On Dramatic Rhythm. 1. Last night’s audience

(The first of two online lectures on dramaturgies of temporality for the pedagogic programme Movimento Ritmico, convened by Associazione Raffaello Sanzio, Cesena, Italy, 14th and 15th May 2020)


Over these two lectures I aim to consider ‘dramatic rhythm’ – the temporal form and structure of enacted or presented events – in relation to modes of agency, consciousness, cognition, attention, awareness that inform – and inhabit – and consume – and participate in – and, it may be, resist and transform – these enactments and presentations.

My suggestion is that what we might call dramatic rhythm is expressive of forms of consciousness as they are shaped by social realities, and that rhythm – broadly speaking – plays out as a site, or plot, of dialogue or of dramatic antagonism between one consciousness and another. In which we can include the dialogue – or antagonism – that happens between stage and audience at the theatre.

That antagonism has a historical aspect to it, to the extent that the temporal structures of rhythmic dramaturgy afford conflicts of consciousness to be enacted, recorded and – as it were – streamed.

I wish to approach the question of dramatic rhythm from a more or less contemporary perspective. This will entail, though, starting with a fragment that I copied a couple of weeks ago from a streamed recording of a theatrical performance that took place a decade or more before the end of the twentieth century.

Among other matters, I am thinking of the dispersal of a theatre audience, whether that dispersal strikes us 35 years after the event, or the morning after the night before.

We listen through the ears of last night’s audience, dispersed and invisible. Through such temporal displacements, the rhythm of the occasion is constituted.

You will hear a fragment of sound. It lasts three minutes.

The loud sound you will hear was made with this instrument.


After a while you will hear notes played on a piano. The piano is very quiet, you will have to listen carefully.

Sometimes you will hear footsteps. Someone is walking across a wooden floor. The footsteps are even quieter than the piano.

The fragment is the first three minutes of a theatrical performance that took place in Hamburg, West Germany in 1986. The performance is called Die Hamletmaschine. The authors were the East German writer Heiner Müller and the American director Robert Wilson. The recording was streamed for 24 hours on the Thalia Theater website on Friday 1st May 2020, which is when I watched it. I copied the fragment from the speaker of my laptop, using my phone, on 2nd May 2020, the morning after last night’s audience. You can hear me breathing on the recording.

There are several rhythms at play, even just in this fragment.

There is the rhythm of the woodblocks, the loud clicks that you can hear. Each click sounds the same, or similar. They are spaced irregularly. It is hard to anticipate when the next click is coming. The clicks are parts of a sequence, but they sound separate from each other. Something is happening, but it is not necessarily progressing, or going anywhere.

The notes on the piano, however, describe a melodic sequence, like the chorus of a song. Once the sequence is established, it will repeat.

Time is being portioned out already in complex ways, and the audience is invited to enter, and to attend to that complexity. That is to say, to place ourselves in relation to the beginning of a drama. Things are going to develop, something will happen next. Something is – after all – progressing. (Someone is walking across the floor, getting into place). Something is taking us along.

But at the same time – as with those separated, identical, arhythmic clicks from the woodblocks – we can feel removed from sequentiality and progression, and from the illusion of dramatic development. There is a sense already perhaps – to borrow the well-known line from Hamlet, the early modern play which Die Hamletmaschine redoes, recycles – of time being ‘out of joint’.

Müller and Wilson’s Die Hamletmaschine is a canonical piece of modern theatre, the sort of work that students and professors write lectures and essays about, the sort of work that gets taught on courses by people like me. This is not really one of those lectures, but I will make just a few comments in relation to the topic of dramatic rhythm. Heiner Müller’s text Hamletmachine is based on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, a drama dominated by the reflexive, conflicted consciousness of its main protagonist, the Prince who agonises over his capacity for action: how to act justly in response to the demands put upon him by the ghost of his murdered father and by his own conscience.

He is also concerned with how to act in time: when is the right moment? When will be too soon, or too late? At what moment can an act, or action, coincide with the justice of its performance? When should I speak? When should I do? When should I make my entrance? When should I strike the note, when play the instrument that has been given me to play? Hamlet’s predicament, we might say, is one of timing.

Müller’s adaptation of Hamlet does several things with all this, but to pick out just a few.

Firstly, it transforms the consciousness of the Danish prince to something like the reflective, self-lacerating consciousness of history itself, specifically a post-war, divided German consciousness that, in the course of counting the dead and acknowledging acts of historical violence at every stage of ‘enlightened’ human development, has become stagnant, melancholic, incapable of progressive thought or action, beyond its own modes of reactive, violent display.

Secondly, Müller’s text, taking its cue again from Shakespeare, turns its focus on the mechanisms of theatrical making as such. There is, for instance, a speech for ‘the actor playing Hamlet’, as the drama – or what drama remains – offers itself up to the machine rhythms and the reflex ideological mechanisms of industrialised cultural production and consumption.

Thirdly, and lastly for now, the drama exhibits a becoming rigid of human poetic or political capability, a kind of hardening of the imaginative arteries, a glacial freezing of the rhythms by which the historical-political drama might be measured or expressed, or through which other agencies, other modes of consciousness, might take their chances. In particular, Ophelia, representative here of the countless femicides and enforced self-murders of all this history, steps forward as it were in the name of the powerless, with a butcher’s knife and the promise of a revealed truth. Which, if it is to be a new truth, a political truth, may inaugurate a new rhythm. But at that point the play ends. We will have to find out for ourselves.

As for Robert Wilson’s mid-1980s staging of the text, this is organised altogether rhythmically.


What Wilson does is devise a scenographic action for around a dozen performers, lasting approximately twenty minutes. This action is repeated four or five times. For each representation the staging is ‘turned’ around 90 degrees, as if we were seeing the same action, like the workings of an automaton – an animated toy – through the four sides of a box. The first iteration of the action is silent, apart from the woodbloack clicks and the quietly played piano notes that you heard. The sections of Müller’s text are divided among the actors and spaced across the following repetitions of the action.

The structuring of the work is, then, rhythmic, portioning the times of its unfolding – or revolving – on stage, just as it portions out its author’s words. It affords its audience the opportunity to become familiar with the action, its details and sequence, and to anticipate – quite precisely – what comes next in relation to what has gone before. Even as the text, the dialogue, pursues its own sequence.

I want to say one thing more about Hamletmachine, then share some other materials. I said that this production is a famous, canonical piece of modern theatre, often cited and written about, discussed by teachers and students on university courses devoted to ‘postdramatic theatre’ and the history of experimental modern Western drama more generally. I have discussed it with my own students on occasion. However, until a couple of weeks prior to writing this lecture, when this recording was streamed online by Thalia Theater in Hamburg – in the context of the pandemic lockdown, when the theatres are closed – I had never seen this production for myself. I had read Müller’s text and some critical essays, and I had seen some black and white photographs, but I had never heard the creak of footsteps on the wooden stage, or enjoyed the ‘amateurish’ actuality of of the scene-changes between each section, or heard the woodblock clicks or the subdued one-note-at-a-time piano picking out the chorus of the Lieber and Stoller song ‘If that’s all there is’, or noticed really just how young the performers – all of them students at the time, I believe – really were. Those performers are, I imagine, in their early twenties, just a little younger than I was when this production first became part of my theatrical imagination. Watching it at last on my laptop a fortnight ago, one of the more affecting moments for me was when one of the young performers spoke the line ‘Ich will eine Maschine sein,’ ‘I want to be a machine.’ But it felt at the same time a pointless sort of affect to entertain or hold onto. Something not entirely mine, perhaps. The feeling was available to me to the extent that a certain rhythmic structuring – not only of the drama itself, but of the dramatic event, its production and consumption – is something in which I participate, and to which I contribute. But also removed from me to the extent that this temporal structuring proceeds irrespective of my attending. Excepting, that is, that I participate as audience. Excepting that the rhythm of my breathing becomes part of the occasion. And excepting that – odd as it feels – I listen in to the leavings of last night’s audience. Listen to their listening, and to the dispersal of their listening, as this rhythm and that – the close and intricate rhythms of Wilson’s staging and of Müller’s text, and the distended and diverse life rhythms of an audience who have at this moment other things to attend to – fall out of sequence with each other. Each unavailable, unaffordable to the other until this recording surfaces, afterwards and as if out of time, a thing of arhythmic clicks and dimly recognisable melody, attaching itself to the now like a ‘missing link’ between this present and another, a ‘thinking machine’ hand-fashioned out of wire and wood, some piece of self-awareness, some insistent ghost that is not mine nor yours but has come to call, preliminary to the action that any might perform.

To summarise where we have got so far. We might think of dramatic rhythm – the temporal form and structuring of the theatrical event – as expressive, or symptomatic, of an agency or consciousness, some fact of living attention, which may present as singular or collective, but is anyway informed by the contradictions and antagonisms of social reality, and by the history of its experience. Other rhythms in play include the rhythm of an audience’s encounter with the dramatic object. We might think of appointment viewing, the weekly scheduled episode of a television or radio show, or a seasonal festival, or – as with me and Hamletmachine – finding that my 35-year wait to see a piece of theatre has come round, and that I should not miss it. There is also the rhythm of the audience’s captured – or contracted – attention. By that, I mean the ways that we attend to the particular dramatic event, structures of anticipation and recuperation: our laughter at a well-timed joke, our involvement in the ‘tension’ of a suspense thriller, our affective investment in duration and repetition, our looking forward to an ending and the sense of catharsis or justice – or otherwise – when it comes. Yet another aspect of dramatic rhythm, which comes as it were in between the rhythm of the composed work and the rhythms of the audience’s attention, is exemplified by that group of student actors who perform the Wilson / Müller Hamletmachine. Put simply, drama would appear to distinguish itself from the abstracted or spatialized rhythms of music or dance or painting and sculpture – even from the rhythmic organisation of light and colour and sound and framing and montage at the cinema – to the extent that drama tends to be based upon the actions, gestures, speeches and expressions of ‘persons’, of characters or figures – performer-figures or actor-figures – who at some level present as themselves. To this extent, ‘dramatic rhythm’ functions as a temporal web in which an apparently identifiable – and nameable – subject is enmeshed, tangled by the form, while endeavouring to play against that rhythm, as it were from within. Meanwhile, modern dramas of rhythmic self-consciousness – from Hamlet through to the intensely rhythmically self-aware theatre of Samuel Beckett, for example, and beyond – also contend with the potentially differently structure rhythmic attention of their audiences. That is to say, the rhythm of production, and the articulation of rhythm on stage (and as Beckett’s dramas long ago acknowledged, this is an articulation in which human personhood is at the point of giving way to non-human materiality: ‘All the dead voices. They make a noise like wings. Like leaves. Like sand. Like leaves.’) will have to syncopate with a certain rhythm of consumption, which may be no less inhuman. This is something also for ‘us’ – the audience, participants in the drama’s rhythmic structuring – to contend with. We register as much at moments – in the theatre of modern dramatists like Beckett, Müller and others – when the figures on stage ‘look back’, as if to challenge how we honour our part in the representational machinery and its self-consuming iterations.

There are also theatre works where the machinic – or technological – rhythms of contemporary consumption appear embedded, as it were, in how the dramatic form reflects the attention of its audience.

I will share another three-minute clip – a fragment of video this time – of a dance theatre piece called Crowd, made in 2017 by Gisèle Vienne with an ensemble of young performers who were more or less, I imagine, the same age as the ensemble of young performers who carry the 1987 production of Die Hamletmaschine. A few notes before showing the video:

The movements of the performers are sometimes slowed down, and sometimes speeded up. This may appear to be an effect of the video recording, but it is not. The effect is produced by the movements of the performers, as if they were already captured in the video playback, subject to pausing, fast-forward, editorial selection of detail and all the rest of it. Which is to say they appear to enact an awareness, a watching, a retrospective attention that falls upon them, as they perform. An attention from outside, from afterwards, from elsewhere, but an elsewhere generated as it were of their own – collective – cognition.

To describe the performance briefly. It follows the course, from beginning to end, of an outdoor, all-night rave. This is the represented action. The stage is covered with organic materials. There is a smell in the theatre of earth, of leaves. The young people arrive one-by-one or in small groups, walking in slow motion, as if this were already a video memory, a documentary of that night, and the performance ends with them leaving the same way, picking up bags and items of discarded clothing , leaving behind what counts as trash. Nobody speaks. The only sound we hear is the kind of heavy techno dance music that you hear in the clip. The music plays in real time, we imagine it to be the music they are dancing to, but they do not dance in time with the music, except for a few brief moments – if that – when their dancing falls into ‘real time’. The performers, then – or so I imagine, projecting onto what I can hear and see on stage – are dancing to an idea of rhythm, a silent idea, an idea of rhythmic silence, derived from the music they hear. Or from music they imagine. The performance lasts around an hour. The event that it represents – or so we imagine – goes on for several hours, the best part of the night. During that night, relationships form, conflicts occur, individuals become exhausted, intoxicated, depressed, elated, removed. Sometimes an individual – or group of individuals – is isolated from the crowd, continuing to move while others are seemingly frozen, or moving at a different speed, as if someone or some thing had chosen to watch those particular ones. As if they – those particular ones – had chosen to attend to themselves. As if there were a rhythm also, or a chemical switch, to the slumber and awakening of self-consciousness. And as if this rhythm were – as indeed it is – unevenly distributed, arising at moments with distinct intensities, for one and then another. Meanwhile the same music plays for all, sustained by its own rhythmic gravity. Objects too – the foam spurting from a can of beer or a body falling to the ground – obey the conventions of gravity, although you may find that is not how you remember it, the way things falling in memory can fall so slowly and still be falling.

Meanwhile the performance gives the impression of being subject to the whim of someone wielding the remote control. It speeds up, it slows down, it freezes, it occasionally jerks forward as if frame by frame. Its rhythms, as they present themselves are, we might say, historically, technologically determined. And so are we, its audience. Without a video literacy this would make no sense. It would not be readable ‘as’ sense. Although already, perhaps, video literacy – no less than the techno rave culture of the 1990s – have given way to their own nostalgic gravity. Which might lead us to see Crowd as a kind of memorial re-wind or playback, its rhythms those of a latter-day cogito, asserting its existence, its historical actuality, playing itself back to itself as ‘stream of consciousness’, or as a kind of theatre, where theatre functions not as a stage, but rather – to borrow from the 1990s theoretical parlance of Slavoj Žižek – as a ‘screen in our mind in which the mind directly perceives itself,’ pushing the buttons, making the figures jump.

Except, this is not a ‘kind’ of theatre. It is – was – theatre in actuality. It bears the weight of that obsolescence, and that is more than enough. It was, so to speak, written. (The author Denis Cooper, as with many of Vienne’s works, shares a credit for dramaturgy). It was, for sure, rehearsed. Its rhythms are – irrespective of anyone else’s – its own, composed and performed. I can only imagine the performers listening, feeling through their skin – which means also listening through the flesh, the nerves of each other – against the beat of the amplified music, to rhythms only they can hear. To do that – to be able to do that – strikes me as a kind of love, decided and enacted.

It looks like the sort of event that happens without onlookers, people gathered of themselves, in a place temporarily set apart, the spectators become the actors themselves, enjoying of themselves, acting of themselves, the sort of thing proposed in times gone by as antidote to the theatrical spectacle we cannot – or should not – have available to us.

But of course, it is not. It breathes of last night’s audience.