Dramaturgy and Politics*
by Joseph Danan
I have three jobs: I am a writer, a researcher and lecturer, and a dramaturg.
These three jobs are distinct, but they complete each other, they overlap, they interfere.
As a playwright, I have written about sixty plays, if I include the short ones. A lot of them have been staged, some by Alain Bézu, the director with whom I trained. I will talk about him later. It has been ten years since I started writing plays for young audiences. Three of them are published, another one is about to be, in a nicely illustrated collection: «Heyoka Jeunesse», by Actes Sud-Papiers. These plays are, at present, the most successful of my plays: they are more read, staged, translated and studied than the other ones.
My second job: teaching and research. I work as a professor at the Theatre Department of the Université de la Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris 3). This implies different things. During three or four years, my seminar for Master students was called «What is dramaturgy?». I developed a theoretical approach to the question, based on the study of practice (mine and others). A book came out of it, also called «What is dramaturgy?» My seminar is now called «Theatre and performance». I have been leading it for two years. I try to analyse new theatrical practices and new writing for the stage which tend to question and transform the very notion of dramaturgy. I also give a Bachelor course which is directly related to the question of dramaturgy. We study the staging of new writing. I approach two aspects of the question: the text itself and its representation. We do this by studying performances that my students attend. I have also been leading, for a long time, a Bachelor writing workshop. At the beginning of this year I am starting another workshop, a workshop for a professional master’s students, in which they will practice playwriting and different kinds of dramaturgical writing: programmes, season introductions, press files, and so on. Besides this, I co-lead (with Catherine Naugrette) the Research Group on Modern and Contemporary Drama Poetics.
Now to my third and last job: as a dramaturg, I have worked for about thirty years with Alain Bézu. He created Le Théâtre des 2 Rives in Rouen (in Normandy), which first was a company and got a national status as a Dramatic Centre. I have never been a member of the Dramatic Centre (which was a small centre), but I have worked as a dramaturg on many plays directed by Alain Bézu – in addition to my own plays. This has allowed me a very close view not only of theatrical work, but of the theatrical life (when I joined the reading committee, for example). There, I played the role of an Artistic Adviser. The dramaturgical work evolved and took different forms regarding the shows we were working on. I consider collective creation, or devising as it’s known in England, to be one of these approaches: this is how we created La Grande Boucle, a show about the Tour de France (cycling), and Petite Reine, nearly the same show, but shorter and smaller (with fewer actors), which toured in France and also in England, to the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton, where it was quite successful. Another important piece was L’Illusion Comique by Corneille: I wrote a book about this experience, including our adaptation of Corneille’s play and the dramaturgical texts written in 1976 and 2006. Alain Bézu left the Dramatic Centre in 2007, but he continues to work as a freelance director, and I continue to work with him as a dramaturg.
Regarding today’s question (dramaturgy and politics), it is always present in my mind, as a playwright and as a dramaturg. I have barely approached it as a researcher at university. My plays are not often based on a political subject. But I rarely base my playwright work on a specific subject, with exceptions like my play, De la révolution. However, the political conscience is always present. It becomes obvious when I think about my plays for young audiences: they deeply question our relationship to the world, to society, to violence, to order and disorder, and so on. It’s one meaning for politics. Another one refers to the government of the city. I think that one of the goals of our debate should be to define the word « politics ». It is clear that different approaches to the word imply different practices.
As far as dramaturgical work is concerned, the question remains the same, but it grows complex as it is strongly bounded to the here and now of the production (when I write, it is more aloof, more abstract: I don’t know when and where the play will be performed). As a dramaturg working with a director, I must think about the spectator’s place. We must define what we want to tell him through Ibsen’s or Corneille’s words; how we address him, during but also before and after the performance; what we want to tell him without imposing anything on him, just to put his mind in motion. This is the central goal of dramaturgy today, and this may be where politics lies.
To be a little more precise, I will define two mainstays of this question regarding the relationship between dramaturgy and politics.
The first mainstay: plays and performances with a political subject. Here, Brecht is a main reference. The play’s mission is to awaken the consciousness of the spectator in order to make him (re)act, via votes or revolution. But the efficiency of such a project remains unestablished.
The second mainstay reveals the minor position theatre holds when compared to the media and the internet. Theatre creates micro-events for a restricted audience, even sometimes in a district or in a village, for example. The micro-event aims at making the spectator think, even though the topic is not necessarily political. It addresses the spectator as an individual, and this is intimate. It aims at questioning the representations which dominate our mind; and also at re-creating a relationship to the other. In other words, these performances are micro-political actions, by opposition to the « big questions » of macro-politics.
* This paper was presented by Joseph Danan at the DN 10 anniversary festival on 16 October 2011.