Conference Report CDE 2010

19th CDE Annual Conference, Paderborn, Germany
3rd-6th June 2010
„Narrative in Drama“

What might seem a paradoxical title, i.e. the combination of theatrical performance and narrative, proved a thought-provoking and very fruitful theme for the 19th annual conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English (CDE) in Paderborn. In a fascinating counter-current, or complementary movement to the performance and body-oriented „postdramatic“ theatre, numerous English-language playwrights have recently based their plays on the arguably most fundamental of communicative modes: narrative. This year’s CDE-conference explored the frictions and opportunities caused by this move, which juxtaposes the creation of stable meaning through narrative emplotment with the obvious fictionalisation and unreliability of „tall tales“, contrasts monologue with the dialogic mode, and combines the power of the spoken word with the physical aspects of theatre.

In her opening key-note speech entitled „The Epistemology of First-Person Narrative“, Janelle Reinelt (University of Warwick) directly addressed the seeming paradox of the conference topic by asking whether narrative is not obsolete in contemporary drama. Her answer to this was however that, especially in plays aiming at autobiographical self-representation, authenticity is created through narrative. Yet Reinelt also claimed that this essential truth is not located in the narrative itself but in the relationship between the narrative, its mediators, and the audience. By drawing on the example of David Hare’s production of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking (2007, starring Vanessa Redgrave), Reinelt showed that even the inevitable fictionality of a narrative might be a source of insight into the oscillation of the subject and different versions of reality. She showed how this oscillation can be especially foregrounded in theatrical performance.

Deidre Osborne (Goldsmiths College, University of London) expanded this programmatic outline in her key-note lecture „How Do We Get the Whole Story? Contra-dictions and Counter-narratives in debbie tucker green’s Dramatic Poetics“ by drawing attention to the special significance of narrative for black British playwrights. Using born bad (2003) and random (2008) as examples, Osborne showed the importance of fragmented and searching narratives in green’s plays. Osborne thus both highlighted the tensions surrounding the representation of blackness in drama and rightly placed green in the tradition of Harold Pinter.

The debate thus initiated by Reinelt and Osborne showed a new facet in the first panel where Christopher Innes (York University, Toronto) and Wolfgang Funk (Leibniz University, Hanover) explored the creation of national myths through narration in Irish and English drama. While Innes outlined the long Irish tradition of story-telling in drama, ranging from Synge’s Playboy of the Western World (1907) to Enda Walsh’s The New Electric Ballroom (2004) and The Walworth Farce (2006), Funk’s paper on „Myths of Origin and Authority“ zoomed in on Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman as a specific Irish example of what Funk termed „In-Yer-Brain Theatre.“ He also drew connections to the similar English myth-making in Jez Butterworth’s highly successful play Jerusalem (2009).

This was followed by a panel devoted especially to the tensions arising from „Acting in Docudrama: Narrativising the Facts.“ Derek Paget, Lib Taylor, Heather Sutherland, and Jonathan Bignell (all University of Reading) illuminated the various facets of the role of the actor in a narrative rendition of events in docudrama. Their papers spanned both theatre and TV-drama and were part of an ongoing research project based on interviews with actors. While Lib Taylor drew attention to strategies of enlisting the audience in Gregory Burke’s Black Watch (2006) and Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo’s Guantanamo (2004/5), Heather Sutherland and Jonathan Bignell focussed on the actor’s precarious position in the construction of meaning in TV-docudrama. As Derek Paget summed up the findings of this panel, it could well be argued that we are currently witnessing another high phase of documentary drama (as in the 1930s and the later 1960s), yet one which rather concentrates on intimate revelation and an experience of identity porosity instead of oppositional confrontation.

The work of Mark Ravenhill, which strongly relies on narrative structures, was the theme of the next panel. Sarah Grochala (Queen Mary, University of London) spoke about „De-commodifying the Narrative: The Concept of Story in the Monodramas of Mark Ravenhill“ and Nils Wilkinson (University of Siegen) explored „Ravenhill’s Pool of Narrative Products: Theatre in the Conflict Area of Pretension and Presumption.“ While Grochala highlighted the failure of the rationalization process in the fragmented narrative of The Experiment (2009) and the emphatic but manufactured story-telling in Product (2005), Wilkinson claimed that the constructedness of Ravenhill’s stories does not diminish their radiance. Also drawing on Product, as well as on pool (no water) (2006), Wilkinson showed the workings of conflicting metadiscourses on story-telling in Ravenhill’s plays.

The similarity of Ravenhill’s dramatic strategies to those of Martin Crimp is evident and it was thus highly suitable that Aleks Sierz (Rose Bruford College, London) addressed Crimp in the next key-note paper entitled „‚D’you really give my scribbling that much thought?‘ – Martin Crimp’s Narrative Games.“ Surveying Crimp’s career since Dealing with Clair (1988) and up to Fewer Emergencies (2005) and The City (2008), Sierz pinpointed the overarching theme of form as disturbance in Crimp’s work. In connection with the conference topic, he also illuminated the role of narratives in Crimp’s theatrical search for the „unknown unknowns“ (cf. Donald Rumsfeld), i.e. the unexpected pitfalls and fault-lines in the unifying movements of stories.

The following panel returned to the problematic relationship of narrative, autobiography, and documentary drama. Roland Weidle (Ruhr University, Bochum) looked at „Mimetic Narration: Documentary Theatre and the Staging of Truth“ and drew on Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (1997) and David Hare’s Stuff Happens (2004) to show two different approaches: While Hare attempts to capture and mediate truth, Kaufman acknowledges the constructedness of reality. The tension between verisimilitude and veracity also formed the analytical focus of Margarete Rubik’s (University of Vienna) paper on „Fragmented Biographies: Restoring a Voice to Guantanamo Prisoners“, which returned to Brittain/Slovo’s Guantanamo.

The final day of the conference started with a talk with the playwright Dennis Kelly, conducted by Aleks Sierz. Kelly explained how important it is for his writing to open up to the possibility of contrary conclusions, of surprising oneself as well as the audience. The unsettling and propelling force of narratives show in all of Kelly’s plays from Debris (2003) to the recent RSC production of The God’s Weep (2010) and Kelly also explained how he uses structural reversals and jumps to uproot stable narratives and preconceived „truths“.

In the closing panel of the conference Hana Pavelková (Charles University, Prague) and Tom Maguire (University of Ulster, Londonderry) complemented the discussions surrounding the roles of actors and playwrights in narrative drama by drawing attention to David Hare and Claire Dowie, two authors who have acted out their own texts on stage. Pavelková concentrated on the overlapping of theatre, staged reading, and journalism in Hare’s monodramas Via Dolorosa (1998) and Wall (2009). She showed that Hare’s two plays on the Middle-East conflict move with varying degrees of self-reflexivity between the reporting mode of verbatim drama and personal commentary, as well as between acting out and presenting material. While Pavelková thus analysed a playwright who has slowly drifted into acting, Maguire presented the opposite case, a performer who has drifted into writing. His paper, „Performing Evaluation in the Theatre of Claire Dowie,“ took the „stand-up“ theatre of Dowie as a prime example how the body of the actor can be employed in story-telling both as a representational tool that illustrates the story and as the site of the performance itself.

All these academic debates were rounded off by more directly practical takes on narratives in drama in the form of a presentation by Kathleen Starck (University of Osnabrück) and Jan Kraneis („detales“ theatre group, Osnabrück) about improvised theatre and by two student theatre productions. After presenting an overview of the historical development as well as current trends and formats in ‚improv theatre‘, Starck and Kraneis went on to show a variety of practical techniques and forms by performing short improvised scenes in an active involvement of their audience who provided them with initial ideas and cues for their improvisations. It was intriguing to see how improvised narratives emerge from arbitrary words or phrases, and thus become the backbone of spontaneous performance. On the side of what would still pass as more conventional theatre productions, the Desperate Thespians of the University of Siegen presented a poignant performance of Crave (1998), Sarah Kane’s disturbing play of overlapping and interlacing monologues. Finally the English Drama Group at the University of Paderborn allowed a glimpse into the various possibilities of story-telling in the rehearsal process of their current play in production, Alan Ayckbourn’s Confusions (1974).

Mark Berninger (Mainz) and Christoph Henke (Augsburg)