22 June, 2024


Theatre In The Apocalypse

By Saumya Liyanage

Dr. Saumya Liyanage


In the first wave of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, one of the active and innovative English theatre groups, Mind Adventures led by theatre director Tracy Holsinger and a brilliant actor Lihan Mendis invited me to talk about how live theatre could survive in the wake of a pandemic. A series of discussions with local and international theatre artistes and organizations have been conducted throughout this time and many ideas and experiences have been shared with thousands of spectators who have joined their online Zoom conferences. In my discussion with Tracy Holsinger, I wanted to emphasize that theatre will survive during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. My key argument was that even in the history of theatre, there have been many upheavals and drawbacks. Hence, in this paper, I would like to discuss further about how theatre could survive in the harder times of natural or human catastrophes. Further, I will assume that theatre artists will find possible new ways of making theatre amidst this ambiguous era of illness and death. But current crisis has challenged us to think about theatre not as a practical and entertaining business but as an existential and ontological subject.

Figure 1: The “Triumph of Death” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted around 1562. Photo credit: Museo Nacional del Prado / Wikimedia

Theatre and Disease  

In the Old Testament, Hebrew word for plague was used to depict the meaning of ‘touch’. Pictographic symbol of the word plague is written with three symbols: eye, leg, and sprout. If we read this Hebrew pictograph from right to left, the sprouting seed designates the spreading and disseminative nature of the plague. The leg signifies carrying or walking and eye indicates the seeing, or knowledge (Cooke, J., 2009, p. 4). Hence the ‘plague’ is the ‘touch from God’ and therefore it is destructive and disseminative.

Stanton Garner in his journal paper titled ‘Artaud, Germ Theory, and the Theatre of Contagion’ explains the history of theatre and its relationship with disease. It is a phenomenon that goes back to the antiquity. The Oedipus Rex opens on a landscape where a plague strikes on nature and human beings living in Thebes. In the 15th century in Great Britain, the Government imposed restrictions in limiting people to gather in theatres. Followed by the 15th Century plague, in 1603 and 1604 there had been a long lockdown refraining people to gather and watch theatre. These restrictions lasted for more than 12 months (Garner 2006, P.3). Therefore, according to Hebrew connotation, plague and other epidemic diseases have been understood as a rage or a touch of God. Since 1563, there are many instances that theatre spaces have been closed due to its evil spirit of theatre gathering for many months and years.

In the history of disease, it is clear that the authorities have excluded religious and political congregations but theatre ‘was morally liable to pestilential visitation’ (Garner 2006, P. 3). This argument indicates that the ruling regimes are more conscious about spaces like theatre rather than other congregations to close and shout down their theatrical activities because it is believed that theatre is more and more pestilential than religious or political rallies. Thus, the curbing pandemic has become the performative ritual of the regime. Rhetoric and narratives of medical terms and procedures have become the texts of daily life. Theatergoers are becoming passive observers and they have unconsciously been subordinated to military and intelligence surveillances. The medical procedures are being transformed into a war against evil by othering the corona affected individuals from the normality.

Artaud and Plague

I remember an important article written by Antonin Artaud. It is titled as ‘Theatre and the Plague’. This article appears in the collection of essays, The Theatre and Its Double (1964). Artaud used metaphorical language to write the parallel meanings of a plague and theatre. Artaud sees his contemporary theatre as a crisis and this theatre of crisis should be resolved either by death or cure. What exactly does Artaud talk about the crisis of theatre at the time he lives? As I have written elsewhere, Artaud was very much discontent of his contemporary theatre which was dominated by the realistic acting and dialogic conversations. Artaud believed that theatre is a unique form of art that it solely depends on the actor and his/her spatiality. Theatrical extravaganza and the psychological manifestation of acting were rejected. He wanted his audience to experience the similar corporeal sense that a serpent feels when the vibration is infiltrating its skin through the floor; the actor should be able to vibrate the corporeality of the audience member and transform her psychophysically through the performance (Antonin Artaud and Corti, 2014 p. 58). Therefore it is important for us to see how Artaud juxtaposes theatre and plague as an interrelated metaphor. Artaud writes: ‘Like the plague, theatre is a crisis, resolved either by death or cure. The plague is a superior disease because it is an absolute crisis after which there is nothing left except death or drastic purification. In the same way, theatre is a disease because it is a final balance that cannot be obtained without destruction. It urges the mind on to delirium which intensifies its energy’ (Antonin Artaud and Corti, 2014 p. 21).  As this quotation indicates, Artaud wants us to see how theatre could be useful to reveal our lies, meanness, and expose further fake masks that we have put on to hide the true nature of human beings.

Figure 2: French poet and actor Antonin Artaud in a scene from The Passion of Joan of Arc. Photo credits © Henry Guttmann / Getty Images

Immediate and Mediate

The major theoretical concern about theatre today amidst corona pandemic is that whether the lived experience would be still a reality in the current pandemic situation. Many theatre artistes in Sri Lanka and elsewhere have been discussing about how ‘liveness’ of the theatre is declining when other alternative mediatized theatre practices are being introduced to replace the direct contact with the living audience. For the last few months, major theatre companies and especially National theatres in the UK, Australia, Berlin, and Bolshoi Theatre in Russia or elsewhere have podcasted live recordings of their theatre productions.

Theatre artistes who are attached to live events are being shocked because the pandemic has posed an alarming question whether the live theatre could survive in the new world order. Philosopher Peggy Phelan for instance stands for the intrinsic nature of theatre which favors the lived experience. This engagement is known as the autopoietic feedback loop. In this live theatre, the actor-audience co-presence is vital for the lived experience (Fischer-Lichte, 2014). However, Phillip Auslander opposes to Phelan and argues that there is no hierarchical distinction between liveness and mediatized performance. In general, there is a conception that liveness is always priori and is primal and immediate than mediatized performance. Auslander denies this premise and argues that medialized performance ‘is just as much a human experience as the live’ (Meyer-Dinkgräfe, 2015). Hence the ‘liveness’ is not an ontological category of human experience but a historically defined and molded against the technological advancement of theatre. The binary oppositions of immediate and mediate are interdependent phenomena and an abstract idea of ‘liveness’ cannot be existed without the idea of mediatization.

Primal questions

Today, theatre artistes in Colombo, New Delhi, Melbourne, New York, or elsewhere are similarly experiencing the abrupt restrictions on public gatherings and events. There is no more live performance that can be seen by visiting theatres, play grounds, or streets. However, the contemporary theatre artists are so vulnerable to COVID situation because they are depending on the commercial theatre that solely relies on theatergoers and their physical presence.

This apocalyptic time invites us to rethink about our theatre practice, the way we do theatre and the ways that we engage with our theatergoers. This situation has created a space for us to reflect what we have been doing in the name of theatre. The history has given us a moment to revisit our theatres, questioning the ways that we perceive our practices, to imagine alternative ways of doing theatre amidst this human crisis. Because, as Artaud argues, theatre is similar to a plague – both are destructive and generative. Now, it is time for us to go back to the primal questions that theatre has always been interested to explore.

Theatre has always been exploring questions related to human nature and the primal questions that have never been properly answered. Corona pandemic has driven us to question the ideas related to human survival, illness and death, health and wellbeing, being old and vulnerable, governance, democracy, suppression, and freedom. Similarly, theatre itself is a tool where we try to get answers to those primal questions of human beings and our civilization. Today again we are being confronted with these hard questions. So, theatre is always about trying to grapple with existential quests!

Pragmatic philosophy

Daniel Johnston in his PhD thesis argues how actors represent practical metaphysics. In a simple way actors demonstrate philosophical concerns of human being and their practical engagement in the world through performance works (Johnston D., 2007). In line with this, let’s think about the role of the actor. What is actor and what does she do? In our contemporary and apocalyptic societies, the actor is a person who makes her living through performing characters in films, soap operas, and so on. The most recent and contemporary meanings of the notion of actor is very much related to the theatre and film business. But the idea of actor has got many other connotations and meanings. And it has always never been limited to a single meaning of a person who is impersonating a character. But the idea of the actor/performer for us today is very much attached to the entertainment business and we never see other connotations or other alternative practices within which this idea of the actor could be enriched.

For instance, Grotowski did not believe that the actor should impersonate a character and perform. It is a self-revelation and self-exploration where the actor and the director both reveal their innate selves. Likewise, today, we may need to think about redefining the role of the actor. It is not all about performing every night at the Lionel wendt. It is about trying to grapple with some of the toughest questions in the world through the actor’s body and reveal them in the theatre.


Now the question is whether contemporary theatre could survive if the corona measures are going to be continued for months. Without its audience members how could the theatre be a sustainable practice? What is the current situation of theatre artistes, practitioners, technicians who are making a living out of theatre? How do small theatre ensembles survive without its support of audience?

It is a hard time for professionals who depend on theatre to make a living. I have sympathy towards them. When we talk about theatre, it connotes certain meanings within the context of contemporary life and society. In an extreme situation, for some people, theatre means tele dramas. For others, theatre means a particular building, a place where people gather, buy tickets, and sit in the darkness to watch an event happening on stage. This is a limited understanding about the notion of theatre. Now the problem is that we are lamenting on the declining of theatre. We think that this proscenium theatre is going to be ceased because of the corona outbreak. But theatre in its broader sense is not limited to theatre as an architectural structure. With this new world order, theatre will be flourished with novel modes of practice and reception.


Antonin Artaud and Corti, V. (2014). The theatre and its double. London: Alma Classics.

Auslander, P. (2011). Liveness : performance in a mediatized culture. London ; New York: Routledge.

Auslander, P., 2012. Digital Liveness: A Historico-Philosophical Perspective. PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, 34(3), pp.3-11.

Cooke, J. (2009). Legacies of plague in literature, theory and film. Houndmills England ; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Davis, T., 2009. The Cambridge Companion To Performance Studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fischer-Lichte, E. (2014). The Routledge introduction to theatre and performance studies. London: Routledge.

Garner, S., 2006. Artaud, Germ Theory, and the Theatre of Contagion. Theatre Journal, 58(1), pp.1-14.

Garner, S., 2006. Artaud, Germ Theory, and the Theatre of Contagion. Theatre Journal, 58(1), pp.1-14.

Johnston, D. (2007). Active Metaphysics: Acting as Manual Philosophy or Phenomenological Interpretations of Acting Theory. University of Sydney, Australia.

Meyer-Dinkgräfe, D., 2015. Liveness: Phelan, Auslander, and After. Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, 29(2), pp.69-79.

MUNRO, I. (2000). The City and Its Double: Plague Time in Early Modern London. English Literary Renaissance, 30(2), pp.241–26

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