The twentieth century, however, saw the rise of playwrights who sought to reclaim a space for inefficiency and excess in the theater. As nonproductive expenditure becomes increasingly circumscribed in our late-capitalist lives, we increasingly see artists turning to it as an aesthetic strategy in their work. These dramaturgies of waste, as I call them, have both formal and ideological dimensions. Like modernism itself, dramaturgies of waste are characterized by the questioning and rejection of received forms. Early examples include playwrights concerned with critically re-inhabiting traditional models of dramatic structure. By the century’s end, however, we see playwrights invested in emptying or canceling out structure itself, a reclamation of nonproductive expenditure and an act of resistance against the capitalist regimes of efficiency that organize our lives outside the theater. Today, dramaturgies of waste have embraced negativity to such a degree that formlessness may become the twenty-first century’s legacy.
Published today, Jessica Rizzo chronicles a confrontation between the poisons of capitalism with the unstructured art form of contemporary dramaturgy in Waste: Capitalism and the Dissolution of the Human in Twentieth-Century Theater. This insightful monograph is available in print and digital open access at punctumbooks.com.
If at its most elemental, the theater is an art form of human bodies in space, what becomes of the theater as suicide capitalism pushes our world into a posthuman age?
Waste: Capitalism and the Dissolution of the Human in Twentieth-Century Theater traces the twentieth-century theater’s movement from dramaturgies of efficiency to dramaturgies of waste, beginning with the observation that the most salient feature of the human is her ability to be ashamed of herself, to experience herself as excess, the waster and the waste of the world. By examining theatrical representations of capitalism, war, climate change, and the permanent refugee crisis, Waste traces the ways in which these human-driven events signal a tendency toward prodigality that terminates with self-destruction. Defying its promise of abundance for all, capitalism poisons all relationships with competition and fear. The desire to dominate in war is revealed to be the desire to obliterate the self in collective conflagration. The refugee crisis raises the urgent question of our responsibility to the other, but the climate crisis renders the question of anthropocentric obligations moot.
Waste proposes that the theater is the form best suited to confronting the human’s perverse relationship to its finitude. Everything about the theater is suffused with existential shame, with an acute awareness of its provisionality. Unlike the dominant narrative of the human, which is bound up with a fantasy of infinite growth, the theater is not deluded about its nature, origins, and destiny. At its best, the theater gathers artist and audience in one space to die together for a little while, to consciously waste, and not spend, their time.
Jessica Rizzo is an American writer, director, and dramaturge. She holds a DFA in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from the Yale School of Drama, where she served as Associate Editor of Theater magazine and was awarded the John W. Gassner Prize for Criticism. She has taught at the Yale School of Drama, Yale College, and Bryn Mawr College. In 2017, she directed the North American premiere of Elfriede Jelinek’s Shadow: Eurydice Says in New York City. She has also worked at the Yale Repertory Theatre and the Hungarian Theatre of Cluj, and has had her work presented as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Her writing has appeared in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, TheaterForum, Theatre Journal, Theater, TDR, Austrian Studies, the Theatre Times, Vice, Momus, LA’s Cultural Weekly, Philadelphia’s Broad Street Review and ArtBlog, and Romania’s Scena.ro.
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