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Avant-Garde Theater in the West ?

John Rottenburg

One of the most reoccurring questions that I face when I work in small venue theater productions or in class teaching theater, is can an avant-garde theater still exist today? First, before I will offer an answer that question, I must examine what avant-garde really means and perhaps once we understand its meaning then can determine whether an avant-guade theater can still exist today.

Obviously, the term avant-garde is of French origin, but to reduce it only to a French context would be doing a disservice to both its meaning and perhaps theater as a whole. The avant-garde movement held prominence in the modern period, a period that could be loosely described as the late 20th century. Furthermore, the term, Avant-garde is a military metaphor, which literally means, advance-guard. It can be interpreted in a revolutionary sense too, that is against an overpowering state. More specifically, the avant-garde movement consisted of a small amount of artist in its embryonic state, and most often represented themselves as being alienated from the established order because they challenged the norms and values held by that established order then.

But who represent the established order for our generation and what norms and values do they hold to? Furthermore, are there theater groups in our community that exist today that challenge the norms and values held by that established order? First, the established order can easily be defined as those in power, or even those who agree with that established power. Also, the issues promoted by that power is vitally important to an avant-garde movement, whether those issues are promoted by the government of the day, the bureaucracy or even the people, including theater artists or all artists for that matter. I believe one way to determine who represents the established order is first to understand current norms and values, and in understanding these ideas we can narrow these ideas down to those that are expressed by the positions citizens hold on current issues. So, current issues will help us to determine whether the artiest is avant-garde or just reinforcing the established order.

What are the current controversial issues of our times that the established order has taken up to defend? Some of the issues that the established order has taken up are: abortion, euthanasia, affirmative action (Supra-rights) for homosexuals, and even feminist rights. All these issues, believe it or not, are exposed by the established order of the day. Our government, bureaucracy and even artists have reinforced these issues as being central to our society's well being. I would like to clarify that in no way am I against trying to demean any one of the above individuals mentioned. All of the above people mentioned deserved to be treated equal as any other human being, and that is my platform, equality for all, and not supra-rights for certain individuals at the cost of others.

If we enter the doors of our local theaters, do the artist attempt to affirm these issues that are exposed by the established order or do they confront us to question in a fundamental way why we are supporting these issues of the established order? For example, our government has promoted abortion in a limited way since 1968 and its outright support of the Chantel Daigle Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 1989 has led me to believe that the established order (in Canada) does not want any limits on abortion. As artists, are we helping to establish this view? If so, we are not definitely avant-garde. My approach to the issue of abortion also applies to the other issues mentioned above too. I take my example from the abortion debate because I have written extensively on this controversial issue in my last three plays, and to date I know of no other theater group or playwright who has attempted to question the established order on the issue of abortion.

However, there is one established artist that has confronted the main stream on this issue. Leonard Cohen's latest album, The Future has a song on it that can be considered avant-garde. Cohen, in the 1960's established himself as an avant-garde artist. He wrote poetry and songs that questioned the established norms and values of his day, even though these songs today are a representation of the views held by the establishment today, namely the baby-boomers. However, with his new album, Cohen has decided to remain faithful to his avant-garde ideals. This can be seen in the title track of the album, The Future. Part of the song follows as:

Cohen has publically come out against abortion finally, and for him to do this is going to put his reputation in jeopardy no doubt. One only has to remember Bob Dylan's Slow Train and Saved albums to come to that conclusion. When Dylan converted to Christianity, his public reputation was called into question, and under (media) pressure, Dylan eventually made an exit stage left departure from Christianity. But for Cohen's part, will he remain faithful to his avant-garde decision? We don't know yet. It is too early to tell. But what we do know is that either the album will get ignored or that his reputation is going to take a hit.