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The dramaturgy of law. Legal structures and performance strategies in contemporary performance

Boekbijdrage - Hoofdstuk

Legal historian Louis Gernet once said, about the theatrical practice in ancient Athens, that tragedy represents the development of legal and political discourse. Tragedy is law and legal language in-the-making. In modern times, theatre doesn’t have this function anymore, although theatricality – as a specific form of representation – continues to determine legal (and political) processes. And from the opposite point of view, contemporary performance practices are still seduced by the strict formalities of certain processes of legal (and political) decision-making.
In my paper, I want to reflect upon a corpus of performances – theatre plays, but also films, such as Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder of Raymond Depardon’s Sixième Chambre – in which the law, as a subject and as a dramaturgical structure, is explicitly dealt with. Belgian theatre directors Jos Verbist and Raven Ruëll created Tribuna(a)l, based upon a long observation of penal procedures. Their performance imitated a legal court, both in the set design and in the use of time, and made particularly clear how (legal) formality exercises power over factual lives. Performance artists Roger Bernat and Yann Duyvendak used the anecdote of Polonius’ murder by Hamlet, in Shakespeare’s play, to organize a fictive ‘process’ of Hamlet, by legal professionals, but in front of a theatre audience. Here too, the legal form should sharpen the issues, the conflicts between the characters.
I will focus also on a remarkable analogy between the theatre and the performance of the law: their ‘liveness’. As performance theorist Philip Auslander has said, theatre’s ideology as an art form depends much upon its unique physicality, its claim for ‘authentic’ presence: the unmediated human body. This code of (non-)representation also exists within the legal discourse and within legal practice: mediation by audiovisual devices (like video witnessing) has been anathema in the courtroom for a long time. In my contribution I want to compare the ‘fear of mediation’ in both theatrical and legal discourse, in order to assess their dealings, both discourses, with power as a political fact.
The general hypothesis - not yet a conclusion - could be formulated as follows: the analogy between theatrical performance and legal performance suggests a dependence of legal (political) power upon aesthetic (performative) structures. The reverse side of this hypothesis could be: the aesthetic (performative) effectiveness of theatrical performance depends upon its analogy/conformity with structures in the legal discourse. The priority of either hypothesis cannot be affirmed in this stage of my research.
Boek: Théâtre: esthétique et pouvoir. Tome 2: XXe et XXIe siècles
Series: Entr'acte. Études de théâtre et performance
Pagina's: 363-382
Jaar van publicatie:2016
Trefwoorden:theatre studies, dramaturgy, legal theory, Otto Preminger, Raymond Depardon, Emily Mann, Raven Ruëll, Richard Norton-Taylor, Roger Bernat
  • ORCID: /0000-0003-4492-1509/work/71202201