Thinking about Temporality and Theatre

by Maurya Wickstrom
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 1 (Winter 2016)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

Over the past couple of years, I have been increasingly taken with the question of temporality. Giorgio Agamben writes in Infancy and History that:

Every conception of history is invariably accompanied by a certain experience of time which is implicit in it, conditions it, and thereby has to be elucidated. Similarly, every culture is first and foremost a particular experience of time, and no new culture is possible without an alteration in this experience. The original task of a genuine revolution, therefore, is never merely to “change the world,” but also—and above all—to “change time.”

Although Agamben first published this astonishing recommendation in Italian in 1978 and in English in 2007, I first encountered it in a 2012 book by art historian Christine Ross. In her volume The Past is the Present: It’s the Future Too, Ross identifies characteristics-in-common of work by artists who she sees as participating in what she calls “the temporal turn.” It seems that in the visual arts (including video, performance and installation), artists have for awhile been attuned to and working specifically on alterations in common assumptions about, and the lived experience and capitalist formations of, temporality. Similarly, in queer studies, and in other analyses like that of the brilliant Cruel Optimism, by Lauren Berlant, both visions of changed time, and the identification of new forms of neoliberal time have been underway for some time.

Although theatre as a medium is strikingly fluent in and fluid with temporality, we have not perhaps been as engaged with temporality in its own right as some other disciplines have been. This is not to say that there has not been brilliant work of lasting significance in theatre scholarship that has touched on temporality and time. At the risk of generalization, I would say that this work has tended to circulate around phenomenology, finitude, death, memory, hauntings and returns, as well as aspects of Delueze’s thought. And at the risk of generalization, I will repeat that most of this work has not been engaged with the question of temporality per se, with opening out the very meaning and practices of temporality itself. Increasingly, my interest, and the interest of a growing number of scholars and theatre artists, is in how theatre and performance are engaging with time in ways that do just this, guided by explorations undertaken through a variety of philosophical and theoretical apertures which influence political thinking in unfamiliar ways. I think we could say that, if not always explicitly stated, this work wonders how we might continue to open up new insights and practices in order to gesture toward forms of “revolution” initiated by changes to time.

Matthew Wagner’s 2012 book Shakespeare, Theatre, and Time stands as one of the few monographs specifically on time currently available in theatre and performance studies. Although guided by some of the conceptual apparatus of phenomenology, Wagner’s book is an important step toward opening temporality and theatre as a significant sub-field within theatre studies in that it is explicitly and fully about time and its multiplicity and variations. I applaud his goal “to revitalize our temporal sensibilities in respect to theatre.” Although remaining committed to the familiar assumption that theatre is implicitly temporally bound to and limited by a passage through time that always must come to an end, Wagner insists throughout on the unruliness of time in the theatre, its refusal to obey the clock.

The past few years have seen other work emerging that opens the field more radically, departing from phenomenology as the philosophical center for theorization and description. I will mention just a few of these in the short space that I have. The excellent 2014 issue of Performance Research opens an international and interdisciplinary scope for thinking about temporality and performance. The issue follows from the 2013 Performance Studies Conference at Stanford University entitled “Now Then: Performance and Temporality”—a conference which staged a plethora of emerging thought on time. The essays range from a consideration of cyclical time in a twelve-year Finish performance, to an exploration of translation and temporality through Anne Carson’s translation of Antigonik, to the Chinese concept of yu zhou (something like Einstein’s unified field of space and time), to the concept of dyssynchrony in performance in Bogota, Columbia, to name a few examples.

Nicholas Ridout’s 2013 monograph Passionate Amateurs: Theatre, Communism, and Love is for me an exemplary innovation in thinking about theatre and time. While the book engages most deeply with labor (in its amateur forms), part of Ridout’s work is to articulate the ways in which labor (capitalist and otherwise) is always caught up in time. In one chapter in particular he places Walter Benjamin front and center, reaffirming Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History” as the central text that it is, above and beyond the familiar (although endlessly rich), image of the angel of history.

Agamben, in the quote above, forcefully reminds us that one must think about temporality in conjunction with history and vice versa. He reminds us thus, as Benjamin does, to problematize dominate conceptions of history by drawing them through time. One of the ways I have been investigating temporality is through historically introduced genres, especially tragedy. Two wonderful books are helping my own efforts and should be of note for our field. One is David Scott’s 2014 Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice, and the other is the 2016 The Black Radical Tragic: Performance, Aesthetics, and the Unfinished Haitian Revolution by Jeremy Glick. The latter is a constellation of a study moving among Brecht, Glissant, C.L.R. James, Paul Robeson, Eisenstein, Adorno, Brecht, Badiou, and Fanon among others to study in part the timeliness or untimeliness of tragedy. The former questions the temporal expectations implicit in revolutionary planning and puts those expectations up against revolutionary failure and devastation, suggesting a temporality of the tragic genre. Another work, Freedom Time, by Gary Wilder, includes a close examination of the political temporalities imagined and practiced by Aimé Césaire, with particular attention to his play about Toussaint Louverture.

I cannot close this very partial overview without mentioning, at least in passing, some of the most striking theatrical work with temporality that I have seen in the past year. These include Andrew Schneider’s You Are Nowhere, Gob Squad’s Before Your Very Eyes and Western Society, William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour, and, most recently, the counter-tenor, “Negro-gothic” performer, M. Lamar. Each of these works experimentally and courageously in modalities of time that seem to be invented before our eyes.

Maurya Wickstrom is Professor of Theatre at The Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. Her newest monograph, Fiery Temporalities in Theatre and Performance: The Initiation of History, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury Methuen Drama’s Engage series.


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