Documentary Theater & the Avant-Garde


A review of The Destiny of Words: Documentary Theatre, the Avant-Garde, and the Politics of Form, by Timothy Youker. 

There is a critical tendency to narrowly associate documentary theatre history with a commitment to a leftist program of political change or to divide it into numerous categories, including ethnodrama and verbatim theater, as a way to reckon with the sheer diversity of its many aims and forms. In turn, the reception of documentary works can be hindered by a binary approach that often measures representative efficacy at the expense of closely evaluating the surprising and nuanced functions of poetic or aesthetic interventions, beyond assuming that such devices can only detract from a “faithful” rendering of historical events or others. Youker’s dissertation writes into this terrain by offering an alternative genealogy for documentary theatre, unhinging it from predominant connotations as a solely “realist” and monolithic political practice by attending to its intertwined roots with the European Avant-Garde. He expands upon recent assessments of documentary theatre by scholars Alison Forsyte, Chris Megson, Janelle Reinelt, and Carol Martin. His attention to what he calls documentary theatre’s “ethics of form,” in sets of early twentieth-century European and late twentieth-century South African and U.S. case studies he hopes, will delineate a broader context for documentary theatre that paves a way for reevaluating the expanded strategies and representational methods it may employ (p. 2).

Youker begins by briefly tracing mid-nineteenth century shifts in attitude toward the status of the document, history, and truth alongside theatrical responses and the following century’s lively integration of the document that even coincided with a subsequent 1920s updating in the Oxford English Dictionary of the very definition of  “documentary.” After succinctly offering a set of expansive definitions of “document,” “documentary,” “avant-garde,” and “documentary theatre,” Youker constructs a theatre that does not exclude performative or poetic strategies, but rather promises to closely engage the myriad tactics of creatively integrating documents in order to highlight the documents dual condition as an object of “the dialectical tension between the objective and the subjective, between [its] purported status as unprocessed representations of something specific, concrete, and other and [its] status as materials manipulated by artists to evoke themes, atmospheres, and general claims” (p. 21). Youker’s method traces the sociocultural antecedents, idiosyncratic political investments, and avant-garde inspired aesthetic choices within and among his case studies allowing him to reevaluate its tremendous diversity and the necessity to more closely query the theatrical forms that establish, upset, and re-draw the lines between so-called facts and fictions.

The first chapter focuses on Karl Kraus (1894-1936), Viennese critic of modern journalism, sometime performer of lectures, and author of the collage drama The Last Days of Mankind (1922). Kraus is an apt starting point for Youker because his theatrical work has received little critical attention and he challenges the usual connections between documentary theatre and leftist agitation. Through his analysis, Youker complicates performance studies’ predominant anti-textuality in lieu of a lived experience that can only exceed or exist apart from the written. Instead of reinstating this oppositional critical stance, he offers a dialectical analysis of what he calls Kraus’s “cannibalistic” spoken uses of quoted text (drawing upon Walter Benjamin) as acts of resistance to what Kraus saw as mass media’s disembodied knowledge production (p. 23). For Youker, Kraus “highlights how documentary theatre extracts new meanings from found documents by treating the reading, writing, and speaking body as a matrix that “digests” language rather than as a transparent medium of transmission” (p. 23). Even though Kraus’s direct influence on subsequent documentary performance works cannot be fully substantiated, it is here that Youker establishes the key framing question central to his unsettling of documentary history: how and in what ways does a document’s significance arise from a combination of the information it carries, how it was made, its formal features, and how it becomes restored or referred to within the performative context? While Kraus affords an idiosyncratic originary example, this question guides Youker’s attention to the unique ways that documentary artists negotiate – through medium, performance, and reception – the modes of engagement with, and transmission of documentary materials.

In Chapter 2, Youker turns to a re-evaluation of a figure whose works are more typically associated with the origins of documentary theatre: Erwin Piscator’s In Spite of Everything! (1925) and Rasputin, the Romanovs, the War, and the People that Rose against Them (1927). He begins by deepening conventional critical readings that cite Piscator’s integration of filmic documents as his primary theatrical intervention. Through close readings of Piscator’s socio-historical context and the ways he was influenced by concurrent aesthetic movements such as Dada and Constructivism, Youker demonstrates a variety of uses of the document, interplays between the fictional and the nonfictional, and the shifting “tethers” across Piscator’s theatrical work between film and performance, the live and the mediated (p. 101). For Youker, Piscator’s “combinations of documentary film and live actors constituted an attempt at synthesizing a materialist historical philosophy with a post-Expressionist theatre of affectively-charged utterance.” (p. 24). His analysis of Piscator, deliberately paired with close comparisons to Kraus’s distinct use of documents and political aims, establishes a widened and non-unified field for the possibilities of documentary forms, thus setting up the parameters for his shift to two late twentieth-century innovators of the form.

After briefly setting up some general historical parallels between 1920s Europe and the 1990s, both periods marked by a resurgence of documentary theatre, Youker turns to two case studies that allow him to explore the formal tensions between Kraus’s cannibalistic quoting as a way to didactically alleviate anxieties over new media and Piscator’s exploiting of new media forms to illustrate his political theories (p. 73). Akin to Kraus, Jane Taylor and Handspring Puppet Theatre’s Ubu and the Truth Commission (1996) and Ping Chong’s East/West Quartet (1993-2000) offer atypical examples of the form because they are more literary, stylistic, and politically playful than some of the more commonly cited pieces of 1990s documentary like Anna Deavere Smith or Emily Mann. Both Taylor and Chong respectively engage the status of personal memory within national and transnational contexts and through them Youker delves into documentary form’s uses of puppetry, acting strategies, challenges to authorship, and provocative mingling of humor with the serious issues of large scale violence. In contrast to Kraus and Piscator, Youker notes a rising ambivalence in these more contemporary works toward historical authority and the project of “giving voice” to others, alongside an increased attention to the power dynamics involved in the theatrical mediation of documentary materials.

In the penultimate chapter, this ambivalence, a signature of postmodernism, makes Youker ask, “Can documentary theatre, as I have described it so far, coexist with a ‘postmodern’ understanding of the subject and the social sphere as fragmentary, de-centered, and immanently revisable products of discourse?” (pp. 179-180). Charles Mee’s work allows Youker to put pressure on his own expanded re-categorization of documentary form. Mee, a one-time academic historian and theatre maker, offers a rich body of work to examine historiography (which Youker contextualizes alongside Fernand Braudel and Hayden White), crossings of the avant-garde and documentary through his textual collages, and the changing ethics of representation. Ultimately, for Youker, the documentary form proves capacious enough to hold a project like Mee’s that radically “embrace[s]…epistemological uncertainty” because while the plays challenge conventions of plot, character and collapse the “root” and “surface” dichotomy at the heart of earlier documentary forms, they retain what Youker deems the “founding assumptions” of all documentary theatre – a didactic pedagogy that aims to train spectators to read culture in particular – if distinct – ways (pp. 186; 223).

In conclusion Youker returns to the pervasive, if rarely attainable, “utopian social aspirations” shared by the avant-garde and documentary theatre. While any given spectator may resist or compartmentalize her reception of explicitly didactic works that seek to retrain ways of seeing, making, and engaging with cultural materials, Youker insists that this pedagogical function is crucial to the contemporary vitality of the documentary form, even, and especially in its most so-called experimental or postmodern modes. He writes that documentary theatre “will retain some imprint of its avant-garde history in its capacity to make us look again at the seeming given-ness of the world as it is represented to us by dominant culture and mass media” (p. 227).

The Destiny of Words will prove indispensable to scholars and students of theatre, performance studies, and documentary theater in its implicit challenge to common critical channels that have stymied the closer and rich dialectical analyses that Youker models in these pages. By attending to works that often reside uncomfortably outside of the conventional categories of documentary, Youker enlivens such under-appreciated works with a fresh critical eye as he offers a way of attending to the rich diversity of formal relations and political possibilities held within his widened category of a documentary practice that can be as artistically inventive as it is efficacious.

Jennifer Cayer
Senior Lecturer
New York University

Primary Sources

Kraus, Karl. The Last Days of Mankind. 2 vols. Munich: Deutsche Taschenbuch Verlag, 1964.
Piscator, Erwin. The Political Theater: A History, trans. Hugh Rorrison. New York: Avon Books, 1978.
Taylor, Jane. Ubu and the Truth Commission. Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press, 1998.
Chong, Ping. East/West Quartet. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2004.
Mee, Charles L. The War to End War. The (Re)Making Project,

Dissertation Information

Columbia University, New York. 2012. 256pp. Primary Advisor: Arnold Aronson.

Image: Ubu and the Truth Commission. Handspring Productions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like