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Responses to the Special Issue on Weak Theory, Part V

This late entry in our responses to the Weak Theory issue began as the keynote address for this summer’s conference of The Space Between Society, “Staging the Space Between,” at South Dakota State University.

Claire Warden: Weak Theatrical Modernisms

A year or so ago, I found myself sitting on a roundtable panel at my alma mater the University of Edinburgh as part of a British Association for Modernist Studies event. We were asked to reflect on Paul K. Saint-Amour’s provocative and influential notion of “Weak Modernisms.” Saint-Amour presents a vision of weakness for modernism, a vision that rejects (or perhaps “augments” is a better word) white, male, ableist, heteronormative narratives of modernism. He backs up this shift by suggesting that weak interpretations of modernism can “productively decenter what they encounter. Baggage unbalances.”[1] His argument is convincing and energizing; it is refreshing to understand modernism in a less totalizing light, both as a description of a particular set of aesthetics and as a theoretical trope. Yet, as I read Saint-Amour’s work, I couldn’t help feeling a smug satisfaction that performance studies got there long before modernist studies. And I remain rather surprised and dismayed that performance still seems largely excluded from and ignored by these important debates.

In this response, I want to reinterpret this increasingly influential notion of modernist weakness through a performance optic. I am persuaded that an interest in performance will, to quote Carrie Preston from her special edition of Modernist Cultures, “dislodge definitions of modernism from fixed positions”; that is, performance weakens modernism.[2]  I remain fascinated by the latent potential in reading modernism and performance together: the way that a weak modernism might provide a contextualizing socio-political prism through which to understand the general notion of early-twentieth-century theatre/drama/performance, and the way performance might offer alternative concepts of weakness for modernism.

In presenting a case for weak theatrical modernisms, I am not uncritically accepting Saint-Amour’s premise. I think there are significant issues here—issues, to be fair, that Saint-Amour begins to acknowledge himself. The notion of weakness certainly (sometimes correctly) “invite[s] attack for being unrigorous, quietist, anti-theory, anti-intellectual” (Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory,” 445). There is a risk that politics is erased, and that “modernism” might become a “semantically empty trademark,” reflecting our neoliberal age in uncomfortable ways (455). But, leaving these things aside for a moment, if modernism is going to embrace its weakness, then, I suggest, performance must be a friendly companion rather than an awkward and infuriating recluse. Without performance, I suggest, modernism remains too strong.

I’m building here on the path-breaking work of scholars such as Olga Taxidou, Penny Farfan, Martin Puchner and Elinor Fuchs, scholars who have all seen the benefit of encouraging dialogue between modernism and performance. Dance scholarship has led the way in bridging the gap, with Susan Jones’s Literature, Modernism and Dance (2013), and Preston’s Modernism’s Mythic Pose: Gender and Solo Performance (2011) and Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism and Journeys into Teaching (2016); the interdisciplinarity of Literature, Modernism and Dance and Modernism’s Mythic Pose, and the embodied practice-led experiment of Learning to Kneel have shifted my own thinking considerably. There are plenty of productive by-products to this disciplinary intermingling. Here is one, by way of introduction: in Modernism and Performance: from Jarry to Brecht, Taxidou notes:

The concept of performance remained singularly connected to the critical legacies of the historical avant-garde and stubbornly ignored in canonical readings of literary Modernism . . . it is the same concept of performance, however, that might help to link the critical legacies that have separated Modernism from the avant-garde, emphasizing as it does embodied philosophical experience.[3]

Reading modernism and performance as friendly bedfellows, then, potentially shifts (read, “weakens”) definitions of “modernism” and the “avant-garde,” two terms I have grappled with for many years, eventually using them as a portmanteau term—that is, “modernist avant-garde”—in an attempt to break down the antagonism between them. Note Taxidou’s acknowledgement of the body as a vital interlocutor here, revealing embodied experience as vital to this semantic breakdown. Performance’s ability (using Preston’s term again) to “dislodge” modernism from the literary just a little enables both “modernism” and “avant-garde” to weaken.

The Weakness of Performance

Before I go on, it might be useful to clarify what I mean by “performance.” As performance studies scholars have noted, “performance” is an extraordinarily broad term but, for my purposes here, I am focusing on theatrical performance. It is probably useful to say that I approach my field less as dramatic literature and more through the methodologies of theatre/performance studies: that is with a practice-led stance. Music and film are clearly both performance-based art forms, but for some reason are accepted more readily as “modernist”: musical practices such as Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, and films such as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou (1929), are regarded as decidedly part of the modernist canon. Whether this is because of the tangibility of music and cinema—the detailed score and the material tape, which are arguably (very arguably) less slippery and more finished than a playscript—or because both these forms were appreciated by canonical modernists in ways that theatre, largely, was not, it is difficult to say.

Unlike music and film, performance traditionally holds a weak position in modernism. This is partly caused by the modernism’s antitheatrical bias. This bias is nothing new; as Jonas Barish has illustrated, words associated with performance—“melodramatic,” “stagey”—“tend to be hostile or belittling”; theatrically-infused sentences voice disapproval—“making a spectacle of oneself,” “putting on an act,” etc.[4] But Martin Puchner suggests that this antitheatricality is particularly acute in modernism. Not only did the modernists often sideline theatrical performance, but modernist theatre seemed to undermine itself— Edward Gordon Craig, for example, revealed a deep distrust of the actor when he advocated for the Übermarionette; Bertolt Brecht revolted against the reliance of empathetic imagination by distancing his audience; Vsevolod Meyerhold transformed the actor into a machine. Puchner confirms that modernist drama and theatre is a “theater at odds with the value of theatricality,” a kingdom divided against itself, a “weak” kingdom, perhaps.[5]

I claim that performance studies embraced weakness long before modernism; that performance is innately weak in myriad fascinating ways; and that acknowledging this weakness alongside the newly recognized weakness of modernism enables exciting new dialogues to appear. So, in what ways, then, is performance (and modernist performance, specifically) weak? In the final sections of Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930, Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane recognize that performance poses a problem, but aren’t entirely sure what to do about it. At the start of chapter 7, “Modernist Drama,” they struggle to find categories to bring some sense of coherence to their object of study: “the more inclusive the categories, the weaker the group cohesion—a cohesion often either merely negative (like a common hostility to late-nineteenth-century naturalism) or so generalized as to lack any real discriminatory significance.”[6] Malcolm, James, my friends, we have all been there. Many is the time that I have sat back, flung my pen to the desk and asked myself, yet again, “what on earth do we mean by modernist performance?” Is “modernism” as a term useful or effective in this context? Like Bradbury and McFarlane, I think I understand what modernist poetry might look like, but I am not altogether sure I could identify modernist performance work. Bradbury uses “weakness” in a different sense to Saint-Amour here, almost as a descriptor of exasperation: the weakness of the group cohesion he notes here does not lead to the exciting, canon-defying alternatives of Saint-Amour, but to a throw-one’s-hands-in-the-air irritation. “Modernist performance” could mean anything from Ibsen to mad Futurist serate, from Shaw (or maybe some Shaw…perhaps?) to the physical dexterity of Russian biomechanics (but isn’t that avant-garde instead of modernist?), from 1930s Living Newspapers deeply embedded in their context to contemporary renderings of Chekhov (although this final suggestion opens up a bunch of aesthetic and temporal issues, right? And Chekhov can’t be a modernist, can he?). You see the problems already, I hope.

Performance is always already weak in a range of other ways too. Take Richard Schechner’s references to performance’s ephemerality, Peggy Phelan’s claims about performance’s “loss,” Joseph Roach’s recognition of performance’s “disappearance.”[7] Of course, these interpretations of performance have been subject to various reworkings, including by Rebecca Schneider, whose deciphering of the way performance “leaves residue” or remains as memory has deeply influenced theatre historiographical approaches.[8] Schneider’s interest lies in what “remains” of performance: what do we study when we study performance—the script, still images, filmed images, interviews, embodied reenactments? In essence, performance “weakly” holds on to its presence, less tangible than the novel but still there, becoming “itself through messy and eruptive reappearance,” as Schneider goes on to say (“What Remains,” 103). This is especially problematic as we approach modernist performance in its early-twentieth-century context. In their unpacking of performance’s ephemerality and historicity in Acting on the Past, Mark Franko and Annette Richards say, “the notion of presentness and its concomitant untraceable disappearance is confounded with immediacy, as it fades before our sight and hearing. But the past, and the performances to which the historical record attests, are not immediate and evanescent: they are absent, and yet they are the agents of spectral revisitings.”[9] The ghostly ephemerality of performance means it always holds on weakly to its presence; this is what makes live performance exciting, of course, but also tricky to study.

Recent scholars have tracked the weakness of performance still further. What if, as Sara Jane Bailes provocatively suggests, performance is actually infused with “failure,” where this failure could be a political act of doing? Bailes encourages a “‘movement’ of the term [failure] rather than an attempt to fix it.”[10] “Failure” for Bailes, then, retains its earlier definitions (“I’ve failed the exam”) while becoming an artistic stimulus through connected notions such as boredom or formlessness. Or, how does performance reflect the uneven development of capitalism through its “unfinished art,” as Sarah J. Townsend has recently asked?[11] Ultimately Bradbury and McFarlane were correct when they identified modernist performance’s intrinsic slipperiness, but Bailes and Townsend suggest this as a dynamic possibility rather than as something to solve. “Failure” and “unfinished” are (like “weak”) terms of negativity, but in using them in such capacious, catalyzing ways, scholars are, in Saint-Amour’s terms, “reclaiming term[s] of derogation” (“Weak Theory,” 438). Saint-Amour’s proposition that the “weakening is especially legible in the movement away from definitions of modernism in favor of uses, models, questions, temperaments, and possible typologies” also transforms “modernism” into a decidedly performative utterance à la J. L. Austin or Judith Butler.[12] In Saint-Amour’s reading, “modernism” almost becomes a verb, an active term of use rather than definition.

As a concept and a practice, then, performance is overwhelmingly broad and messy. I suggest this is one of the key reasons the new modernist studies has largely ignored it. Schechner posits seven different types of performance, including “performance in everyday life” (Performance Studies: An Introduction, 17). This means that performance is a more universal language than other art forms, a meeting place; not everyone writes novels, but everyone, to borrow Erving Goffman’s phrasing, presents oneself in everyday life. Schechner builds on this expansive notion in Between Theater and Anthropology, deciphering ways in which his two central concepts meet and dialogue. At the end of his introduction he says, “we accept our species as sapiens and fabricans: ones who think and make. We are in the process of learning how humans are also ludens and performans: ones who play and perform.”[13] He could almost be writing about modernism here: as modernists we have uncovered the cerebral complexity and imaginative experimentalism of our field, but we are only in the process of understanding how performance and play might function in terms of what we research and how we conduct our scholarly practice. The universality of Schechner’s “performance” also compels a weakening in the way we understand high and low culture. While theatre clearly has the same battles as modernism in terms of “highness” and “lowness” (Three Sisters vs. The Lion King, for example), the fact that, as Schechner suggests, we are all performers because we are humans means we can begin to stretch “modernist performance” to include practices from around the world, and from a variety of socio-cultural contexts.

Modernism’s Performing Bodies

Modernist art’s (and, indeed, modernist studies’s) sidelining of performance reflects a distrust of the body. Susan Jones contends that this distrust signals modernism’s “anxieties about gender,” with the body seen as the feminized, passionate, chaotic (dare I say, weaker) antithesis of the male intellect .[14] Bodies also had a troubling presence in the early twentieth century, so often stripped of their individuality by war, industry or extremist politics. The difficulty of modernism has also privileged the cerebral as the defining factor of the field. While Leonard Diepeveen takes a decidedly embodied and performative approach to modernist difficulty, understanding it as “that recurring relationship that came into being between modernist works and their audiences,” more often, modernism (and difficult modernism in particular) is perceived as intellectual or textual in nature.[15]

Pleasingly, however, modernist studies is experiencing an embodied turn, with excellent new books such as Abbie Garrington’s Haptic Modernism and Robert Brain’s The Pulse of Modernism. Much of this scholarship reflects (consciously or not) long-standing approaches of performance studies; Diepeveen’s understanding of modernist difficulty as an embodied meeting of the work with its audience, for example, is reminiscent of performance scholar Erika Fischer-Lichte’s explanation of embodiment as the “life force” that exists in the theatre, the “radical concept of presence.” “The energetic exchange between actors and spectators affects everyone present”, she says, “and thus creates the performance.”[16] Fischer-Lichte’s conclusion reflects the long history of performance where embodiment in myriad ways has been key to meaning making. As Diana Taylor says in The Archive and the Repertoire, “since ancient times, performance has manipulated, extended and played with embodiment.”[17] Embodiment is tangible in the theatre and always has been, of course, but what if we bring this idea to modernism? Well, following the consequences of Diepeveen’s conclusion, the meaning of the text becomes more fluid through an acknowledgement of the physical, the affect, the sense of exasperation we feel when we read Ulysses. Further, we can start to see the labour in the making of the work but also in the engagement with the work. Incorporating performance into modernist studies in a more intricate way allows an even fuller expression of Diepeveen’s notion of modernist difficulty, where, in his words, “difficulty is an odd aesthetic experience; using their whole bodies, people react viscerally to difficulty, often with anxiety, anger and ridicule” (Difficulties, x). This embodied response is a given in the theatre; approaching this idea in a more performative way enables the potential of Diepeveen’s description to be recognized more keenly. It also exposes the weakening of the text’s solidity, enabling modernists to embrace the visceral affect of difficulty.

David Albright has helped pioneer this transdisciplinary approach to modernist embodiment. In his 2014 book Panaesthetics, Albright uncovers the interrelations of the arts; in essence, the arts can always be read separately or together, but the ways they separate or disconnect are interesting and legion. For Albright, one of the most important sites of meeting and divergence is the body. “It isn’t always easy to describe the insights gained from a corporealist view of the arts,” he says, “but it’s easy to feel the body beneath every artistic phenomenon.”[18] “To some extent,” Albright continues, “the aesthetic phenomenon is a mode of understanding how the human body winds and unwinds, sleeks itself, through the artwork. The artwork’s surface is always, in a sense, a skin” (Panaesthetics, 284). Albright’s version of weakness comes from, firstly, destabilizing the relationship between the arts and, connectedly, understanding the body as the key way viewers/readers engage with the work and the way the work is made in the first place. He backs up his convincing claims for the importance of the body with chapters entitled “What is Literature?” “What is Painting?” and “What is Music?” There is a section on cinema in the painting section and a dance (ballet) section in the music chapter. But I think it would be fruitful (if perhaps arrogant) to add another chapter to Albright’s book: “What is Performance?” What does adding performance in its broadest sense to this panaesthetic embodied model enable?[19]

The Unfinished Performance

Preston argues that the choreographic expansion of modernist studies is vital, “as dance highlights early-twentieth-century preoccupations with varieties of movement: motions and rhythm in performance and other arts, bodies transported on stages and across national, racial, and ethnic borders” (“Introduction,” 1). Performance here becomes a metaphor for the movement of bodies across the world, a chief concern of the new modernist studies, which often reads both well-known and less familiar works through the optics of transnationalism, cosmopolitanism and migration. These performance movements are not straightforward, reflecting instead the beautiful messiness of Bonnie Kime Scott’s “A Tangled Mesh of Modernists,” an image to which Saint-Amour is indebted. While Scott includes some strong ties in her diagram, “the majority,” Saint-Amour notes, “trace weaker ones” (“Weak Theory,” 449). In developing a “cosmopolitan style,” Rebecca Walkowitz turns to “more flexible, dynamic models of migration, entanglement and mix-up.”[20] Modernist performance (in fact, all performance, probably) is always already a “tangled mesh” by its intrinsic collaborative nature, providing a perfect site to view the transnational, even planetary turn in modernist studies.

Performance, I contend, always engenders the embodied meeting of people and the collaborative creation of work. But this is especially true in the transnational modernist context. The unfinished (weak) nature of performance means that a transnational hybridity can be keenly felt. A script might exist, but the performance does not exist until other bodies get involved; the “thingness” of performance is deeply complex. We might ask, with Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker, “where was modernism?” but my follow-up question is “where is modernist performance?[21] The new question contains a disciplinary shift, but also a temporal one, as performance is, in a sense, always in the present, or at least potentially in the present. The answer is both exciting and tricky; the work (the “art thing”) resides in a meeting of the text and an embodied interpretation. There are multiple authors: director and playwright, yes, but also each actor’s and each audience member’s embodied presence. The temporality of performance does not align with that of literature or film: where is modernist performance if I produce Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros with my students in 2019? Un Chien Andalou remains a modernist object even when we watch it today, but does Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal? The temporal weakness of performance, a weakness engendered by embodiment, allows us to question the typical borders of modernism in new ways.

Saint-Amour acknowledges a shift in modernist studies: “the less sovereign a hold the central term has upon the field it frames, the more ferment and recombination can occur with the field and among more elements. This seems to have been the case with modernist studies, which has flourished in proportion as the term modernism has softened its definitional gaze and relinquished its gatekeeping function” (“Weak Theory,” 451). This weakening allows new and/or deeper conversations. Saint-Amour explicitly wants to “leave off theorizing weakness as a failure, absence, or function of strength and instead to theorize from weakness as a condition endowed with traits and possibilities of its own” (“Weak Theory,” 439). I propose something further—that the failure, absence and trickiness inherent in modernist performance enables a deeper understanding of weakness as dynamic catalyst. In our welcoming of weakness, modernists would significantly benefit from greater attention to performance.


I would like to express thanks to all the delegates at “Staging the Space Between” for their comments and questions, which have significantly altered and shaped this article. I want to particularly thank Rebecca Kastleman and Kevin Riordan for their extraordinary generosity in providing feedback on a messy early draft.

[1] Paul K. Saint-Amour, “Weak Theory, Weak Modernism,” Modernism/modernity 25, no. 3 (2018): 437–59, 438.

[2] Carrie Preston, “Introduction: Modernism and Dance,” Modernist Cultures, 9, no. 1 (2014), 1–6, 5.

[3] Olga Taxidou, Modernism and Performance: from Jarry to Brecht (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 9.

[4] Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981), 1.

[5] Martin Puchner, Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-theatricality, and Drama (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 7.

[6] Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, ed., Modernism: A Guide to European Literature, 1890-1930 (1976; London: Penguin, 1991), 497.

[7] See Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 2013); Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (1993; London: Routledge, 2004); and Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).

[8] Rebecca Schneider, “Performance Remains,” Performance Research, 6, no. 2 (2001), 102.

[9] Mark Franko and Annette Richards, Acting on the Past: Historical Performance Across Disciplines (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 2000), 2.

[10] Sara Jane Bailes, Performance Theatre and the Poetics of Failure (London: Routledge, 2011), 4.

[11] Sarah J. Townsend, The Unfinished Art of Theater: Avant-garde Intellectuals in Mexico and Brazil (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018).

[12] Paul K. Saint-Amour, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 41.

[13] Richard Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 33.

[14] Susan Jones, Literature, Modernism and Dance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 8.

[15] Leonard Diepeveen, The Difficulties of Modernism (London: Routledge, 2003), xi.

[16] Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Routledge Introduction to Theatre and Performance Studies (New York: Routledge, 2014), 34.

[17] Diana Taylor, The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 4.

[18] Daniel Albright, Panaesthetics: On the Unity and Diversity of the Arts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 281.

[19] Notably, Diepeveen, Fischer-Lichte and Albright all acknowledge weakness in the Saint-Amour sense, without necessarily using the word. The “energetic exchange” (Fischer-Lichte) and the myriad visceral ways that readers respond to modernist difficulty (Diepeveen) are impossible to fully quantify, capture or replay. Saint-Amour’s suggestion that the “immanent theory of modernism has weakened and become less axiomatic, more conjectural, more conjunctural,” can therefore be read in Diepeveen and Fischer-Lichte’s ideas (Tense Future, 41).

[20] Rebecca Walkowitz, Cosmopolitan Style (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 6.

[21] Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker, Geographies of Modernism (London: Routledge, 2005), 3.