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The Dubious Spectacle

The Dubious Spectacle: Extremities of Theater, 1976-2000

Herbert Blau
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    The Dubious Spectacle
    Book Description:

    Spanning a quarter of a century, the essays in this book rehearse, in the movement of memory and cross-reflection, an extensive career in theater. The work of Herbert Blau-his directing, writing, and criticism-has been a determining force during this period as theater encounters theory.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-9288-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xxiv)

    These essays span just about a quarter of a century, from the mid-seventies to the millennium. They track certain mutations in my thinking about the theater, and by way of theater about education, politics, fashion, photography, and the other arts, as well as the more than residual modernism in the postmodern condition. As there are other writings I might have included (some from almost a quarter century before), this is not exactly a full-scale retrospective, but the collection moves through and around most of the issues that have engaged me over the years, some of them inexhaustibly. Although the essays...

  4. 1. Afterthought from the Vanishing Point Theater at the End of the Real
    (pp. 1-17)

    For some months recently I was, unexpectedly, equivocally, and rather amused at my reluctance, commuting from Paris to the United States, to direct a sort of opera, which opened in Philadelphia and was later seen in New York, before going on to France. It is a remarkable piece, actually, with remarkable collaborators, but putting that aside (a one-shot deal, I say), I had not been active in the theater for more than a decade, a terminal condition, it seemed, for which my friend Ruby Cohn has never quite forgiven me.¹ At the time I stopped my theater work, after more...

  5. 2. The Impossible Takes a Little Time
    (pp. 18-36)

    One of the more memorable passages, for me, ofThe Playwright as Thinker, the book that made Eric Bentley an enfant terrible, was the one in which he referred to a production ofRosmersholmat the Yale Drama School and said that when it was over the students talked about the lighting, costumes, directing, everything in fact but what was being lit, costumed, directed—“Ibsen’s lines and Ibsen’s meaning”—as if it didn’t matter what the play meant. The students at Yale were by the end of the book just summing up the general scene. That was, of course, about...

  6. 3. Spacing Out in the American Theater
    (pp. 37-52)

    I will eventually move on, in an American way, to speak of space through my own experience, but let me take off from French theory, which seems at times to have picked up the idea ofspacing—the breach, the break, the effraction, the transgressive interval that, leaving only a trace, constitutes memory—not from Freud but from the American sixties, which, in the self-conscious activity of transgression calledspacing out, seemed to have lost it. Whatit?It may not have been memory. It may have been consciousness. Or the self. To be spaced out was, as we know...

  7. 4. From Red Hill to the Renaissance Rehearsing the Resistance
    (pp. 53-61)

    Lest performance turn out to be misrepresentation, I want to advance the terminal date of our subject, the San Francisco Renaissance, by a few years and narrow the perspective to my own experience. Public as it was, and relatively expansive, this experience of my theater work in San Francisco is actually narrower (in what may be the perversity of my own mind) than the much more hermetic experience of my later work, which intersects the much wider range of performance, in and out of the theater, that may be seen on the landscape now. But then, while history may repeat...

  8. 5. A Dove in My Chimney
    (pp. 62-69)

    Political theater and private problems:¹ so far as I can see, political theater was never at anything but a low ebb in this country. There was certainly an admirable fervor and wide-spreading participatory promise in the Federal Theater of the thirties before it succumbed to war mobilization and charges of creeping socialism. The Group Theater had (divided) political sentiments but no real politics, and its better aspirations were bifurcated by Broadway. Who can say, retrospectively, that there is very much worth preserving in the textual remains? What was called the Third Theater of the sixties and seventies has since been...

  9. 6. Elsinore An Analytic Scenario
    (pp. 70-117)

    In the fall of 1975, the KRAKEN group started on a project that gathered momentum from the work already in progress, which was not, however, progressing very far. It was rich and strange but tautological, circling back upon itself—not really an impasse, but a proliferation of questions at the unnerving ends of thought, not coming to a conclusion but driving us to distraction. We were really looking for a subject, and months of rehearsal seemed to collect in a state of mind that caused us to turn toHamlet, not because we wanted to do that play in any...

  10. 7. Deep Throat The Grail of the Voice
    (pp. 118-131)

    Some propositions, first, about our overall subject, the searching for alternatives to the aesthetics of the text; and then some remarks about recent theater history, out of personal memory and actual theater work, reflecting on the propositions or subtextually glancing off:

    In over thirty-five years in the theater I have lived through the living distinction between the literature and the performance and have also been involved in performance that seems to have discarded the literature. But I want to start by saying that whatever the aesthetics, there isnoalternative to the text. I think that is so in the...

  11. 8. A Valediction Chills and Fever, Mourning, and the Vanities of the Sublime
    (pp. 132-136)

    Age comes today with aneurysm on the brain, long before the physical symptoms. We make up the symptoms as we go along: I am writing this in Paris, seized byla grippe, and as little pulses of pain, no mere headache, strike my eardrum, my temple, I wonder whether the SAMU (ambulance) number has changed, and whether we shouldn’t have a family doctor here, a consulting physician, to refer us to a cardiologist when the blood vessel bursts.

    This is not something that would have occurred to me when I first came to France, toward the end of the fifties....

  12. 9. The Dubious Spectacle of Collective Identity
    (pp. 137-156)

    It occurred to me after accepting the invitation for this talk that I might be here under false pretenses, given the theme of “Ceremonies and Spectacles, and [particularly] the Staging of Collective Identities,” which I have come to think of after many years in the theater as a rather vain enterprise. As for the scholarship that takes for granted that theater is the site of the social, or an affirmation of community, that appears to me now—though I believed it when I was younger—an academic ceremony of innocence, assuming as a reality what is, perhaps, the theater’s primary...

  13. 10. Fantasia and Simulacra Subtext of a Syllabus for the Arts in America
    (pp. 157-180)

    On several occasions over the past few years I have been asked to talk about training in the arts as we approach the twenty-first century, and this essay—with instincts of affirmation and negation—is a sort of summary response to that. While it points, then, to the future, let me start with ancient history, blurred perhaps by personal memory and suffused as it is with myth:

    In the middle of the journey of my life I came not to the drear wood, like Dante, but to southern California, the sun-baked canyons above Hollywood, where I had an opportunity to...

  14. 11. With Your Permission Educating the American Theater
    (pp. 181-188)

    I must confess to some uneasiness about the subject here today, for I am beginning to feel like the Ancient Mariner with his baleful eye telling the same story. Nor is it any consolation to think that it is not merely my story, nor even quite the same, since when history repeats itself, it may, tragic to begin with, repeat itself as farce. That, you may recall, was the way Marx put it inThe Eighteenth Brumaire, as he described how revolutions occur in theatrical dress, within the nightmare of history from which we are still trying to awaken. What...

  15. 12. The Pipe Dreams of O’Neill in the Age of Deconstruction
    (pp. 189-198)

    Despite the implication in my title, this is neither a theoretical approach to O’Neill nor an exercise in deconstruction. For that would seem to be a vain enterprise, a little pretentious or redundant for the drama of O’Neill, whose “blindness of insight”—the malady diagnosed or exposed by deconstruction—is as palpable in his work as the painful experience from which it is made. The vulnerability of O’Neill is that he was, to begin with, so utterly exposed and, at the end, almost unbearably so. In his last plays, the revelations were so obsessive in their eloquent inadequacy that they...

  16. 13. Readymade Desire
    (pp. 199-205)

    Out of his frightened heart, Tennessee Williams once wrote “that the only somebody worth being is the solitary and unseen you that existed from your first breath and which is the sum of your actions and so is constantly in a state of becoming under your own violation. . . .” This was three years after the opening ofThe Glass Menageriein Chicago and four days before the New York opening of AStreetcar Named Desire. By that time, the solitary in Williams had been violated by the little vanities and deceits and equivocal pleasures of dubious reputation, which...

  17. 14. Water under the Bridge From Tango Palace to Mud
    (pp. 206-214)

    I liked the other title better,There! You Died, but Irene wanted to change it because, as she wrote me before we met, others had found it confusing. She actually wrote “incomprehensible,” which I couldn’t understand at all, though they apparently thought it meant “there (not here) and that something went wrong with the punctuation.” I still prefer the other title because of its exclamatory point, which—it still seems pretty clear—deploys the adverbial there to stress what happened here, whether it happened or not, though even if it didn’t, sooner or later it will. “Are you out of...

  18. 15. Fervently Impossible The Group Idea and Its Legacy
    (pp. 215-229)

    While I am gratified to be the keynote speaker on this occasion in honor of Harold Clurman, I do not pretend to be an authority on the workings of the Group Theater. Most of what I know of it, beyond myth and rumor, comes from the writing of Harold Clurman. Having written two books, however, about the theaters I have directed, I am well aware that my most conscientious honesty did not necessarily get it all, and that even people who loved me—maybe especially those who loved me (I like to think I was much loved)—had a somewhat...

  19. 16. Noise, Musication, Beethoven, and Solid Sound New Music and Theater
    (pp. 230-245)

    At a time when I could hardly read a note of music, I had the double good fortune to be working in the theater with various composers who were, then, among the more innovative in the country. I can still hardly read a note of music, but that is partly their fault because at the time they did not care very much about musical notation—at least not in any conventional sense, though some of what they innovated has since become conventional and, if some of that was scored, some not, among the issues at stake were, who could read...

  20. 17. Flat-Out Vision
    (pp. 246-264)

    My own first reflexes, when thinking of photography, are somehow not a remembrance of pictures but in the unqualified range of the iris a regressive association through the tactility of the form: fingers on a glossy surface, grained, a stringent odor at the eyes. That phototropic sensation might have come from some old forgotten experience of a darkroom, but I suspect it was, like the daguerreotype itself, nurtured in the theater, where I have spent much of my life as a director, sitting in the dark, I mean really in the dark, struck by the wild and furtive odor, when...

  21. 18. The Absolved Riddle Sovereign Pleasure and the Baroque Subject in the Tragicomedies of John Fletcher
    (pp. 265-280)

    The riddle of the Duchess inWomen Pleas’dhas to do with the Freudian question: What does woman want? That is the question whose subject is the answer to which, as Freud might have guessed without saying, there is no question, which is why the riddle has to be not answered but—as Fletcher has the Duchess say, not once (or intentionally) but prophetically twice—absolved(2.5.112–13),¹ as if it never should have been asked. Her daughter’s lover Silvio labors and travels through untold cities, consulting “Diviners, Dreamers, Schoolemen, deep Magitians,” all of whom—like the current discourse on...

  22. 19. “Set Me Where You Stand” Revising the Abyss
    (pp. 281-306)

    Just about the time that the sixties were achieving identity as the sixties, Maynard Mack gave three lectures for the Department of English at Berkeley in which he anticipated, with admirable learning and a particular animus (to which I will later return), the current critique of revisionism. The critique, of course, was only to be expected, after a generation in which the receding dissidence of the sixties, sublimated, recycled, and reified in theory, was the dominant force in our scholarship. That it came with a new historicism and confessions of complicity, identity politics and a rhetoric of transgression, bodies that...

  23. 20. Limits of Performance The Insane Root
    (pp. 307-320)

    A few prefatory remarks, theoretical, personal, before we get to the root, or at least the root of the title. What I want to reflect upon eventually are the limits of performance, to the degree that approaching those limits seems to resemble an obsessional neurosis, in theater as in sports or any activity exceeding itself, its very discipline not only demanding but threatening, perilous, self-punishing in extremis—as it may be in psychoanalysis, where the accretions of the subject’s symptoms may push things to the limit. It is there, as Lacan remarks in his thesis on aggressivity as “intended aggression,”...

  24. Notes
    (pp. 321-334)
  25. Previous Publications
    (pp. 335-336)
  26. Index
    (pp. 337-348)
  27. Back Matter
    (pp. 349-349)