Utopian Drama: An interview with Siân Adiseshiah

In your book Utopian Drama: In Search of a Genre, you distinguish two wellsprings of utopian thought. There is the early prose tradition, which includes texts like Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies, Thomas More’s Utopia, and perhaps also Plato’s Republic. Your research focuses on the second tradition — the theatrical tradition. This is something you trace back to the Old Comedy of Ancient Greece, and something that has been comparatively less studied. How do you think that the priority on prose has shaped Utopian Studies?

The frameworks of Utopian Studies, as they have developed over recent decades, have typically assumed the object of study to be prose fiction. So features of this early prose tradition have of course informed how interpretation has operated within Utopian Studies. Utopia, at least by default, is something described. It also generally gets constructed by a gaze that is located outside of that utopia. Thomas More’s Utopia, for example, needs to be set within the context of early modern travel narratives, and the whole range of colonial encounters which these describe. 

Right, the traveller who visits a far away place or time, sees strange things, and learns just to rethink the institutions back home. Presumably that has played into the high regard with which defamiliarization is held, certainly within adjacent fields like Science Fiction Studies?  But then, does it need to be that way? Couldn’t we get to know utopia through the experiences of characters who have always lived there and are deeply familiar with different aspects of utopia?

Another feature of the early prose tradition is that assumption of anonymity. More’s Utopia is again a good example. There’s a striking shift between Book One, where there is a conversation of sorts among various real and fictional people, and what happens in Book Two. In Book Two, Raphael recounts his travels on the island of Utopia, and suddenly all sense of character disappears! 

So I think that’s very much a feature of the early prose fictional examples of utopia, and absolutely not in the case of dramas. In More’s Utopia, you don’t get to know individual Utopians. In later prose utopias, that does change, partly due to the emergence and development of the novel, but also as a response to accusations of the genre being boring — but even in the later utopias, there isn’t very much character interiority, or much of  a sense of agency, et cetera

You do sometimes get defences of a utopian rhetoric of generality, abstraction, anonymity. Like the idea that a wide range of readers will identify with an Everyman narrator. But of course, every ‘Everyman’ is really an ‘Actually Pretty Specificman.’ He is a particular subject position, elevated in a way that rejects the reality of other subject positions, or suggests that such differences are negligible. On stage, I suppose that Everyman myth might be even harder to sustain? Simply because there is always a very specific voice, face, body, occupying that role?

Yes, absolutely. The particularity. But also just the fact of a body on stage at all!— people on stage, humans, rather than a kind of distant description, a kind of external gaze. Another feature of the early prose fiction tradition is using setting as foreground. So in More’s Utopia you have long descriptions of the number of districts and the way that towns are laid out, housing, agriculture, et cetera. What’s usually registered as background setting in the novel becomes part of the foregrounded narrative in utopian prose. Character, if it figures at all, is there as background. So again, this is something that’s immediately reversed when you’re looking at a play, when you’re looking at stage drama. 

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