Final Prompt

Judith Butler writes, “gender is a stylized repetition of acts .. which are internally discontinuous … so that the appearance of substance is precisely that — a constructed identity, a performative accomplishment which the mundane social audience, including the actors themselves, come to believe and perform in the mode of belief.” What does this production of Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment tell us about the performativity of  gender and of race? How does The Shipment implicate genres of theatre and forms of acting in the creation or destruction of those social constructs?  Please use specific examples from the video you have been shown. and ideas from the artists’ work we have viewed throughout the semester and the theorists we have read. This should be the final post to your blog, posted by May 14th at 5pm.  1000 words MAXIMUM. If you do a good job you will get a B.  If you do an excellent job you will receive an A on this assignment. Those are the only two grades (unless you don’t turn in the assignment or turn it in late).

Young Jean Lee’s The Shipmentis a performance whose diverse and contrasting acts by five black actors leave the shocked audience unearthing and examining the fragments of their sedimented racial biases they forgot even existed. She perpetually creates a foundation for race to live on, only to pull the rug out from under it in the next instant. Lee interrogates the culturally policed notion that the performativity of race on stage (and thus in life) is restricted by the materiality of certain bodies through the dialectical contrast of minstrel shows and naturalistic scenes, intertwined with Brechtian breaks, that force the audience to critically examine how race is construed and their biases to it.  

While The Shipmentunderscores that race, like gender, requires continuous ‘everyday’ performance to be understood and reaffirmed as such, it takes it a step further by criticizing that the performativity of race is itself historically raced, thereby regulating what bodies are freed by their body’s history and materiality on stage. Through the punchline at the very end of the performance “I just don’t think we’d be doing this if there was a black person in the room.”, Lee seeks to dismantle our preconception that race is predominantly defined by the tone of our skin – a parallel to experience’s like Narcissister’s who are often considered white-passing. Simultaneously, it uncovers the culturally established bias that only some bodies can be on stage without their history or materiality impacting how they inhabit a particular character on stage. More simply stated, a coloured body on stage has been historically given a very limited window of performativity to roam in. African-American bodies have been culturally policed into taking on roles in minstrel shows, vaudeville, and stand-up comedy for the entertainment of the white audience. The continuous performance of those acts inextricably linked their blackness and the type of performativity they have been restricted to and projected them onto the materiality of their body. Society’s conception of blackness became perpetually asserted as true through the normative and regulatory ideals of society through which a material body is raced. Lee exposes this bias by having black bodies act the most opposing role to their ‘identity’ as possible: white upperclass. In essence, the color of one’s skin and the associated mannerisms of the performance style came to create the phenomenological definition of binary race through their continuous performativity, thereby preventing the audience from being able to see a black body on stage as anything but the ‘historical idea’ it became indexical for. 

Lee calls this assumption into question through the implication of naturalistic forms of acting, which seek to dismantle the ‘historical idea’ of race created through polemical stand-up comedy and hyperbolic sketches that are mimetic of minstrel shows. The Shipment begins with highly satirical stand-up comedy, which constructs “white” stereotypes around race by relying on the historic performative memory of common race-focused interactions. It relies on the white demography in Seattle, Washington to create this ‘Performance’ in Richard Schechner’s sense, without whom the desired effect of shock and questioning is not achieved, as Peter Chelkowski also pinpointed with the Ta’ziyeh. This social construct of race and blackness is further expounded through ‘The Rapper Omar’ sketch that depicts hyperbolized racial tropes through a white artistic sense by using Aristotelian mimesis. In the same way that Judith Butler argued “gender is instituted through the stylization of the body” (Butler, pg.1), Lee helped construct the phenomenon of race by continuously performing acts that played into earlier established tropes. However, Lee takes it one step further by realising that performativity is also the key to dismantling such tropes, placing black bodies into roles not designated by society in dialectical opposition to the first half of the performance. Lee clearly understands N’gugi Wa Thiong’o’s argument that “The performance space […] is always the site of physical, social, and psychic forces in society.” (Wa Thiong’o, pg. 13 ), by exploiting how the space inhabited by naturalistic plays clashes with the ‘historical idea’ of blackness. Realism and naturalism have both been forms of acting attached to the white bourgeois. By having black actors inhabit white roles in white spaces, Lee not only calls into question the restrictions placed on black material bodies, but more generally what race is, and how being black or white is constructed through everyday performativity in ways beyond one’s skin tone.  

Nevertheless, the success of this hinged upon Brechtian techniques for the audience to become acutely aware of the dissonance between the actors on stage and the roles they were inhabiting. By having the same set of actors play in the first and second half, while also maintaining the same names in the case of Omar and Desmond, attention was called to the different roles the same body was performing and inhabiting. This led to a certain Verfremdungseffekt by intimating the disjoint between the bodies and characters on stage, causing viewers to become more preoccupied than usual with the performance structure, a fact assisted by the elongated, lit set construction.

Additionally, the use of elements of Clifford Geertz’s deep-play during the stand-up comedy helps transition the audience into an active participant. The initiated laughs get caught in ones throat like a fish hook only a moment later, with for example “now it’s time to go after some black people … now a lot of white folks in the audience just came.” (min 12:29). The audience for a while becomes co-performers in the high stakes environment of the stand-up comedy, as their audible responses to his comments become indicators of their political and racial convictions, and in a way ‘outs’ them. As a result, it causes the audience to engage with the issues presented later much more deeply as an element of stake was introduced. In essence, Lee continuously calls our attention to the workings of the play in an attempt to decouple the actor and the role they inhabit, the realisation of which causes the audience to grapple with a new understanding of how race is constructed and examine their own biases. 


Aristotle.  The Poetics.

Bertolt Brecht: 169-184 in :  Krasner, David (ed.)  Theater in Theory 1900-2000: An Anthology.

Butler, Judith.“Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory,”

Geertz, Clifford.  “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.”

Lee, Young Jean. THE SHIPMENT | OntheBoards.Tv. Accessed May 14, 2019.

Schechner, Richard:   “Drama, Script, Theater, Performance.”

Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ wa. “Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space.” TDR (1988-)41, no. 3 (1997): 11–30.

Theater of Protest” 178 – 192  in in Chelkowski, Peter J. (ed.). Eternal Performance: Taziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals.

Dear Jonathan,

Read a blog.  Write to your fellow classmate and reflect what you found interesting and generative about that blog.  You don’t have to read or write like an instructor.  Instead, be a generous classmate and try to witness what the other has done throughout the course of the semester. Post the result on the student’s blog in the comments and on your own blog as a Week 13 post.

Dear Jonathan, 

After reading your blog entries, what stuck with me was your frequent use of personal experiences to underscore your arguments and thoughts. I think in a blog entry this is a good way to extend your argument, and help bring an added dimension to the topic. However, it would be helpful to the reader if you did not purely rely on personal experiences as evidence. I would suggest that in the future you bring in direct quotes from the texts that we were examining as primary evidence. Although you often referred indirectly to the text, you never directly quoted anything. As a reader, this makes it hard to follow your reasoning and believe the arguments you are making. 

On this note I think it would be good to write in a manner where you assume that the reader has heard of the topic/text and knows the general gist, yet cannot remember all the details. I often felt like I was jumping into the middle of a conversation you were having with an acquaintance, which made it really difficult to follow what you are saying, and also made me less inclined to read on due to the resulting confusion I had. It seemed to me like I missed the context of what you were saying and I found myself having to remind myself what the prompt was you were responding to. This should not be necessary. I think if you apply a Point, Evidence, Explanation structure to your paragraphs, it will help strengthen your points and also help walk the reader through your arguments. Remember that you have to pick me, the reader, up where I am at that moment. 

I do feel like your responses became more detailed and structured towards the end when compared to your first blog entry, which I think is an improvement in engagement worth highlighting. In order to help you bring your writing to the next level I would suggest first of all deconstructing the prompt, by highlighting key words that might require a definition from you, as well as the nuances that have to be taken into account when responding to the given question. For example, for your blog entry on catharsis, I noticed that there was never any mention of how you were defining catharsis for the purposes of this blog. This was also a pattern I noticed in your other blogs (e.g. the blog on Brecht or even the second blog on translation). This is very important, as the more advanced the writing becomes the more important it becomes to clearly state what the “assumptions” are that your are making, or why you are defining it in that way. In the case of catharsis, you could have explained what Aristotle defined catharsis as by introducing direct quotes from the texts we read. 

In regards to definitions, I think you have to be careful with the wide sweeping statements that you make. I was especially put off by this in the blog where you had to adapt Antigone/Antigonik into a Brechtian form. By not providing any definitions of what it means for something to be Brechtian and relating your choices to this desired effect it seemed like you lacked deep understanding of what Brechtian is and means. For example, when you said “I don’t think that I would change the text of the scene, primarily because I really enjoy the language in Antigone.”, I was put off because your personal likes/dislikes do not govern the adaptation’s Brechtian nature. There seemed to be a common disconnect in your blogs that resulted from your personal tastes – which are very important but need to be put aside sometimes – dominating the conversation, often to the detriment of delving into the material.

From all your blog entries, I personally liked the portion of the ‘Waiting for Godot’ blog the most where you suggested staging it on a bus in order to highlight the perpetual waiting of homeless people or other “outcasts” of society on a salvation. I thought that was a great idea, and I found it would have been a really interesting staging in reality. I think there were some good nuggets in that thought, albeit it was not elaborated on too much. 

Lastly, I know that these are blog entries, and not essays so the rigid structure of an essay is not entirely necessary. However, I felt that the use of informal language and the very conversational style of the entries detracted rather than added to the content. I would find myself getting caught up and put off by the clash between the very colloquial vernacular and the more serious topics you were discussing. I don’t think this requires writing in ‘high-academic’ language where we as readers do not understand the vocabulary used, however I think making it less conversational would have added more clarity, both in terms of diction and grammar.

All the best, 


Blanche in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ by Tennessee Williams

In “A Problem Like Maria,” Stacy Wolf writes: “Identification is but one mode of engagement with representation. In addition to wanting to be or wanting to have a character, a spectator might simply admire a character; sympathize with her; find her objectionable, funny or strange. Tanya Krzyinska finds a range of possibilities in meaning making. She explains that “engagement with any text is a dance with desire—the desire to appropriate, ironize, or equally, to reject meaning. Our desire and fantasy is, undeniably, always cast through ideological meanings that are inherent in the systems of signification available to us at any given time.” The spectator might not identify at all, but still feel emotionally involved in the story, touched by the characters, involved in the plot, amazed by the dances, or in love with the sound of certain melodies. In reception of the musical’s form, these other processes and pleasure are central.

This week I am asking you to become a lesbian feminist spectator.  Recall a musical or piece of dance theater which you love not for its “normative” value — but because there is something excessive in it that appeals to you specifically because of the way that it is structured.  Wolf loves The Sound Of Music because Maria does not visually conform to the feminized ingenue in musical theater, because she is often front and center on the stage, because she can read lesbian desire in the exchange of glances between female characters and because it seems that Maria is read as a problem of femininity.  Wolf uses three elements “text” (arguing that the performer is the main text of the show – not the composer, lyricist, or director; the context (the lack of representation of lesbian stories on stage) and the spectator, (who in this instance has to be willing to look from a lesbian feminist point of view).   She knows the musicals and the stars are not lesbians — but there is something in the work that allows her to read the show differently than the composer, lyricist and director intended.  She can make different meaning from the work.

Think of a work you have seen or performed in and do the same as Wolf.  Be a lesbian spectator, and make a different meaning from a work not intended for that purpose.  Then write about it.

Blanche in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ is at first glance a weak, superficial, heterosexual female dependent on males for support and validation. However, the symbolic props of the atomizer and alcohol bottle problematize this binary view, presenting her simultaneously as both a damsel in distress and a strong, independent and masculinized woman. Blanche, and the crude and uncouth Stanley are connected through their excessive drinking habits, making the alcohol bottle a shared prop between them. Consumption of alcohol is a stereotypically male symbol, thus this act questions the societal expectations of gender, and can present Blanche in a masculinized manner that may point to a “lesbian” and gender non-binary personality of hers that she suppresses in a society that would not accept her for who she is. This vein is stressed further during her antagonistic flirtations with Stanley. The atomizer with which she sprays Stanley is a symbolic representation of Blanche challenging Stanley’s authority and sexual dominance. This behavior underscores her masculine tendencies, her unapologetic assumption of power and the lack of conformity to binary male and female roles represented so clearly by Stella and Stanley. Furthermore, an atomizer can be viewed as a primitive symbol for marking one’s territory, an act that is typically exercised by the male members of society and also within the hierarchies of other species. It is thus mimetic of her fluidity and non-conforming behavior to the expectations and societal norms of a woman, despite her often tremendously distressed and frail conduct outwards. In essence, although to the inattentive viewer Blanche appears only as a weak woman fretted with the past and in need of strong male support, the symbolic use of some of her props present her as openly antagonistic to Stanley’s oozing sexual brutality, and can thus lead the observant audience member to identify with her unapologetic masculine behavior. Thus it can lead one to draw conclusions about her fluid gender performance, and the possibility to interpret into her otherwise strongly gender-normative behaviors a rebellious spirit that speaks to such “lesbian feminist” audiences. 

First interaction between Stanley and Blanche.

Building on this, Blanche’s excessive sexual escapades with men, although creating a strongly dependent and heterosexual narrative around her character, can be spun as a tale of defiance against the normative expectations of females in that society. Blanche exercises a heightened level of sexual freedom that leads her to engage in many promiscuous “intimacies with strangers”. Although this can signal conforming to a heterosexual narrative, it can also be inverted as assuming the privilege of sexual freedom granted to society by a male, and thus confronting the binary expectations of female behavior. As a result, in a perverse way one can interpret it as standing up to Stanley, and challenging his sexual prowess, by assuming the role not credited to a woman, particularly one who has “always depended on the kindness of strangers.” This alternative interpretation of Blanche revolting against the societal norms of a woman’s sexual behavior is underscored by the contrasting retributions Blanche and Stanley face for their actions. While Blanche is violently punished and convicted, essentially evicted from society, Stanley escapes. This “lesbian feminist” interpretation can be further underscored for an audience member, as it helps explain why Stanley feels so immensely threatened by Blanche in his home, and thus why he violently dismembers her psyche into the irretrievable fragments of schizophrenic madness through his rape of her. Hence, Blanche’s sexual escapades can be interpreted both as a source of her weakness and strength, where the latter leads one to examine Blanche as a character functioning outside of the normative binaries of society, yet failing in her attempt to do so. 

Mitch and Blanche on a date, while Blanche opens up to Mitch about her tragic youth love.

Finally, while Blanche does appear to see male companions as her only means to achieve happiness, the kind of males she desires can point to her underlying fluid sexual desires that fall outside of society’s heterosexual norm. Blanche, although dependent on men for sustenance and self-image, is particularly drawn to effeminate characters. Her lover of the past, Allan, was homosexual and committed suicide as a result of her rejection of his identity. Yet despite this fact, Blanche still tries to elevate Mitch, her new potential lover, to Allan’s romanticized status, proclaiming that “his softness and tenderness … wasn’t like a man’s”, and thus alluding to his potential homosexuality. His sensitivity, manners and passionate nature function in direct contrast with Stanley’s brutish, animalistic virility (see video above). As a result this can be viewed as a mirror to Blanche’s underlying ‘true’ nature. Her desire for soft rather than brutish men points to a potential “lesbian” interpretation of her character and sexual desires, as the kind of men she is attracted to possess the very feminine qualities she seems to desire so desperately. However, the society she lives in denounces such non-binary behaviors, which may be seen as a primary reason for why she retreats in a world of fantasy. It allows her to build her own reality and to shield it at all costs from the harsh reality around her, and thus prevent the ruthless male gaze from penetrating it. In a way, the fact that both Allan and Mitch functioned outside of the binary codes of gender perceived by post-war American society at that point in time alludes to a “lesbian” interpretation of Blanche’s character that allows audience members to create a tale of homosexual desires around her character, despite this not being explicitly shown in the play. 

Waiting for Godot & The Climate Crisis

Where would you mount a production of Waiting for Godot right now?  How would you stage it? Why?

At this moment in time, I would mount a production of Waiting for Godot in front of the EU headquarters in Brussels or any other major political entity, such as in front of the Whitehouse, to highlight the lack of response to climate change and the ceaseless “waiting” of youth for world leaders to act instead of steal their future. The idea is, similar to the global climate school strikes, to have children and youth perform this piece, and stage adapted versions in front of their respective parliaments or other government locations. Instead of the natural no man’s land envisaged by Beckett, I would instead have the set be the no man’s land that has been left behind by the egotistical and destructive actions of past world leaders. Instead of collapsing on a stone, Estragon would collapse on a derelict, leaking oil drum. Instead of a tree, there would be a factory chimney or similar with plastic bottles and other waste from our consumption-focused society. The clothing that the two teenagers wear is from the 21st century, bowler hats being traded for snapbacks or other caps, in order to make the play more immediate, in Peter Brook’s language. The dichotomy between the clothing and the context that is being hinted at by visual cues would be too great and off-putting, and thus to the detriment of the focus. At the beginning of the play, the teenagers would be lounging around, sitting on the ground, and passing time while the characteristic “School Strike for the Climate” sign – that Greta Thunberg has posed with every Friday since last August – is propped up against the oil drum to the side of them. In order to preserve a certain sense of the ambiguity of the play, the text should not be adjusted significantly. Certain insults may be changed to re-present them in the present, and ease the dichotomy that might be experienced given the appearance of the actors. However the lack of exact details that pin the play to a specific political context, allows the audience to interpret some of their own thoughts into the play, and to see themselves and their own experience of “waiting” for action to save the future for future generations in it. Given that the climate crisis is a global crisis, the intention is to pin an exact political context to the play, namely that of the climate crisis, however to maintain some ambiguity in terms of the geographical location  in order for this version of Waiting for Godot to speak to people globally. Interestingly enough, this play could be performed within the context of their own performance of school strikes and thus would create a re-enactment of the enactment while the enactment is happening. This would lead to a layering effect in the performance, which would prompt the audience to question the line between the performance and everyday reality, and thus hopefully spark action and continued debate and publicity. 

Waiting for Godot’s concern with the dispossessed lends itself perfectly to highlighting the decades-long wait for world leaders to act on their empty promises and the unfailing climate science. Globally, one of the most prominent manifestations of this waiting is the young generation’s continuous anticipation and waiting for adults’, in particular politicians, to remedy the damage they have inflicted upon their only future home: this Earth. This waiting has reached a pinnacle, as we are rapidly hurtling towards a point of no return that is roughly projected to begin in 12 years (according to IPCC’s 2018 climate report). It has gotten to the point where school children and teenagers across the world are willing to sacrifice their valuable lesson time in order to cast a sign that they will physically wait for their politicians, their world leaders to pull the emergency break before they return to “learning facts when the most important facts given by the finest scientists are ignored by our politicians”, as the climate activist Greta Thunberg so perfectly said. As David Bradby stresses, Godot “speaks on behalf of the dispossessed” (Bradby. pg. 179) and “powerfully to those who are conscious of being oppressed …” (Bradby, pg. 175). Currently on a global scale the most dispossessed are the youth, our generation, who have had to watch powerlessly while their world leaders continue to dish out empty promises and sign empty deals, yet always failing to deliver when it comes down to actually acting on them. As Greta Thunberg said in her COP24 speech, “We have not come here to beg world leaders to care. You have ignored us in the past and you will ignore us again.” (Thunberg, 2018). In this sense, the play is exceptionally relevant, as ‘Godot’ has come to symbolize “the frustrations of waiting for a promised salvation which fails to materialize” (Bradby, pg 179). As is mentioned in the play by Estragon, “[Godot] couldn’t promise anything”, and had to consult his various constituents. Politicians continue to make empty promises that they will do what is best for the next generation, what is best for the planet on which we live, and thus what is best for humanity. However, these promises fail to ever materialize, lost in a vacuous abyss where they slowly fade into the past, and their mention brings forth a painful sense of disappointment. Yet much like Vladimir and Estragon, if they “leave” and give up, they may miss the one chance to meet Godot face to face, and get the response they were waiting for. 


Bradby, David. Beckett : Waiting for Godot. Plays in Production. Cambridge, U.K. ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Thunberg, Greta (2018) “I’m Striking from School to Protest Inaction on Climate Change – You Should Too | Greta Thunberg | Opinion | The Guardian.” The Guardian. Accessed April 22, 2019.

Enactments of Power through Performance

In “Enactments of Power,” N’gugi Wa Thiong’o writes: 

“The state has its arenas of performance; so has the artist. While the state performs power, the power of the artist is solely in performance. Both the state and the artist may have a different conception of time, place, content, goals, either of their own performance or of the other but they have the audience as their common target. Again the struggle may take the form of the state’s intervention in the artist’s work — what goes by the name of censorship –but the main area of struggle is the performance space: its definition, delimitation and regulation.”

What does Wa Thiong’o mean by this?  And can you identify a performance/piece of theater/dance that became more powerful, more gripping, more vital (what Peter Brook might think of as “immediate”) due to its relationship to the site in which it was performed?  Why?

Wa Thiong’o elucidates that, what Peter Brook calls, the “latent power of theatre” (pg. 99, Brook) originates within the fact that the audience’s attention, which is inexplicably tied to the performance space, is a limited resource that both state and artist wrestle to obtain for different, often opposing purposes. Brook correctly identified that the power of theatre lived on, but Thiong’o made the connection that this latency is tied to the fact that the power is carried through the audience. As Brook correctly identified, “… we see that without the audience there is no goal, no sense.” (pg. 139, Brook) and Thiong’o illustrates that without the audience the performance has no effect, no power. The artist’s power lies solely in performance with an audience because the audience becomes the site where the powerful potential of their ideas and thoughts catch fire. Through the audience, the artist realizes the potential of their ideas. Hence, the artist in a vacuum, even if performing, is devoid of power, in the same way that a volcano becomes dormant because the magma from the Earth’s mantle can no longer reach it. The artist’s isolation from or exposure to the audience is invariantly dependent on the performance space and place, which defines how the relationship that the two entities enter for the period of the performance unfolds. The performance space is the discrete entity that defines how the artist reaches the audience. It is the passage through which the seed of thought reaches the target to achieve a desired goal because as Thiong’o proclaims “There is no performance without a goal.” (pg. 25, Thiong’o). The state however is competing for the exact same level and depth of attention of that same audience to enact the power over their audience. For the state, performance is a means of obtaining the audience’s attention to apply their power as widely as possible to the population, in a highly concentrated manner, while the artist’s power is in the very act of the performance. Hence, the artist is often the culprit, the enemy to the state that steals from them the possibility that would allow them to easily apply sweeping acts of power and control over their people instead of individually appealing to them. This notion of the struggle for power between the power of performance of the individual and the performance of power of the state is portrayed by Thiong’o when he cites Foucault while comparing the modern prison system to historically public executions: “An execution that was known to be taking place, but which did so in secret, would scarcely have had any meaning.” (pg. 21, Thiong’o). The staging of such punishments resembled performances which tightly controlled the spectacle seen on stage. However, the individual punished could often, similarly to the artist, sway the public into sympathy and revolt by enacting a performance of their own, which carried an intrinsic power. As a result, in order to restrict the audience’s attention to their ideas and goals they deemed important, they restricted the space, as the space is the mediator for their attention. Attention can only be given to something if that something and thing giving attention inhabit the same dimension and location of space. By manipulating this space, the attention of the audience will manifest itself differently. Hence, the power of the artist and the performance of power of the state  both revolve around the performance space, as the control of it determines who is given the attention necessary to realize each entity’s, often clashing, goals. 

Figure 1: How the performance space acts on performance elements (performance minus performance space) to create a wholistic theatre within the stage of the mind

Taking Thiong’o’s insight further, the performance space is not only the physical anchor of the audience’s attention, it is a manifest and door to the stage of the mind that both artist and state aim to ultimately penetrate and control because it is where the performance and space fuse into one wholistic entity. While the performance plants a seed in the audience in that performance space, the seed will grow differently depending on the soil it is planted in and the environment it is exposed to. In the same way we cannot see the performance space as an inanimate, sterile entity that simply exists. The performance space is a living creature that will affect how the essence of the medium encapsulated in the performance manifests itself in the reality the audience experiences. This is because a performance has to always be physically rooted to a place. Performance is by definition a physical manifestation, the act of which requires a physical space to begin with. Hence a performance can never be truly separated from the performance space. I would argue that the wholistic, or as Brook calls it, the vital theater/performance includes the performance space in its definition of performance. This vital performance exists on the stage of the mind because the mind of the audience is what channels the “… physical, social, and psychic forces in society.” (pg. 13, Thiong’o) that Thiong’o claims manifest themselves in the performance space. The stage in the mind of the people populates and overlays the “empty” stage that would be seen by an objective vacuum (if something like this could even exist) by drawing on the historical, personal, social riches and memories embodied within the physical space. In this way, the stage of the mind sees the the actions of the people on stage and the physical stage (or performance space) as on living breathing entity that I denote the wholistic performance experience (see figure 1). This fact is illustrated very clearly by Thiong’o when he recounts how the actors and audience continued the performance of The Trial of Dedan Kimathi by weaving naturally towards the historic Norfolk Hotel, yet that the police (the state) forced them to retreat given the power that the place brings when the audience is present with what I would call the performance action (everything but the physical space) (pg. 16, Brook). Thus, when creating performances, the physical space inhabited needs to be equally considered as the dialogue and action happening on stage at that place, as it will change performance ultimately received by the audience in the same way that a change in characters would. 

Antigone became more vital by being performed in Ferguson, as the physical location assisted in making the performance present or re-presenting the past so it became immediate again in the present. As a 2500-year-old play, the story of Antigone, although timeless, fails to resonate with people in its original form, as it appears as a pure imitation. There would be a lack of immediacy, as defined by Peter Brook, because it would fail to draw the connection between the past and the recent present in order to respond to the set of conditions that resonate with people at that moment. As Brook aptly identified, in French the world for performance is representation (pg. 139), which is exactly what is necessary to make theater immediate. Through the act of bringing it into the present you are making a past play relevant to audience watching and supporting. Although there were many aspects of Antigone in Ferguson that helped make it immediate and vital, including fusing it with gospel music and community interaction, all of these pieces only fit together so perfectly due to the performance space they were in: Harlem Stage. Its history of being a place that celebrated artists of colour and people of colour more generally allowed Antigone to speak to them as the tragedy that mourned the death of a just and admirable person – for them Michael Brown and 2,500 years ago Antigone. Without the historical forces that the place brings with it, the performance would have felt misplaced, would have lacked the 4th dimension that drew the intended audience to it, and ultimately would have been unable to transform, to represent, the play anew in the 21st century in the aftermath of the shooting. In essence, the performance space is what helps anchors the theatre of the past in the present. It achieves this by eliciting historical and personal recallings tied to that space, which overlay themselves over the actions on stage, thereby bending the play into a representation that takes into account the happenings of the present. Thus, it achieves to pick up the audience where it resides in time now, making the experience more immediate and thus relevant to their current experience of life, even if under the hood the essence remains the same. 


Brook, Peter. The Empty Space. Atheneum, 1968.

Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ wa. “Enactments of Power: The Politics of Performance Space.” TDR (1988-) 41, no. 3 (1997): 11–30.

Batsheva – ‘Venezuela’

How do we write about dance?  In Deborah Jowitt’s article in Ann Dills and Ann Cooper Albright’s book Moving Histories/Dancing Cultures, she asks how one can write “beyond description: writing beneath the surface.” You can’t reduce dance to a synopsis – nor can you write only about a narration of movement in order to get at the heart of a dance.

For those of you who will see Batsheva this weekend, pick a dance you saw and write about what you saw.  You can use up to five paragraphs this time.  For those of you not going to Batsheva, go back to Veronique Doisneau and write about one of the pieces she dances — Swan Lake, Giselle or Points in Space.  Find when description is necessary and when you need to use metaphor.  Also think about how you might need to talk about narrative or abstract concepts.  But use the five paragraphs to convey your experience of watching dance.  There is no right way to do this – just find a way to convey what the dance makes you think and feel.

A sedating, melancholic yet spiritual Gregorian chant fills the air around you, lubricating your eyes to the glacial movements on stage and blending the next minutes into one smooth sensorial experience. Men carrying their female counterparts on their lower back glide inaudibly in a perfectly symmetrical, pyramidal formation across the bare stage. The riders’ feet silently dragging in a beautiful arc behind them makes the sand beneath your own toes seem palpable. Yet it is not just the experience that seems to flow into one continuous stream of existence. The pairs themselves amalgamate over the course of the slow tide of movement across the depth of the stage into one chimeric being. The female riders sit perfectly upright, their center of mass riding along effortlessly with their partner, palms of the hands gently placed onto their center back. The wave of movement from below, as the men alternately inch their way towards and away from us, ripples through their body and disappears into thin air around them. For a short interlude, the riders dissociate from their camels, leaving them standing paralyzed, outlining the negative space that their carrier left behind. Then a sudden explosion of movement. As if an invisible chord was tugging them, they land back at their rightful place, riding majestically like a queen on her nomadic camel. 

As the pairs make their way once more to the back of the stage, a dancer emerging stage left holds a white cloth resembling a flag towards us to his side. We become mesmerized as he moves almost mechanically, focus straight ahead. Step. Step to. Step. Step to … he releases slightly, unexpectedly yet controlled, as he shifts back onto his left foot. As the dancer makes his way across, the next flag-bearer emerges a few steps behind, tracing the same path, until a group of dancers performs this militarized, predictable yet strangely haunting procession. Along the way their flags drop, one by one, to the ground in a disordered yet organized fashion, until the bare ground between every dancer is occupied by flags. At this moment the riders and their camels, who had silently blended into the wall at the back, rush forward, seizing their rightful flag, in this way merging the disparate worlds of the majestic nomad and militarized behaviour. 

Swirling flags over their heads in rapid, energetic and powerful changes of movement, they begin to move as one swaying organism. Black clothes, flesh and the unmistakable whirl of the cloth flashing above them – the air pulses with the force and fervor of the stampeding bodies that unify into an unstructured, throbbing collective through their movement. The memory and contrast of this very scene in the first half of the show highlights the flashing colors of actual flags the second time around. Streaks of red, white, black and green paint explosive ephemeral strokes across the stage into a masterpiece living only in a continuum of time. Those acutely aware of this significance might notice that all the flags are in the colours of the Palestinian flag. Yet what exactly Ohad Naharin wants to communicate to us through this symbolism remains a mystery, an enigma like in most of his pieces, that each audience member answers for themselves. While the bare sound of stomping feet and heavy breathing pierces through the chants in the first half, it gets drowned out the second time by the electronic and metallic power soundscape overlayed. The same but not the same. The question becomes: What is more powerful: seeing or hearing? 

From one moment to the next, the flags seamlessly transition to becoming tools rather than purely aesthetic symbols, as the collective turns inwards and begins pounding the ground through its flagellation with their flags. Wide stance, head down, mouth wide open in screams, this outpouring of directed aggression becomes all the more evocative as our eyes come to rest at the apparent eye of the storm: a dancer writhing on the floor clutching his flag in a crumpled heap. The cause of his sudden descent remains lost in the overwhelming dynamism of the whirlpool preceding it. In that moment the illusion of the collective breaks down and we become acutely aware of the individuals within it through the isolation and alienation that follows. Politics, individualism, fear and aggression seem to be intermingled in a hotpot of Naharin’s genius, while evading the obvious connections between these themes, leaving the audience questioning the apparent meaning or even narrative they are seeking for.

Once the fallen soldier reaches the front of the stage through a series of crawling advances, the rest swarms like bees around him, covering his entire body in flags, backside facing up. Without their flags they return to their hive, seemingly unmoved by their diminished numbers. Facing the audience, they fall into an explosive yet contained kick-step sequence as the amorphous body continues to squirm its way towards stage right. As the figure begins to slowly stand up, weighed down by the haphazard arrangement of the flags, the rest of the dancers freeze, hands by their side, except for the tip of the pyramid whose right hand’s backside is markedly pushing against his forehead. The halt is suddenly broken as a female dancer abandons the crowd and launches herself onto the stooped figure making its way towards the side of the stage. They both tumble to the ground, flags still snaking his body, while a seemingly random selection of dancers falls with them like matches in the wind, as if forced down by an invisible power. The collective disintegrates as each dancer begins to move on their own accord, breaking out into short, erratic expressive dances at times, while those on the ground continue to writhe and snake. Arching backs with arms swirling, bent elbows and taught upper body as the abdomen drops, catching invisible objects flying through the air as the knees stay soft – one by one, they begin to embody the invisible floating through the air around them. An individualistic effort that still resides in the collective ritual, Naharin confronts us with questions about our notions of the single and the communal, the united and the divided, the aggression and the infatuation, while interrogating the very substance of what we are witnessing through the experiment he conducts with his audience by rewinding time half-way through. The same, not the same. How can we make a comment on what we witnessed when even this basic fact seems to slip between our fingers? Tangible and yet transient, our experience is exposed to and affected by the very nature of its presentation. Naharin’s brilliance created an experiment that leaves you questioning the very nature of what you just saw while tossing poignant, emotive and crystallized movement symbolism into the mix that serve as a pandora’s box for hard, fundamental questions about our society. 

The Cherry Orchard: Trofimov & Anya (Act II)

Perform a short scene on video taken from a realistic play.  Be careful to choose a play where realism is not just the default genre of theatre — but actually contributes in some manner to the themes of the play.  Write a short paragraph or two explaining (1) why you chose the play and (2) the acting preparation necessary for the performance.  You can use anyone you’d like as scene partners; they do not have to be a member of the class.  The videos and explanations will also be added to our class website (in addition to you posting them to your individual blogs)  so that all in class can view them from one site.

Why I chose the play & the scene:

I chose to look at The Cherry Orchard because Chekhov’s plays although satisfying the elements of realism, also manages to overcome its limitations. It communicates more than is said through disguised soliloquies (spontaneous burst of hidden thoughts and inner emotions) and the messenger element, which overcomes the limitations of keeping to the present moment on stage by informing the audience of key dramatic incidents taking place off stage. While studying Chekhov during my last year of high school, I became very intrigued and slowly engrossed by Chekhov’s aim to write a truly realistic play in which the character’s involved themselves in life’s trivialities. It fascinated me that despite seemingly “nothing” happening on stage so much valuable knowledge, insights and experiences were communicated beneath the ever-repeating conversations about leaving for Moscow (in the case of The Cherry Orchard, but also the Three Sisters), the scattered progression of the dialogue of the fallen aristocracy and the cross communication between characters about irrelevant topics. From a performative aspect, despite the realistic nature of the drama acting the characters portrayed is quite a challenge due to the Chekhovian nature of his plays, as Chekhov mixes comic and tragic elements at the same time. This is one of the main reasons, why I chose to focus on the scene between Anya and Trofimov in the second act. During this scene, the clash between values of modernity and values of old Russia really come to surface through the characters, who both yearn for a better life, yet cannot seem to overcome the activation energy to do so. Yet, their dreams, the awkwardness of their love for each other, and their naivety shines through within the context of “modern” Russia. 

The acting preparation necessary :

Trofimov’s character is very complex, and striking the right balance between making him appear as a heroic visionary and an emotionally immature student is more than difficult. In order to set myself into the right frame of mind, and remind myself of Chekhov’s supposed intentions for the Trofimov, I re-read the pages of analysis and notes that I had created years ago. From this I created a mental picture of Trofimov as an object of Chekhov’s irony, not his voice, who is concerned more with Russia’s historical memory of its past. He combines idealism, intellectualism, and lofty ideals, with an unwillingness to recognize rights to affection (as seen in the seen when he exclaims “We are above love”). Furthermore, I watched the 1962 performance of the scene with Judi Dench and Ian Holm ( twice and followed along with the script, trying to study how Ian Holm translated Trofimov’s extended comments about the working class and ongoings about lofty ideals into a gripping, deep performance. I used this to try and apply some of it to my own acting of his character. Once Julia and I came together we blocked the scene together, exchanged thoughts about the characters and how they relate to each other, decided on what version of the translation we were going to use (we had two options) and then ran through the scene twice to see whether our blocking worked and to become more familiar with the extended comments Trofimov was making, as well as the overall flow of the scene. 

A Brechtian Scene from Antigonik

WTake one scene from Sophocles’ Antigone or Anne Carson’s Antigonik, and rewrite it in a Brechtian epic form.  You can re-write the drama – or you can describe what you would do to change what happens on stage as if you were a director.

In this past week’s reading, “The Modern Theater is the Epic Theater”  (p171-172) of the Brecht text in Krasner, there is a table showing the changes in emphasis between dramatic and epic theater.  Use the information on the chart to assist this assignment.   Finally, write one paragraph describing what you changed and why.

Rewritten Scene from Antigonik (pg. 23 – 32)

[Sit down Guard]

Kreon [To Antigone]: You knew it was against the law

Antigone: Well if you call that law

Kreon: I do

Antigone: Well then that’s your own perspective. Law is not defined by one person’s wishes. In fact, human law is ever-changing. You cannot be married to it. What you [points at audience member] might call one of your laws today might be thrown into the trash tomorrow. But there are some laws that stand above a human’s individual wish. Those are the laws laid down by nature and moral. [Looking at the audience] Of course she will die Kreon or no Kreon and death is fine. This carries no pain. To leave a mothers son lying out there unburied that would be pain. 

Narrator: Raw es her father isn’t she

Kreon: You think you are iron but I can bend you. I’m the man here.

Antigone: [Looking straight at the audience] Yes he is.

Kreon: I’ll bend your sister too

Antigone: Can we just get this over with

Kreon: No lets split hairs a while longer. I’d say you’re the only one in Thebes who sees things this way. Wouldn’t you You’re autonomous 

[this should be spoken rather than have dramatic intonation] autoarchic autodidactic autodomestic autoempathic autotherapeutic autohistorical autometaphorical autoerotic and autobeguiled. 

[To the audience] Basically she is selfish. 

Antigone: Actually no they all think like me but you’ve nailed their tongues to the floor

Kreon: You’re not ashamed

antigone: No shame in honoring one’s kin

Kreon: Wasn’t the other brother your kin too

Antigone: Same mother same father

Kreon: Yet you honor the one and disgrace the other

Antigone: [To the audience] Do you really think honoring one automatically disgraces the other? 

Kreon: The one a criminal the other a defender of our land

Antigone: Your personal, transient views, Kreon, are immaterial to the greater cycle and recycle of matter. 

Kreon: Same law for good and evil, patriot and traitor 

Antigone: Oh who knows how these definitions work beyond our silly human realm. One decade someone is good, while in the next generation they condemn him as evil. Just like you actually.  

Kreon: Enemy is always enemy. Alive or dead. 

Antigone: I am born of love not hatred. Enemy is always enemy to you. Yet you are but a historical artifact a transient matter. Not truth. 

Kreon: I will not be worsted by a woman 

[Stand up Ismene] 

Narrator: Here is Ismene. Why is she blushing? 

Kreon: Here’s Ismene why is she snaking in here

Ismene: I did the deed I share the blame 

Antigone: You did nothing. You shared nothing. Leave my death alone. 

Ismene: I want to row the boat with you

Antigone: Save yourself the trouble

Ismene: I’ll be so lonely 

Antigone: Some think the world is made of bodies some think forces. I think a man knows nothing but his foot when he burns it in the hot fire. 

Ismene: Quoting Hegel again. 

Antigone: Hegel says Im wrong 

Ismene: But right to be wrong

Antigone: No ethical consciousness

Ismene: Is that how he puts it 

[Antigone walks off stage and to the first row of the audience and directly addresses someone there to engage with the audience. The placard has been left on stage to signal that the actor is now examining Antigone together with an audience member]

Antigone: “Can Antigone be so completely conscious of being unconscious that she is guilty of her own repression, is that what she is guilty of?” 

Ismene: They all think you’re a grand girl.

Antigone: Is this an argument

Ismene: I can help you suffer

Antigone: No

Ismene: I can give your reasons not to die

Antigone: No

Ismene [To Kreon]: I can give you reasons not to kill her. Your own son for one. 

Kreon: Oh he’ll find other ruts to plough, you women and your beds make me sick

[Calling] Guards take them away

[Sit down Antigone, Ismene, Kreon] 

Paragraph Explaining

From a directing perspective, I changed the way the actors came on stage, and how they presented themselves. First of all, the stage has no wings, just benches for actors to sit down on on the side. This open stage should create a Verfremdungseffekt because by seeing the actors who are not currently acting just sitting idly and watching, you as an audience member become acutely aware of the disjoint between the actors/bodies and the characters on stage. This allows the audience to study the humans portrayed onstage, and not simply be a passive spectator. In the stage directions this manifests as e.g. [Sit down Guard] or [Stand up Ismene] instead of Enter/Exit. Essentially, when the characters are next in line on stage, they simply get up from the benches and assume their spot. It also prevents the audience from identifying too strongly with the characters acted out. I was inspired by the placards held up at the end of Five Easy Pieces so I wondered what spoke against the actors bringing that placard with them every time they came on stage to signify who they were playing, e.g. “Antigone shown by …”. I specifically chose the word ‘shown’ to indicate that these characters are just being visually portrayed to the audience, instead of the actors physically transforming into them. By having the names of the character and actor side by side, the audience is reminded that the two are separate, and can consider the character as an observer not a spectator lost in their world. A variation on this could be having shirts that say the same thing on the front and back. This could then symbolically substitute for costumes as the shirt would act as a symbolic, although rather explicit, representation of e.g. Antigone, in a similar manner that symbols are used in Chinese theater to achieve the alienation effect.

In terms of dialogue, I tried to focus on removing the references to an “eternal god” and instead make the events seem remarkable, more focused on the person acting, rather than Man. The aim here is to de-emphasise the timelessness of objects and human response. In Aristotelian theatre, the “eternal response: the inevitable, usual, natural, purely human response” is emphasized (Brecht, pg. 182), while Brecht aimed to concentrate “… entirely on whatever in this perfectly everyday event is remarkable, particular and demanding inquiry.” (Brecht, pg. 183). This can be seen in my rewrite of Antigone’s comment about the difference between laws written by the gods and those installed by humans. I tried focusing on the human at play there, and what this comment is telling us about the humans at play here, not necessarily the eternal Gods: how human laws are ever-changing and emphasizing the uniqueness of laws historically made, yet how therefore not one law in humans resides above another, and that there are laws governing the environment we live in we have yet to understand. Similarly, I changed Antigone’s comment “Death needs to have death’s laws obeyed” and instead focused it on the human being as the object of inquiry (Kreon) instead of some supernatural, eternal concept of Death, by rewriting: “Your personal, transient views, Kreon, are immaterial to the greater cycle and recycle of matter.” Additionally, I changed the name of the Chorus to Narrator, removing the intonation of the Chorus and having it simply speak the lines it was supposed to accompany musically. 

Finally, I aimed to have the actors break down the fourth wall between them and the audience by changing some of the dialogue on stage to comments that the actors make about their characters to the audience. The most telling example is the following:

[Antigone walks off stage and to the first row of the audience and directly addresses someone there to engage with the audience.]

Antigone: “Can Antigone be so completely conscious of being unconscious that she is guilty of her own repression, is that what she is guilty of?” 

The placard has been left on stage to signal that the actor is now examining Antigone together with an audience member, and has stepped out of character shortly (this illustrates the benefit of a placard rather than a shirt). Furthermore, by changing the pronouns and addressing Antigone in third person and conversing directly with the audience, it is instigating exactly the kind of self-reflection, observation and inquiry that Brecht wanted from his audience. He wanted them to not simply be spectators, but moreover to be acute observers questioning what was happening on stage. 


Brecht, Bertolt. The Modern Theatre Is the Epic Theatre, 1930.

Examining the Intention and Realisation of Catharsis in Hell House (Trinity)

Pick one play we’ve read, or performance we’ve watched, and explain how catharsis functioned in the work.

If the work did not strive to produce a catharsis, what did it do instead? Please offer an opinion as to why your choice of work did or didn’t utilize catharsis.  You are welcome to refer to Aristotle’s Poetics, or to any of the authors assigned for this week’s set of readings.

Figure 1: Relationship between Performative Elements (Scenes) and the overall Arc of the Entire Performative Experience in Hell House

The original performance of Hell House, not necessarily the documentary, constructs a series of dramatic scenes with the aim of producing catharsis in the co-performative audience, as seen by the fundamental intention of helping the audience return to a state of harmony/resolve (through Jesus) via the release of repressed emotions during the performance. If we examine Hell House using the generally accepted definition of catharsis — the process of releasing and thus relieving oneself from heightened, repressed emotions — it becomes evident that through their aim of transporting the audience to a state where they experience strong emotions, in order to provide them with an opportunity to resolve these through praying to Jesus, their central aim could be rephrased as follows: helping people recommit to Christianity and Jesus through a cathartic experience of Hell, and thus saving them from the devil. Structural this notion is underscored by the fact that each scene, from abortion to the rave scene, employs a classic triangular dramatic arc that contributes to a greater overall performative climax (see figure 1), that returns to a “steady-state” or state of balance/resolve. This occurs through the opportunity at the end of the experience to capitalise on the release of these emotions, and further purge them, through prayer to complete the transformation of the individual. Essentially, those organizing Hell House, while “only” community theater, strove to use catharsis as a work horse to cleanse the audience of such, in their eyes, destructive emotions, whether that be love for the same sex, anger at and lack of sorrow for a fetus, or overwhelming depression. The attempt to realize this was through transporting the co-performative audience into situations that would elicit such feelings, or a strong response to them, by engaging with members of society, i.e. the performers, trapped by them. 

Nevertheless, after examining the formal constraints and ideas behind catharsis, especially as laid out by Aristotle, this aim of striving to utilize catharsis appears to not be entirely realized given the dichotomous relationship with pity in Hell House. While the central idea of catharsis is the purgation, or process of releasing and thus relieving oneself from heightened, repressed emotions, exactly what Aristotle meant with catharsis is still considered a subject of much debate. Referring back to Poetics, he only ever mentions catharsis once, when defining Tragedy: “… through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions.” (Aristotle). He later on provides frameworks by which to incorporate pity and fear, mentioning that “… pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of man like ourselves.” (Aristotle). Thus, from this it appears that pity and fear form essential ingredients to produce catharsis in the audience. Using these concepts to re-analyse the intentionality behind Hell House, there exists some ambiguity surrounding the concept of pity in Hell House. Aristotle argues that pity is aroused if the viewer believes the misfortune of another person is not justified. Given that the scenes of Hell House aim to portray and convince the viewer that the punishment of Hell for the various offenses is in fact warranted, and thus such crimes should be avoided, it may seem contradictory to the initial claim that Hell House strives to produce catharsis in the viewer. However, given that Hell House is catering to people, in particular youth, who have fallen off the track, so to speak, and whom they aim to “save”, it is certain that at least a fraction of the participants will feel a sense of pity, as defined by Aristotle, for the offenders of Jesus, and thus God. However, as was illustrated in the documentary when a group of youth were arguing with one of the organizers about the homophobic nature of some of their scenes, too much pity to the point where it becomes sympathy could lead to a rejection of the notion that there is even a necessity for them to be saved, or to purge themselves of such emotions. Elaborating on this point, there exists an extreme where pity becomes sympathy, as a result of deeply rooted belief that the actions of the protagonists were entirely just, and what they experienced unduly punished them. If viewers exist in this state, they are unlikely to feel that any emotions need to be released. In fact, it likely achieves the opposite effect of instigating a second wave of strong emotions that, instead of helping them enter a state of resolve, arouse and enrage them to a certain extent. If catharsis can be simplistically viewed as the cleansing from undesired emotions, then their instigation could be considered a form of “anti-catharsis”. This hypothesis is supported by the above mentioned scene between one of the Hell House organizers and the three friends who felt enraged by the demonization of LGBTQ+ people. Given they mentioned of on their friends being gay, this was likely a result of feeling a strong sense of pity to the extent of sympathy for the gay man who entered Hell. The question then remains whether there exists a level of pity that provides an optimal ratio between feeling the punishment was unjustified and a certain ‘openness’ and desire to resolving these emotions in the space provided, in order to produce catharsis in the viewer. 

If one separates the intentioned catharsis in the audience, and unintentional catharsis in the performers, it becomes evident that those most vulnerable and likely to convert to Christianity, in addition to those recently converted, provide the ideal canvas for realizing the intention of catharsis, although antithetical to their core beliefs, present within the performance Hell House through the act of mimesis. While Hell House did not aim to produce catharsis through the scenes in their performers, as illustrated by the selection process for the performers being rooted in their level of commitment to evangelical Christianity, the most convincing evidence that catharsis was actually realised through Hell House presents itself in the testimony of one of the actors. She recounts how the suicide scene led to the purgation of long-held resentment against her rapist, and allowed her to forgive him that night. It could be argued that due to the co-performative element of Hell House, she could feel a sense of pity for him through his “performance” that evening, allowing her to cleanse herself of repressed emotions of the past. Although less extreme, the rave scene can be considered to have produced catharsis in a select group of teenagers who felt like they could finally engage in a form of physical expression they appeared to have yearned for and repressed. Nevertheless, this cathartic experience appears to not be shared by the majority of the audience, given that in the final stadium of the performance, where they are given the opportunity to bring the cathartic experience to completion through prayer, no one steps forward initially. Only after an almost threatening countdown, did a number decide to follow through. As a result, it is evident that the most effective catharsis, although unintentional, comes from the purging mimesis by the performers and co-performers when engaging in acts that are ‘just play’ under this circumstances (such as the dancing in the rave scene), but are taboo otherwise (a deeper discussion of this and Ann Pellegrini’s contribution to this argument can be found in the previous blog post). Hence, Hell House aims to produce catharsis in the viewers, but achieves it successfully in a manner entirely contrarian to their aims, and in fact aligning with concerns voiced at the beginning of the documentary when deciding to not include the “lesbian bar scene”, for fear of mimesis giving them too strong of a taste of the devil. Overall, while Hell House, through its structural elements and core aim, strives to produce catharsis in the audience through the intentional integration of emotionally rousing scenes and prayer, due to the inherently provocative, extreme, and spectacular, as employed by Aristotle, nature of the performance, Hell House fails to strike a balance with the majority of the audience that allows them to experience pity and fear without provoking further cascades emotions, rather than following this with a sense of emotional closure (i.e. purgation). Instead, although Hell House does in fact achieve catharsis within the performers and the co-performative audience it is through the releasing act of being able to engage, even if only for a short time, in otherwise abhorred activities, and through this purging achieve the “steady state” or restorative order lauded by Geertz’s theory of “deep play”. 


Aristotle. The Poetics of Aristotle. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.

Hell House at Trinity & Deep Play

Please identify and deconstruct a scene in the film Hell House that demonstrates Clifford Geertz’s notion of “deep play.”  You can use (if you’d like) some of the discussion of the film and play in Ann Pellegrini’s article to assist you.

Figure 1: Model of what the essential requirements are for play to constitute as “deep”, as defined by Clifford Geertz.

The essence of deep play, high stakes in a co-performative environment, is encountered in the rave scene of Hell House through the dual nature of the high-risk threats present in both the subject matter and the co-performers. Clifford Geertz defines “deep play” on its most fundamental level in Jeremy Bentham’s words as “play in which the stakes are so high that it is, from a utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in it at all.” (Geertz, pg. 7)The rave scene concerns itself with the plot that date rape at an electronic music scene leads to suicide, a fact that exemplifies the idea that “deep play” on some fundamental level has an element of a fight in it, a fight against some entity that could threaten to push them over the edge. This idea of violence or a fight mirrored in deep play is underscored by Geertz’s comment that “Every people, the proverb has it, loves its own form of violence.” (Geertz, pg. 10) In the case of Hell Houses, and thus also this scene, the fight is always one against the devil, to save those who may be tempted to follow his signs. This is elucidated by the fact that in every scene, including the rave scene, the devil features at the closing, as an entity that they lost against. In order to achieve the desired goal of winning against the devil, they have to actually lose within the performance space, to create an illusion of reality, and thereby allow the co-performers to retroactively change their views. Particularly the rave scene provides a strong co-performative aspect, given that the ‘viewers’ actually inhabit the ‘stage’ and are dancers immersed in the happenings of the staged scene. 

Although there are high stakes within the scenes, namely loosing against the devil, these cannot be viewed as the only, or even primary, ones since the nature of them are deterministic, i.e. the outcome is inevitable, predetermined. As a result, the high stakes for the performers and the co-performative audience are distinct, unlike in the Balinese cockfights. For the performers these center around the fates of the audience. This not only refers to someone not converting, but to Ann Pellegrini’s two-fold musings: 1)“Can we rule out the possibility that for some young people … just getting a glimpse of same-sex eroticism is a perverse pleasure, revealing possibilities they were not otherwise supposed to contemplate?” (Pellegrini, pg. 920), and 2) at the other pole that some scenes “may well feel like a profound and profoundly alienating blow to the self.” (Pellegrini, pg. 920) In fact, it could be argued that this is the true reason why the word ‘irrational’ can be applied to the act of engaging in these scenes. Without the potentiality that someone may be pushed closer to the devil than they already are as a result of these scenes, contributing to such a performance would not seem irrational, as the outcome could only be positive by helping others be saved (provided you echoed this causality). This fear is voiced at the beginning of the documentary when the main organizer of Hell House at Trinity ruled against the ‘lesbians at the bar’ scene, likely due to the fact that closeness during the rehearsal process may potentially spark, in their views satanic, homosexuality. The responses of some of the youth to the question “What was your favorite part?” illustrated clearly that this suppressed yearning is also present in the co-performative audience at the rave scene. Their enthusiasm for being allowed to dance uncovered yearnings for physical expression not permitted otherwise, thereby potentially making such places more appealing rather frightening. In essence, the rave scene appears to provide an excellent example of Geertz’s notion of “deep play” given that it is co-performative play sparking deeper emotional engagement yet having inherent high stakes that seem irrational given the risk involved of driving someone closer to the devil. 

Nevertheless, the presence of an overall social good and a lack of consequences in reality, that are implied or stated by Geertz as aspects of “deep play”, can be contended, depending on whose perspective one chooses to adopt. Geertz describes the Balinese cockfights as violence contained within the illusion of the performance. Status wars, instead of ending within actual bloodbaths between individuals, were acted out through the medium of the cockfights. The implication was that they contained violence and animalistic tendencies to the performance space in order to rid their reality of it. One could argue though that the intentional antagonism involved at the potential expense of those attending the Hell House at Trinity could likely lead to consequences in reality by carrying the fight present in the scenes outside of the performance space. This fact was actually observed in the documentary, when an argument broke out between a group of youth and one of the organizers of Hell House about the demonization of homosexuality, given they had friends who were homosexual. One could imagine a similar situation for the rave scene where individuals bring their personal experiences of the topic addressed into the performance space, and feel profoundly trivialized or attacked by the views presented at Hell House. The question is whether whether a lack of consequences in the real world is even possible for any potential “deep play”. Due to the emotive nature of “deep play” everyone will likely carry the emotions roused during the act into everyday life, and thereby change its course. I would argue that it is almost impossible to silo any one act from the rest of reality. Hence, the question remains what constitutes of a consequence relative to “deep play”? If we use the Balinese cockfight as template to base musings off of, then it becomes evident that the significant difference between Hell Houses and Balinese cockfights is that the former appears to resolve conflicts while the latter provokes it. Thus, consequences can be defined as additional conflict created in reality as a result of “deep play”.  Hence, overall it appears that the ‘rave scene’, while satisfying central requirements of deep play, fails to create a social good through a restoration of order, but rather reaps benefits only for the individual through being saved. 


Geertz, Clifford. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” Daedalus 101, no. 1 (1972): 1–37.

Pellegrini, Ann. “‘Signaling through the Flames’: Hell House Performance and Structures of Religious Feeling.” American Quarterly 59, no. 3 (2007): 911–35.