tomlin’s take on radical reality-engaged performance, look for my book review of Acts and Apparitions next winter/spring in the journal Studies in Theatre and Performance.



Diamond, Elin.”Brechtian Theory/Feminist Theory: Toward a Gestic Feminist Criticism.” TDR 32.1 (1988): 58-72.

Vanden Heuvel, Michael. “Complementary Spaces: Realism, Performance and a New Dialogics of Theatre.” Theatre Journal 44.1 (1992): 47-58.



3 responses to “Reality as Ideological Illusion

  1. Thanks for pointing me at this book, Jenn! It looks fascinating. I’ll grab a copy now.
    Worth noting: one of the main misapprehensions about early naturalism is that it is in fact wholly mimetic, without a strong sense of its own construction. Of course dudes from Strindberg to Chekhov, and early realist women like Robins and Hamilton, wanted to place a reality on stage as-is, in all its fussy detail. But part of that had to do with pressing audiences to recognise *how they had constructed their worlds* based on fundamental illusions – about what women want, who servants and lower status individuals are and what they do, etc. And there is a strain of critique (Toril Moi; Kirk Williams; Diamond in her article on Hedda Gabler) that argues naturalism is inherently metatheatrical because it always strives for an impossible illusion, and is aware of this. As with Stanislavsky, the political context in which naturalism was originally founded as a radical avant-garde practice has shifted and ossified, so that it no longer typically does radical or political work. But that’s a fault of its museumification, and also its uptake by the Hollywood studio system, more than it has anything to do with genre.
    Sorry for the rant! Thanks again for the great book tip.

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