Conference Report CDE 2006

15th CDE Annual Conference, Augsburg, Germany
May 25-28, 2006
Organised by the University of Augsburg
„Drama and/after Postmodernism“

„What was Postmodernism?,“ Malcolm Bradbury asked provocatively over a decade ago. But are we really past the post? And if so, is this also true for the domain of the performing arts? What makes contemporary drama and theatre distinctly postmodern? Augsburg, Bertolt Brecht’s city of birth, provided the stage for dramatic and post-dramatic discussions aimed at answering some of these questions. Hence, „Drama and/after Postmodernism“ was the field explored at this year’s annual conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English (CDE), which was hosted by Martin Middeke and Christoph Henke of the Augsburg University English Department. Participants included the playwrights Richard Bean and John Binnie, the theatre critic Aleks Sierz, the prominent keynote lecturers Brian Richardson, Hans Thies Lehmann and Johannes Birringer, actors from the Clyde Unity Theatre (Glasgow), BandBazi Circus Theatre (Brighton), and the Anglistentheater Augsburg as well as various other scholars and theatre practitioners from around the globe.

For the fourth time, CDE was proud to present a scholar with the biannual CDE Award for Outstanding Research in the Field of Contemporary Theatre and Drama: Mark Berninger (Mainz) was honoured for his distinguished work on British and Irish history plays. Berninger convincingly argues for the necessary re-evaluation of the term ‚history play‘ and grounds his findings on the close examination of over 130 contemporary plays by dramatists such as Howard Barker, Peter Barnes, David Edgar, Brian Friel, Michael Frayn, Frank McGuinness, Tom Stoppard, and Timberlake Wertenbaker. He includes metahistorical, metascientific and metadramatic texts as well as posthistorical drama and travesty. Mark Berninger’s dissertation will be published in the CDE Studies-series as „Staging History – Neue Formen des Geschichtsdramas in Großbritannien und Irland seit 1970.“

In his keynote lecture „Plot after Postmodernism,“ Brian Richardson (University of Maryland) explored radical and subversive ways in which playwrights such as Caryl Churchill, Maeia Irene Fornes, Harold Pinter and Peter Handke seek to deconstruct traditional notions of the plot in drama and, consequently, in dramatic theory. Hans Thies Lehmann (Frankfurt) carried the argument across the boundaries of conventional concepts of theatre and drama, when he spoke about „Word and Stage in Postdramatic Theatre,“ diagnosing the disappearance of the text from the stage and the concrete negation of dramatic structures in the past thirty years. With his „Digital Performance (Theatre in its Post Medium Condition),“ Johannes Birringer (London) moved away from the theatre/stage into the direction of conceptual art, where fashion and design meet performance and electronic media. Aleks Sierz (London) commented on postmodern dramatic phenomena by deconstructing the established format of conference presentations – instead of giving the paper himself, he had it staged by actors: „Attempts on His Life: Martin Crimp’s (Ab/Pre)sence in His Own Words“ was a staged reading of conversations between himself and Martin Crimp, introduced and commented by Sierz.

The connection of Martin Crimp and Postmodernism was picked up by Clara Escoda Agustí (Barcelona) in her paper on „‚head green water to sing:‘ Minimalism and Indeterminacy in Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life.“ Escoda illustrated to what degree the use of disruptive elements, ready-mades and literary pastiches place Crimp halfway between Modernism and Postmodernism. Margret Fetzer (Munich), in her analysis of The Cut, located Mark Ravenhill in the area between (Hyper-) Realism and Postmodernism in her presentation „Shocking and Mucking? Ravenhill’s Theatre Between Pain and Simulation.“ In her interpretation of Rochelle Owen’s Emma Instigated Me, Kerstin Schmidt (Bayreuth) described the transitional fields of „The Theater of Transformation: Postmodernism and Feminist American Drama,“ which overlap in their criticism of patriarchical structures and master narratives, respectively.

Michal Lachman (Lodz) and Markus Wessendorf (Manoa, Hawai’i) analysed the intersections of reality, history, politics and the stage. Lachman emphasised the hybrid character of verbatim drama as a form between conventional journalism and literary fiction in „The Colours of History or Scenes from the Inquiry into Verbatim Drama.“ He concentrated on David Hare’s Permanent Way and Stuff Happens and on productions by the Tricycle TheatreThe Color of Justice or Justifying War and Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry (Richard Norton-Taylor) and Guantanamo: ‚Honor Bound to Defend Freedom‘ (Victoria Brittain / Gillian Slovo). Wessendorf, speaking on „Postmodern Drama Post-9/11,“ demonstrated in which way a simulacrum of reality and metatheatricality oscillate in David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Adriano Shaplin’s Pugilist Specialist.

Harold Fish (Mainz), Susan Blattès (Grenoble) and Laurens de Vos (Ghent) discussed the postmodern condition of identity-loss and the disappearance – and reappearance – of character distinctions in postmodern drama. Harold Fish’s „The Language of Monologue in 1990s Irish Theatre“ illustrated the reduction of language, the demise of clearly identifiable characters and the fragmentation of meaning with reference to Conall Morrison’s Hard to Believe, Michael West’s Foley and Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie. „The Character in Contemporary Drama: Is Character Still a Relevant Concept?“, Susan Blattès asked accordingly, thus questioning the relevance of this postmodern phenomenon in the work of playwrights such as Howard Barker, Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp, Sarah Kane and Harold Pinter. The dissolution of identity also featured in Laurens de Vos‘ (Ghent) – „Spectres in Stoppard: Ros and Guil’s Fear of Losing Ontological Stability;“ here, De Vos argued that Stoppard’s protagonists reveal the theatricality of the human subject by regaining their identities in a form of transcendental eternity – or in death by absence.

In his paper on „Postmodernism as Diversion: Len Jenkin’s A Country Doctor,“ Robert F. Gross (Geneva, N.Y.) illustrated the transformation of Kafka’s Ein Landarzt into a postmodern space/context of alienation and queerness. Literary and dramatic (meta-)criticism and dramatised literary theory featured in Ines Detmers‘ (Dresden) – „Staging (Meta)Criticism: David Lodge’s Plays The Writing Game and Home Truths,“ while Sarah Heinz (Mannheim) analysed the (in-)coherence and the dissolution of memory in „‚Funny thing, memory, isn’t it?‘ – Constructing and Deconstructing Memory in Michael Frayn’s Donkey’s Years.“ The deconstruction of truths and the limitations of a unified sense of subjectivity were the focus of Siân Adiseshiah’s (Lincoln) – „Still a Socialist? Political Commitment in Caryl Churchill’s The Skriker and Far Away.“

John Binnie’s (Glasgow) workshop on „Creating Monologues, Using Games, Trust Exercises, Reminisce and Improvisation“ provided the participants of this conference with the vital hands-on experience of theatre practice, while Uma Narain (Mumbay), in her special presentation on „Postmodernism and the Evolution of Self-Directed Teams,“ illustrated the benefit of theatre exercises for the postmodern globalised business community.

On stage, together with Aleks Sierz and actors from the Anglistentheater Augsburg, Richard Bean (London) offered tangible insight into his play Harvest, the winner of the 2006 Critics‘ Circle Award for Best Play. The winner of the Scotsman Fringe First Award 2005, John Binnie’s Breakfast at Audrey’s, was presented in a co-production by the Clyde Unity Theatre (Glasgow) and BandBazi Circus Theatre (Brighton). Finally, the Anglistentheater Augsburg staged The Exonerated – Surviving Death Row by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, directed by Ute Legner.

Heiko Stahl (Mainz)