Memory-Theater and Postmodern Drama

Jeanette R. Malkin
Provides a new way of defining—and understanding—postmodern drama


Memory-Theater and Postmodern Drama argues that the way memory is conceptualized has changed in postmodernism, and that the theatricalization of this new memory discourse has produced some of the most powerful works on the contemporary stage. The playwrights Jeanette Malkin discusses—Samuel Beckett, Heiner Mueller, Sam Shepard, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Thomas Bernhard—create a range of "memory-theaters" that give sophisticated and often moving expression to the ways we remember and forget, and to the traces of a no longer cohesive past.

Memory has been a constantly recurring theme during the last decades of the millennium. This book targets the intersection of three prominent fields: the current discourses on memory, the study of postmodern aesthetics, and the reading of late twentieth-century theater texts. Underlying this triangular relationship is the thesis that many plays written within a postmodern mind-set exhibit an exceptional preoccupation with questions of memory, both in terms of thematic attention to remembered (or forgotten) pasts, and in terms of the plays' "memoried" structures: structures of repetition, conflation, regression, echoing, and simultaneity.

Beginning with the formal innovations of Beckett's late plays, which give theatrical form to "memoried states of being," Malkin goes on to study the stakes of memory for playwrights with different national and ethnic backgrounds. Shepard and Parks, through varying tactics and from very different points of view, dramatize the erasures of American memory, its disappearance into amnesia and commodification. Mueller and Bernhard, on the contrary, theatricalize a surfeit of historical memory and a chaos of ideological traces. All the plays aim to contest—and evoke—memories of collective pasts, to recontextualize, reopen taboo discourses, intervene in the politics of memory, and to engage (and occasionally enrage) the memoried consciousness of its target audience—with whose memory, and repression, these plays and their productions are in constant dialogue.

Malkin applies to her discussion classical studies of mnemotechnica, Giulio Camillo's Renaissance memory-theater, Pierre Nora's study of "lieux de mémoire," Freud, Benjamin, Lyotard, Baudrillard, and others. One of the themes she isolates is the affinity between the structurally chaotic influx of memories in these plays, and pathologies of trauma. Postmodern memory-theater is overburdened by conflicting discourses and styles that veer and shift in sudden and baffling ways. These texts have varying memory agendas and are not all doing the same kind of "memory work," but the sense of a conflicted and traumatized relation to the past is common to them all.

This book will be of interest to students of postmodern culture, of contemporary theater and drama, and of memory studies. It should also attract those interested in the representations of trauma—discussed here both in relation to the Holocaust and to Slavery. The book will be of additional interest to students of contemporary German literature, especially since too little exists in English on the work of Thomas Bernhard and Heiner Mueller.

Praise / Awards

  • "A very important book that bids to be a 'must have' on the timely topic of history versus memory as it is represented in theater."
    —John Rouse, University of California, San Diego
  • "Malkin's study delivers in an astute and intelligent way. The author, whose critical analyses never underplay the limitations of some of her subjects, provides an enlightening survey and appraisal. The dramaturgical drive and the strategic use of real productions only adds to the conclusions she draws. This is a rigorous and imaginative study that is long overdue."
    —David Barnett, Univ. of Huddersfield, England, German Quarterly, Spring 2000

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 272pp.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 1999
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11037-7

Add to Cart
  • $84.95 U.S.