Richard Maxwell and the Paradox of Theatre Feb 13, 2015

by Erin

Educate yourself: go in-depth with Maxwell's aesthetic with this paper from Theron Schmidt at

The seemingly simple aesthetic form of performances by Richard Maxwell and the New York City Players, in which actors speak and move with minimal emotional affectation and in which the scripts are constructed largely out of apparently insignificant elements of everyday speech, seems to baffle academic and popular critics alike. We read into these choices a set of apparent contradictions and paradoxical strategies which seem to challenge our conception of how theatre works. So Philippa Wehle in Theatre Forum and Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times both grapple with the curious way in which they come to have emotional investment in thecharacters in Maxwell’s plays, with Wehle asking “what is the appeal of these curious stock figures who barely move and who deliver their mundane monologues in a flatmonotone […]?” and Pogrebin puzzling that “[s]omehow the less demonstrative their behavior, the deeper they seem”. In the Guardian, Lyn Gardner similarly describes the effect as “weirdly compelling” and “curiously moving” (my emphasis) and Sarah Hemming writes in the Financial Times, “paradoxically, [the characters] and their troubles seemed unusually vivid and moving.”

There is clearly something enigmatic about Maxwell’s work, and as an audience member at 2006’s The End of Reality at the Barbican, London, I left notquite sure of what I had seen. Despite the presence of all the traditional elements of a play – including a fixed playscript (which is available for purchase from the company), costumed actors portraying characters, an identified author and director of the work, and a single storyline presented in sequence (albeit with unsignalled discontinuities in time) – I found it difficult to accept that I had seen a play.

This discomfort with identifying the work as a play, its writer as a playwright, and its performers as actors, is perhaps allied with the impulses of some critics to want to seethe work as more than a play, as something which is built out of the elements of a play but is somehow other than a play, somehow new. And yet, ultimately, I suggest thatwhat is revealed in Maxwell’s work is not something beyond theatre but is, simply, theatre itself, in an unresolved paradox of pretending to pretend.

Read the rest at