The Postdramatic Theatre of Richard Maxwell

(Markus Wessendorf, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, 2003)


In their attempts to conceptualize and classify the ingenious theatre language of the 35-year old playwright, director and songwriter Richard Maxwell, critics and scholars often struggle for words that would appropriately describe his aesthetics. However, established terms such as experimental theatre, postmodernism, neo-avantgarde, minimalism etc. only serve to describe the most obvious surface structure of Maxwell’s theatre productions. A more promising strategy for mapping out Maxwell’s plays conceptually may be to examine it from a postdramatic perspective. To approach Maxwell’s work as an example of postdramatic theatre may not only help to shed new light on Maxwell’s signature style as dramatist and director but may also have the advantageous side-effect of introducing the concept of postdramatic theatre to an Anglo-American public. Even thought the notion of postdramatic theatre is not radically new (Richard Schechner first used the term “post-dramatic theater” in the 1970s to describe happenings[1]), it has only recently been developed into a comprehensive theory by Hans-Thies Lehmann, one of Germany’s foremost theatre scholars and critics.[2] The 1999-publication of Postdramatisches Theater,[3] Lehmann’s book-length study on the subject, immediately established the concept of postdramatic theatre as the widely accepted terminological ‘upgrade’ of current theatre-aesthetic discourse. In January 2000, Lehmann’s book was featured on the cover of the German theatre magazine Theater heute, not usually considered a spearhead of advanced theatre theory these days.[4] The success and popularity of Postdramatisches Theater cannot only be explained by its very accessible presentation of highly complex theoretical issues (from Hegel’s aesthetics to Kristeva’s semiotics) and its insightful analyses of a wide range of theatre productions and performances (from Robert Wilson to German director Einar Schleef), but also by the plausibility of the concept of postdramatic theatre itself.

Even though the concept of postdramatic theatre is in many ways analogous to the notion of postmodern theatre, it is not based on the application of a general cultural concept to the specific domain of theatre, but derives and unfolds from within a long-established discourse on theatre aesthetics itself, as a deconstruction of one of its major premises. Lehmann’s book is mainly a response to Peter Szondi’s Theory of the Modern Drama from 1956, which interpreted the history of modern drama from Ibsen through Arthur Miller as so many responses to the ‘crisis of drama’, by which Szondi meant the widening gap between a historically conditioned Aristotelian form of drama and a modern content for which that form was no longer suitable. Szondi defined the drama of modernity as a historical formation that “arose in Elizabethan England […] came into being in seventeenth-century France and was perpetuated in the German classical period.”
[5] As a “specific literary-historical event”[6] the concept ‘drama’ reflected the aesthetic discourse of those periods: in its insistence on the absoluteness of drama as a self-positing and self-propelling entity; the adherence to the unities of place, time, and action; the dominance of dialogue and interpersonal communication; and the notion of dramatic time as always being in the present. Szondi argues, however, that this self-enclosed universe of drama, from which any trace of authorship as well as any reference to concerns external to the plot must be absent, began to crack under the conditions of modernity. It was the intrusion of a historically inevitable Epic dimension into modern dramaturgy that playwrights like Ibsen, Chekhov, Strindberg, etc. had to contend with while still trying to do justice to the formal demands of well-crafted drama. The history of modern theatre for Szondi is a history of mostly failed compromises between the requirements of absolute drama on the one hand and modern themes and subject matter demanding an epic treatment on the other hand. Lehmann’s book in many ways seems a continuation of Szondi’s project, but a continuation that is at the same time based on a major revision and reassessment of Szondi’s predominantly Hegelian model. Postdramatisches Theater, if compared to Szondi’s essay, is also indicative of the major paradigm shift that has occurred in theatre studies since the 1960s, mostly as a result of changed theatre practices, but also of the increasing impact of performance studies on theatre scholarship. Lehmann regards performativity, not rootedness in a dramatic text, as the major constituent of theatre. The notion of ‘postdramatic’, however, does not imply that theatre no longer uses texts, or that writing plays would no longer be possible (or relevant), it only implies that the other components of the mise en scène are no longer subservient to the text.

There are many contemporary plays (from Heiner Müller to Suzan Lori-Parks) that could be considered postdramatic since their dramaturgy is already a response to the fundamental changes in theatre practice and theory that have occurred since the 1960s. Different from Szondi who only discusses modern theatre in negative terms—as an art form in crisis, a becoming-problematic of drama—Lehmann maps out an affirmative aesthetics of postdramatic theatre and provides a catalogue of ideas that allow describing and analyzing that kind of theatre in positive terms. There is no space here for a detailed examination of the manifold aesthetic theories that Lehmann brings up in his discussion of postdramatic theatre, but the major achievement of his book lies in providing a thorough analysis and conceptualization of the theatre sign, the aesthetics of time, the aesthetics of space, the representation of the body, and the use of media in postdramatic theatre. Three of the concepts that inform a lot of postdramatic theatre may be particularly helpful in elucidating the dramaturgical and directorial strategies of Richard Maxwell. The following pages will discuss one of Maxwell’s recent productions, Drummer Wanted, with regard to what Lehmann refers to as ‘hypernaturalism’, the ‘intrusion of the Real’, and the ‘a-thetic’ dimension of theatrical representation. Drummer Wanted, which was first performed at New York’s P.S. 122 in November 2001, is a two-person play about the relationship between a mother, who is a real estate agent in her late forties/early fifties, and her only son Frank, who may be in his late twenties.

Lehmann’s notion of hypernaturalism as a characteristic of many postdramatic theatre productions is heavily indebted to Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal. Baudrillard, in his book Symbolic Exchange and Death,
[7] claims that cultural discourses in consumer society have shaped reality to such a degree that the real can no longer be distinguished from its reduplication, reproduction, or representation. According to Baudrillard, we have come to desire the hyperreal, which means that whatever we believe we desire has only been suggested to us by advertising, the media, etc. and has, in fact, buried, if not altogether replaced, our natural needs. Under the conditions of consumer culture, the traditional hierarchy of original and copy is inverted and signs (as images of our desire) come to exist before the things they refer to. Reality, traditionally conceived as primordial (the original ‘blueprint’ on which any representation is based) becomes a second-order reality in the process, a universe of signs that only point to each other, cut off from any external referents. Baudrillard claims that “today reality itself is hyperrealist,”[8] that what we experience as reality is only a simulation of reality, or “the ‘aesthetic’ hallucination of reality.”[9] In his discussion of hyperreality, Baudrillard claims that 19th century realism had already inaugurated this tendency. The rhetoric of the real already signals that its status has been radically altered (leaving the golden age of the innocence of language behind, when what was said needed not to be doubled to create an effect of reality).[10]

Lehmann does not fully accept the idea of a complete disappearance of the real into hyperreality, particularly not since his notion of the real is informed by Jacques Lacan (for whom ‘the Real’, by definition, escapes representation). Nevertheless, Lehmann uses Baudrillard’s notion of the hyperreal to explain the seemingly paradoxical return of naturalistic elements in postdramatic theatre.

There is a return of naturalistic traits in postdramatic theatre that was not to be expected in the wake of such theatre forms as Epic, absurdist, poetic, and formalist theatre. (If one were to follow Baudrillard’s radicalism, there would no longer be any distinction between original and copy. If only the ‘simulacrum’—that is, the artificial fabrication of the original—is left, then the Real can no longer be distinguished from a perfectly functioning simulacrum, which implies that naturalism is no longer an option.) Naturalism can be found in theatre forms that at first sight don’t seem to offer more than a somewhat entertaining 1:1 reproduction of everyday life. However, one has to distinguish the new forms of a heightened and reflective naturalism from what Theodor W. Adorno called the ‘pseudo-realism of the culture industry.’ What has been perceived as naturalistic in theatre productions since the 1970s, often under the impression of photo-realism, is also a form of derealization, not of perfect representation.
[11] Lehmann refers to the postdramatic use of naturalism as ‘hypernaturalism’. Different from traditional naturalism, the hidden—or abject—truths of reality (and Lehmann names the trivial, the ludicrous, expenditure, etc. as examples) are no longer clinically represented in hypernaturalism but come to charge the dynamics of hypernaturalist performance itself with an almost sacred intensity.[12]

Hypernaturalism as a charged representation of mundane occurrences as well as a derealization that reveals reality to be inherently split—uncannily similar to itself but without referent—also characterizes the plays of Richard Maxwell. Naturalistic elements appear in Maxwell’s work on two levels. Though Maxwell is primarily known for his flat, anti-expressive directing style, the raw stage presence and performance of his actors have a naturalist dimension, similar to what Bonnie Marranca, in her Theatre of Images, referred to as the “extreme naturalism”
[13] of Richard Foreman’s early work, with its emphasis on “nonvirtuosic”[14] acting and the use of the “performer’s natural, individual movements.”[15] More suggestive of naturalism in the traditional sense, however, are the plot, theme, and diction of most of Maxwell’s plays. Drummer Wanted is a good example for this tendency in Maxwell’s work. At the very beginning of the play Frank (in the original production played by Pete Simpson), who plays drums in various local bands, breaks his leg in a motorbike accident. Since he is still living at home, his mother (Ellen LeCompte) takes care of him. She also takes care of the insurance situation and involves a lawyer-friend of hers, who eventually succeeds in getting a high compensation for the son. The insurance claim and Frank’s demands for an ever-increasing reimbursement sum put the relationship between middle-class mother and slacker-son to the test, with the result that she finally kicks him out of her house.

Maxwell, in Drummer Wanted, achieves the hypernaturalistic effect of derealization not by establishing a 1:1 reproduction of everyday life but by setting off one type of naturalism against another: traditional naturalism as a reproduction of real-life situations and speech (the domestic conflict between Frank and his mother) against the ‘extreme naturalism’ of the signifying body itself that refuses to recede into the dramatic fiction that it is supposed to embody by pointing instead to its own material presence onstage. The clash of these two kinds of naturalism in Maxwell’s production exemplifies and renders theatrical what could be considered one of the major themes of Maxwell’s work: the characters’ inevitable failure to ever match up, or to get on the level with, the hyperreal. As if to illustrate Baudrillard’s claim that we live in a world of simulacra, Maxwell’s characters inhabit a world of circulating signs, codes, gestures, phrases etc. that echo the world of television (Frank’s repeated ‘ha ha ha’ reminds of the raucous laughter of Beavis and Butthead, while the conflict between mother and son has aspects of a soap opera). If the hyperreal sign always already precedes the desire that it supposedly articulates, we find a similar situation in Drummer Wanted: the characters seem to use gestures, phrases and vocal patterns as quotations, as fixed signs that, since they signify specific emotions, attitudes, etc., endow the characters with those qualities retroactively, but superficially, schematically. The most striking metaphor for the hyperreal in Drummer Wanted is the karaoke bar that mother and son go to. Since the protagonists cannot express their emotions directly, they have to take recourse to prefabricated songs to indicate their feelings and create the semblance of an inner life. What is interesting about Maxwell’s staging of the karaoke scene, however, is that the way in which the characters perform their songs at the bar is in no way different from their general performance throughout the play. Even though the signs produced (or better: re-produced) by the characters in Drummer Wanted are marked as hyperreal, the characters seem not able to quote those signs with the necessary smoothness and ease to merge seamlessly into hyperreality themselves. Under the conditions of a postdramatic universe that reveals everything to be a simulation, Maxwell’s characters fail at simulating hyperreal characters.

In Drummer Wanted the potential hyperrealism that the production could otherwise achieve is consistently punctured and obstructed by frequent pauses and interruptions. During those pauses, the stage action comes to a halt for a few seconds and we are compelled to look at the actors who no longer seem to participate in the make-belief world of the play, but also don’t seem to be fully their private selves. It could be argued that the characters in Maxwell’s play fail in their quest for the hyperreal because the ‘extreme naturalism’ of their physical appearance onstage intervenes. This intervention as a momentary suspension or lapse of meaningful action; as a stage sign without referent; as a moment of real time that seems to disrupt the overall time matrix of the performance is also called ‘intrusion of the Real’ by Lehmann, who describes it as another frequently used concept in postdramatic theatre.
[16] However, the intrusion of the Real (of real time, but also of the performer’s body) in Drummer Wanted neither marks the ‘glorious return’ of first-order reality into the context of a hyperrealist stage narrative nor does it suggest the charged intensity of the banal as it does in hypernaturalism. What intrudes in Drummer Wanted is the ‘pure’ and disconnected sign of itselfhyperreality ‘unplugged’, uncharged, so to speak: a sluggish and passive body, not that comfortable with itself; a body that seems self-referential and illegible and quite incapable of experiencing any intensity or ecstasy, not even Baudrillard’s “total euphoria of simulation.”[17]

If, on the bodily level of performance, Drummer Wanted deconstructs a naturalism of the signified by pitting it against a naturalism of the signifier, the play achieves something similar with regard to space. The dialogue in Maxwell’s production of Drummer Wanted, despite its frequent interruption by pauses, is staged in a way that suggests temporal continuity, one unit of duration. This impression, however, is deceptive since the dialogue itself hints at changes of location and major jumps in time that always come as a surprise to the spectator, as a realization after the fact, since no scene or lighting changes suggest such major progressions in time or space. The set for Drummer Wanted is similarly deceptive since it evokes a sparsely furnished but believably naturalistic space, let’s say the ‘music room’ in an upper middle-class home: upstage we see a piano chair at stage right; a drum set at the center and a piano line up with the stage-left wall; downstage of the piano are two chairs that are also lined up with the wall and that are mirrored by two chairs on the opposite side of the stage. The wooden chairs with their white covers, a small picture above the piano, and the paneling of the stage walls suggest a distinguished taste for uncluttered interior design. The seemingly coherent space, nonetheless (‘a room in the mother’s house’), is not used naturalistically but as a unit set, the different areas of which come to signify various locations that the characters pass through in the course of their conversation.

The performers’ physical journey, their one clockwise movement around the stage, which it takes them the entire performance to complete, however, comes to mean something quite different in the context of the play’s narrative: the performers’ small changes of location in a seemingly homogenous space become symbolic of a succession of heterogeneous places that the characters traverse: home, car, karaoke bar, a building for sale, etc. This wouldn’t be unusual in a pantomime or various non-realist Asian performance traditions, but different from those theatre forms the actors in Maxwell’s play indicate those changes not by highly theatrical and instantly identifiable mimic action but by casual gestures that can easily go unnoticed (when the actors, for example, walk from the piano area to the chairs downstage left the specific change of location from the house to the car is established by one subtle gesture: the mother’s picking up of her purse from the piano and dropping it next to the chair which, through this gesture, becomes a seat in the car).

The a-significant pauses that occur so frequently in Maxwell’s plays are indicative of another aspect of postdramatic theatre, an aspect in which Lehman sees the political potential of postdramatic theatre: its a-thetic dimension of representation.
[18] Lehmann borrows the notion of the thetic from Julia Kristeva, who defines the term as the positing structure in the signifying process that is the basis not only for any kind of linguistic proposition, identification, and judgment but also, finally, for the formation of subjectivity.[19] Theatre, for Lehmann, is the privileged art form to subvert established modes of signification and to create an opening for new, polyvalent cultural meanings. Since the political discourse in particular is identified with law, order, judgment, and rules—namely, with the power of propositionality—theatre can deconstruct the latent authoritarian nature of politics with artistic means, particularly by questioning and undermining the authority of the dramatic text, the most thetic and propositional component of traditional theatre production. The pauses in Maxwell’s productions are a good example for the a-thetic dimension of postdramatic theatre since they fracture, disrupt and question the prepositional structure of the dramatic dialogue preceding them. 

Maxwell’s theatre work overall combines hypernaturalist elements, the intrusion of the Real, and a-thetic performativity to generate minimalist and highly elliptical configurations. His postdramatic performance texts disintegrate traditional notions of character-dramaturgy and unity (of action, time and space) by splitting the common binary oppositions of presence-versus-representation, semiotic-versus-symbolic, signifier-versus-signified etc. into their opposite terms and playing those terms off against each other in performance. 


[1] See Richard Schecher, Performance Theory, rev. and exp. ed. (New York and London: Routledge, 1988), 21.

[2] Lehmann is currently the chair of the theatre department at the University of Frankfurt. 

[3] Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatisches Theater (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag der Autoren, 1999). 

[4] Postdramatisches Theater has also been widely translated so far – into Japanese and Kroatian, for example – and will soon come out in an English translation (with Routledge). 

[5] Peter Szondi, Theory of the Modern Drama, trans. Michael Hays (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1987), 5. 

[6] Ibid. 

[7] Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London: SAGE Publications, 1993). Trans. of L’échange symbolique et la mort (Paris: Gallimard, 1976). 

[8] Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 74. 

[9] Ibid. 

[10] Ibid, 72. 

[11] See Lehmann, Postdramatisches Theater, 210. (Trans. Markus Wessendorf.) 

[12] See Lehmann, Postdramatisches Theater, 211. 

[13] Bonnie Marranca, The Theatre of Images (New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1977), 3. 

[14] Marranca, Theatre of Images, xiii. 

[15] Ibid. 

[16] See Lehmann, Postdramatisches Theater, 170-78. 

[17] Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, 74. 

[18] See Lehmann, Postdramatisches Theater, 262-63, 449-50, 456-60. 

[19] See Julia Kristeva, Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 43: “We shall distinguish the semiotic (drives and their articulations) from the realm of signification, which is always that of a proposition or judgment, in other words, a realm of positions. This positionality […] is structured as a break in the signifying process, establishing the identification of the subject and its object as preconditions of propositionality. We shall call this break, which produces the positing of signification, a thetic phase. All enunciation, whether of a word or of a sentence, is thetic.”