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Oliver Feltham: What is Contemporaneity in Theater?
What is Contemporaneity in Theater?
(p. 45 – 58)

The time of theater and the time of the polis

Oliver Feltham

What is Contemporaneity in Theater?
Atomism versus Atavism

PDF, 14 pages

Feltham’s article addresses the moment of contemporaneity in the realm of the theater, and its ability to produce phenomena that have both a temporal and a political structure. On the basis of a detailed contrast between Dario Fo’s performance La fame dello Zanni and another performance by the Compagnie Carabosse, the article investigates the relation between the act of a performance and its spectators. Theater, the author argues, is able to present corporeal experience as the ground for the contemporaneity of different times, times built on “atavistic temporalities of the commons” as opposed to the pure circulation of goods in the polis.

Theater as a live art has a peculiarly complicated relation to time, and to the present, especially because sometimes it proves to be a mimetic art, and sometimes not. Not only is it a matter of the temporality of the theater itself, and then of the time of the play, and of the performance but it is also – and this since the original Greek dispensation of theater – a question of the time of the city, of the polis, of the community, if such a thing exists. 


The object of this paper is theater as the production of contemporaneity, a temporal phenomenon which also turns out to be corporeal and political. The material consists of two theatrical performances; one by Dario Fo, titled La Fame dello Zanni (The Servant’s Hunger) and performed in what appears to be a university lecture hall in 1977 for RAI Due, Italian state television, and the other a public installation of fire by the Compagnie Carabosse on the Canal St Martin in Paris in May 2003 as part of the Festival du Printemps des rues. This investigation of contemporaneity is the continuation of a project on modern theater, the first part of which was published and then reworked under the title “An Explosive Genealogy: Theater, Philosophy and the Art of Presentation.”1 That article employs a conceptual framework found in Alain Badiou’s philosophy to identify and trace a consistent procedure of transformation that takes place in modern theater from what I call the Meyerhold-event through both Artaud and Brecht and beyond. The result is the identification of a tenuous, almost indiscernible art of presentation that not only traverses the boundaries of theater and mass media, but also explodes the distinction between philosophy and art, two supposedly separate domains according to Badiou’s conception of philosophy. In that article I was particularly concerned with how philosophy relates to theater in the original Greek dispensation – it always does so through a third term, the polis, or education – and how that dispensation persists in what has been called modernist theater, such as Brecht’s learning plays. The question of whether there is a modern dispensation of the relation between theater and philosophy forms the horizon of the present enquiry into theater and temporality. 


Two performances. One performance is live, a one-off public spectacle, with no actors but an installation, and an enormous audience that just happens to find itself at the site...

  • politics
  • art theory
  • Theodor W. Adorno
  • aesthetics
  • poetry
  • theatre / drama
  • contemporary art
  • Walter Benjamin
  • Marcel Duchamp
  • art
  • temporality
  • art criticism

My language
English

Selected content
English, French

Oliver Feltham

is Professor for Philosophy at the American University in Paris. Specializing in critical theory and early modern philosophy, he has translated and written extensively on Alain Badiou, and is currently developing a counter-history of political action.

Frank Ruda (ed.), Jan Völker (ed.): Art and Contemporaneity

Frank Ruda (ed.), Jan Völker (ed.)

Art and Contemporaneity

Softcover, 176 pages

PDF, 176 pages

Although art always takes place in time, its manifestations – actual works of art – can be characterized by the specific and close connection they maintain between contemporaneity and timelessness. Their relation to time must be differentiated in a twofold manner: on the one hand, there is the relation to the time in which they are embedded, and, on the other, the relation to the time that they themselves create. In particular historical conditions a specific temporality of the artwork emerges. Both temporalities are superimposed on by one another, namely as a timelessness of artworks as such. The book assembles a variety of thinkers that confront one of the most crucial questions when dealing with the very definition, concept and operativity of art: How to link art to the concept of the contemporary?