What does contemporary metadrama tell us about contemporary theatre?

In a post few weeks back, readers helped me compile a list of contemporary plays that can be considered metadramatic or metatheatrical.  I’d like to pick this topic up again and ask you to think about this post’s title question. What does contemporary metadrama tell us about contemporary theatre?

Now, I recognize that it’s sometimes easier to assess trends, patterns, movements, what have you, retrospectively, so that our understanding of the distinct qualities and aims of metadramatic plays in the late 20th/early 21st century may not become fully apparent until further down the road.  However, I’d like us to at least try to speculate on the (common) traits, motivations, and goals behind the different metadramas that have been written and staged in our time.

One of my own goals in asking these questions is to come to better understand how recent metadrama fits within the history of this form.  To expand my initial question, I’d ask another more general one: in what sense are recent metadramatic plays ‘of this moment’?  And, more specifically, are there particular (literary, practical, social, political, economic, theoretical, etc.) conditions that may be inclining/inspiring playwrights to write this type of play?

As just one example of the relationship between metadrama and historical moment , I’d point to the English Restoration (1660-1685), a period rife with many different strains of metadrama.  In one respect, metadrama in this period served as a way to debate value and genre.  In The Rehearsal (1671), for example, the Duke of Buckingham used his play to attack excessive emotion and spectacle of heroic drama.  Have you seen any metadramatic plays lately that are reflexive investigations of value and form or that take jabs at other plays or playwrights?  Another reason for the prevalence of metadrama during the Restoration was the limited and competitive nature of the theatre scene: it was a duopoly, comprised of the Duke’s Company and the King’s Company.  And yet another reason was the appearance of the actress (finally) on the English stage in 1660, which led to many plays intensely preoccupied with the gendered implications of performance.

One strain of metadrama that stands out to me as a trend possibly unique to 20th/21st century theatre is biographical metadrama, most notably the abundance of plays concerned with Shakespeare (Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead , Bill Cain’s Equivocation, etc.), Wilde (too many to list all here so I’ll leave it Tom Kilroy’s The Secret Fall of Constance Wilde and Moises Kaufman’s Gross Indecency), and now Behn (Liz Duffy Adams’ Aphra in Antwerp and Or, and Karen Eterovich’s Love Arm’d).  But then again, I live in South Florida, so there are limits to what I am able to see, so talk to me…please…

One more thing, in case it will help you consider the questions above, I’ve reposted below the list of types of metadrama which I included in my previous post on the subject:

Metaplays may be about

  • A real or fictional playwright.
  • Another play.
  • An actor or acting.
  • A director, a producer, a stage manager, a costume/set/sound designer.
  • A rehearsal.
  • A front of house role, such as box office, usher, etc.
  • A theatregoer.
  • A theatre audience.
  • A theatre critic.
  • A theatre movement or subgenre.
  • Drama/Theatre as a metaphor for depicting life, for telling a story not otherwise directly about drama or theatre.
  • A play within a play.
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