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  • nathanjohnpaul

The Utopian Performative: A Response To Zeitgeist

Updated: Apr 21, 2022

Jill Dolan, Janelle Reinelt, Leslie Damasceno, and many others believe that live performance creates a space through which a room full of strangers can together recognize the parts of our collective world that should be functioning in a better way.

Postmodernity has created deconstructionists out of so many, elevating our collective consciousness to a state by which we continually witness the gaps, inconsistencies, and obscenities that currently plague our systems of government and society; which are, therefor, continually increasing a cognizance of the roots and effects of social conflicts and wars, tyrannical governing, and the all-too-many phobias that cause us to live in a constant state of ‘othering’ (viewing and treating a person or a group of people as intrinsically different from and alien to oneself). Much progression has been the result of our post-modern approach towards analyzing structures with regards to social awareness and by proving the validity of hearing every voice. This writing, however, is intended to address the repercussions of prolonged deconstructionism . My concern is that we have stared at the painting of our era too long, become all too familiar with flaws in the brushstrokes and forgotten that providing a creative solution is the call of every artist. We’ve over-fed the insatiable appetite of a post-modern zeitgeist, and defecation has filled the streets of artistic expression. As a result, dualism has increased, enhancing 'us versus them' modes of thought, and disunifying devices are now the primary tools used when creating original pieces of theatre and film. Our current state of affairs is a need of a hope-for-a-better-way; an expression of living which isn't signified by familial, societal and intercultural division and dysfunction without attempting to provide a solution. My hope is that creative artists will find the ‘utopian performative’ useful in answering a call to create better. Our zeitgeist has overstayed his welcome.

Dragan Klaic gives definition to the concepts of utopia, and suggests what 'a better way' might look like, by stating that utopia has "general goals of equity, justice, freedom, and happiness", adding that it is a type of "communal environment - in an atmosphere of solidarity and cooperation rather than in the existing society, which was [and is] divided according to property lines and privileges and was [and is] dominated by competition and conflict." Although many would agree that utopia reaches towards the ideal of perfection, and is ultimately unattainable, it is a responsibility of creatives to point towards these better possibilities, generating the potential for an audience to experience and connect, be it momentarily, with the hope of better possibilities. Jill Dolan further defines the utopian performative as a moment of performance which beckons "the attention of the audience in a way that lifts everyone slightly above the present, into a hopeful feeling of what the world might be like if every moment of our lives were as emotionally voluminous, generous, aesthetically striking and intersubjectively intense". It is a brief experience in which we momentarily buy into 'what should be' and perhaps, to some degree, 'what could be'. Leslie Damasceno refers to this as an "as if" instance that can be generated on stage.

The nature of said experience is akin to a social redemption, whereby oneness triumphs over estrangement and notions of communitas defeat the effects of isolation. The concept of utopia threatens the realities of dualistic thinking, where the 'us versus them', 'me versus you', 'north versus south', ‘older versus younger' types of mentalities - the subterranean root systems which produce trees of inequalities, bondages & bigotries - begin to be challenged. My goal is to discuss Jill Dolan's framework on this subject matter in relation to the work of Frank McGuinness - unfolding the ways in which his writings highlight various types of dualistic and oppositional thinking in order to create a space whereby the audience might potentially begin to hope for something better while witnessing a theatrical performative - visualizing, momentarily, the possibility of outcomes where duality, though ever present, isn't the master architect and whereby ideals of utopia might combat the current state of the world in which we live. I will specifically be referencing a production of Donegal, seen on the Abbey Theatre stage in the fall of 2016, while providing information on how the stories and staging furnished opportunities for the audience to experience the utopian performative, as well as supplying personal information that allowed me to share the experience.

In October of 2016, I had the privilege of seeing a performance of the world premiere 'play with music', Donegal. The opening dialogue between Magdalene and Hugo, an elderly Irish husband and wife, provides the audience with a 'what if' scenario. Magdalene utters thoughts on an alternate reality based on the imaginings of a different evolutionary path, and creates for us the idea of a fictitious world, a betterment for all, if only now-humans hadn't become a paragon of the evolutionary track.

Magdalene "All I was going to say, if pressed to it, we should never, ever as a species have taken the first steps on to land out of the ocean. We should have stayed as fish."

When pressed to expound on her perspective, Magdalene begins providing a series of reasons. Some are cheeky and humorous - that she would have saved a "fortune on cigarettes” - but in a more somber tone, she fantasizes a possibility within an alternate historical path that there "might never have been wars". The syntax used within this statement, "might never have been", gives permission for an audience to begin imagining divergent realities, an initial step on a path leading towards a utopian performative experience.

Magdalene's "what if" scenario helps the audience visualize a water world of fish, providing imagery of a peaceful environment lacking the negative effects of humanity’s dualism, eliminating a cause for war. Her depiction provides opportunity for the audience to embark on an "as if" journey, aligning with Janelle Reinelt's understanding of the utopian performative, in that "Performances...can make concrete the possibility of an alternative, better reality". Magdalene then connects the notion of war to her current familial experience, specifically in regards to her daughter, Irene; a relationship of continual discord - illustrated as Magdalene justifies her family gossips.

Magdalene "Now, now, there's one thing I can blow my own trumpet about - I've never let it rip to her face, it's only behind her back I destroy her. Two-faced perhaps, but perfectly capable of playing the other kind mother [...] Don't you know it's why I've barely spoken to the bad bitch in years".

This dialogue is encased in context, directly following the prologue of the play - a ditty performed by Magdalene's daughter, Irene, in which the word "mother" is mentioned 10 times alongside disconnecting words and phrases such as "grave" (4 times), "leaving", "wandered", "dark night", "sleepless night" and "mourning". Within the first 5 minutes of the production, you have a wordscape of familial disconnection via song alongside the 'if only', utopian ideal of a world which had never faced war (including familial micro-war) or experienced other negative effects caused by the human condition. It is within this authorial formatting that the audience is primed for a utopian performative experience later in the production.

Throughout the script, there are many examples of a discord and disconnection within humanity and specifically the family unit. Several of these examples are seen in the relationships between those who share the surname Day, and those that do not. Twenty minutes into the story, we have a beautifully written moment of toxic disconnection, created out of the dualistic tension between those with a DNA connection, and Liam, who has married into the Day family - husband to Triona.

Liam "Oh slap it into them - slap it into them.”

Silence. Both sisters look at Liam.

Joanne "Slap it into us, yes, Liam?

Irene "Who's going to do the slapping?”

Joanne "Would it be yourself, Liam?”

Irene "Would you raise your hand against us?”

Joanne "Like father, like yourself, then Liam?”

Irene "The way your father broke your mother's jaw.”

Liam “Stop."

Joanne "The way he strapped you, Liam.”

Irene "Strapped you - stripped you - left you naked on the street”

Liam "Make them stop, Triona.”

Joanne "We'll stop - but with this warning.”

Irene "Don't push your luck, Liam.”

Joanne "It might lead you where you don't want to go.”

Irene "Were you talking about making eggs, Joanne?”

Joanne "I was, but I've gone off the idea.”

Irene "Maybe Liam hasn't - ask him.”

Joanne "Would you fancy more eggs, Liam?”

He shakes his head.

Irene "Runny - nice and runny - run - Liam - run, nice and runny.

Liam charges out of the room.

Notable is the lack of response from Triona, Liam's wife, who maintains silence until after Liam removes himself from the situation, illustrating dysfunction and disconnection on multiple fronts between family members. This moment of 'othering' continues to create a desire, from the audience, to hope for something better between these characters. In this way, the script serves as "a way of organizing desire for social justice and a better future through performance(s)", which is another comment, through the perspective of Janelle Reinelt, on the power of the utopian performative.

This type of 'othering' takes place on an intercultural scale as well. From the moment Jackie's American girlfriend, Liza, enters the story, conversations reveal why she is not like the rest of them; reiterating the humanitarian crises of disconnection, ostracization and isolation - crises absent within the ideals of a utopian society - and thus begging the theatrical atmosphere for a utopian performative experience. This notion of dualism and separation culminates towards the end of the production, when Liza suggests to Jackie that it is time to leave the toxic, familial environment in Donegal and return to the United States.

Liza "When do we leave, Jackie?”


"A few days?”

Jackie "You don't get it do you?”

Liza "Get what?”

Jackie "You don't speak the language.”

Liza "I think I do.”

Jackie "In your dreams.”

Liza “Maybe."

Jackie "Then dream on. Leave, you leave.”


"Just leave, I'll stay.”

He walks away turning to his mother.

"Thanks - for the song.”

Jackie leaves.

Irene "We're like the weather in this part of the world. Changeable,

never knowing what's coming next - Donegal. Part of it's charm.

And as for strangers, they're never at home here. It happens a lot.

Being left. Or let go. Do as he warns you. Disappear.

Liza "You won't win him.”

Irene "I'm not trying. There's no contest. He's made his choice. He did

years ago. If you won't know that, you know nothing. And you

do, don't you? Know nothing - "

Within this moment of the production, I engaged with the show on a more personal level. Jill Dolan summarizes Victor Turner's description of communitas as "the moments in a theatre event or a ritual in which audiences or participants feel themselves become part of the whole in an organic, nearly spiritual way; spectators' individuality becomes finely attuned to those around them, and a cohesive if fleeting feeling of belonging to the group bathes the audience.” Although this play was written by an Irishman, about Irish people within an Irish community, the American-outsider character placed me more practically within the story. As an ex-pat experiencing the culture of a country very different from my own, an Irish playwright had invited me to share in communitas, thus generating a personal desire to engage the utopian performative.

The moment of experiencing the dream-like state of the utopian performative experience, of which theatre is capable of providing, was found at the end of the production. Beginning with a fading in light, the company of actors began singing the closing number of the title song, "Donegal". Within this particular number, an alternate wordscape to the opening song, challenging the notions of isolation, death and sadness, is delivered to the audience; including words and phrases such as: "born", "chiming bells", "shelter", "song", "dream", "somewhere near", and "it is my home". These inclusive, connecting and community-based words are accompanied by a staging of the characters that is reminiscent of Turner's definition of communitas, in which a solidarity and a coming-together is shared through experience. Within this final staging, every member of the ensemble stand side by side, downstage and center, and are singing the same tune, regardless of nationality, bloodline or ideological difference. There is, for a moment, no hierarchy, no division and no preference. Each member of the company, including Liza who has within the plot already left for the airport to make her U.S. return, shares a moment together; desiring the same dream. This is the performative, in my opinion, referencing what Dolan refers to as the "no-place". This type of no-place-moment found within live performance is described by Bert States.

“[The] inevitable analogy of theatre and dream: the enacted play is, in Sartre's term, an induced dream, the communal version of the dream journey to 'the other reality', that private exception to the rules of the possible."

During this moment of the production, I glimpsed the 'other reality', within which it is possible (for me personally) to live in a foreign land - an island containing different governing principles, alongside citizens who hold with great respect the differences between those who are native and those who are not - while feeling the same sense of validation and pride that accompanies individuals surrounded by people of sameness, promoting belonging, capable of stating with pride "this is my home". On stage, as well as in the audience, a moment of communitas was both witnessed and felt as characters of difference, plagued by division, stood side by side in order to dream together. This was the preeminent performative moment, when a notion of utopia was painted through staging and song. I’m unable to speak on behalf of the Irish in the audience as to what this represented for them, but our shared tears suggested they were glimpsing something meaningful as well.

If deconstructionism poses questions and concerns, the utopian performative is a way of pointing towards solutions. It is time for artists to reference what-has-been with a goal of pointing towards what-can-be, as opposed to simply vilifying what-is. Our egocentric and fearful natures will always provide opportunity for dysfunctions and abuses of various kinds, and experiencing the effects of living alongside others is the burden of being alive. Creative artists have a mandate to represent and respond to human issues through performance, but we are to treat our postmodern zeitgeist as a tool and not a destination, lest we forget our call to build and reform. Focusing our work towards generating a utopian performative experience is one way to achieve this goal.

For more information on this topic:

  • Damasceno, Leslie. "The Gestural Art of Reclaiming Utopia: Denise Stoklos at Play with the Hysterical-Histpria." Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory, vol. 11, no. 2, 2000, pp. 111-143, doi: 10.1080/07407700008571336.

  • States, Bert O. “Phenomenology of the Curtain Call”. vol. 34, Hudson Review, Inc, New York, N.Y, 1981

  • Reinelt, Janelle. "Utopia in Performance: Finding Hope at the Theater." Theatre Survey, vol. 48, no. 1, 2007, pp. 217.

  • Dolan, Jill. "Utopia in Performance." Theatre Research International, vol. 31, no. 2, 2006, pp. 163.

  • Dolan, Jill. "Performance, Utopia and the Utopian Performative". Theatre Journal, vol. 53, no. 3, 2001, pp. 455-479, doi: 10.1353/tj.2001.0068

  • Ruth Levitas. “Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstitution of Society”. Houndmills, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 288 Pp. Paperback, $32.00, isbn 987-0-230-23197-9." Utopian Studies, vol. 25, no. 1, 2014, pp. 227-230, doi: 10.5325/utopianstudies.25.1.0227.

  • Klaic, Dragan. The Plot of the Future: Utopia and Dystopia in Modern Drama. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1991.

  • McGuinness, Frank. Donegal. Faber and Faber Limited, 2016. Print

  • Sandall, Roger. "Dreams of Communitas." Society, vol. 48, no. 6, 2011, pp. 483-488, doi:10.1007/s12115-011-9482-z.

  • Human, Oliver, and Steven Robins. "FIFA 2010 and the Elusive Spirit of Communitas: A Return to Victor Turner (with some Differences)." Anthropology Southern Africa, vol. 34, no. 1-2, 2011, pp. 38-50, doi:10.1080/23323256.2011.11500007.

  • Tzu, Gary, Brittany Bannerman, and Karim McCallums. "Novices Come Home to Non-Dual being: A Transpersonal, Existential, Phenomenological Analysis." International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, vol. 14, no. 4, 2016, pp. 483-504, doi:10.1007/s11469-015-9600-z

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