A poetics of reform. Creative mass experiences in early 20th-century German and French theatre

Een poëtica van hervorming. Creatieve massa-ervaringen in het vroege 20e-eeuwse Duitse en Franse theater
Start - End 
2016 - 2020 (ongoing)
Department of Literary Studies



Between 1900 and 1950 German and French innovatory dramatists dealt with the socio-historical emergence of masses by adapting ancient drama and mystery cults in theatre. In their plays they experimented with the performance of ritualized mass experiences on stage and in the audience. In personal accounts and theoretical documents, they reflected on socio-psychological and spatial effects masses have on the form of theatre.

Both in the performances and in theoretical concerns these playwrights explicitly adapted and referred to social conditions and spatial arrangements in ancient drama and religious practices in order to give form to mass representations in early 20th-century theatre performances.

Whereas masses are commonly depicted as 'irrational' and 'destructive' phenomena, overwhelming the 'creativity' of the 'rational' individual, recent sociological and psychological insights in crowd behavior demonstrated that participation in masses does not necessarily lead to devastation, but is clearly structured and controlled in space and time and discloses individual responsibility. Recent scholarly attention in Theatre Studies and Classical Reception Studies, however, still generally considers early 20th-century mass representations in terms of violence and their mobilization in ideological movements. By taking up the insight that mass experiences have to be considered in more constructive contexts, I will argue that early 20th-century innovative theatre movements attributed a creative potential to masses in theatre by adapting mass representations in ancient drama and ancient religious festivals. Therefore, my research project combines Theater Studies and Classical Reception Studies with new methods of analyzing masses, recently developed in Crowd Theory, and aims at opening up innovative ways of understanding the meaning of receptions of Antiquity in early 20th-century mass performances for German and French playwrights’ social and religious reformatory aspirations.