In a world saturated by media, where spectators are primarily consumers, how can performance confront them with discourses rather than commodities? How can performance create meaning? How does performance unsettle the audience, inviting them to respond to ethical problems? In Performance, Ethics and Spectatorship in a Global Age, Helena Grehan applies Emmanuel Levinas' philosophy, particularly his theories of the subject's responsibility to an Other, to specific theatrical performances that "involve spectators in a play of seduction and estrangement where they must engage deeply in order to unravel the questions, ideas and feelings the works stimulate" (5).
Grehan contributes to the overlooked but crucial field of spectatorship. Of course, theorizing about the reception of any cultural performance is complicated by the varied subject positions of individual audience members, which are always both a matter of collective experience and individual predisposition: there are as many interpretations of a specific performance as there are audience members. Consequently, Grehan's attempt to bring some theoretical coherence into this elusive field is valuable but doomed to partiality. Grehan addresses this potential shortcoming, reminding readers that her focus "is not on providing answers but on thinking about the limits and the potential of practical responsibility both within and beyond the performance space" (172).
Levinas sees ethics as built around the idea of responsibility to the Other. "It is this attention to the Other ['s suffering] which, across the cruelties of our century [...] can be affirmed as the very bond of human subjectivity." (Levinas in Grehan, 36) The call of the Other to the subject precedes the subject's conscious decision making: it happens in the realm of the sensible, and is inevitable. The Other comes before the self, leaving the individual no choice but to respond to that call. However, his philosophical model does not specify the nature of the response, just its inevitability, opening the possibility that even to ignore the call or to refuse to respond are themselves responses. Levinas states that society further complicates the relationship between self and Other by framing a context into which the process happens, never isolated, never under the absolute control of the two interlocutors. Grehan equates the inevitability of the Other's call to the process of performance spectatorship, opening a field of reactive possibilities. When confronted with the Other in the context of performance, spectators leave the theatre unsettled and inchoate, invited to reflect on their position in society and the implications it entails.
Grehan applies Levinas' analytic frame to five performances and an installation. The criteria for these choices draws upon their common ability to make the audience uncomfortable. The first work is Genesi: From the Museum of Sleep (1999) by Socžetas Raffaello Sanzio, directed by Romeo Castellucci. This performance explores the extent to which the development of technology may entail humanity's destruction. The second is The Career Highlights of the MAMU (2002), by Black Swan Theatre, directed by Andrew Ross. It details the nuclear experiments conducted in the homeland of the Spinifex Australian Aborigines and the consequences on these people. Sandakan Threnody (2004), by TeatreWorks, directed by Ong Keng Sen, is about memory and trauma in the experience of Australian and British prisoners in Borneo during World War II. Le Dernier Caravansťrail (2003), by Ariane Mnouchkine and Thť‚tre du Soleil, presents political refugees' stories about their search of asylum. Three Tales (2002), by Steve Reich and Beryl Korot, also explores the ethically difficult and fraught field of cloning and genetic modification. Finally, Patricia Piccinini's installation at the Robert Miller Gallery, Nature's Little Helpers (2004), presents creatures in between robot and animal in close intimacy with human beings, opening the debate around our responsibility toward the potential (living) outcomes of genetic experiments.
Grehan states that seeing Castellucciís work gave her the idea for the book. Certainly, Socžetas Raffaello Sanzio's theatrical conventions are difficult to grasp at first sight, due to their denial of language's ability to explain the nature of brutality and horror. As Socžetas Raffaello Sanzio does not work with a text, spectators do not have words to untangle possible meanings. Moreover, they need to make coherent the universe of images, sounds and noises that is presented to them without narrative's help. The construction employed by Castellucci challenges traditional spectatorship expectations about theatre. Hence the audience is pushed to understand. However, that is not the case concerning the rest of the performances she chose, which present both a specific narrative (except for Piccinni's installation), as charged of contradictory meanings as they may be, and theatrical conventions with which spectators may be more familiar. That is why Grehan's choice of these performances elicit the need to reflect upon their arbitrariness and why she draws the conclusion that all unsettle "spectators." Perhaps a little less ambiguity in explaining the process by which her experiences as "a spectator" become assumptions about "spectatorship" and "audiences" in her writing would make her argument stronger. Especially because she acknowledges the risks of theorizing upon collective audiences: "Gleaning a collective response to a work is almost impossible" (5). It is fair to note, however, that the lack of spectatorship theory complicates her argumentation, for she is building upon a slippery terrain.
Moreover, a great part of theatre in Western traditions, especially since the twentieth century, has meant to confront spectators with questions rather than answers. Could her analysis apply to all of it? The fact that each chapter focuses on one performance does not help to answer the question, as it leaves the reader with the impression that another three chapters or two less would not make a great difference in the final result. Nonetheless she faces a major challenge: how can we speak about audience reception avoiding quantitative research which has already proved to be an incomplete method? This book is meant to open the field to new theoretical and methodological approaches to this question, which makes it necessary as a starting point.
Finally, Grehan opens a space to reflect around some topics that are secondary in the book but nevertheless important issues of performance phenomena: limits of representation when it comes to massive extermination, violence and unspeakable suffering; the potential of spectator's cultural context to influence reception of meaning; and risk of documentary theatre to make believe it presents the depicted events instead of a version of them. All those interested in thinking about the power of performance to change the audiences will find Grehan's book appealing.
— Andreea S. Micu, Texas A & M University
Performance, Ethics and Spectatorship in a Global Age. by Helena Grehan.
[New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 | 208 pp. | $85.00 (c)]