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. 

That is really interesting. Unless a theatre-maker somehow transformed all that infrastructural detail into ‘character,’ in the sense of commanding not attention, but also a sort of empathy? Which I suppose you could do, although I don’t know of any examples. Perhaps where theatre blurs into games, audience-participants might become emotionally invested in that kind of foregrounded background. But even in those cases, I suspect the emotional investment might be of a quite strategic, calculative variety.

Another dominant factor in the development of Utopian Studies has been this focus on the cognitive and the critical, often at the expense of emotion, feeling, affect. That’s not because there haven’t been prose utopias that are interested in feeling. Of course there have! Yet the critical tradition has tended to relegate these to a secondary status. 

The utopian scholar Lyman Tower Sargent talks about the ‘city utopia’ and the ‘body utopia.’ For Sargent, the city utopia is very much something built, it is a utopia of human contrivances and scientific endeavour. The body utopia is something felt, a utopia of a feeling. To some extent this also becomes a periodisation. The body utopia is aligned with pre-Moreian utopianism: it’s the medieval Land of Cockayne, it’s sensuous abundance, it’s dancing and happiness and sexual munificence. The Isles of the Blessed would be one classic example. But if we think about drama as being an important part of the utopian tradition, then it makes it much more difficult to operate within those frameworks.

So moving to think about how drama might disrupt those frameworks, Howard Brenton’s 1988 Greenland is one play you look at. There is a sort of twist on the visitor-to-utopia conceit because there’s several visitors. What’s the difference between reading about an encounter between a visitor and a utopian, and then experiencing it acted out in front of your eyes, and perhaps acted out by multiple visitors, who are all very particular people? 

That’s a really interesting play. Actually, set of plays: Greenland is the last of what he retrospectively called his trilogy of utopian plays. But I do think there’s still a kind of single character we’re meant to identify with.  Joan, the Labour Party candidate, seems to me to be set up as somebody who is a little bit sceptical of the utopia. That’s been a convention of utopian literature, to have a character who’s a sceptic as a way of connecting with the reader or the audience. It assumes the audience to be a kind of critically thinking spectator with some reservations about the utopia. So I wonder about Joan sort of operating as the proxy for the audience, the sceptical but open-minded subject who needs to be persuaded.

Yes, I see that actually.

Nevertheless, there is a group of people. And I think one of the things that Brenton is interested in is the self, and the search for ways of being that are outside of dominant ideology. Outside of the Spectacle, if you like: Brenton was very influenced by Situationism. So looking for freer or more authentic ways of being. 

You really see that in Brenton’s 1984 play Bloody Poetry, the second in the trilogy. That’s about the Romantic writers, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont. They’re trying to create a utopian way of life outside of systems that dominate and oppress, to explore forms of sexuality and free love, and ways of being with each other that aren’t determined by a very restrictive social code. Unfortunately it doesn’t work. And the play’s quite tragic. But Brenton talks about how he isn’t trying to moralise about their behaviour, but to create a play that is, to an extent anyway, a celebration. It’s a celebration of these people and their attempt to practise a utopian way of living. It’s a prefigurative form of utopianism, if you like, even if it’s also tragic.

So does Greenland pick up those themes?

One way that it links with Greenland is this interest in the self and the possibilities of non-alienated experience. In Greenland, you have telepathy amongst the utopian characters. The play opens, like More’s Utopia, with a first act outside of utopia. In this case, it’s the UK in the 1980s. It’s that kind of cut-throat, dog-eat-dog Thatcherite Britain, with everybody either trying to outdo each other or just depressed. It’s resonant of the Jacobean city comedy, with a very fast-moving and ruthless energy.

And then you’ve got the second act, which is more of Green World comedy, to use Northrop Frye’s term. Brenton talks about it as a bit like the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. You dump a group of characters in a strange world and see how they interact. The utopian characters they meet can all communicate through telepathy, and they’ve developed a kind of connectedness to the extent that they understand one another without verbalising. So there are these multiple visitors, as you’ve mentioned, but the play also portrays a mingling of viewpoints with the utopians themselves. There’s an affinity, an intimacy that they’ve managed to develop, and that the play is really good at registering as well.

And there’s something interesting about how that telepathy plays out in terms of desire and consent too.

Yes, and also something about trying to create a community in the audience. Unfortunately, Brenton talks about the play not being very well understood. People thought it was strange, the reviews weren’t that good, and so on. So it’s not necessarily successful, or at least he didn’t think it was successful particularly. I think it’s a shame. I don’t think the reviews are quite as damning as he thinks they are, from what I’ve seen. 

Greenland is very self-conscious. It’s trying to find a way of talking about utopia. Brenton talks really interestingly about trying to find a model that he can use, a kind of form he can draw on for dramatising utopia, and what an effort it is to try and identify something that’s usable. That’s there in the play, a sort of awkwardness or something like that. I think it’s a great play, but it’s interesting that you can see his hesitation, his effort. The play also registers that effort, I think. 

In what ways?

Well, Brenton took William Morris’s 1890 novel News from Nowhere as one possible model from the prose tradition, and that’s directly referenced in Greenland. In the first part, when Joan and her partner are discussing how to talk to people on the doorstep when they’re canvassing for the Labour Party, Joan says, “People want to know what we want.” She mentions William Morris, as an example of someone who tried to vividly conjure utopia, but Bill is unimpressed by utopianism. He says a communist society will be invented by its citizens, when given the right material conditions to do so. And he calls Morris’s vision “endless country dancing.” So there’s a satirical swipe at News From Nowhere, but the play is quite clearly resonant with it as well. 

So speaking of material conditions, can we zoom out a bit, and talk about scarcity and abundance? Drama and prose can conjure up a scene in very different ways. Something about theatre almost seems to trigger the plenty concealed in meagre and mundane objects. So a stick swishes around on stage, and it is simultaneously both a stick and a sword. It’s simultaneously both a prop and whatever the prop is representing. A bit of floor in front of some chairs becomes a forest glade, a snowy mountaintop, a stormy sea. Some with costumes, scenery, lighting, even bodies — we mentioned the specificity of the actors’ bodies, but an actor can also acquire multiple bodies on stage. What do you think that kind of materiality might tell us about utopia?

Well, we might start by saying prose utopias consist of written language, and that theatre is radically polysemic. So theatre comprises multiple sign systems. You have verbalisations, props, costume, makeup, lighting, set design, sound, video. You have kinetics: gestures and movement.  Proxemics: the actors’ use of space. Space is very important within the utopian tradition across both prose and drama, with Utopia meaning ‘no place,’ and so on. Those are just some of the ways we might think about how meaning is created on the stage. And it’s difficult to generalise. In Utopian Drama, I cover plays from such a vast expanse of time, and in very different cultural moments and contexts. Many of these productions are radically different, in terms of their material construction of meanings.

But just to give you a couple of examples, we could take George Bernard Shaw’s 1921 play Back to Methuselah, which sees utopia coming about through long life. It’s a wacky, wacky Shaw play, where the idea is that short-termism is part of our problem as humans. We think on the scale of human lifespans, and we can’t really see beyond sixty or seventy years, so we don’t invest in thinking more expansively about the future. And we need long life in order to be able to see beyond the centuries and to plan and invest in a much more fulfilling life for hundreds if not thousands of years to come. So the play sees longevity developing in Shaw’s creation of these kind of superhumans, through creative evolution. Eventually we have utopian characters that are thousands of years old, and potentially immortal — it’s only an accident that will kill them. 

If you look at the reviews of those productions, there was never really an attempt at a utopian spectacle as such. The play consists of five playlets, and the first is set in the Garden of Eden, and the last many millennia in the future. The utopians of the final parts represent a different sort of political subject, capable of seeing past short-term self-interest and accommodating the complexities of modernity. Yet there’s not really an attempt to try and mark out this otherness, this strangeness, this sort of superhumanity, in any kind of explicit way. Instead you find critics remarking on the kind of ordinariness of these extremely long-lived characters. But the idea — one critic talks about the idea of the play growing and growing until it reached a dizzying magnificence. So it’s really interesting what’s happening in terms of the bond between performance and audience around the imagination. It’s not necessarily always about utilising all these multiple sign systems that are possible to draw on in the theatre. Sometimes it’s very explicitly around a kind of connection in the moment through the presence of both an audience and performers in the same space around a particular topic. 

Mojisola Adebayo’s 2019 play STARS

That is interesting. That drama has a kind of distinctive way of making an idea materially manifest, even without necessarily drawing on all those multiple systems you mentioned. Systems we might be tempted to think of as constitutive of the materiality of dramatic performance. 

To take a more recent example, there’s Claire MacDonald’s Utopia. There’s a male and a female performer just talking. There’s not very much else on stage. It’s very stripped down. The conversation is where the dramatic interaction occurs, and where the possibility of something happening takes place. 

But then you have a play like Mojisola Adebayo’s 2019 play STARS, which draws together a whole range of methods to produce an immersive experience. There are projected animation sequences. There are voiceovers and subtitles and there’s a BSL interpreter. There’s also a live DJ playing a set on stage throughout, who becomes part of the performance in places in various degrees. So there’s a very explicit registration of communication in that play, which becomes part of its political thinking. It’s about exploring alternative means to register others, to register alternative ways of thinking about living in the world. Adebayo is concerned with access, and with connections between art, activism and community. So you do have much more spectacle, I think, in that play. It’s perhaps much more fulfilling in that sense of what we might hope for, in terms of theatrical spectacle. There’s just a huge variety, I think, in the ways in which these plays I’ve looked at relate to the terms you’ve mentioned — materiality, scarcity, and abundance.

Does that include interactivity? You’ve alluded to a sort of baseline interactivity, which arises simply from the presence of performers and audiences in shared space, assembled around utopian ideas. 

And even scripted work contains unscripted elements. The performance is never completely stable.

Right. And what about other forms of interactivity? For instance, tabletop roleplaying games and live action roleplaying games, which create spaces for players to collaboratively improvise stories? 

As far as games go, they are not something I’ve looked at directly. They would be interesting to explore. Claire MacDonald’s work, although it’s pre-scripted, really feels like it isn’t. It feels like improvisation, engaging with undecidability and co-creation. Also Andy Smith’s work, which I haven’t had time to write about yet, but hope to do so at some point. Smith is very interested in trust and connection, and co-creation and hope. So yes, I think that there is definitely something there in terms of how utopian drama might intersect with improvisation, co-creation, and unscripted storytelling. And Adebayo’s STARS turns into a club night at the end of the play!

Wow. What is that like?

I haven’t been myself. She very kindly sent me a video recording of a rehearsal of STARS as the production was delayed (due to Covid). But I’ve got a ticket, actually, to go early next year. You can book for the club night as well, so you can book the two events separately if you want. The DJ plays experimental electronic dance music that operates in interesting ways throughout that play, partly in terms of how it interpellates multiple audience demographics: both young audiences, but also audiences who were part of the early electronic dance music scenes in the eighties and nineties. That’s interesting in terms of intergenerational community, I think.

When I think of a participatory spectacle, it’s probably something like dancing that comes to mind first! I’m intrigued by spectacle, and how spectacle might harbour these contradictory energies — entrancing and emancipating, welcoming and daunting, all at once. And I like the idea of STARS spilling over into an ambiguous aftermath. ‘Are we still in the play?’ With the roleplaying games, the term bleed is sometimes used, to describe that intertraffic between the fiction and the reality.

It’s a really interesting way for a piece of utopian art to end. In some ways it goes back to Aristophanes, I think it’s The Assemblywomen that ends with an invitation to audiences to join the actors in the feasting and dancing. There are other examples I’ve written on that are perhaps less explicit, but still involve that kind of shift to the participatory. The ways that Claire McDonald’s plays work as a dialogic form, where a conversation is set up, and you as an audience member are involved in that conversation — if not literally, then certainly metaphorically, or in some kind of affective way. You are part of what is being produced. There is that strong feeling of something being created in the moment, and you are part of that co-creation. 

I suppose it relates to another term you just touched on, immersion. Immersion is often contrasted with estrangement of some kind, and as we alluded to earlier, estrangement has an association within utopian studies with a kind of clear critical reasoning. There is the notion that estrangement might break down the everyday imaginary that we occupy, and free us to stand outside our customs and norms and institutions, and think rationally about how they might be reconstructed. But the sense I’m gathering is that these plays might actually offer a quite varied set of relationships between estrangement and immersion, and within that variety it is seldom one or the other that dominates — usually both things are happening at once?

That does feel fair. You’ve got Darko Suvin’s cognitive estrangement, which is primarily a feature of science fictional and utopian and dystopian prose narratives. Then there’s the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. There’s certainly a connection between those two concepts. And where does utopian drama come into this? I don’t talk about it too much in the book, but I think it is an interesting area. The way that you set up the question, we often understand Brecht’s approach to appeal to the critical faculties. Trying to set emotions to one side, even seeing emotion as equating to kind of non-thinking. 

Yes, although I’m probably being a bit unfair to the actual Brecht there. I suppose what I mean is, the concept of estrangement can sometimes be used that way within literary critical practice. As though you achieve a clear and reasonable view of what could be when you remove all the sentimental attachments to the way things are. But that’s not really what Brecht was saying, and it’s not what his plays do. For example, Augusto Boal talks about how the audience can weep enlightened tears during Brecht’s Mother Courage — because you understand exactly what material forces have caused this tragedy.

Utopian drama certainly exploits emotion. Emotion, feeling, sensation, are all key ways in which an alternative utopian world is accessed. But at the same time, there are quite Brechtian techniques in a lot of these plays in terms of drawing attention to the artifice of the dramaturgy, breaking the fourth wall. There’s often direct connection with the audience, self-deconstructive elements, and a kind of knowingness about the production. These are quite regular features of all these plays. In some cases — not all — I think these techniques are associated with deliberately breaking immersion, and perhaps diminishing emotional intensity too. So there is an interesting mix of the two. Thinking more about the detail of that and how that might work in individual productions would be fruitful, I think.

We’ve talked about Adebayo’s STARS and how it kind of spills out into this big party. You also mentioned that strange scripted unscripted feel to MacDonald’s Utopia. Is there something in these plays that isn’t just ‘in’ these plays, if I can put it that way? How are these plays negotiating or contesting their own enclave form? And how might that relate to how utopias negotiate and contest their own borders?

That’s a really good question. I think that space is always interesting to utopian literature, prose fiction as well as drama. You can go right back to Aristophanes’s Birds, where they’re creating this bird utopia and constructing a really thick wall around this utopia in the sky. There is a comedy, a kind of irony in attempting to build something so solid and stable in the sky. Irony of that kind has been common in utopian drama. It invokes questions about utopia’s location and durability, and links them with the ephemerality of the performance itself. Where is utopia? Where is the performance? Where is the play? Does it exist in the text? Is it just on stage for the time of the performance? Where is it located? That is something that is equally applicable to the utopian imagination. 

You might bring in Michel Foucault’s idea of the heterotopia here. For Foucault, the utopia is unreal, but the heterotopia is real. A heterotopia is a real site, it’s a liminal site, a site of something that’s in-between other spaces. It reflects but also unsettles and counteracts normative society. Foucault notes a variety of these spaces: heterotopias of deviation, heterotopias of crisis, and so on. The utopian imagination on stage connects with that notion of heterotopia, and what you were saying about things spilling over the borders.

Margaret Cavendish is very interesting on this too. In one of her plays, The Convent of Pleasure, the materiality of the utopia is really difficult to discern in the play. In early scenes, it gets spoken about, but it doesn’t seem to materialise until suddenly we’re within the centre of the convent and they’re putting on performances and living a utopian lifestyle. These spaces are often breached as well. There are these communities of women that men are clamouring to get into. In one of Cavendish’s other utopian plays, The Female Academy, a group of men surround the utopian space and boorishly blow their bugles at these women. They’re playing their trumpets outside to try and drown out the women’s speeches. The play enacts a sort of frustration of the male gaze, where the men can’t quite see the women through the Academy’s grate, but they can hear them speechifying endlessly. This is incredibly frustrating for them. So there’s this idea of the precarity of the utopian space: the utopian space as vulnerable or under threat. 

Perhaps with the prose utopia, it is easier to displace or defer those kinds of questions — about the location of utopia in space, its boundaries and connections with the non-utopian. Whereas when you have to materialise the utopia on stage, you are compelled to confront certain complications more directly. I think there’s always been this sort of seepage and precariousness of the space, and an interest in how that space is breached, or how the utopian performance overspills. And also in its dispersal. In Cavendish’s plays these utopias eventually disappear, and the women become reintegrated into society. 

Building on those points about permeable and precarious boundaries. One way that the performance is regularly breached is laughter. Laughter is kind of a legitimate mode of interruption, through which audience and performers negotiate about the pacing and delivery of lines. Laughter also creates outward links. So comedy can preserve and carry utopian ideas outward from the performance, making them memorable, making them worthy of repetition … but perhaps also containing and neutralising those ideas as mere jokes. Can we talk about playfulness and humour in utopian drama?

First of all, I don’t want to overgeneralise here. I teach a course on utopian and dystopian texts in context, and we look at a lot of fiction. It’s important not to turn utopian fiction into a strawman. But there is often a kind of earnestness there. Utopian prose is a hybrid mix of genres, including colonial travel writing, epistolary narrative, and political treatises. All of these genres tend to use an earnest register of writing. There’s a didactic aspect to the political functionality of such discourse.

But the utopian imagination is not always like that. It’s a desire for something else, and there can be a kind of ungainliness about that desire. Utopian drama, with its origins in comedy, has ways of accommodating the ungainly and embarrassing aspects of imagining something so completely different. This is a genre that can play host to extremes, to buffoonery, to all sorts of surreal and absurd experience. So it doesn’t need the multiple attempts at earnestness, the over-the-top exaggerations, or the complicated framings that utopian prose uses to try to position itself in relation to the real. Utopian drama doesn’t need that, because of those origins in comedy.

With, as you say, plenty of exceptions.

Right. There is comedy in prose fiction as well. Even More’s Utopia has its deconstructive elements. Its convention of naming is deconstructive, for example — Utopia as no-place, the name of the river means no-water, and so on. There’s been a lot of ink spilled about the extent to which Utopia determines these destabilisations. But I’ve just about come to the conclusion that they are quite contained. Most readers of Utopia have an encounter with an earnestness, an earnestness that is much less present in the utopian dramatic tradition. 

Utopian drama, I’d say, doesn’t just contain comic elements, it emerges in a comic form. That makes it more potentially unstable in terms of the reception of its political content. My study hasn’t seriously attended to any kind of empirical research on audience reception. That’s not something I’ve tried to do. But I do think the shifts in satire in Aristophanes’ The Birds, for example, would be interesting here. Some critics believe that the political ambitions of the protagonist Pisthetaerus undermine the play’s utopian aspirations. He is striving to create this utopian society, and there are moments where his ambitions express a kind of dominating character type. Yet then you have these shifts where the play satirises non-utopian Athens. So it’s really a rollercoaster of different emphases, and different satirical swipes at various aspects of society. There’s just enough satire of contemporary Athens for it to have political potency.

That perhaps speaks to another kind of seepage — the way a play with multiple satirical impulses, even contradictory satirical impulses, can then become critically contested, can get swept up into interpretation and debate. Of course, even if you did your best to write an entirely unambiguous didactic utopia, that can still happen. But I suppose it’s interesting how a utopia might anticipate and influence the ways in which people will disagree about it.

The rollercoaster effect in The Birds certainly opens up a space of critical debate. I do think that play has incited a huge number of contestatory responses, without any kind of consensus about its politics. Probably more so than any of the other dramas I look at. You asked about how a utopia might seek political agency through its humour, while at the same time undermining itself through that humour, and I think The Birds is a good example of that. But at the same time, I do think it creates a radically open space, by the way it constructs its satirical gaze, veering among all these different objects of satire.

I guess so far we’ve been talking about comic utopia in a fairly hermeneutic way — interpreting through close reading, contextualising historically, and so on. You just mentioned another possible angle on it, which would be audience response. Then there’s a third angle which also interests me, which is kind of the poetics or the craft of it. If you were Aristophanes — Aristophanes the Utopian, let’s just say — and you were thinking, “Okay, do I cut this line? Do I change this word?” How do we start thinking through those types of questions? Does that make sense?

Yes. I mean, as I wrote that chapter, I was struck by how much textual evidence seemed to be unremarked on, by critics who were recruiting Aristophanes to an anti-utopian position. For example, one Utopian Studies critic, talking about The Assemblywomen, gave a really one-sided account of Praxagora’s plot. Praxagora and a group of women disguise themselves as men and manage to pass a new law in the Senate, changing power so that women rule. The men vote this through because everything’s been bad for so long, and they want to have a change. 

And then Praxagora is wonderful! She’s eloquent and articulate and efficient and creative and her new society is very popular. Yes, there are satirical elements too. There are new sex laws where there’s a kind of free love situation, except if you want to have sex with somebody good looking, you have to have sex with somebody ugly first. So that’s interesting. And the way that plays out, there is a clear satirical intent which undermines Praxagora’s revolution to some extent. It’s really striking how much critics play that up, but without observing the fact that the play ends with celebration and feasting and consensual amorous encounters. One critic talks about Praxagora’s plot ‘failing’ in the end — and I do wonder sometimes how many people have actually read the full play!

That’s a really interesting example. I sometimes think, from a craft perspective, that writers should take more responsibility for what our texts might mean when they are read badly — skimmed, dimly recollected, read in fragments, etc. But it’s easier said than done. 

And then, perhaps the inverse is applicable too? When you are using art to probe the boundaries of the imaginable, perhaps the best you can do is often a poor and broken expression of something. So it becomes about having the right instinct that you can include a fragment, an inkling that others will nurture and transform and bring to fullness. 

Perhaps there is something in Praxagora’s sex bureaucracy which, centuries later, might speak to the need to destabilise hierarchical beauty norms? Maybe Aristophanes would be interested in Amia Srinivasan’s The Right to Sex, which talks about incel misogyny, but also about the liberal sex-positive gaze, that takes the desirability of certain bodies as a pre-political given.  Maybe that’s part of how humour operates within utopianism. ‘I know this isn’t quite it yet. Here it is as a joke.’

I suppose my final question, then, might be about performance and performativity.   There’s the everyday understanding of ‘performance’ where it is opposed to reality. You’re pretending something is true. But performance is also theorised as having a more complicated relationship with reality. So J.L. Austin talks about performative utterances that do things rather than just reporting on things. And then Judith Butler influentially theorised gender and performativity. And you have notions like design fiction and diegetic prototyping, where there is the idea of performing a fiction to help progress it to fact — mostly in small ways, at the scale of a product, say, rather than holistic social change. But I wonder if you have any final thoughts on performance and performativity? 

Yes. In Jill Dolan’s 2005 book Utopia in Performance, she theorises what she calls utopian performatives. She sees these as the way that particular performances can inspire moments where people feel strongly connected to one another and where alternatives seem possible. She also talks about the performative creation of a more capacious form of self that can be inspired. And she explores an eclectic range of contemporary performances, to investigate these utopian performatives. 

That’s one really interesting way of working through how performances can be performative, I suppose. It is to do with an instantiation of utopian feeling, and it’s prefigurative and anticipatory as well, a prefiguration of what utopia might feel like. She does that so brilliantly. My book didn’t take that approach, but there are moments like this in the performances of plays I look at, definitely. 

I’ve talked a little bit about Adebayo’s STARS. I think that’s certainly a good example where this happens. You’ve got palpable moments of connectedness and joy. There are feelings of hopefulness. Partly, I think this is enabled by how Adebayo’s work draws on post-dramatic aesthetics. And also how it draws on a context of post-irony, or the New Sincerity. So this idea of moving beyond postmodern irony and distance, toward spaces where connectedness and communication can arise between speaker and audiences. Having conversations and trying to develop connections of trust. Post-irony means not doing that naively, not forgetting the complications of doing that, or perhaps even acknowledging the impossibility of doing that. But the attempt is there. 

That’s there in Adebayo’s work, and I think in MacDonald’s work too. You can see the effort, and the effort is part of the aesthetics. The attempt to try and communicate, the attempt to try and create new lines of flights, to find ways of talking about a better world. However embarrassing or difficult or complicated or impossible that might feel, the attempt to do it is important nonetheless. So I suppose that’s performativity in a way. These performances instantiate moments of connectedness that seem impossible in normative space. And you do get glimpses of intersubjective connectedness and love, trust, joy. All these things that are difficult to name, I suppose, in a kind of earnest way.

Siân, thank you so much! 

This interview will be included in the forthcoming collection Utopia on the Tabletop (Ping Press). Thanks to the British Science Fiction Association, the Sussex Humanities Lab (Open Practice Group), and the University of Sussex School of Media, Arts and Humanities.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s