Conference Report CDE 2014

23rd CDE Annual Conference, Hamburg Blankenese (University of Hamburg)
19 – 22 June 2014
„Theatre and History: Cultural Transformations“

Versions and visions of history have been central for drama and theatre for a long time. In spite of the proclaimed ‘end of history’, the historical has remained a powerful presence in plays and performances of the last decades. Many of these plays pluralize the past and challenge hegemonic historiography from gendered, postcolonial, and ecological perspectives, and they use forms such as verbatim or memory plays, staged biographies, or enactments ‘on location’. In all these different forms, playwrights and theatre practitioners do not only stage but also scrutinize and resist linear notions of history, and they address the material or environmental processes within which these temporalities unfold. Against the backdrop of these lively debates and formal experiments as well as against the backdrop of recent momentous anniversaries like the First World War centenary, the 23rd annual conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English (CDE) addressed issues of history, how we tell stories about it and how notions of history have been challenged and re-assessed on Anglophone stages around the world.

The conference opened with a conversation between playwright Mark Ravenhill and Jörg Bochow, head dramaturge of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg. Focusing on how and to what effect theatre and drama locate history on the contemporary stage, Ravenhill vividly talked about historical events that had shaped his life and the life of his parents. He described his increasing awareness of the strategic staging of political events like the Blair election of 1997 and how such stagings could fabricate ideas of ‚change‘ and ‚the future‘ for the public eye. Using plays like Faust Is Dead (1997), Handbag (1998) or Mother Clap’s Molly House (2001), Bochow and Ravenhill discussed the possibilities of theatre and drama to make the present talk to the past. In this context, Ravenhill stressed the importance of a historical perspective for contemporary plays which very often seemed trapped in an eternal present or had become too focused on what is deemed ‚relevant‘ to the present moment. The conversation ended with Ravenhill’s impressive and haunting reading from his stage adaptation and re-writing of Candide, a version of Voltaire’s classical novel first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013.

In the first keynote of the conference that followed on the next morning, Una Chaudhuri (New York University) took the route of eco-criticism to talk about how human history is put into perspective when considering large-scale and often incommensurable events like climate change. Using Caryl Churchill’s Far Away (2000) as a starting point, she concentrated on how tiny acts of a private nature like the use of plastic bags are connected to momentous developments that affect everyone’s lives in an increasingly global system. In the rest of her talk, she discussed Wallace Shawn’s Grasses of a Thousand Colors (2009) and its disturbing play on sexual expression, human-animal relations and food while spinning a dystopian fantasy about ecological disaster. Chaudhuri argued convincingly that Shawn extends ecological thought into the realm of ethics while criticizing neo-liberalism, capitalism and their consequences for the politics of human and animal life. She ultimately called for a ‚drama of bad ideas‘ in which the connection of bad thinking and its ecological effects can be made more tangible on stage and in which the audience can reflect on the problematic idea of human beings being able to fix and improve their environment.

Following Chaudhuri’s keynote, the first panel of the conference on „Fracturing History: Staging the Moment“ started with  Vicky Angelaki (University of Birmingham) and her paper „From History to ‚Ourstories‘: Staging Conflict, Negotiating Crisis“. Focusing on Martin Crimp’s Alles Weitere kennen Sie aus dem Kino, first performed at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg in 2013, Angelaki discussed how Crimp’s radical new version of Euripides‘ The Phoenician Women de-familiarizes the familiar and questions historical narratives. Through its focus on strong women and their role in historical events, Crimp re-assesses the past and how history is made without simply dismissing history as artificial. Rather, he creates a new collective ‚ourstory‘ in which the audience and their potentially problematic consumption of mediatized images of historical events are included.  Chris Megson (Royal Holloway, University of London) followed up on Angelaki in his paper on „Politics, Postsecularism and Contemporary Drama“. He detected a new interest in religion and secular enchantment in a whole number of contemporary plays, ranging from David Hare’s Racing Demon (1990) and its interest in the workings of the Church of England over Richard Bean’s The Heretic (2011) and its interest in fundamentalisms and their political effects to Howard Barker’s Lot and His God (2012) and its subversion of religious imagery or plays like Howard Brenton’s Paul (2005) in which the psychology of fundamentalism is tackled in a re-telling of St. Paul’s conversion in Damascus. Megson applied the idea of the postsecular to these plays, arguing that the theatricalized postsecular imagination is both an antidote to modernism’s disenchantment of the world and a means of up-ending the binary division of past and present. In the final paper of the panel,  Franziska Quabeck (University of Münster) focused on the importance of the particular and acts of individual human beings in the workings of history, using Brian Friel’s The Home Place (2005). She started with notions of history that explained events via natural laws of necessity and outlined alternative models of history as narrative. In contrast to abstract history ruled by natural laws, Friel’s play presents history as unpredictable and based on individual agents who might not be logical or part of a larger canvas of ‚big history‘ and who might have reasons, but not a singular and necessary reason. This focus on the individual then puts an ethical demand on the individual and its responsibility as a historical agent.

In the second keynote of the conference,  Amelia H. Kritzer (University of St. Thomas, Saint Paul, Minnesota) talked about „Women and Historical Agency in Contemporary British Plays“. Defining historical agency as the capacity to affect public events recorded in history, she focused on plays that discussed how historical agency is denied to women. Plays like Happy Now? by Lucinda Coxon (2008), Apologia by Alexi Kaye Campbell (2009) or The Tricycle Theatre’s cycle of nine short plays on Women, Power & Politics (2009) call attention to the scope of women’s lives and their engagement in politics, history and leadership. At the same time, these plays discuss the precarious balance between family life, public offices and personal happiness in the past and the present.

The second panel continued this interest in agency and history. In her paper „Historical Simulacra and Intermedial Infotainment“ Maria Marcsek-Fuchs (University of Braunschweig) took on a gendered view onto history with Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings and its stage version for the Globe Theatre (2013). She argued that the play was not innovative in its form, but that it nevertheless questioned issues of history and created an awareness for the bitter struggle for agency in its depiction of women’s fight for equal rights to a university degree in its documentation of the Girton College riots of 1896. John Bull (University of Reading) concentrated on Howard Brenton’s imagining of British history and Brenton’s project of historical ‚invention‘ as a meeting of the ‚factive‘ and the ‚fictive‘. In plays like Anne Boleyn (2010) or 55 Days (2012), Brenton problematises notions of Britain and national identity. By asking how the nation came to be and addressing the fear of this identity and nation falling apart, Brenton thus criticizes the recent popularity of the monarchy and issues of succession. John Bull ended with a short glimpse at other authors and their views of British history, past and future, in Mike Bartlett’s ‚future history play‘ King Charles III (2014), David Greig’s Dunsinane (2010) and Rona Munro’s trilogy of King James plays (2014). In the panel’s last paper,  Marie Pecorari (Paris-Sorbonne University) analysed Tony Kushner’s 1996 play Reverse Transcription: Six Playwrights Bury a Seventh. The play outlines how literature can write back to history, going against the grain of contemporary society by re-activating obsolete ways of death and mourning. In its critique of the exclusion of artists from mainstream American society and its presentation of the AIDS epidemic, the play creates a new connection with the past.

On the evening of the conference’s second day, the participants went to see Drawing Lessons I, II and III by William Kentridge at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. In an impressive solo performance, Joachim Meyerhoff enacted the first three of William Kentridge’s Harvard lectures. The production included original art work and films by the South African artist and touched upon topics like race and genocide, childhood memories and the politics of music and art.

Helen Gilbert (Royal Holloway, University of London) opened the third day of the conference with her keynote on „History is Broken Here: Indigenous Performance and the ‚Cunning of Recognition'“. She concentrated on the role that performance and theatre can play in postcolonial analyses of the consequences of colonialism in Canada and Australia. She argued that theatre does important affective work by making these consequences tangible for the audience. In her talk, she focused on the role of photography as a technique of memory and testimony and how indigenous theatre has re-used colonial and ethnographic photography to re-tell the past from an indigenous perspective. Her examples were The Edward Curtis Project: A Modern Picture Story (2010) by Marie Clements, the short film A Common Experience (2013) by Yvette Nolan and Shane Belacourt, and Gudirr, Gudirr (2013) by Marrugeku Company and its co-artistic director, Dalisa Pigram. As Gilbert showed, these performances challenge and engage with the idea of the ‚authentic‘ native and his/her role in the past and present of contemporary postcolonial societies.

The third panel on „Local Perspectives – Global Historiographies“ opened with Markus Wessendorg (University of Hawaii, Mānoa) and his take on terrorism and theatre. Claiming that hostage drama has been central to many contemporary stagings of terrorism, he compared Frank McGuinnessSomeone to Watch Over Me (1992) with David Greig’s The American Pilot (2005). These plays employ the trope of the hostage drama not only to address the geopolitical conflict between Western powers and the Middle East but also to put this conflict into a larger historical perspective that includes a challenge to Western notions of supremacy and Islamic backwardness while including the problematic legacy of American colonization. Stefani Brusberg-Kiermeier (University of Hildesheim) analysed Lucy Prebble’s Enron (2009) as docudrama and verbatim theatre. She argued that the play and its entertaining mixture of documentary, tragedy, dance and show tunes stressed the importance of ’self-fashioning‘ in the business sphere, thus outlining the theatricality of the financial business world while nevertheless being a piece of docudrama that criticized American investment in the developing world. However, the play does not give much room to the more individualized plight of the employees and is therefore in danger of trivializing the consequences of economic scandals like that of the Enron company. In her paper on „A Historiography of Protest: Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica„, Christiane Schlote (University of Zurich) followed up on these concerns with globalization. She examined Kirkwood’s dramatization of the famous photograph of the ‘tank man’ standing in front of the tanks on Tiananmen Square in June 1989. Using this historical photograph as a starting point, the play portrays global media in the story of war photographer Joe Schofield. While the play criticizes the capitalist exploitation of war and war images, it is in itself quite a conventional piece of theatre, as Schlote argued. With its focus on private lives and a predominance of American scenes over Chinese scenes, the play creates no radical or transnational narrative.

The fourth panel on „Transforming Cultures – Inventing Futures“ started off with René Schallegger’s paper on „Re-/Writings of History in Contemporary Canadian Drama“ (University of Klagenfurt). Arguing that Canada is a young country with a colonial history and only a recent development of a national literature, he analyzed two kinds of Canadian plays which he termed ‚voices of the other‘ on the one hand and ‚personal and collective metafiction‘ on the other hand. Contemporary Canadian authors present images of Canada and its past as deeply historical and a-historical at the same time, Schallegger argued. Janine Hauthal (University of Wuppertal) focused on „Transcultural Discourses on the Contemporary British Stage“ and recent engagements with post-wall Europe. She compared David Edgar’s Pentecost (1994), David Greig’s Europe (1994) and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Break of Day (1995). These plays adopt transnational points of view and delineate Eastern Europe as a transcultural community affected by migration and the need to rewrite European history against earlier Eurocentric visions. This recent turn to Eastern Europe was also used to question British identity, as Hauthal argued. In the final paper of the panel on „Utopian Histories: Transforming Past Ideals in Stoppard’s Plays“, Christopher Innes (University of Toronto) assessed Tom Stoppard’s plays with regard to their ideologies of hope and the merging of past and present. In his trilogy The Coast of Utopia (2002) as well as in Rock’n’Roll (2006) Stoppard engaged with the link between politics and art and the political and the personal. The plays thus ask how history is constructed and by whom, and they make the point that art, painting and music can trump politics in their creation of a utopian potential that remains open to new ideas.

The second day concluded with a lively performance by the Hamburg University Players who presented Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues (1996), a play about nine parallel lives and interlocking infidelities that were staged in a series of fragmented confessionals that intersected in unexpected and mysterious ways.

The final day of the conference opened with a workshop on eco-drama by Catherine Diamond (Soochow University, Taiwan) who is the director of the Kinnari Ecological Theatre Project in Southeast Asia. She presented the methods and performances of Kinnari and its goals of addressing ecological problems via a staging of popular myths, song and dance, both with amateur actors from the respective local context as well as with professional performers. With theatre performances such as The Golden Fish in Flood Time which addressed the flood in Thailand in 2013 or The Philosopher’s Plastic Stone which addressed the problem of plastic waste in Myanmar in 2012, Kinnari offers agency to local communities who can self-determinedly face environmental issues in their own performances. The participants of the conference workshop then worked on ecological problems that were relevant to their own local environments and connected these issues with a reworking of the Grimm fairy tale of „Snow White“.

After this stimulating workshop, the fifth panel on „Truth and Action – History and Performance“ concluded the conference with three papers. Janina Wierzoch (University of Hamburg) discussed plays that address the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and focused on Owen SheersThe Two Worlds of Charlie F. (2012) and Roy WilliamsDays of Significance (2007). She differentiated between historical time which is often thought to be external and objective and personal temporalities which are concerned with subjective perceptions of time. The plays present how war disrupts and distorts history by staging personal temporalities and their often violent shifts and frictions. Felix Sprang (Humboldt University Berlin) then concentrated on performance theatre and the two companies Forced Entertainment and Needcompany. Taking the concept of failure as his central starting point, he argued that performances like The Coming Storm (2012) or The Last Adventures (2013) by Forced Entertainment create a ‚poetics of failure‘ that help the audience to rethink notions of history, linearity and the well-made play. By showing that history is as contingent as the fragmented narratives of the performances, audiences are confronted with their own desire for a coherent story and its constant rejection by the performance itself. The final paper by Trish Reid (Kingston University London) offered an analysis of the unusual and experimental piece Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (2013) by Untitled Projects which poses as an exhibition and documentation about the adaption of James Hogg’s 19th century Gothic novel by the playwright Paul Bright. Featuring interviews with theatre makers, a detailed exhibition and seemingly authentic documents about the making of the adaptation, the piece turns out to be an elaborate hoax. The play thus deconstructs representational practices and plays with unreliability and the forms of documentary theatre as well as with its ideas of authenticity.

All in all, the 23rd annual conference of the German Society for Contemporary Theatre and Drama in English showed the impressive breadth and lively debate surrounding issues of history and its transformations on contemporary Anglophone stages around the globe. The conference’s stimulating presentations, fruitful discussions, and theatrical events offered numerous insights into the diverse facets of theatre and history in contemporary drama and performance.
(Selected papers of the conference have been published in JCDE: Journal of Contemporary Drama in English, vol. 3.1, 2015.)

Sarah Heinz (Mannheim