Although the term “theatricality” resists summary and definition, it has emerged as a leading idea in performance studies both in the USA and Germany, with an extensive and rapidly growing literature. A particularly dense focus on theatricality emerged from a multidisciplinary research project of the German Research Council entitled “Theatricality as a Model for Cultural Studies,” which has produced numerous conferences and publications since 2000. Scholars consistently emphasize the elusive and protean meanings of the concept, while reaffirming its potential to illuminate a wide range of cultural phenomena and communicative processes. In a 2003 essay collection called Theatricality, Postlewait and Tracy critique previous attempts to produce a general theory of theatricality, advocating instead that the term be used in analyzing cultural performances in specific times and places. This emphasis on cultural and situational specificity has been advocated by other leading theater scholars as well. At the same time, the concept of theatricality has attracted interest from diverse fields because it offers the possibility to explore interconnections between historically and geographically diverse subjects.
While it seems clear that the theatricality concept is closely related to performance or performativity, it inspires far more ambivalence and is employed in less consistent ways. The unsettled tension between the concepts “theatricality” and “performance” will thus be one of the main methodological problems addressed in the symposium. Some theorizations of theatricality highlight codes and conventions of theatrical communication as well as the spectator’s self-conscious perception of them. It is by means of such iterative conventions that the “theatrical” emerges in contexts outside the theater proper. This understanding of theatricality puts it in an oppositional relationship with the concept of performance, where the concreteness of the individual event places it beyond iterability and potentially radicalizes the meanings that can emerge. Performance is also commonly understood as a broader concept than theatricality, embracing behaviors and cultural practices that are not theatrical. Here the symposium promises to stimulate a productive dialogue between German and Anglo-American perspectives. As Janelle Reinelt wrote in 2002, “while recently Anglo-American theorists have embraced performance and performativity as central organizing concepts, European theorists have stressed theatricality, thus opening up a contemporary question concerning the variability of these terms.” Even within the Anglo-American discourse the concepts are in flux. Scholarly collaborators Juan Villegas and Diana Taylor (1994), for example, have disagreed on whether “theatricality” or “performance” makes a more useful embracing concept for studying cultural practices in Latin American context. The symposium will pursue this question not with the aim of producing consensus but to sharpen the explanatory limits and boundaries of these central concepts.
Surveying the history of “theatricality” in scholarship, Marvin Carlson noted that “while traditionally theater theorists have most commonly looked to the work of literary or philosophers for inspiration, concepts, and analytic strategies, today they are much more likely to look to such cultural analysts as anthropologists, ethnographers, psychologists and sociologists” (2002). This merger of theater studies and social sciences, associated with Richard Schechner and his circle, produced an approach to theater that bypassed notions of aesthetic autonomy and highlighted the integration of theater with social and cultural processes “Theatricality and Performance” will promote this expansion of the study of culture by including participants from a variety of disciplines and by emphasizing parallels between aesthetics and culture. How does the framing of operas and plays in the context of festivals influence their production, reception, and cultural meaning? How are newer media such as virtual environments and music video creating new sites of theatrical inscription and reconfiguring the terms of theatricality? How does an engagement with the globalization of theater with non-European theater affect our perceptions of the nature of theatricality? How is the discourse of the political public sphere shaped by theatricality, either affirmatively or negatively? This latter question is likely to engage the ambivalence toward theatricality to its fullest, and will get particular emphasis the first day of the symposium. For some theatricality is a liberatory or subversive force that challenges the illusion of transparent or unmediated representation, effectively unveiling all representation as theatrical. But it can also be viewed as an instrument of coercive power that naturalizes authority and thrives on the capitulation of the spectator to its capacity for mimetic illusion. The problematic relation between theatricality and power in the public sphere has surfaced in recent controversies over “theatricalized” performances of reconciliation, forgiveness and punishment.