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Narrativiteit en theatraliteit in het Nederlandstalige theaterwerk van Paul Pourveur

Research title  

Text theatricality in the Dutch theatre repertoire of Paul Pourveur


Problem statement

The theatrical repertoire of Paul Pourveur turns out to be resistant to an evident staging. Our hypothesis is that this is due to the specific text theatricality that largely overpowers the dramatic theatricality of his work.  In this study we want to find out which specific elements or strategies constitute this text theatricality.



On the one hand we will approach the corpus from a narratological point of view, on the other hand  on the basis of rhetorics. We don’t focus on performance analysis but on an analytical reading of the theatre texts as such, in order to make their intrinsic performative qualities visible.


Eight plays by Paul Pourveur will be exhaustively analysed. The others will be treated as (counter)illustrations or variations.


More extended explanation

1. Introduction

Paul Pourveur (°Antwerp, 1952) is a bilingual playwright, whose plays are commissioned by both Dutch and French speaking theatre directors. In both language groups his work has been awarded. Pourveur doesn’t subscribe to a specific theatre writing tradition. Writing texts that can be readily  and easily performed, is not his main objective. Nevertheless he wants his texts to respect the theatrical dispositive, read:  communicate with the audience, and have a certain topicality.

The texts of Pourveur can be labelled as thoroughly postmodern, highly developed language games in which late capitalistic, globalised and sexually preoccupied human beings try to glue their fragmented existence hypothetically and experimentally together with a variety of discourses.

In most of Pourveur’s plays the poetical and rhetorical qualities are foregrounded, even to that extent that - with a concept of Erwin Jans - one could talk of a language excess. The complex link between this excess and the implicit theatricality of his work will be the object of this doctoral study.


2. Text theatricality 

A theoretical reference for our work is Der nicht mehr dramatische Theatertext by Gerda Poschmann. Poschmann points out that theatre texts carry within themselves the tension between the literary aspect (the text as such) and the performative aspect (the staging). Theatre texts, by  assembling theatre signs, feature theatricality.  In many ‘theatre texts that are no longer dramatic’ this theatricality is auto-reflective, analytical and focused on language. This text theatricality, Poschmann states, cannot only be understood within the borders of fiction, by interpreting what goes on within the internal communication system on stage, but also needs the external communication system, in the latitude between stage and spectators. The minimal theatricality needed in theatre texts is that it takes into account the spectator’s perspective or, as H.T. Lehmann puts it, the dialogue between stage and public. The spectator needs to choose up a position in the cognitive space the performance creates. He is invited to activate his imagination and participate in the critical-analytical discussion about the mechanisms and presuppositions of the theatre itself and the world in which theatre wants to play its role.


3. Narrative theatre 

Since the prerequisite of representation is no longer at stake in current performance practice the genre notion ‘drama’ has become vague and problematic.

This is a fortiori true in Pourveur’s work. His texts cannot be read as mediated stories of a series of events (the structuralistic paradigm). Pourveur’s main assumption is the crisis of representation. Since Heisenberg and Bohr launched the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, the deterministic and causality based paradigm of Aristotle’s drama should be radically overthrown and banned, Pourveur states. How can we pretend to represent reality if we accept that reality is only a product of our perception and that we change reality by perceiving it? 

Therefore  Pourveur doesn’t pursue the illusion of authenticity or l’effet du réel. Pourveur deliberately inserts elements that disturb the verisimilitude and stress the artificiality of the play, and in doing so draws attention to the narrative and discursive mode of the text. Principles of causality between past and present are disturbed by elements of paradox or contradiction. Instead of acting and causing a chain of events, Pourveur’s characters tell; they present themselves through intricate narratives of virtual or hypothetical nature. The epistemological question (what can be known and said about reality?) is interwoven with the ontological question (does reality as such exist? How can it survive multiperspectivism and virtuality?) Often Pourveur presents the same scenario with small (sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory) variations and invites the reader to make up his own version. Often also the presence of a mediating voice  (a teller, reflector, viewer) outside the characters can be detected.  The strategy of narration itself is object of reflection and experiment. The focus is on mental and cognitive processes.   


4. Cognitive narratology

In ‘Towards a natural narratology’ Monika Fludernik  points out that narrativity is the product of a reading experience, rather than an inherent characteristic of a text. A reader can ‘narrativise’ a text without plot, based on post factum evaluations, on emotionally based memories or natural stories of an anthropomorphic authority. Neither does a text need to be mimetic (creating the illusion of authenticity or veracity) in order to be called narrative.

Narrativity implies that the reader creates generic, cognitive frames. These frames can relate to the oral tradition, to the literary world of intertextuality but also to the world of science.

Just as narrativity, also theatricality can be seen as a potential capacity of a text that is only fully realised by the reader. Mimesis is not a necessary condition for narrativity, neither is drama  (the dramatic genre aspect of a text) a prerequisite for theatricality. But what is, then? Our hypothesis is that in Pourveurs’ work (in which mimesis and drama are put aside) a specific use of narrativity generates its theatricality.

For example in Congo (1989)  the idea that man is stuck between science and myth generates a dramaturgic model in which a kind of epic story is countered by a kind of scientific essay.  In Shakespeare is dead, get over it (2003) and Bagdad Blues (2005) Pourveur investigates whether database reality can be taken as a starting point for a play. The narrative and editing techniques Pourveur uses here, seem to be borrowed from cyberage narratology. If we put all these elements together, cognitive narratology (as we get to know it in the work of Fludernik and Ryan, but also of Alber rand Richardson, who specifically focus on anti-mimetic and non-mimetic narratives) is likely to prove an interesting approach in our study. 


5.  Approach through rhetorical narratology

Gerda Poschmann states that in a ‘theatre text that is no longer dramatic’ the statute of text and characters changes. Characters become ‘Textträger’.

In Pourveur’s work characters often have no names; they are merely determined as ‘he’ or ‘she’ and seem to represent different world views, different life experiments, different possibilities of man-and womanhood. They are hardly characterised through attributes, through actions or  dialects.  As we said before, authenticity doesn’t seem to be Pourveur’s ambition. The conflict (if any) is created by the characters’ argumentation. They all have a strong rhetoric competence, with which they constitute their life stories, thereby using narratological, often literary, frames. It is also striking that tropes as metonymy and metaphor are being used both on the micro and the macrolevel of the text (eg. the title) and offer keys for interpretation.

On the other hand characters in Pourveur’s work move constantly between different storyworlds and between fiction and objective reality, thereby foregrounding the technique of metalepsis. Breaking through the boundaries  between the diegetic levels , between fiction and reality, occurs in Pourveur’s work on rhetorical and ontological plane and therefore not only has poetic but also philosophical implications. A thorough investigation of the narrative and rhetoric technique of metalepsis therefore might help us to approach the core of Pourveur’s dramatic and analytic theatricality.





Date:1 Oct 2014  →  1 Oct 2018
Keywords:theatre, narrativity, text theatricality
Project type:PhD project