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About Dramaturgy

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dramaturgy, the: 1. art of composing theatrical plays. || the work of the dramatist. 2. total of theatrical plays: The European/ American/ Greek ~.

dramaturge, n.: 1. a writer or adapter of plays; a playwright. 2. often dram·a·turg (-tûrg′) a person who is employed by a theatrical or opera company to assist in researching, selecting, adapting, or interpreting scripts or libretti.

There is often confusion over the terms dramaturgy and dramaturge, as they are used to describe different -and often conflicting- concepts. If we accept, according to the above definition, that dramaturgy is the composition of a play, then the question is who fathers this composition, who is the creator of the play, who is, therefore, its ‘owner’ of it. Hence, it is a matter of hierarchy and authority. And as such we will analyze it here.

Traditionally, the composition, the structure, the plot, the very idea of the play belong to the author. They create the work, invent the characters, determine the context -temporal, social etc.-, they raise the issue. It is a tradition that wants theatre to be, in the first place, a text-centred art: The basis, core, and backbone of the performance is the text, which performers-stagers are invited to decipher/interpret/perform appropriately. For example, if the text, i.e. the author, requires that a role has short blond hair, then an actor/actress with short blond hair should definitely be found, or at least willing to have it cut and dyed. If the author happens to include sexist or racist references in their work, then these should be presented to the public as such. Actors are relieved of any responsibility, as it is not their text. It’s the author’s, they just ‘put on’ the play.

Let’s also have a look at the vast majority of theatre history and theory textbooks, from Aristotle’s Poetics to the present day. They analyse theatre not as a performing art, but as a process of putting on written texts. They analyse the texts, not the performances. The history and evolution of theatre are thus limited to the evolution of the texts written to be performed, bringing all the other elements of a performance (acting, sets, costumes, light, music) into second place.

However, for decades this model has not been the only model, often not the dominant one either. There are countless examples of important performances where text is not the ultimate centre of the spectacle. The best description and analysis of this practice belongs of course to Hans-Thies Lehmann, who with his work Postdramatic Theatre1Postdramatisches Theater, Verlag der Autoren, Frankfurt am Main 1999 [English translation by Karen Jürs-Munby, Routledge 2006]. -which is, unfortunately, not published in Greek, as far as I’m aware- gave an appropriate name to the theatre that has been liberated from the ball and chain of the absolute dominance of the text: It is the theatre ‘post’ drama, i.e., post and beyond the theatrical play/text as established by the Renaissance onwards.

However, if a theatrical performance is not based on a written text, if the work of a playwright who, in the solitude of their office, accepts the responsibility of setting the framework of the play and predicting all the details does not come first, if the text is not the answer to all questions, if stage instructions, pauses, tensions, lighting or scenery changes are not predetermined from the outset by the authority called the author, then how does the composition of the performance take place? If the author is not the dramatist (i.e. the maker of the drama, the performance), then how does the dramaturgy, the composition of the performance arise?

We have a void of authority here, which can be filled in different ways. Firstly, the director is there to fill it with increased, sometimes unlimited, power and freedom. However, there is no real change in hierarchical relationships but only a shift: the absolute bearer of truth, authority, is no longer the author, but the director. 

At a later time, the creation of a new profession, that of the dramaturge, comes to fill in the gap.2The starting point for the shift of the meaning of the word dramaturge is considered to be the work of the German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing at the National Theatre of Hamburg towards the end of the 18th century, as well as his work The Hamburg Dramaturgy. This profession may have very few representatives in Greece (we’re talking about a single figure number), but in Western European countries it has been established for decades. 

The dramaturge is not necessarily either a director or a playwright but can be both. They are a member of the artistic group that creates the performance, they are responsible for the composition and coherence of the performance, but also its theoretical context and background. They are also the connecting link, both between directors and actors, as well as between the troupe and the theatre administration, and have a key role in shaping the repertoire.

Above all, however, the dramaturge is someone who can disagree with the director during rehearsal, someone whose work by nature reduces and limits the over-authority of the director, without gathering over-authorities on themselves. This is a step towards a more collective and less authoritarian process of creating theatre.

Above all, however, the dramaturge is someone who can disagree with the director during rehearsal, someone whose work by nature reduces and limits the over-authority of the director, without gathering over-authorities on themselves. This is a step towards a more collective and less authoritarian process of creating theatre. It is also a step towards a view of theatre as a performative and not as a text-centred art, since the work of the dramaturge, the process of the composition of the work, no longer lies merely in the assembly of the text, but in all the elements that constitute a performance a living, performative, onstage event. 

The profession of a dramaturge paves the way for more collective theatre creation processes. Limiting the absolute power of both the director and the author, the dramaturge’s function manifests that the composition, the dramaturgy of a performance is not necessarily the work of one enlightened unit, but can be the result of collective work, where everyone contributes depending on their abilities. The renegotiation of who is responsible for the construction of the performance may lead to a real modernization and rationalization of theatrical production, which suffers from the following paradox: performances that evangelize a progressive content, but are made in a highly reactionary and authoritarian manner, produced under conditions of obedience to a strictly structured hierarchy. This paradox is not by nature inscribed in the theatrical process, no matter how hard theatrologists, historians, directors, and drama school teachers try to convince us otherwise. They just want to defend the power they risk losing. 

Redefining the concept of dramaturgy can pave the way for us to rethink the very principle of theatrical creation. To get rid of the domination of long-dead playwrights. To get rid of the mighty directors and the authoritarian teachers. To depart from the role of the stagers who ascend by putting on plays, the wearers of classical texts, the adapters of handed-over ideas.3Translated from: Valère Novarina, Letter to the Actors — In Praise of Louis de Funès, Agra Publications, Athens 2003. 

Let us rethink the concept of dramaturgy, keeping the first definition with which the present text opens (composition of a play), but changing two essential elements: Firstly, a theatrical play should no longer mean only a written text, but a performance, and secondly, by changing and expanding the second definition: If the creator of the play is not only the author, nor the director alone, then the way for an overdue necessary redistribution of power in the production of theatrical performances is paved. And if the concept of global/European/Greek dramaturgy no longer implies only a collection of written texts of dead playwrights who have been included in the canon of the classical repertoire, then the way is paved for a theatre produced by a group of living people with the aim of a live presentation, for a theatre that happens on stage and not on paper.


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