Article Title

Serious Money Becomes "Business by Other Means": Caryl Churchill's Metatheatrical Subject


Daniel Jernigan


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In his foundational work devoted to defining the difference between tragedy and metatheater, Lionel Abel identifies numerous distinguishing characteristics of metatheater. Numbered among them is the claim that “for metatheatre, order is something continually improvised by men.”1 Even this singular tenet, which for the sake of brevity I will call the “Ontological Order Tenet,” can be regarded as fairly comprehensive, especially if it is read as suggesting that metatheater endeavors to point out ontologically that the physical world might not be quite what it seems. Moreover, distinguished participants in the form such as Luigi Pirandello and Bertolt Brecht are defended by Abel as metatheatrical, at least according to his theory.2 When Pirandello "explores dramatically our inability to distinguish between illusion and reality” it can be seen as metatheatrical (according to the Ontological Order Tenet) because even as metadrama blurs the boundaries between illusion and reality, it does so by circumscribing a theatrical order explicitly “improvised by men”; Brecht is metatheatrical, in Abel’s scheme of things, because “he insists on the fact that [his characters] are puppets”; he “does not try to pass them off as real people, and [he] delights in exhibiting their mechanisms.” In keeping with the Ontological Order Tenet this reminds us that the point of Brecht’s plays is to focus on the very fact that they have indeed been “improvised by men.”


1Lionel Abel, Metatheatre: A New View of Dramatic Form (New York: Hill and Wang, 1963), 113. Other features of metatheatre as described by Abel include that “Metatheatre gives by far the stronger sense that the world is a projection of human consciousness …. Metatheatre glorifies the unwillingness of the imagination to regard any image of the world as ultimate … Metatheatre assumes there is no world except that created by human striving, human imagination.” Missing from this list, however, is the explicit and straightforward claim that metatheater is, more simply, theater that takes theater as its subject, such as might be found in any contemporary introductory anthology of modern drama. W. B. Worthen, for instance, provides the following definition in the glossary to his Modern Drama: “A term used to describe plays that self-consciously comment on the process of theater, and so treat the relationship between theater and life. Such plays sometimes use the ‘play-within-the-play device.’” (W. B. Worthen, Modern Drama: Volume 2 [Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1995], 1189).

2Of course Abel does not rely on this singular tenet to make his case that Brecht’s and Pirandello’s respective works are metatheatrical, but it is reasonable that such a case might be made.

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