Roxanne Linnea Ray

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This dissertation examines performances of death, which I define as performances whose content centers on the topic of death and whose formal aesthetic qualities include many of the characteristics of death elucidated by cultural theorists and scholars.  The representation of death in performance has changed and developed, but rarely has been absent – largely because the traumatic experience of death remains a source of loss, uncertainty, and pain for many parts of human society.


In an introductory chapter, I develop my methodology by weaving together strands drawn from psychoanalysis, trauma theory, and theories of embodiment from semiotics and dance theory, as well as a broad range of conceptualizations of the phenomenon of death.  Furthermore, I assert that the denial or repression of death continues to hold sway in U.S. culture, and that this denial is reflected in embodied actions characterized by Freud as “mania.”  In the next four chapters, I discuss four distinct performances of death:  the Castillo Theatre’s production of Heiner Müller’s final play Germania 3: Ghosts at Dead Man, Robert Wilson’s The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, Diamanda Galás’s presentation of her Plague Mass, and the performance(s) entailed in contemporary goth subculture.  I propose that the utilization of concepts of death in the staging and performance of each of these works illuminates political and social meaning that is often not overt in the narrative stories presented in these performances, and further, that the sensory experience on the part of the spectator of culturally-defined aspects of death may interrupt the denial of death.


In my concluding chapter, I assert that music aids each of these four performances to engage their audiences in a receptive sensory experience, and I explore how the writing of this dissertation, following ideas of Blanchot, participates in the very workings of death that it seeks to investigate.  Finally, I argue that performances of death create an embodied, rather than narrative, testimony which utilizes the repetition inherent in both performance and trauma in order to enable an intervention into the repressed (death) and thereby make possible a performing, rather than a talking, cure.




Chapter 1 – Introduction:  The Web Woven by the Interplay Between Death and Performance


Chapter 2 – Haunting’s Perpetual Motion:  The Castillo Theatre’s Production of Heiner Müller’s Germania 3: Ghosts at Dead Man


Chapter 3 – Already Dead:  Robert Wilson’s The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets


Chapter 4 – Voices of the Vanquished:  Actualizing Testimony in the Work of Diamanda Galás


Chapter 5 – Always Already Dead:  The Performance of Death in Contemporary Goth Subculture


Chapter 6 – Conclusion:  The Resonance of Desire and Denial:  Performance Beyond the Opaque Boundary of Mortality


New York University, Ph.D. in Performance Studies, January 2005


Advisor:               Peggy Phelan, Stanford University

Members:            José Estéban Muńoz, New York University

Diana Taylor, New York University

Readers:               Barbara Browning, New York University

André Lepecki, New York University