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Thinking Through Tragedy and Comedy A Symposium on Performance Philosophy and the Future of Genre

Rachel Fensham


In my 2009 essay ‘on watching tragedy’, I proposed a model for thinking about the generic significance of tragedy as performance. This model comprised four dramaturgical propositions that, in my view, contribute to shaping and informing the reception of late twentieth century theatre production of tragedy. In performance, the corporeal work of the actors builds upon these concepts which are designed to elicit powerful psychological and sociological affects in the spectators, or the audience. Given my emphasis on embodiment, these thoughts were also elaborated to reflect upon the contribution of gender to the genre structuration of tragedy as well as to account for the complex dialectics of symbolic and physical figurative meanings that arise during performance.

For this paper, I want to re-present some of this argument, in part to refine the model, but also to continue thinking about how tragic representations might be inflected by discourses and embodiments of both race and gender. In particular, I propose to look at the role of the Chorus in re-imagining the nomos of Tragedy in contemporary performance through discussion of a production called Black Medea. I will propose that tragedy, like other genres of theatre, is culturally situated, and, as Carrie Preston suggests ‘genres have histories, pedagogical uses, and assumptions about subjectivity’ (2011: 18). Tragedy, in particular, with its very intense constraints upon action, and its representation of suffering bodies, can never thus be neutral about whose sympathies are being evoked and to what ends.

Currently Head of School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, my own research focuses on the performance and cultural histories of corporeality. Recent research projects include collaborative work on costumes, movement analysis and digital archive technologies while current publications include the monograph, To Watch Theatre (2009) and Dancing Naturally (co-edited with Alexandra Carter, 2011). I am also co-editor with Peter M. Boenisch of a new Palgrave book series, New World Choreographies.