Definitions in art tend to be the province of critics, lumping a variety of styles together because they happen to occur at the same time. (In the theatre, think of Martin Esslin defining Theatre of the Absurd by grouping Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter who, in my opinion, occupy very different niches.) So it is with Postmodernism, a description applied rather vaguely to art and architecture. Thus before I try to apply the term to theatre, I need to attempt a definition here, just so that you know what I’m talking about.
Part of Postmodernism is deconstruction: exposing elements of an artwork to acknowledge that it is art, and therefore an artificial construction. It is art that talks about itself. In theatre, this would be anything the breaks the audience’s suspension of disbelief and reminds them that they are sitting in a theatre watching a show. If you are being extreme about this, you could argue that anything that breaks the fourth wall (the invisible barrier between auditorium and stage) and has members of a cast interacting directly with the audience is postmodern, but then you would have to include many theatrical presentations, including pretty much every panto (see Who Talks Back). No, to be Postmodern, you have to go further in exposing the mechanics of the production to the audience – for example by bringing on the stage crew or director.
Having written it in that way, I realise that I have indulged in occasional Postmodern elements myself. In Robin Hood and the Singing Nun there is a scene set in Sherwood Forest created by a backdrop with a couple of cut-out trees. The next scene opens in the same set but another part of the forest, with Will Scarlet complaining that they all look the same. Robin assures him that the trees are further apart. When Will says “They look the same to me”, two crew members come on and move the cut-out trees by a few inches.
That broke the flow. It reminded the audience that they were looking at plywood and paint, rather than a real forest. They knew that already, of course, but they’d pushed it to the back of their minds in order to believe in character and plot.
So why do it? Well, in that case, it’s a visual joke. It gets a laugh (and, occasionally, a round of applause) and the pace of the show ensures that the audience are quickly back into the swing. On the other hand, we have rejected scripts that call for the director to come on stage to argue with the cast. The reason for the rejection is that the elements of Postmodernism served no purpose in the script. It may have been funny to the writer to expose the mechanics and tensions of a production, but (in the opinion of our reviewer) rather than being funny for the audience, it would have been pointlessly disruptive.
So how far you go with Postmodernism on the stage depends on what you are trying to do with it. It has to serve a purpose. James Barry has a Postmodern touch in his comedy Sherlock’s Excellent Adventure. Following Conan Doyle, the adventure is told from the perspective of Dr Watson. At one point, he deliberately uses narration to change the direction of the plot, only to have the narrator role snatched from him by Moriarty. In the context, this works: it is comical, it stays within the boundaries of the format and it moves the plot along.
Luke Reilly has taken this much further in his adaptation of Hansel and Gretel, in which the whole point of the structure is to look at the relationship between writing, audience and stage. This will not be to the taste of anyone looking for conventional pantomime, but it does what it intends to do in exploring those boundaries. After some discussion about how we should bill such a work, it eventually became A Postmodern Pantomime.