Theses Doctoral

The Sentient Stage: The Theatrical Uncanny in Contemporary Performance

Meyers, Sarah

This dissertation identifies and explores a genre of performance I term the “theatrical uncanny.” Intermingling aesthetics and psychology, the uncanny is the realm of “intellectual uncertainty” (for Ernst Jentsch) and “the familiar made strange” (for Sigmund Freud); it is an obscure but palpable disruption of our expectations. The genre of the uncanny has received a great deal of scholarly attention in both film and literature, but has, by contrast, been minimally explored in performance. This neglect is particularly striking considering theatre itself can be viewed as inherently uncanny. The repetitions and representations of performance, its interdependence of the real and the imaginary, imply a kind of ever-present déjà vu. The very pervasiveness of this quality can in fact render it insensible. The genre of uncanny performance is therefore a valuable designation for works that actively elicit this psycho-emotional response. The productions I study are remarkable for their ability to capitalize on theatre’s uncanny potential.
I demonstrate that this category of performance is not limited to any particular style or status, locating the effect as potently in popular entertainments (such as the junk opera Shockheaded Peter and punchdrunk’s Sleep No More) as in more esoteric or avant-garde work (like that of artists such as the Quay Brothers and Tadeusz Kantor). Drawing on a variety of methods – including phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and cognitive science – I engage with these performances as sensual experience. Through subjective impression and extensive description, I gradually elucidate the scenographic parameters of the theatrical uncanny. The productions that achieve this effect, while greatly disparate in nature, share certain approaches and techniques in common. They position the spectator (physically, emotionally, perceptually) in an unstable relationship to the objects and bodies of the performance, creating the sensation that the inanimate actually possesses its own unique vitality. Uncanny performance interweaves elements of object theatre, memory theatre, and intermediality, but cannot be encompassed by any of these terms in isolation. These performances question our basic qualifications for declaring something ‘live,’ as the term is used both theoretically and colloquially. They ask what it would mean for a memory to behave as an object, or for an object to have memories.
This study is both a critique of how the uncanny works on stage and an attempt to rethink the concept of the uncanny through theatre practice. I argue that the uncanny is best understood as an embodied experience, a feeling mediated through and registered within our flesh. It results from unsettling interactions between our bodies and the matter and space around us. The concrete and present spatial relationships of theatre are ideal for exploring these tensions. Through the materiality of theatre, I offer evidence that the uncanny response, rather than being a marginal or naïve interpretation of the world (as it is sometimes portrayed), is actually a fundamental and profoundly productive state of mind.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Aronson, Arnold
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 2, 2018