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What is Deconstructionist Theater?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Jan 23, 2024
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Deconstructionist theater is a term covering a wide variety of theatrical styles, determined to examine situations from a different or unusual point of view. Based on the theories of French philosopher Jacques Derrida, among others, deconstructionist theater is complicated and difficult to define as any one thing. The goal of the concept is to challenge established assumptions about a subject, but the method for doing so is a wide open field.

The theory of deconstruction as it is today was formed in the 20th century, partially as a reaction to authoritarian censorship and realism. Instead of agreeing that there is one set definition or interpretation of a concept, deconstructionist theory argues that there are no set definitions. Instead, interpretation is reached on an individual basis, as each person comes to a viewpoint from a unique background of their own experience. Because of this, not only are all interpretations equally right, they are also often entirely contradictory.

Basically, any theatrical production that challenges an established concept in some way can be classed as partially deconstructive. In Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, the first act of the play is set in colonial-era Africa, where a black character is played by a white man, a docile housewife is played by a man, and a young boy is played by a girl. In the second act, which is twenty years later for the characters but more than a century later in setting, a young girl is played by the same actor who played a domineering father in the first act. Confusing as it may sound, the play uses this unconventional casting approach to highlight the issues of gender role stereotyping. In this way, the play is at least partially deconstructive.

Well-known University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) professor Gary Gardner will frequently describe deconstructionist theater to his classroom by filling a glass with water and flinging it against a wall. This method, a surprisingly common approach taken to the study of the theory, exemplifies the central concept behind the theory: what you perceive as a glass is also a collection of connected pieces of glass. While one can hold water and one can’t, both are the same thing. This example shows the contradictions that are inherent and accepted in deconstructionist theater, and emphasizes the importance of multiplicity of interpretation.

To better understand the wide concept of this form of theater, try reading some plays by writers considered to be deconstructionist in nature. Caryl Churchill, Samuel Beckett, and Arthur Miller are all considered by some to provided good examples of the genre. To attempt to better grasp the concepts behind the theatrical version of deconstructionist theory, reading Jacques Derrida’s extensive writings on the subject will either give you a better idea of the topic, or confuse you completely.

Deconstructionist theater is notorious for being a slippery concept. It is impossible to get a consensus from experts on what it means and what it is supposed to look like, because definitions are the very heart of what it fights against. According to some theater critics, it is the search for connection between individuals by fully realizing personal interpretation, rather than cementing down a falsely universal view by parroting it over and over.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for LanguageHumanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.

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Jessica Ellis

Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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