A School writing : Culturele Stromingen Second year paper

Focus on Postmodernism - Comparative study of two oeuvres

Produced in the same decade by major artists of their times, two key pieces –one film and one theater performance display a series of common characteristics. The film is English director Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers , which was released in 1988. The theater piece The Power of Theatrical Madness was premiered in 1984 and was directed by Belgian artist Jan Fabre. What these two pieces have in common not only denotes a specific proximity between two oeuvres but first and foremost outlines the main aspects of their art current. Indeed both pieces are prominent examples of postmodernism.[1] In the first part we will draw a comparison between these two oeuvres. In the second part, focusing on their shared characteristics we will further discuss them in the context of postmodern art. Then the last part will be an attempt to deepen their similitude with ideas from the lecture by Karel Verstrynge on “Globalization in a Media-Ethical Perspective”. My interest in doing so comes from the surprise that the theoretical content of his lecture is described by scholars with the term ‘postmodernity’.

Overview of the lectures, movies and performances

Senden, Yves. A Taste of Postmodernism. Lecture in Antwerp, DeSingel, Witte Zaal, 8 December 2014.

Verstrynge, Karel. Globalization in a New-Media Ethical Perspective. Lecture in Antwerp, DeSingel, Gele Zaal, 24 November 2014.

Greenaway, Peter. Drowning by Numbers . Film, 10 September 1988.

Fabre, Jan. The Power of Theatrical Madness. Performance in Antwerp, Troubleyn, 3 February 2015.

A common feature: Revival of the Baroque style

Wim Mertens is one obvious common denominator to Peter Greenaway and Jan Fabre. He is a Belgian composer who produced the music for The Power of Theatrical Madness. He also created the music for Peter Greenaway’s 1987 film The Belly of an Architect. Apart from that, there is no direct connection to Fabre’s and Greenaway’s pieces. Still similarities exist at another level.

Primarily, both pieces revive codes of Baroque style. There is a game of double identities with the two naked emperors in Fabre’s. They occupy the exact same role with the same attributes of power: a crown and a scepter. They act in mirror of one another but are competing for power. Greenaway plays with triple identities with the three main female characters all named Cissie Colpitts, but at different ages (an old lady, her daughter and her niece?). The eldest one asks the male protagonist Madgett “Do you think we are the same woman?” It evokes the games of troubled identities of Baroque theater, notably in Shakespeare's play “Twelfth Night” where twins are dressing up and exchange roles in the end. Very much like a vanity in Baroque aesthetics, the theme of death is a constant under-layer in Greenaway’s film. The film tells the story of three murders disguised as accidents and ends with three innocent deaths. Also Madgett’s son Smutt records all dead animals in his neighborhood. In Fabre as well death is made visible by stamping on live toads, splashing with blood the clothes they are covered with. The mythological theme of Samson and Delilah appears in Drowning by Numbers at various occasions: the hair cutting of Hardy during the wedding party and just after his death. This myth was made famous by Baroque painter Rubens in Samson and Delilah, 1610. Also the festive tables at each of Madgett’s meals evoke the exaggeratedly rich banquets depicted by Baroque painters.[2] As a matter of fact, exaggeration is a Baroque feature that Fabre heavily resorts to. In his piece roles are exaggerated: when the dancers are mimicking dogs or when they are imitating the disco dance style, they are overacting. The ever looping process used for most scenes is also exaggerated to the point where scenes are way too long extended. The overall duration of the piece is approximately four hours and reminds of the lengthy “ballets de cour” that were in fashion in France during the Baroque period. [3]

A common art current: Postmodernism

It is not insignificant that Greenaway’s film Drowning by Numbers and Fabre’s piece The Power of Theatrical Madness were produced in a four year interval. It is not about the earliest one inspiring the latest. They are indeed two productions of the same period from two independent makers, and for that reason, we can expect that what they will share as similarities would originate from the “Zeitgeist”, rather than deliberate inspiration. Indeed this compelling similitude resonates directly with the principles of postmodern art. We saw that Jan Fabre’s The Power of Theatrical Madness and Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers revive Baroque aesthetics. But references to other art styles and pieces abound in both cases. In Fabre’s, paintings (by Ingres, Poussin…) appear on a screen in the back. The only spoken speech is the recitation of lists of breakthrough theater performances with the name of the creator, the date of the premiere etc… He also quotes famous musical themes like Bizet’s air “La Habanera” from Carmen, Strauss and Wagner. [4] The musical score is overly significant in Greenaway’s film, sometimes overlapping with dialogues. Composed by Michael Nyman, it consists only of variations on a phrase from Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante 1779.[5] By referring to a variety of oeuvres and putting them together, they are recycling their original meaning. Here the fact of quoting is resolutely a postmodern statement. Postmodern artists reuse preexisting forms, rearranging them in different assemblages in order to reveal new ideas.[6]

As prominent as the music in Peter Greenaway’s film is the recitation of lists: lists of stars, lists of numbers, lists of rules for absurd games. They don’t help the story progress although they impregnate the movie from the beginning to the end. In fact counting and playing games provide the only structure with which the characters and audience may comprehend events.[7] Indeed the rest of the content makes little sense. Peter Greenaway deconstructed the plot by setting aside the causation links and most of the likelihood. It presents as three times a loop of one unique event: Cissie Colpitts drowning her naked husband. The intervention and importance of Madgett as the local coroner is left unclear. Their implication with the outside world isn’t explained either. Explicit meaning is absent, at least not accessible by mundane good sense. At the resemblance of the décor they used: almost only outdoors, without a roof –like their swimming pool building, or if inside, doors are left open; the meaning is left open. A similar result is achieved by different means with Jan Fabre. He deliberately alters the narrative content by layering and superimposing scenes on other scenes. Often two actions take place at the same time: the dressing up of the kings during the running scene on stage front for instance. The additions of the paintings on the screen in the back, as well as the parrots for the final scene offer a potential comparative reading. The plain action on stage is always proposed with alternative ways to understand it in relationship to its surrounding elements. He also prolongs scenes far beyond their exhaustion, to a point where the repetitiveness becomes the actual topic of the action in spite of the meaningful content which is then lost.[8] No coherent overall meaning stems from the performance. The “loss of meaning” is precisely another feature of postmodern art.[9] It is left to the audience to choose among all possibilities that have been exposed.[10] We the audience have to take an active role in this game and decide for ourselves what to make with what we individually perceive.

A common context: ‘the Postmodern Condition’

The topic of the lecture by by Karel Verstrynge about “Globalization in a media-ethical perspective” addresses social and ethical issues raised by new virtual social media. The wider frame that he describes is also associated by some scholars to the “macro context of ‘the postmodern condition’[11] within functions of globalization and the information/network society”.[12] Considering that here is another occurrence of the word “postmodern”, how might the social considerations of “postmodernity” help shed light on the principles of postmodernism raised by the pieces at study here?

In the context of the “postmodern condition” the principle of identity as an individual is at stake. In his lecture Verstrynge takes an example of how the younger generation navigates comfortably between various profiles online. He assesses that as a result of the new media context identities are now fragmented and variable and that they strive to be asserted through their individualities.[13] In Drowning by Numbers , there is a deliberate confusion between individuals as the three main characters bear the same name of Cissie Colpitts. The three of them repeat the exact same series of actions. And the natural intimacy they share is another signal that these three ladies might be considered as one single character whose story is repeated three times. However the three Cissie Colpitts are obstinate in their insistence that they are distinct, separate people.[14] In The Power of Theatrical Madness the two emperors are facing a similar paradox. From the beginning on they are acting in symmetry of one another. They behave like each other’s reflection in a mirror. They behave like two impersonation of one single character. But their coexistence becomes problematic and they start conflicting over their tango pas-de-deux. The only way out is the elimination of one of them by throttling him to death in a mouth-to-mouth kiss. Apart from these two there isn’t any characterized role. Positions can shift from dominated to dominant; couples are changing; the nature of their interactions is constantly altering through the piece so that it keeps us from assigning any specific characterization to their characters. They are all wearing the same uniform. They are behaving like a crowd of similarly individualized (or de-individualized) characters.

In the context of the “postmodern condition”, individuality is a question equally at stake. In his essay Liquid Life Zygmunt Bauman is pointing at the paradoxical situation of being an individual in a crowd of individuals. In striving to become an individual –that is unlike anyone else, all members of this crowd become alike in their attempt to be unlike anyone else. It is an unsolvable quandary that any social being is confronted with. Bauman further assesses that this quest appears as intrinsically self-referential, for each individual to inquire in his own self.[15] And as one investigates his inner field, he says that one finds an intricate structure with elements that are separable but held together in a precarious unity.[16] The act of exploring and exposing the fragmented selves is as consistent in Greenaway’s and Fabre’s pieces. They both deal with the possibility of duplicating and replicating these fragments and make the audience wonder if those are similar fragments in different people, or conflicting occurrences of one same individual.

Considering that Fabre and Greenaway do not convey any specific message in their pieces, it is not the content but the formalization itself that constitutes the challenge.[17] Fabre entitles his piece The Power of Theatrical Madness so as to drive the audience attention onto the theatrical device; the medium that he creates. His piece provides a relevant illustration of one of Richard Hornsby’s axioms for relating drama to reality that “a play doesn’t reflect life, instead it reflects itself”.[18] During the piece the notion that we are in a theater is often mentioned. There is twice a strong emphasis on the separation line between the audience and the stage: first when one girl is denied her access back on stage by the ‘disciplinary sergeant’ and second when two performers are walking blindfolded on the exact verge of the stage. Throughout the whole piece performers are reciting lists with dates and names of other theater pieces ending with This is Theater as it was to be expected and foreseen which was Jan Fabre’s previous piece. So much focus given to the author reminds how David Harvey presents one aspect of postmodernism with “all staked on the charisma of those who told the stories”, as opposed to pure rational speech.[19] In a more subtle way Peter Greenaway challenges the medium of film as well. Throughout the film each number from 1 to 100 appears sequentially either visually or spoken. First of all it creates a higher level of alertness in the viewer counting on the next number to show up. Second it hints at the dramaturgical build-up of the film as it provides a measure of the time lapse especially how much is left before the end. And last it alludes to the editing of the film by precluding any possibility of changing the order or discarding any scene –which is a prevailing specificity of film as a medium.


Both directors are drawing our attention onto the medium instead of the actual meaning of their pieces. The question of what this piece was about is irrelevant for both. As mentioned in Verstrynge’s lecture on new media, Marshall McLuhan coins the idea that “the medium is the message”. He describes that (new) media affect our relation to the world (time and space), to the others and to ourselves.[20] This new perspective on technology and media is core to the way the “postmodern condition” is described. In the era of fast technological changes, we now measure better how new media shape and reshape our culture and how they prevail over the conveyed content. Postmodern artists have summed it up: they create new media devices that offer new ways of comprehending the world. Their devices are meant as tools to organize a content that already exists and that can only ever be repeated and recycled. And as the little girl explains it in the opening scene of Drowning by Numbers : “Once you've counted to a hundred, all the other hundreds are the same.”


[1] “Drowning by Numbers constitutes an example of postmodern role playing activities that confuse the issue and the level of reality.” Holden-Moses 1998, 221. “Het vroege werk van Jan Fabre zou ik bij uitstek postmodern noemen.” Verschaffel 2012.

[2] Hendriksz van Beijeren, Abraham. Pronkstilleven with self-portrait of the artist in the silver jug, 1655. Mauritshuis, Den Haag. 10 May 2015.

[3] Le Ballet Royal de la Reine (1581) lasted 51/2 hours.

[4] Lim 2014, 82.

[5] Nyman 2015.

[6] Irvine 2013.

[7] Holden-Moses 1998, 221.

[8] Lim 2014, 88.

[9] Senden 2014.

[10] Lim 2014, 81.

[11] The term “postmodern condition” was coined by Jean-François Lyotard in his essay La condition postmoderne. Rapport sur le savoir in 1979.

[12] Irvine 2013.

[13] Verstynge 2014.

[14] Holden-Moses 1998,230.

[15] Bauman 2005, 16.

[16] ibid., 19.

[17] Lehmann 2006, 99.

[18] Lim 2014, 61.

[19] Harvey 1990, 210.

[20] McLuhan 1964, 1-3.


Greenaway, Peter. Drowning by Numbers . Film, 10 September 1988.

Fabre, Jan. The Power of Theatrical Madness. Performance in Antwerp, Troubleyn, 3 February 2015.

Senden, Yves. A Taste of Postmodernism. Lecture in Antwerp, DeSingel, Witte Zaal, 8 December 2014.

Verstrynge, Karel. Globalization in a New-Media Ethical Perspective. Lecture in Antwerp, DeSingel, Gele Zaal, 24 November 2014.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Life. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005.

Lehmann, Hans-Thies. Postdramatic theatre.Oxon: Routledge, 2006.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1990.

Holden-Moses, Philip. “Chapter 12: Peter Greenaway’s cautionary tale” in: Postmodernism in the Cinema. Red. Cristina Degli-Esposti. New-York: Berghahn Books, 1998, 219-230.

Lim Bao Tung, Michelle. Performing Morality: A Framework For Assessing The Moral Significance Of Selected Works Of Postdramatic Performance .(PhD Diss., Queensland University of Technology, 2014)

Irvine, Martin. “The Postmodern”, “Postmodernism”, “Postmodernity”: Approaches to Po-Mo. Georgetown University, 2013. http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/pomo.html

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. McGraw-Hill, 1964. Extracts from chapters 1 and 2. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, s.d. http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/mcluhan.mediummessage.pdf

Nyman, Michael. Drowning by Numbers . Michael Nyman, 2015.

Verschaffel, Bart and Ortwin de Graef, Johan Thielemans, Frank Vande Veire. “De aankomst, de verwerking en het afscheid van het postmodernisme in Vlaanderen”. Interview by Koen Brams & Dirk Pültau, in: De Witte Raaf. Issue 155 January-February 2012. http://www.dewitteraaf.be/artikel/detail/nl/3723

Hendriksz van Beijeren, Abraham. Pronkstilleven with self-portrait of the artist in the silver jug, 1655. Mauritshuis, Den Haag. 10 May 2015.

Rubens, Peter Paul. Samson and Delilah, 1610. National Gallery, London. 10 May 2015.

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus. Symphonie concertante pour violon, alto et orchestre en mi bémol majeur, K.364, 1779. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szMu8si_YYQ

Bizet, Georges. Carmen. Acte I, La Habanera. Paris, 1875.

Wikipedia. Ballet Comique de la Reine. 10 May 2015.