Zoë Ghyselinck

Anchoring Poetics of Reform: Creative Mass Experiences in Early 20th-Century German and French Theatre

Home > Projects > Anchoring Poetics of Reform: Creative Mass Experiences in Early 20th-Century German and French Theatre
Anchoring Poetics of Reform: Creative Mass Experiences in Early 20th-Century German and French Theatre

In this research project I investigate the ways in which innovative movements in early 20th century German(-language) and French theatre anchored practices of, and thinking on, mass performances in ancient Greek drama.

Anchoring Poetics of Reform

Between 1900 and 1950 German and French innovatory dramatists, such as Oskar Kokoschka, Walter Hasenclever, Jean Cocteau and Jean Anouilh, dealt with the socio-historical emergence of masses by adapting ancient drama and mystery cults within contemporary theatre. In their plays they experimented with the performance of ritualized mass experiences on stage and in the audience. In personal accounts and theoretical documents, they reflected on socio-psychological and spatial effects that masses (could) have on the form of theatre. Both through performances and in theoretical discourse these playwrights explicitly anchored their innovative thinking on mass experiences in theatre to their views of the social conditions and spatial arrangements which constituted ancient drama and religious practices.

Whereas masses are commonly depicted as 'irrational' and 'destructive' phenomena, overwhelming the 'creativity' of the 'rational' individual, recent sociological and psychological insights into crowd behaviour have demonstrated that participation in masses does not necessarily lead to devastation, but is clearly structured and controlled in space and time and discloses individual responsibility. Recent scholarship in Theatre Studies and Classical Reception Studies, however, has persisted in portraying early 20th-century mass representations in terms of violence and mobilization in ideological movements. By combining Theatre Studies and Classical Reception Studies with recent socio-psychological methods in Crowd Theory, my study will demonstrate that Expressionist and French Interwar theatre rethought masses as complementary to and even constitutive of the individual’s experience in theatre both on stage and in the audience in the light of the ritual origins and social conditions of ancient drama in the Greek polis. By anchoring their experimentation with the masses in ancient drama, which sought to depict the creative individual as being ‘born’ as a responding entity out of the masses, German and French playwrights innovatively interpreted the mass as creative in two ways. In ritual terms, the individual’s incorporation into and formation in the ‘body-mass’ (cf.‘Einverleibung’ and the physical metaphor, elaborated by Elias Canetti in Masse und Macht, 1960) not only led to his rebirth out of the mass, but also to the masses’ creativity and formation in and through the creation of a reborn individual. As such, rethinking the masses in ritual terms evokes the ‘stations’ of transformation, through which the initiates (‘mystai’) were required to pass in ancient mystery cults such as Eleusis and Orphism. Thus, challenging the traditional idealist concept of identity, masses allow an individual’s formation – or in religious terms – ‘initiation’ through destruction and rebirth, thereby also transforming themselves. Next to the inner ‘initiatory’ transition mass experiences process, my project investigates the way in which these playwrights’ ideas on the spatial position, physical transformation and controlling of the ‘body-mass’ within the confines of the stage and the (architectural form of the) theatre building is anchored in ancient Greek drama’s spatial, acoustic and visual conditions during (ritualized) theatre festivals.