"Metatheatre"

"meta-"

marked by change or transformation; later in time or development; behind, beyond; transcending, more comprehensive; above, upon, or about. Fr. Greek meta-, beside, after.


This painting by the American artist Roy Lichtenstein is entitled "Masterpiece." Why might it be called a "meta-painting"?



Or consider this potential meta-joke:

A rabbi, a priest, and an imam go into a bar and order a drink. "What is this," asks the bartender, "a joke?" What's the reference of "this" in the two examples? Is it stable or labile? Or "metastable"?

The effect

"Metatheatre" is a convenient name for the quality or force in a play which challenges theatre's claim to be simply realistic -- to be nothing but a mirror in which we view the actions and sufferings of characters like ourselves, suspending our disbelief in their reality. Metatheatre begins by sharpening our awareness of the unlikeness of life to dramatic art; it may end by making us aware of life's uncanny likeness to art or illusion. By calling attention to the strangeness, artificiality, illusoriness, or arbitrariness -- in short, the theatricality -- of the life we live, it marks those frames and boundaries that conventional dramatic realism would hide. It may present action so alien, improbable, stylized, or absurd that we are forced to acknowledge the estranging frame that encloses a whole play. It may, on the other hand, break the frame of the "fourth wall" of conventional theatre, reaching out to assault the audience or to draw it into the realm of the play. It may -- by devices like plays within plays, self-consciously "theatrical" characters, and commentary on the theatre itself -- dwell on the boundaries between "illusion" or artifice and "reality" within a play, making us speculate on the complex mixture of illusion and reality in our ordinary experience. Any theatrical device can work metatheatrically if we sense in it a certain deliberate reflexiveness, a tendency to refer to itself or to its context in a more general mode: to theatre itself; to art, artifice, and illusion; and perhaps above all to language as such.      --- SD

"M." as genre?

These remarks by Lionel Abel seek to establish "metatheatre" as a dramatic category or kind. In the context, he mentions such plays as Shakespeare's Tempest and Calderón's Life is a Dream and works by Genet, Brecht, and Beckett.

Only certain plays tell us at once that the happenings and characters in them are of the playwright's invention, and that insofar as they were discovered . . . they were found by the playwright's imagining rather than by his observing the world. Such plays have truth in them, not because they convince us of real occurrences or existing persons, but because they show the reality of the dramatic imagination, instanced by the playwright's and also by that of his characters. Of such plays, it may be said: "The play's the thing." Plays of this type, it seems to me, belong to a special genre and deserve a distinctive name . . . .
     Surely the plays I am referring to should not be described as comedies or tragi-comedies. Some of them can, of course, be classified as instances of the play-within-the-play, but this term, also well known, suggests only a device, and not a definite form. Moreover I wish to designate a whole range of plays, some of which do not employ the play-within-a-play, even as a device. [They] have a common character: all of them are theatre pieces about life seen as already theatricalized. By this I mean that the persons appearing on the stage in these plays are there not simply because they were caught by the playwright in dramatic postures as a camera might catch them, but because they themselves knew they were dramatic before the playwright took note of them. What dramatized them originally? Myth, legend, past literature, they themselves. They represent to the playwright the effect of dramatic imagination before he has begun to exercise his own; on the other hand, unlike figures in tragedy, they are aware of their own theatricality. Now, from a certain point of view, only that life which has acknowledged its inherent theatricality can be made interesting on the stage. From the same modern view, events, when interesting, will have the quality of having been thought, rather than of having simply occurred. But then the playwright has the obligation to acknowledge in the very structure of his play that it was his imagination which controlled the event from beginning to end. Plays of the kind I have in mind . . . I call metaplays, works of metatheatre.
     --- Lionel Abel, Tragedy and Metatheatre, ed. Martin Puchner (New York: Holmes and Meier, 2003), 133-35.

"Decadence"? "Postmodernism"?

"Every day in every way, we get meta- and meta-." --attributed to the philosopher John Wisdom.
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