Conference Report CDE 2011

20th CDE Annual Conference, Mainz, Germany
2 – 5 June 2011
„Ethical Debates in Contemporary Theatre and Drama“

The renewed interest in the ethical dimension of art and performance has been a much discussed phenomenon for quite some time. This is reflected in numerous publications, conferences and special issues of scholarly journals across a wide range of academic fields. Drama and theatre studies are no exception here, which is not surprising since the very word drama itself means action, which implies ethical decisions. A recent case in point for this resurgence of ethics in drama and performance criticism is a new international journal called Performing Ethos: An International Journal of Ethics in Theatre & Performance, whose first issue was published in 2010. It was therefore most fitting to make ethics the topic of the 20th annual conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English (CDE) in Mainz, which was co-hosted by Bernhard Reitz, Mark Berninger and Friedemann Kreuder (all of the University of Mainz). The conference proved to be a forum for diverse approaches to and lively discussions of the ethical dimension of contemporary drama in Britain, North America and elsewhere.

The opening keynote speech was given by playwright and academic Dan Rebellato (Royal Holloway, University of London), who looked at the ethics of so-called two-handers in his talk „Two: Duologues, Differends and Ethical Dilemmas“. Addressing a large number of plays from the 1990s (such as David Mamet’s Oleanna, Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Jim Cartwright’s I Licked a Slag’s Deodorant) and the 2000s (Martin Crimp’s The Country, Caryl Churchill’s A Number) as well as recent two-handers by Dennis Kelly, Lucy Kirkwood and Simon Stephens, Rebellato argued that two-character plays are the visible sign of a return of ethics in non-universalist terms, as envisaged in Jean-François Lyotard’s postmodern ethic of the „differend“. The resurgence of ethics in philosophical writings by Jacques Derrida, Alain Badiou and Giorgio Agamben is mirrored by a meta-ethical interest of playwrights in asking questions about individuality and responsibility vis-à-vis the unleashed power of capitalism in Western societies after 1990 without resorting to universalist stances. According to Rebellato, the fact that two characters are the minimal building block of social interaction and thus lend themselves perfectly to such ethically oriented drama, speaks against a simplistic economic explanation of the popularity of two-handers on the contemporary stage during a time of reduced financial budgets.

The three papers of the conference’s first panel were concerned with the representation of war and international conflict in contemporary drama. Franziska Quabeck (Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster) discussed Gregory Burke’s plays The Straits (2003) and Black Watch (2006) in the light of Michael Walzer’s just war theory and showed how the plays do not focus on the politics of either the Falklands or Iraq war, but on the ethics of war as reflected in a juxtaposition with personal conflict (The Straits) and a contrast between political decisions and individual consequences (Black Watch). The documentary aspect of representing war in Emily Mann’s older Vietnam play Still Life (1980) and Heather Raffo’s more recent Iraq piece 9 Parts of Desire (2003) was examined by Ilka Saal (University of Erfurt), who determined the contrast between Mann’s and Raffo’s approaches as that between an attempt at authenticity and an emphasis of theatricality. Finally, Enric Monforte (University of Barcelona) looked at the different aesthetic ways of representing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in David Hare’s Via Dolorosa (1998), Robin Soan’s The Arab-Israeli Cookbook (2004) and Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children (2009). Contrary to Hare’s personal authorial approach and Soans‘ clearly humanitarian intentions, Churchill’s unconventional form offers space for ethical considerations by provoking the reader/audience into creating meaning from the gaps of defamiliarized drama.

In the following panel, war and witnessing continued to feature as important themes of critical ethical reflection in contemporary drama. Christiane Schlote (University of Zurich) gave an overview of „A Different Theatre of War“ (thus the title of her talk) by addressing recent representations of humanitarian aid on the British stage in plays such as Richard Bean’s On the Side of Angels, Stella Feehily’s Think Global, Fuck Local, Colin Teevan’s The Lion of Kabul and Stephen Todd’s The Remnants of Once Fine Girls (all 2009). The often farcical figure of the international aid worker in those plays problematizes the ambiguous effects of humanitarian aid as well as, implicitly at least, theatrical practices of political intervention. The ethics of witnessing in a globalized space was the focus of Mireia Aragay’s (University of Barcelona) paper, in which she looked at Harold Pinter’s Party Time (1991), Caryl Churchill’s Far Away (2000) and Martin Crimp’s Fewer Emergencies (2005). Through experimental forms these plays put spectators in the position of active witnesses of global interrelatedness, while they remind us at the same time of the vast economic/cultural contrasts between a privileged minority and an underprivileged majority.

The second day of the conference was concluded by playwright and radio/screenplay writer Rona Munro, whose keynote lecture on „One Writer’s Ongoing Struggle to Write Entertaining Narratives with Honest Politics“ gave a personal insight into the ethical choices of a writer struggling to mediate between her own core beliefs and the expectations of heterogeneous audiences, in order to entertain the latter without compromising the former. With the example of her 1991 play Bold Girls about the female experience of the wives or partners of soldiers in Northern Ireland’s republican fight, Munro made clear her moral responsibility to capture human experience against taboos of political correctness. Her emphasis on stories and ethical implications to which audiences can relate has frequently pushed her towards more conventional forms of drama and narrative.

In the morning panel of the next conference day, three papers turned to theatrical representations of the ethics of fringe communities, either in contrast to mainstream society or within the transnational context of global capitalism. Dirk Visser (University of Groningen) talked about radical gay theatre and what he called the „ethics of AIDS“, especially with reference to John Roman Baker’s „AIDS Positive Underground Theatre„, a company founded in the early 1990s, which uses the theatre as a radical space/mode of action beyond the dichotomy of assimilating into a society of capitalist consumption or earlier gay liberationism. A different form of opposition to mainstream culture is frequently performed by two American political theatre collectives, the women peace activists group „Code Pink“ and Bill Talen’s „Reverend Billy and the Life After Shopping„, which were discussed by Pia Wiegmink (Johnannes Gutenberg-Universität, Mainz) in her paper entitled „actEthics“. Wiegmink showed how the local and communal performances of these two groups seek to undermine nationalist discourses of homeland security in the aftermath of 9/11 by critically employing performative utterances of high symbolic import that do not to represent ethical acts but are such acts in themselves. Ondřey Pilný (Charles University, Prague) concluded the panel by analyzing the responses to the „terminal days of the Celtic Tiger“ in most recent Irish drama, i.e. Marina Carr’s Marble (2009), Tom Murphy’s The Last Days of a Reluctant Tyrant (2009) and Enda Walsh’s Penelope (2010). In very different forms and more or less direct ways, these plays all comment on the recent collapse of the Irish economy after its soaring in the early 2000s. They unmask the decadent urban middle-class desire for transgression as the ultimate consequence of having all material wishes fulfilled.

In the third keynote speech of the conference, playwright, screenwriter and political satirist Alistair Beaton revealed, in conversation with Michael Raab, his approach to political satire on the stage and in his productions for television. As comedy is only successful when it has the same basis in truth as serious drama, Beaton made it clear that laughter does not cheapen an important message to be delivered by the satirist. In other words, his concept of satire embraces entertainment rather than didactic lecturing, which he has proven in such plays as Feelgood (2001), Follow My Leader (2004) and King of Hearts (2007) as well as in his TV productions, most notably Channel 4’s The Trial of Tony Blair (2007).

The ethics of self with its shaping by external influence and manipulative acts of autobiographical memory was the focus of the next panel on contemporary American and Canadian drama. Barbara Antoniazzi (Freie Universität, Berlin) analyzed Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play on paedophilia, How I Learned to Drive (1997), with regard to its presentation of a form of speculative ethics that question dogmatic understandings of moral universalism and reassess the value of regulative ideals. The puppet play Billy Twinkle: Requiem for a Golden Boy (2008) by Canadian artist Ronnie Burkett featured in Michael Bachmann’s (Johannes Gutenberg-Universität, Mainz) paper on autobiographical performance and the ethics of memory. By presenting mirror versions of himself fragmented into different characters appearing as marionette puppets on stage, Burkett playfully offers multiple breaks of ontological boundaries that question the „inside“ and „outside“ of the self and its agency. They thus imply an ethics of autobiographical memory marked by ventriloquy and spectrality (in the sense of Derrida’s Specters of Marx).

The final day of the conference started with a keynote speech given by Jewish-British writer Julia Pascal, in which she addressed the problematic situation of a Jewish British woman writer. As Jews have a rather ambiguous status in Britain regarding their visibility – they are visible in the imagination, but actually quite invisible in real figures -, the question of Jewish identity emerges as an overarching theme in her many identities as an actor, journalist, theatre manager and playwright. In her talk, Pascal, who is the author of such plays as Theresa (1990), The Dybbuk (1992), The Yiddish Queen Lear (1999), Woman in the Moon (2001), Crossing Jerusalem (2003) and The Shylock Play (2007), critically noted that the comparative invisibility of Jewish-British literature and art stems also from the fact that Jewish wealth in Britain tends to support the conservative flagships of culture (Shakespeare, National Theatre etc.), but not Jewish fringe theatre.

In the closing panel of the conference, Clare Wallace (Charles University, Prague) used Hans Thies Lehmann’s concept of postdramatic theatre in conjunction with theoretical viewpoints on postmodern ethics by Zygmunt Bauman and Emmanuel Lévinas to discuss ethical ambivalence and transgression in such recent plays as David Hare’s The Power of Yes (2009), Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman (2003) and Tim Crouch’s self-conscious metatheatrical piece The Author (2009). Moral transgression was also an important topic in Heiner Zimmermann’s (University of Heidelberg) paper on Howard Barker’s plays, which Zimmermann qualified as a „theatre of moral speculation“ in that Barker tests morality at its source in order to endorse an essentially amoral theatre, in opposition to the „humanist moralist squad“ of critics and playwrights. However, as Zimmerman argued, Barker’s theatre is sustained by the very norms that it transgresses, as demonstrated by the fence that is symbolic of moral norms in his play The Fence (2002).

The lively academic debates of the conference were accompanied by two theatre performances: The Staatstheater Mainz put on Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, which was followed by a discussion with members of the cast and the production team. The second theatre production, Murder Beyond the Sundial, written by Stuart Marlow, was performed by ACTS (Anglophone Collaborative Theatre of Stuttgart).

Christoph Henke (Augsburg)