Sometimes a name is more than just a name. When the director Jan Lauwers set up a new theatre company in 1986 he chose to give it the name ‘Needcompany’. This name contains a reference to a ‘community’, but then explicitly from the point of view of desire or need, though whose need or desire it is, is not immediately clear. After all, there is no personal pronoun: is it I, we, you… who need company? The need has no clearly defined face or identity. Could it be that the director is in need of a ‘company’ in order to realize his ideas? Or is it the company as a whole that is in need of ‘company’ – an audience for its productions? Or is it the other way around: is the audience itself in need of ‘company’ when it goes to see a performance? Interpretations intersects. And at the crossroads stands the desire for a group of ‘like – minded people’. Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author is undoubtedly the prototypical drama of this need for ‘company’: six characters in search for an author who can write them a play and insert them into a meaningful story. But perhaps the ‘need’ for ‘company’ goes even deeper. Isn’t this need or desire for ‘company’ part of the fundamental structure of modern theatre, and hence, by extension, part of the fundamental structure of all modern art?

Funeral Ritual

“No audience. No echo. That’s part of one’s death”, wrote Virginia Woolf in her diary at the start of the Second World War1. Woolf’s concise, almost cryptic description, touches on one of modernism’s greatest ‘fears’: the doubtful status of the audience. Modern art has lost the organic link with its public and wound up in a vacuum where only its own voice can be heard. Woolf seems to be suggesting that the missing echo from the audience heralds the death of art. Should the modern art come to the conclusion of its death because of the missing echo from the public? And may it not be that today’s preoccupation with public participation, social mix, ratings and so on is, when all is said and done, really a vain attempt to prompt this echo? The most important issue modern art raises – though mostly by way of paradoxical strategies of denial or neglect – is perhaps that of the public, that is, of the community. Modern art revolves around this broken relationship between the community and the public. What is the public other than a broken community, one that has lost its communal sense but goes on repeating a few of its elementary gestures. My question, then, is this: does the rupture between community and public underlie modern art?

Modern theatre, perhaps more than other art forms, brings these questions into particularly sharp focus. In the Diary of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria RI lke’s protagonist comments while contemplating the ruins of ancient theatre: “Let’s be honest about it, then; we have no theatre, any more than we have a God: for this you need
a community.”2 This absent community haunts modern Western theatre like a ghost. Theatrical means of expression, we must not forget, still bear traces of a collective ritual. In this respect, at least, ancient Greek theatre remains a model, albeit implicitly and unconsciously, for the relationship between God, community and theatre, with ‘God’ (the ‘author’) as the ultimate guarantor of sense and meaning. Still, it would be a mistake to see the community as the embodiment of an unproblematic and unified essence. Through ritual, the community came face to face with
its insubstantiality, its lack of an essence; in the sacral, violent relationship with the destructive forces of the divine, the community found itself at that extreme limit where its very existence was threatened. Sacrificial rites both recognized and warded off this extreme dialogue between man and god, but an attempt to keep the human and the
divine worlds apart. In the words, there is always a relationship between the theatrical ritual and the possibility of an absent (broken) community.

According to the Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, funeral rites provided the structural basis for performing Greek tragedy. The open grave was transformed into an acting space, the wailing-women into a chorus and the family of the deceased into the audience. The stage became the place of the dead, the place where the dead spoke to the living.
The spirits of the dead return, ghosts haunt the world of the living: this has been a theatrical trope from the beginning, from the ghost of the murdered Agamemnon through the ghost of Hamlet’s father to Ibsen’s
ghosts. Similarly, the so-called second birth of the theatre out of the Medieval Mass also celebrated the return from the land of the dead (the resurrection of Christ). But where do these reflections lead us when we try to understand modern theatre? Who are the dead commemorated in modern theatre? And whose death are we talking about? That
of the gods? Of the community? Or of the theatre itself? Or are all these synonyms for the unconscious mourning that takes place on so many contemporary stages?

Collective Singing

In recent years, few performances have communicates with their audiences with such evident generosity as Isabella’s Room (2005), by Jan Lauders and his Needcompany. The play tells the story of the 94-year-old Isabella, whose life, and story, virtually span the entire twentieth century, from the First World War, through colonialism, the development of modern art with Picasso and Joyce the Second World War, the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, the first man on the moon, David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust, to the famine in Ethiopia and the rise of the Vlaams Blok, Flander’s extreme-right party, in Antwerp in the early nineties. The history Eric Hobsbawm, not unreasonably, describes the twentieth century as the “age of extremes”.3 In contrast to this century stands Isabella and her extreme vitality. She is a contemporary Mary Bloom who goes on saying ‘yes’ to life in spite of everything, and it is quite a lot, that has happened to her. “She is a female ‘Zorba the Greek’” says Jan Lauwers.

The generosity and vitality conveyed by the performance have less to do with Isabella’s story than with the way it is told. Isabella doesn’t tell the story on her own. She is accompanied by all those who have been important to her, including the dead: her parents Anna and Arthur, her lovers Alexander and Frank. They not only tell her story, they also sing it. Lauders has often used live music and singing in his performances, but never so openly and invitingly as
there. The enthusiastic collective singing is especially striking since in the West, in contrast to other cultures, the practice of collective singing has disappeared, or has survived only in (semi-)professional contexts. Singing, moreover, also harks back to a ritual dimension. It is a form of exchanging energy different from the spoken word, and as such it creates a different type with festivity and celebration.

Language has always been a problematic means of communication in Lauwers’ plays. Bound up with power and desire, language is both a deficiency and an excess. The plays abound in people speaking several languages at once, in translations fro one language to another, and in actors who are constantly interrupting one another, often with shouts. Language seems always to be running up agains its own limits. But the singing in Isabella’s Room raises language above that limit for an instant. The director himself defines collective singing as follows: “singing together is one of the most marvelous things you can do. It was one of my dreams to bring this to stage. And miraculously
enough it worked out very well. We opted to make the singing and the music a very casual presence. The music seems to be present only indirectly, but in fact it dominates everything. Your emotions are determined by what you hear. I would like all the actors to sing to the public with a smile on their face. I am also present on stage, in order to put things into the right perspective. I just walk around a bit, sit down, watch, sing, and explain a few things to the audience. All as relaxed as possible. No holy nonsense. I would like the ritual of theatre to become similar to people getting together to sing.”4

Visiting Friends

In his study entitled Postdramatic Theatre, Hans-Thies Lehmann concisely describes Lauwers’ 1991 play Invictos as “And evening with an and his Friends”.5 A striking feature of Lehmann’s description is that there is nothing in it that would lead one to think that he is talking about a theatrical performance, except perhaps for the reference to
the people being together. The expression ‘an evening with’, the use of the director’s first name, and the subjective ‘friends’ (rather than the more objective ‘members of the company’), all indicate considerable familiarity and intimacy. Invictos seems less the staging of fictional dramatic world, than an agreeable evening in familiar and pleasant company. And could the ‘friends’ in ‘Jan and his friends’ refer to the audience? The play seems to have little to do with the alienation that we are told is so characteristic od modern (or postmodern) stage productions. Lehmann leads you to think that every barrier – between actor and character, audience and stage, fact and fiction – has been removed. His description, incidentally, fits Isabella’s Room even better and Invictos, as Isabella’s Room, more than in any other contemporary production, gives the audience the feeling of being a guest paying a visit. This feeling is due, for the most part, to the generous presence on stage of the actors and of the director, as well as to the enthusiastic and quasi-ritualistic collective singing. Did Lauwers touch on the essence of theatre in this performance? Did he reach the heart of what modern theatre, more than any other modern art form, is able to express? That is, the moment of being together, the moment of ‘community’, both in the common and ritual senses of that word.

Invictos is based on Ernest Hemingway’s 1936 short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro. In the African wilderness, a sick man awaits his death with resignation. Although the plane bringing the medication he needs is unlikely to arrive in time, the man in not overtly concerned about it, as he does not really want to be saved. The woman taking care of him does everything she can to keep him alive. The dialogue between the two characters is aggressive, full of despair
and fatigue. Lehmann, however, picks up on another tension at work in the play, one that is not only typical of the work of Jan Lauders and Needcompany, but that also tells us something about the communication between modern theatre and the audience. The oppressive, cool existential pathos of Hemingway’s writing in The Snows of Kilimanjaro jars with the relaxed, casual, friendly way the actors tell the story to the audience. This tension between script and staging, between énoncé and énonciation, between the what and the how, opened up the space for modern (or postmodern) theatre. ‘Postdramatic’ is the name Lehmann chose for the theatre that has freed itself from the representative obligation of the play. In the case of Invictos it is above all the lightness of the staging that frames the communication with the audience. But isn’t this lightness of communication at the same time also unbearable?


“If the audience is not altogether an absence, it is by no means a reliable presence”, the theatre maker and theatre theorist Herbert Blau remarked concisely: the audience is not absent, but its presence no longer provides any certainty. “Such an audience seems like the merest facsimile of a remembered community paying its
respects not so much to the still echoing signals of a common set of values but to the better-forgotten remains of the most exhausted illusions.”6 It would be hard to think of more devastating definition for the transition from ‘community’ to ‘audience’. Theatre history repeats and perpetuates the memory of the two moments when theatre
was able to relate to a community, i. e. ancient Greek and Medieval theatre. And the memory, more often than not, is embellished with nostalgia. It is not easy to precisely define the parameters of this sort of community: is it a religious, ideological, social, political, or some other sort of community? Probably this conceptual vagueness explains why the idea of ‘community’ continues to haunt theatre history, even though the audience has, meanwhile, bee transformed into an object of psychological, anthropological and sociological research.

The crisis of the community is an issue in modern art as much as in modern politics. Ever since the French Revolution, Western politics and the community have had a troublesome relationship, the most visible manifestations of which are ‘the people’, ‘the nation’ and ‘the masses’. Twentieth century fascism and communism were haunted by the most destructive forms of community ideology: the Blut und Boden-ideology of the first, and the delocalized and transnational proletariat of the second. The process of globalization has redefined political, economic, social, and cultural dynamics over the past several decades; it has not only given new life to old forms of community, it has also created new ones. Fear of alienation and of the unknown has consolidates the identities
of religious, ethnic and national communities. Groups return to a sense of the closed community. They embrace the idea of the identity rooted in tradition and continuity. The community becomes the dividing line, the border between itself and its others. And what is foreign, or different, is perceived as hostile, unauthentic, even evil.

Perhaps it is better not to speak of community anymore, but of the construction of collective identities that want to pass themselves off for traditional communities. Over and against these collective identities stand the oftentimes transient and  ephemeral individualistic identities characteristic of a network society, the so called ‘shopping and surfing’ identities. The sociologist Manuel Castells refers to a tension between ‘the Net’ and ‘the Self’, that
is, a tension between the glorification of individual mobility, virtuality, and constant deterritorialization, and the entrenchment in collective certainties, authenticity, and territory.7 The theatre is (or could be) a place where negotiations over a different identity, neither individual nor collective, could take place. In the twentieth century, Brecht and Artaud articulated the two most influential views on the relationship between modern theatre
and the community. In his Manifesto for the Theatre of Cruelty, Artaud is explicit about the fact that the proper audience for his theatre does not yet exist. And Brecht’s critical spectators, he well knew, were not the cause, but the effect of the alienation he was after with his non-Aristotelian aesthetics. The shift from “community” to “audience”
is the shift form a certainty (A tradition) to an expectation. The community now is an impossible memory, as well as an unrealizable expectation. Today, the impossibility of the community is translated into a discourse about ratings, social mix, target groups, public participation, etc. The shift from community to audience is a shift from quality to quantity. Should theatre resign itself to the loss of the “community:, to the ida of the “audience” – in the sense of a sociological, political, and economic category that can be counted, questioned, satisfied and disappointed – is all that is left? But isn’t modern theatre always implicitly communicating with a different sort of community? With a possible community? Or with a future community, flimsy and tentative though it may be? Doesn’t the structure of theatrical communication itself demand this?

What would be the form of this community? The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy speaks of “une communaute desoeuvree”, an “inoperative community”, by which he means a dislocated community, one based on its very lack of consistency. The inoperative community is a community that tries to escape from myth. “Myth communicates
itself necessarily as a myth belonging to the community, and it communicates a myth of community … community itself taken simply and absolutely, absolute community”8 Every aspect of our existence is dominated and controlled by such myths: they tell us who we are and who we are supposed to be, and they claim to provide us with the necessary stability, tradition and authenticity. Nancy opposes these myths of individuals and communities with the counter notion of “singularity”. Referring to Bataille, he says that the passion and exaltation with which the content of myth can be shared is a movement that carries to the limit of being.

If being is defined in the singularity of beings … that is to say if being is not Being communing in itself with itself, if it is not own immanence, but if it is the singular aspect of being …, if it shares the singularities and is itself shared out by them, then passion carries to the limit of singularity: logically, this limit is the place of community9.

Man is singular to the extend that he is a limit. Being a limit he is exposed to his own death, to the others, to his being in community. What this singularity means cannot be expressed clearly. If one could, it would immediately become a myth; the fixing of a position, an identity. What is important, in the singularity, is the interruption of
the myth – the silence and not the speech. Singularity “consists of giving voice to something that no one – not a single individual, not a single spoken person – would ever be able to say: this voice, which can never be the voice of a subject, and this speech, which can never be the speech of intelligence, are the voice and the thinking of the community as the interruption of myth. They are both – a single interrupted voice and the voiceless interruption of every general or particular voice”.10

A community of Dead Lehmann quotes Heiner Muller when he states: “And the specificity of theatre is precisely
not the presence of the live actor but the presence of the one who is potentially doing”.11 Nancy’s inoperative community, the community that refuses to be a closed system, is a community of the potentially dying. It is no coincidence that death and the dead play leading roles in Jan Lauwers’ plays. Indeed, the characters who die in his
plays continue to be a part of the performance, they remain on stage. The dead, after all, remind the living of their mortality,. They give a different perspective of the living. Very often, the spectators are implicitly asked to identify with the dead: like the dead, the members of the audience observe the human activity on stage. In Lauwers’ work this human activity is determined by power, desire and voyeurism. It is no coincidence that the three parts of his Snakesong Trilogy refers to this. But in Lauwers’ work the perspectives are far from unambiguous. The same applies to shifts in themes and to possible developments of the plot. It is tempting to see Isabella’s Room as an optimistic
counterbalance to such plays as The Snakesong Trilogy, No Comment and Images of Affection.

Lauwers works by rearranging particular themes, not by shifting radically from one them to another, much less by moving beyond them. This is quite clear in Lehmann’s description of Invictos. The apparent joviality and intimacy Lehmann describes immediately puts us on our guard. But as we read on in his analysis, it turns out that the word ‘with’ is very ambiguous, and the supposedly removed barriers suddenly return: unlike ‘with’, the preposition ‘at’ imposes a certain distance: “We are watching a party, but the door is not quite open. We therefore look in on it as though on a party of distant acquaintances, without really participating. One could say: the spectator spends an evening at Jan’s and his friends (not ‘with’ them).”12 Lehmann turns the spectator from his position as participant into that of a voyeur. In another passage Lehmann introduces another important theme in Lauwers’ work: “As almost always in Lauwers’ works, the described evening speaks of death, of its terror and of loss – but it does so mildly, as if from the there side of death.”13 In this way Lauwers’ work oscillates between suffering and the description of suffering, between catastrophe and the description of catastrophe. Once again, the tension between the what and the how, the énoncé and the énonciation, forms the space of modern theatre.

In all his plays, Lauwers examines the unbearable lightness of being-together in an attempt to discuss something that evades speech and can only be heard in the incomprehensible juxtaposition of languages, silences, and collective singing: the community that is always n the future, without identity, goal or system. The community must nit achieve existence as such, just as being together must not be absorbed into a collective identity. Theatre need a ‘community’
to be able to exist, but it must also always interrupt and postpone this ‘community’. In Isabella’s Room, Isabella dreams of a ‘Desert Prince’, whom she names Felix” Felix. f.e.l.i.x. and that means ‘happiness’ in a dead language.
Sham and illusion.” Happiness does not express itself without its death. Nor does the community without its breach.


1 Virginia Woolf quoted in Herbert Blau, The Audience, Baltimore, the John Hopkins University Press, 1990, p.1.

2 Rainer Maria Rilke quoted in Herman Teirlinck, Versameld Werk, vol. 9, Brussels, Manteau, 1970, p. 13.

3 Eric Hobsbawm, Ages of Extremes. The Short Twentieth Century 1941–1991, London, Abacus, 1995

4 Jan Lauwers in conversation with Erwin Jans.

5 Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, trans. Karen Jurs-Munby, London, Routledge, 2006, p. 107

6 Herbert Blau, op. cit., p. 1.

7 Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, Malden (Mass.), Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

8 Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor, et al., Minneapolis (Minn.) University of Minnesota Press, 1991, p. 57.

9 Jean-Luc Nancy (1991), op.cit., p. 59.

10 Jean-Luc Nancy, Literair communisme, Yang, vol 41, no. 4, December 2005, p. 505.

11 Hans-Thies Lehmann, op. cit, p 144. See also Alexander Kluge and Heiner Muller, Ich bin ein Landvermesser. Gesprache, Neue Folge. Hamburg, Rotbuch, 1996, p. 94.

12 Hans-Thies Lehmann, op.cit., pp 108–109. The original German title in Lehmann’s Postdramatisches Theater is „Ein Abend bei Jan und seine Freunde”. In contrast to ‘mit’, ‘bei’ indicates a certain distance.

13 Hans-Thies Lehmann, op. cit., p. 108.