ABSTRACT

As a form of labor – a distinctive practical doing activity – theatre making offers one of the most sophisticated and creative ways that humans seek to render imagining tangible. An inherently social activity, where the interaction of exchanges and events invent all manner of relations, it presences imagination through the socially enacted encounter between performers, their material (form and content), spectators, and the conditions in which the work is produced. A theory of practice engaged with the material effects of things-in-the-world, Marxist discourse understands labor as an economic unit that articulates the dialectical tensions between on the one hand social oppression, and on the other the potentiality which that oppression denies. In other words, it looks for the ways in which the resistance of the oppressed can become effective. Despite the limitations of its historical specificity and its economic and social determinism, Marxism offers useful constructs that can be applied to a range of practices and discursive fields. These include the imaginative and the artistic – the realm of aesthetics – and theatre as a form of specialized labor – a realm of poetics – apprehended through the display of a range of skilled conventions amassed through the passage of (historical) time. The condition of theatre – its transience an index of its paradoxical “construction into demise” as it traces the form of an idea – insists upon a seductive disappearance from the world even as the theatre event appears, albeit briefly, as a transmission of material effects and exchanges.1 This suggests an interesting tension in the application of Marxism as an analytical framework to live performance. Marx’s theories are grounded in the materiality of social being and the world through an investigation of labor and a theory of value elaborated from that investigation; they observe the individual’s ability to make change through altering material conditions. In what ways, then, can we understand live theatre performances and their effects as material or materially relevant? To reframe that question, what can be gained by borrowing from Marxist theory in order to continue to develop a theory of theatre (as a thing made) that recognizes its ability to enact and effect social and political change (as a making thing too, therefore)? In such an endeavor, what leverage might be gained, what might be revealed about practices of failure? And if representation is a domain in which failure is a constitutive feature in the materiality and the materialization of the event, how might Marx’s considerations of value and labor enrich the discourse of failure understood as a mode of immanent political critique in theatrical performance?