Zola’s bastards: The (non?)realism of the 21st century real

seeds_fotorHere is a perhaps odd question: Are theatres of the real (documentary, verbatim, immersive, site-specific performance) realistic/naturalistic or non-realistic/non-naturalistic?

What makes me ask? I am (re)reading essays in Get Real: Documentary Theatre Past and Present edited by Alison Forsyth and Chris Megson in preparation for writing up a chapter on mediatized verbatim (My case studies will be Annabel Soutar’s Seeds and 300 Tapes by Public Recordings.) Derek Paget in his contribution seeks to recap the “broken tradition” of documentary theatre. He makes the argument that naturalistic theatre traditions are more durable, more flexible and as a result more enduring over time. “Naturalistic theatrical forms can bend with the winds of social and cultural change, developing their reproduction of the believable social behaviours that continue to interest the bulk of theatre-going — and screen-watching– publics” (Paget 225). By contrast, non-naturalistic forms rise up to confront particular political circumstances. When those crises pass, the need for confrontational styles recedes. As a result those forms are discontinuous; each generation of theatre makers need to relearn the techniques.

This is all good. But the point where I got hung up was on the seemingly straightforward assumption that documentary theatre is non-naturalistic. (Boing! What?)

On the one hand, there is no reason why this should be perplexing. Documentary theatre does not seek to create a fictive cosmos and so does not mimetically represent the world. The performers are figured more ‘speakers’ than characters, often addressing the audience directly and emphasizing their ‘presence’ as actors/documentarians. Stereotypically, the scenography of documentary theatre likewise tends to perform its own ‘invisibility.’ A stage with ‘neutral’ practical lighting, chairs, (sometimes music stands to hold the texts), featuring performers in street clothes (i.e., not costumes). When naturalistic vignettes are presented in this genre, they are episodic and spare. The (attempted) effacement of the frills of theatrical illusion is a targeted reality-effect that supports the impression of an authentic truth.

But… here’s where I boggle. Documentary theatre, which brings the thing itself to the stage — the text, the actual people, the site–does so with the intention of being as ‘real’ as possible. A goal that Émile Zola would uphold as laudable. The core characteristics of Zola’s naturalism limn a theatre that presents an illusion of reality through various strategies. Using scientific observation, the aim is to show things as they really are, focusing on environmental and socioeconomic factors that determine human behaviour. As Marvin Carlson notes, a key strategy of ‘high naturalism’ involved bringing actual real-world material to the stage. Carlson in his book Shattering Hamlet’s Mirror, in chapter after chapter, persistently puts theatre of the real on a continuum with historical realist practice/realism/naturalism. Now clearly, 21st-century postdramatic performances differ significantly from 19th-century naturalism, specifically in their mimetic engagement with the world. Naturalism presents ‘reality’ through illusion/representation. Real things are staged to be ‘other’ real things that are virtually identical. Theatres of the real attempt (impossibly) to short-circuit representation and stage the thing ‘raw’; real things remain themselves. The ontological use of ‘real’ material is different but the goals are the same. Certainly, documentary theatre is a realist form.

Grrr. I don’t know. Perhaps I am splitting semantic hairs here. But words do matter. Do we call Zola’s naturalism documentary? (The ‘document’ is the world. Like a photograph.) Do we call theatres of the real ‘realist’ without being ‘naturalistic’? ‘Realist’ but not ‘realism’?

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