Dramaturgy: from Aristotle to contemporary circus
Bauke Lievens

Drama: the trinity of mimesis, mythos and catharsis

For centuries, the Aristotelian “theatre of dramas” had rested on three main principles: imitation or mimesis, action or plot, and finally, the more unconscious category of catharsis. This is what we read in the Poetics and what has shaped Western theatre history until inclusively the European and Russian avant-garde. In antiquity, mimesis meant ‘embodied representation imitating reality’, the term coming from the Greek mimeisthai, which means ‘to represent through dance’, not ‘to imitate’.[1] Secondly, the plot, diegesis, or Fabel for Aristotle was the ‘soul of tragedy’. The latter off course, is testimony of the belief in the possibility of a narrative and textual representation of the world, a faith that was cruelly destroyed in Lyotard’s description of postmodernism. Finally, the third theoretic category of theatre is catharsis, or “the bringing about of affective recognition and solidarity by means of drama (…)”. [2] This primarily social -not aesthetic- function of theatre, aims at the creation of a community that unites stage and audience, with the ritual aim to confirm the existence of society as a triumphing entity over the agonizing forces of history and nature.

Dramatic theatre is dominated by the text, mainly because in modern times the human subject was still centrally defined through speech. The main preoccupation of this theatre is to communicate the illusion of a probable world, a “fictive cosmos”. [3] To sustain this illusion, it is not so much the continuity of the representation that matters, but rather the imagination of a totality, something that is guaranteed by the centrality of the text. What is interesting here is that “through its very form, dramatic theatre proclaims wholeness as the model of the real.” [4]

Avant-garde: focus on Antonin Artaud (1896-1948).

For a long time, drama was the only art form that was able to imitate human action, a monopoly suddenly destroyed with the rise of cinema, when the mimetic representation of reality by drama became obsolete. The new theatre, called post-dramatic, begins exactly when the union of drama, imitation and action is dissolved. As is indicated by the experiments of the avant-garde in the field of theatre, the ‘new theatre’ would be a theatre beyond representation.

Let’s take for example a closer look at the French dramatist Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) and his visionary ideas about theatre as he wrote them down in his two Manifestes de la Cruauté (1932 and 1933). In general, Artaud’s theatre project of the Theatre of Cruelty is a stubborn elimination of all the mediating mechanisms which reined the bourgeois theatre of his time. Artaud wanted to eliminate the text in favour of the mise-on-scene, the frontal space in favour of a circular and ambulant auditorium, the author in favour of a Créateur Unique. In his second Manifesto, he writes:“(...) Il importe avant tout de rompre l’assujettissement du théâtre au texte, et de retrouver la notion d’une sorte de langage unique à mi-chemin entre le geste et la pensée” [5]. Artaud rejected what he called ‘the theatre of digestion’ (or the bourgeois theatre) with its obsession for the spoken and written word. Instead, he stubbornly called for an attack of the senses of the spectator through a concrete and corporeal theatre-language, as if he wanted to undo theatre from all not strictly-theatrical means. Moreover, the Theatre of Cruelty would no longer be a reflection of a psychological reality. Instead it would be a mirror of a ‘deeper reality’, one that is reined by the ancient forces of humanity and nature. In this light, Artaud talks about cruauté, or cruelty. Those ‘cruel’ latent forces of life would be revealed through the immediateness of the body onstage. In his theatre the body of the actor would not be mimetic (not re-presenting another, outside reality), but would function as a hieroglyph. This term is used by Artaud to describe the coinciding of image and original, of sound and content. The hieroglyph is “un parole avant les môts”, a state of being in which the spoken is not yet separated from the speaker. [6]

In general Artaud’s theatre project is a utopian striving for an unmediated relationship between meaning, truth and subject. [7] It is an attempt at the elimination of the mimetic distance of re-presentation, which is guaranteed by the text. This is why Artaud tried to produce presence through the gaining importance of the body onstage.

However, despite the mutual ‘estrangement of theatre and drama’ in the work of Artaud, Meyerhold, Genet, Beckett, Grotowsky, Ionesco, Brecht and others, the dramatic plot, the character and the moving story (mainly told in dialogue) remained the structuring elements of modern theatre. [8] The centrality of the text and the subsequent idea of the representation of a fictive textual world would rein Western theatre until the second half of the twentieth century.

Post-dramatic theatre

The German scholar Hans-Thies Lehmann situates the emergence of post-dramatic in the 1970s with the booming of mass media and communication technologies. [9] These have brought about a changed perception and a changed social communication which are profoundly shaped by the generalization of and accessibility to information technologies. Postdramatic theatre then, which consists of a “new multiform kind of theatrical discourse”, is theatre’s response to these changing modes of communication and perception. [10] Postmodernism in general is reflected in a theatrical form where the binding unities of the plot (or diegesis), psychology, logo centrism (or the association of subject and speech), the author, the totality and coherence of the text and illusionism give way to the postdramatic aesthetics of the fragment. The main feature of this change is the replacement of mimesis or imitation of human action for the production of presence through the staging of the real. Therefore, postdramatic theatre is not dramatic, meaning that it does not offer a closed and mimetic representation of the world. It does not represent; instead, it relates. Examples of this theatre can be found in the work of Romeo Castellucci, Pippo Delbono, Rimini Protokol, Jan Fabre, Needcompany, Heiner Müller, Theodoros Terzopoulos and others.

What is dramaturgy and do we still need it?

The roots of the word ‘dramaturgy’ can be traced back to a manuscript by G.E. Lessing entitled Die Hamburgsche Dramaturgie, dating from 1768 and also Goethe and Schiller talked about dramaturgy in their letters. Originally, dramaturgy was the term used for the ensemble of texts (plays, books, librettos, music, …) that formed the basis for a dramatic play, an opera or a ballet. In this sense, dramaturgy is what holds together a dramatic work and makes it progress in a lineal and narrative way. In the theatre experiments of the Western avant-garde text became ever less important as it was often seen as a mediating element in the experience of the theatre. In post-dramatic theatre then, the dramaturgic material can be anything. It is the ensemble of all the material that is gathered in the creative process of a performance. This material is very heterogenic and can be a text, a piece of music, photos, references to the plastic arts, a historical fact or a contemporary happening, a film, a specific experience of one of the actors, etc… Dramaturgy then, exists at different levels. A performance is placed in a ‘big dramaturgy’, which is the relationship of the artwork with the outside world and the relationship between different performances of the same artist (usually the director). [11] Interpreted in such a way, dramaturgy is the role that a performance plays in the bigger (his) story of society and thus dramaturgic tensions can be consciously developed. But every performance also has a ‘small dramaturgy’, which is the breathing structure of the work. [12] While in dramatic theatre this structure was made by the text, post-dramatic dramaturgy consists of the evolution of spaces, moods, images and scenery.

The idea of dramaturgy has also been very important in the evolution of another branch of the performance arts: circus. The circus has evolved over the past two centuries from a mere ‘presentation’ of technical skills, over the ‘Nouveau Cirque’ that consists of a collection of circus skills serving a ‘classic’ dramaturgy or storyline, to what we call ‘contemporary circus’. It is these last two that interest us here and that we’ll take a closer look at from a dramaturgic point of view.

‘New circus’ and classical dramaturgy

An evening at a traditional circus like the English Gifford’s Circus consists of a succession of numéros, in their 2003 show this was: lions, procession, silks, clown, strongman, jugglers, acro balance, Scottish dance, vaulting, fiddler on the rope, cowgirl, clown, gauchos, carnival, jugglers and finale. The only unity one may find between the acts is at best a unity of style. [13]

However, parallel to the traditional circuses that still exist today, since the seventies a ‘New Circus’ was invented in France. Famous names of this kind of circus are Cirque Plume, Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Baroque, Archaos and others. In the performances of these companies, like Ningen (1998) by Cirque Baroque, a performance about the life and work of the Japanese author Yukio Mishima, theatre is introduced and literature serves as the point of departure. With this, in the circus which had been the art of the real by excellence, dramatic illusion is inserted. An important shift that follows this evolution is the replacement of the circular ring for the frontal space of the theatre. In order to sustain the illusion of fictive world, the fourth wall of illusion is being rebuilt into the circus and from now on the dramatic process in which the audience can mirror itself in the events onstage takes place in the ring.

With the introduction of dramatic elements into the circus, the autonomous circus act is being disintegrated in favour of the multi-disciplinarity of the artist and the contents that he/she can express through the encounter of circus techniques and other arts. [14] Another binding structure then the numéro has come to the fore: the plastic and expressive process of dramaturgy. This dramaturgy is a structuring idea that gives coherency to a dramatic performance corresponding to the idea or the image that the creators want to communicate. We could say that ‘new circus’ is profoundly ‘dramatic’ because dramaturgy is understood in classical terms of narration, the dramatic character, corresponding costumes and scenery.

Contemporary circus and post-dramatic dramaturgy

In the evolution from traditional towards ‘new’ circus, the insertion of theatrical means (like dramaturgy, story line and dramatic characters) is an attempt to create an elastic format that is able to unite the art of the fragment and the art of totality, as a contemporary reworking of Wagner’s Gesamtkünstwerk. [15] The combination of dramatic (‘classic’) unity and the post-dramatic fragment is further explored into what we call ‘contemporary circus’. Here, unity in performance is visual and fragment-like (instead of narrative and holistic), reflected into a dramaturgy of fragments of stories, images, atmospheres, visual landscapes, tableaux and scenes.

Case study: Théâtre d’un Jour with L’Enfant qui… (2008-2009)

In the circus performance L’Enfant qui… (2008-2009) from the Belgian company Théâtre d’un Jour three acrobats, a puppeteer and a cellist bring to life the childhood and the universe of the French sculptor Jephan de Villiers. The performance takes place in a small an intimate circus tent, where a strange physical proximity is installed between the audience and the ring. The sculptural universe of Jephan de Villiers is based on the recycling of organic material like pieces of wood, feathers, branches and dead leaves that are used to create little figures and huge bears, ‘see-organs’, angels, egg-like ‘fragments of memory’ and amulets, thus recreating a lost/invented society called Arbonie. Jephan’s work is closely related to the ‘art brut’ because of the tactility and materiality that it expresses. His work speaks of a symbolic return to nature and to the ‘roots’ of civilization in times of virtual reality. The fact that the artist works with the ‘remains of life’ makes present a chilling sense of death. His sculptures seem to be on an endless journey, being carried on the back of a bear or circling a huge ‘fragment of memory’, as if they where protecting an ancient secret (see picture). They talk to us about big things like Death, Earth and Time. All of this was born when, as a child, the artist was condemned to his bed for weeks, hovering between fever dreams and the real world of his room from where he could see a huge chestnut tree. It was during these periods of illness that he started to imagine a world where the trees stood actually with their heads in the soil and with their feet in the air, a belief that gradually took form in his artistic work.

Jephan de Villiers,  Les nomades du temps perdu (1997)

Even though L’Enfant qui… originally parts from the childhood story of the artist, the performance is not structured through a lineal and narrative dramaturgy but tries to be consequent to the mysterious logics of Jephan’s universe. Firstly, common elements are transformed into something else, being true to a ‘dramaturgy of remains’: there is very few theatre light, but there are candles, the tent is made of wood and resembles a forest, the acrobatic classical figures are ‘recycled’ and distorted, the décor is absent except for hundreds of kilos of earth and peat covering the soil, the cellist plays sonatas from Bach in a fragmented way, with silences and distortions of the rhythmic pattern. As such, the creative logics of the sculptor are being applied to the performance as a first dramaturgical arch.
Secondly, L’Enfant qui…uses a ‘dramaturgy of the exhibition hall’, meaning that the performance is not structured through an accumulative and straight-forward line, but through the logics of appearance and disappearance of images. A wooden corridor that connects the two opposite sides of the ring is made into the ‘playground’ for the artists, who appear from behind the curtains to disappear as quickly and mysteriously as they had come. This dramaturgy is closely related to that of traditional circus, with its succession of numéros, tied together by the interferences of the clown. However, unlike in classical circus, the story is not told through one central carrier of ‘drama’, but through the eyes of the different artists and their respective techniques (acrobatics, puppetry and music).

Furthermore, the performance progresses through a ‘dramaturgy of memory’, made present in a sculptural element that belongs to the universe of Jephan: an egg-like ‘fragment of memory’ (see picture). [16] This slightly surreal element suggests a continuity that is not lineal and progressive, but rather retrospective and fragment-like and always connected to the character of the child (a puppet).

All three of the dramaturgies structuring the performance are related to the world of plastic art, which is probably the only way to bring to live a sculptural universe in the circus ring without relying on a classical interpretation of dramaturgy. It becomes clear that dramaturgy can be a living structure without being text-based and without losing its binding force or the communication of meaning.
Crucial in this understanding of dramaturgy is the fact that the latter is the translation on stage of a non-text based logics and as a result, circus technique is not used to ‘re-present’ a story or psychology. However, L’Enfant qui... is not traditional circus either, in the way that the circus skills are not merely presented without a symbolic frame (as in sports) or structuring dramaturgy.

It becomes clear that the idea of dramaturgy is closely related to the symbolic frame in which a performance is staged. As we have seen, dramatic theatre and new circus with their communication of a fictive world develop through a narrative and lineal dramaturgy. Post-dramatic theatre and contemporary circus however, are structured through a fragment-like dramaturgy since they are not so much preoccupied with the communication of illusion. Rather they seek to stage the real. This kind of contemporary performance art stresses the presence of the bodies onstage and therefore balances between representation and incarnation, between dramaturgy and performance.


1  LEHMANN, Hans-Thies, Postdramatic Theatre (Translation by Karen Jürs-Munby), London-New York, Routledge, 2006, p. 69.

2  LEHMANN, o.c., p. 21.

3  LEHMANN, o.c., p. 22.

4  Ibidem.

5  ARTAUD, Antonin,  Le Théâtre et son Double, Paris, Gallimard, (1932), 1978, pp. 137-138.

6  ARTAUD, in SICCAMA, Wilma, Het waarnemend lichaam: Zintuigelijkheid en representatie bij Beckett en Artaud, Nijmegen, Uitgeverij Vantilt, 2000, p. 27.

7   SICCAMA, o.c., p. 27.

8   LEHMANN, o.c., pp. 30-31.

9   LEHMANN, o.c., p. 23.

10 LEHMANN, o.c., p. 22.

11 VAN KERKHOVEN, Marianne, Van het kijken en van het schrijven : Teksten over theater, Leuven, Uitgeverij van Halewyck, 2002.

12 Ibidem.

13 DEVENS, o.c., p. 81.

14 DE RITIS, Rafaelle, cited in: A. Serena, ‘Circ clàssic i contemporani a Itàlia’, in: MINGUET, Joan and Jordi JANÉ, o.c., p. 33. (Free traduction from the Catalan original.)

15 HAMON-SIRÉJOLS, Christine, o.c., p. 87.

16 The sculptor gives these ‘fragments of memory’ to whoever is close to him and embarks on a travel, with the message to burry this little fragment of memory on a special place. As such, the story of one man is being shattered and buried in different parts of the world.


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