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What Is Postmodern Theatre?

Debra Barnhart
Debra Barnhart

Postmodern theatre, like other postmodern art forms, discards many of the ideas of modernism. Theories of modern theatre propose that access to universal truths can be achieved through artistic representation of life. Postmodern theatre, however, rejects the notion of make-believe and instead sees theatrical performance as a real life event or happening in which the audience participates. Devices like standard plots and character development are minimized. This type of theatre embraces human experience in various forms and takes its inspiration from history, culture, and social issues. David Hare’s Stuff Happens is a good example of these ideas.

To some degree, modern theatre is based on concepts developed by Aristotle, who proposed that drama could reveal universal truths. Theories about modern theatre suggest that access to universal truths can be achieved through formal devices like plot, cause and effect, and character development. In postmodern theatre, however, there are many possible truths, depending on the point of view. Playwrights, actors and audience members all lend their perspectives to the creative process.

To a certain degree, modern theater is based on concepts developed by Aristotle, who believed drama could reveal universal truths.
To a certain degree, modern theater is based on concepts developed by Aristotle, who believed drama could reveal universal truths.

Postmodern theatre forces the audience to reevaluate the boundaries between art and reality, and it discards the idea of theatre as a representation of life. Plays are intended to be events, as much a part of life, as any other event. The outcome of a play might change from performance to performance. For those who are accustomed to the neat development of plots and characters in drama, this can be an unsettling experience.

An audience is something that performers act upon according to theories of modern theatre. In postmodern theatre the audience members are participants, often with actors and audience interacting and creating the theatre experience together. In addition, postmodern theatre theory recognizes that every individual experiences theatre through the filter of his or her own unique feelings and life experiences, so arrival at a single universal truth is pretty difficult.

Postmodern theatre embraces ideas from culture, society and history. David Hare’s Stuff Happens, which is about the war in Iraq, illustrates these principals. Stuff Happens premiered in 1 September 2004 at the National Theatre in London. The play, which Hare calls a history play, is a documentary-like production with the main characters being George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, among others. While much of the play is based on Hare’s imagination, he also uses some real media comments and speeches as part of the dialogue for the play.

Discussion Comments


@hamje32 - The thing I wonder about is whether postmodern theater will ever extend beyond the stage to the movie screen.

I realize that with the current technology it's not possible. Movies are film reels, with fixed lengths and predefined scenes. You can’t interact with them.

But what if something like interactive movie theaters come along which allow the audience to choose different outcomes and create a different movie? Digital technology would make it possible.

Actually it reminds me of an arcade game I saw back in the 1980’s that did just that, allowing you to change the outcome of the game. I think it would be kind of neat personally.


@Charred - I don’t think it’s bad. It brings a sense of wonder, I believe, to the theatrical experience.

No two plays are the same. It kind of makes you think. It’s like life. You come to a fork in the road. One road takes you one direction; the other road takes you another way.

Perhaps one of those roads is the “road less taken.” You look back on your life – what if you had taken another road? To me, postmodern theater makes you think that way; it forces you to reflect on the effects of your decisions as they lead to different outcomes.


@everetra - It sounds interesting, but it’s not my cup of tea. I dislike any kind of postmodernism, whether it’s expressed in theater or music or what have you.

The reason is that I like order. To me order and art go together. Postmodernism smacks of nihilism; it seems to suggest that life has no inherent meaning, or at best is an embrace of relativism, where people create their own realities. That doesn’t sit well with me.


I have to admit that I have never seen a post modern theater production, although it sounds intriguing. Immediately I envision a bare stage with a single actor delivering an extended monologue, with occasional asides to his audience who shout and give directions.

I don’t know if that’s how it works but that’s the image that I see in my mind. I imagine that while the postmodern theater production might be unsettling to an audience used to neat and tidy plots, like the article says, it would be just as unsettling for the actor.

You would have to be skilled in the art of improvisation, and you don’t know in advance what the audience will do. What if they take you in a really weird direction? I suppose you’d have to be really laid back and just go with it.

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    • To a certain degree, modern theater is based on concepts developed by Aristotle, who believed drama could reveal universal truths.
      By: Panos
      To a certain degree, modern theater is based on concepts developed by Aristotle, who believed drama could reveal universal truths.