In a previous blog about Liz Tomlin’s fantastic book Acts and Apparitions (recently released in paperback), I quoted Tomlin’s challenge to the creators of radical performance: “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). A core concept that underpins Tomlin’s thinking (and my own) is the idea that in a poststructuralist milieu the illusion of the real has been profoundly destabilized. We understand that the ‘real’ is always a construction and if there is a ‘real’ out there we can have no access to it. Realities that we construct constitute simply another level of representation and so “the original and the ‘real’ world referent of the original, merely become different types of citation rather than ontologically distinct” (99). The real has lost its pre-eminent position and so its foundational authority.
In her chapter on characterization, Tomlin considers several approaches to character in this climate, performances that open up the tension between the (impossible) authentic/real and representations/citations. One example are the ‘surrogates’ presented by Forced Entertainment which reject realistic character development, instead intentionally offering personae which seem sort of half-baked and two-dimensional. The company stages deliberately failed attempts at the real but also by doing so expose the work of citationality without recourse to a stable originary referent. The fragmentation and mediatization of character by the Wooster Group serves a similar purpose creating what Tomlin calls “free-floating signifiers.” In what I think is a smart connection, Tomlin also sees these estranged characters not only in performances with postdramatic theatre cred but also in more traditionally dramatic works. Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Arabian Nights destabilizes the relationship between the real and the fictional by layering and then twisting its worlds. Using the techniques of messy metatheatre, Arabian Nights puts quotation marks around the dramatic and so we are uncertain as to who created (wrote, dreamed, invoked) whom. We are ambivalent about which characters are in which narrative frame and how these frames affect one another.
Once the ‘real’ renounces (or is forced to abdicate) its priority, then all the different worlds are simply different manifestations of different kinds of citations. Tomlin sees this as point of concern as she sees the potential for new and equally dangerous kinds of authority to emerge. In my book Performing Autobiography, in a chapter about auto/biography and ethics, I talk about two plays where this is exactly what happens. In both Shadows by Timothy Findley and Eternal Hydra by Anton Piatigorsky, more potent characters exert their influence to narrativize other characters, stealing their autobiographical stories. In the absence of the authority of the real, the characters fill that void with their own dominant representations. Tomlin (following Nietzsche) dubs these “artist-tyrants.” I drew my equivalent term from Piatigorsky’s play where the colourfully-named novelist Gordias Carbuncle proclaims:
‘God likes to own things. The very first and best of things … And, as the Gospel of John attests, words are God’s possessions. His proclamations and servants. His very life … Words are His products above all others. They are flexible and violent and beautiful. The most useful things of all. And more fun than a bar of soap for the truly ambitious collector … We are jealous creatures, aspiring divinities.’
Aspiring divinities. Characters who usurp the godlike power of creating realities seem harmless enough in dramatic works where the ‘danger’ is limited to fictional worlds. But then Tomlin makes a bold extension. (Love it!) What happens when this exploitation of citationality is put to use not by fictional characters but by real-world artists working with verbatim strategies? In this case, the destabilization of the ‘real’ and self-reflexive concerns about the authenticity of verbatim texts render those ‘characters’ vulnerable. The unequal power dynamic between testifiers and those who collect, arrange, and reenact that testimony is not news, but this construction of it as arising from the displacement of the authority of the real and the effects of flattening/blurrings ontological priorities is new. I think this might point to alternative models for balancing authenticity/truth in verbatim with scepticism. Seeing the makers of verbatim as (usually kindly) artist-tyrants/aspiring divinities, bringing new ideologically-imbued realities into being, offers a new perspective and may result in new insights into the genre.