Sunday, June 19, 2011

Some Thoughts on the Concept of the Revolutionary Dramatist

It does not seem at all uncommon to find amongst the reviews and criticism someone willing to designate this or that dramatist as a "revolutionary voice" or some similar radical designation of both their prowess, power, and perceived stance in regards to the mainstream. In essence, the revolutionary is a powerful and skilled transgressive, violating the rules and running contrary to established standards in order to find a voice in the theatre today.

Perhaps the single most expansive work on this particular topic is Robert Brustein's Theatre of Revolt, which takes a number of modernist dramatists (Ibsen through Genet) and demonstrates how their theatre is truly one of revolt, of casting off. Perhaps the clearest rubric is the one he provides on the varying types of revolt:
  • Messianic Revolt: A form of revolt where the dramatist attempts to tear down the old order of being and replace it with something of their making.
  • Social Revolt: A form that removes the metaphysical aspects and lowers the stakes. In essence, it seeks to tear down the old order yet lacks the energy, or perhaps clear will, to replace it with a new one.
  • Existential Revolt: This one comes about in the last feeble gasps of the dramatist. When he cannot even cast off the old order, but simply by existing, by persevering, registers his revolt against the system.
And this seems to be a very neat, very simple way of thinking about the revolutionary dramatist, a ranking on order of energy and capability of making difference. However, the rubric quickly breaks down in the concepts of Messianic Revolt. Though the new messiah attempts to build a new order, they rarely (if ever) succeed in a meaningful way. Even the Nietzschean has difficulty describing what precisely he means by a "dancing Socrates," and the prime examples of Messianic work, Ibsen's early dramas Brand and Peer Gynt, end in the catastrophic failure of the superman. Thus, even this three-step hierarchy, elegant as it may be, collapses into a binary form: transgressive or cisgressive (Trans- and Cis- being the two opposite prefixes). Thus, the revolutionary (or revolting?) dramatist is simply in rebellion, defined by their status as opposition.

This status has the effect of, essentially, creating a stable of sacred cows. It becomes difficult to critique a transgressive stance. By defining the work of a revolutionary dramatist as being against something, one has a problem similar to attempting to prove a negative assertion. In standing for nothing aside from the end of the old order, any critique is structurally obligated to defend that very order. Such cyclical arguments get nowhere and thus the status of the transgressive dramatist is, in essence, unassailable.

However, such a binary structure is based on a basic misunderstanding of the concept underlying revolution. According to the Collins English Dictionary, revolution is rooted in the Old French "to revolve," meaning to roll back or come around complete circuit. Indeed, such a concept is echoed in John Locke's conception of revolution as an "Appeal to Heaven." Lacking an earthly recourse to the violation of natural rights, revolutionaries call upon god (the ultimate in intrinsic value) to be their judge. Revolution, as opposed to functioning as a simple transgression, is in reality a cisgression in favour of a (perceivedly) superior or more basic value. Thus, the cis/transgressive binary of drama is collapsed again.

The effect here is a basic one. Status as a revolutionary (in drama or otherwise) is thus no protection from additional critique. The very structure of the dramatic revolt lends itself to continual improvement, continual examination, and perhaps a virtuous spiral.

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