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This chapter draws on Foucault’s pioneering work on the early political economy and his analysis of working-class ‘illegalism’ to understand how images of poverty were discursively constructed during the nineteenth century. It shows how the poor were both captured and made visible by a vast ‘theatre of poverty’, central to the emergence of what Foucault termed ‘societies of moralisation’. It argues that the theatre of poverty was rendered explicit on the stage through ‘poor plays’, such as Dion Boucicault’s melodrama, The Poor of New York (1857) – adapted as The Streets of London in 1864 – in which moralising discourse represented the poor either as the deserving victims of circumstance or as perpetrators of ‘popular illegalisms’ (from habitual drunkenness to machine wrecking). The chapter shows that although these plays were driven by an agenda of social reform, they remained indebted to the political economy’s theatre of poverty, particularly in their depiction of improvident indigence. It concludes by examining the contemporary influence of the theatre of poverty on the way today’s poor are represented, arguing that the theatre of poverty makes the poor visible, but determines the way they appear according to the circumscribed spaces made available to them by discourse’s modes of representation.
This edited collection is the first to engage directly with Foucault’s thought on theatre and with the theatricality of his thought. Michel Foucault was not only one of the most controversial and provocative thinkers of the twentieth century, he was also one of its most inventive and penetrating researchers. Notoriously hard to pin down, his work evades easy categorisation – philosopher, historian of ‘systems of thought’, ‘radical journalist’ ‒ Foucault was all of these things, and so much more. In what some see as a post-critical landscape, the book forcefully argues for the urgency and currency of Foucauldian critique, a method that lends itself to theatrical ways of thinking: how do we understand the scenes and dramaturgies of knowledge and truth? How can theatre help understand the critical shifts that characterised Foucault’s preoccupation with the gaze and the scenographies of power? Above all, what makes Foucault’s work compelling comes down to the question he repeatedly asked: ‘What are we at the present time?’ The book offers a range of provocative essays that think about this question in two ways: first, in terms of Foucault’s self-fashioning – the way he plays the role of public intellectual through journalism and his many public interviews, the dramaturgy of his thinking, and the appeal to theatrical tropes in his work; and, second, to think about theatre and performance scholarship through Foucault’s critical approaches to truth, power, knowledge, history, governmentality, economy, and space, among others, as these continue to shape contemporary political, ethical, and aesthetic concerns.
The introduction sets out the rationale of the book, and specifically unfolds its core aim, that of examining the ongoing influence of Michel Foucault to contemporary theatre and performance scholarship, simultaneously examining how theatricality enters Foucault’s own critical and philosophical practice. Discovering a ‘theatrical Foucault’ enables a reassessment of the political and ethical importance of his approach to questions of truth, governmentality, and critique. Of specific import to the introduction is the notion that shifting the critical gaze is a theatrical endeavour, one that is central to Foucault’s performance as a public intellectual and salient critic of contemporary life. The introduction proposes that the present political context makes it ever more urgent to analyse the theatrical and performative structures of power and knowledge, so as to rearticulate ways of cultivating forms of resistance and practices of autonomy. It is not paradoxical, the chapter argues, for Foucault’s own work to play with language and rhetorical style, just as he examines the aesthetic dimensions of historical and contemporary modes of subject formation.