gb fr

Staging Decadence: On sick performance and theatre’s chronic maladies

It has long been commonplace to say that there is something wrong with theatre. Theatre breaks down with the forgotten line, or the wilful child performer taking matters into their own hands. Theatre’s ‘wrongness’, or tendency to break down as a consequence of its precarious liveness, might also be said to condition its ontology.1 However, for an elite group of fin-de-siècle writers, theatre’s ‘wrongness’ – its taking place in the drab materiality of the here-and-now – meant more than the mesmeric pull of live performance’s vulnerabilities. For French and Belgian champions of fin-de-siècle symbolism like Stéphane Mallarmé and Maurice Maeterlinck, the materiality of theatre undermined the poet’s spiritual aspirations (not that this stopped Maeterlinck from becoming one of the foremost playwrights of his age). According to this logic, the seclusion of the home appears as a more fitting space for flights of pseudo-theatrical fancy, at least for those less inclined to see it as a prison. For instance, the poet Arthur Rimbaud regarded the domestic setting as ‘a stage-set of sorts’, with walls serving as a projection screen for imaginative wanderings – an act of envisioning to which many reading this post in 2021 will no doubt be able to relate.2 Several writers associated with literary decadence were also known to regard theatre with suspicion. Anatole Baju, who founded the literary review Le Décadent (1886-89), thought ‘life itself was theatre, or at the very best circus’.3 All the more reason, he thought, to pursue poetry and prose as a gateway to metaphysical purity.

One of the legacies of writers like Mallarmé, Maeterlinck and Baju that stretched throughout the modernist period was a strand of anti-theatrical prejudice that equates theatre with base materiality.4 This legacy is particularly odd in Baju’s case given his explicit advocacy of decadence, as one might justifiably assume that decadence ought to encompass baseness (material and moral) as much as the spiritual and esoteric. It is even more odd given that many writers closely associated with decadence and symbolism chose to write works for the stage, such as Rachilde, Oscar Wilde, Jean Lorrain, and Gabriele D’Annunzio,5 and the fact that close professional and personal relationships were forged between theatre makers, performers and writers when decadentism was at its height. For instance, Paul Fort’s Théâtre d'art held a benefit performance for Paul Verlaine and Paul Gauguin, which featured a comedy by Verlaine alongside work by Maeterlinck and Charles Morice (Fig. 2), while writers in their turn actively supported the development of decadent and symbolist theatre making.6 Many stage performers, too, embodied decadence in the public imaginary, such as Eleonora Duse and especially Sarah Bernhardt.7 Despite the presence of anti-theatrical prejudice among symbolists and decadents of the fin de siècle, then, theatre still played an important role in their thinking and practice. Further, theatre’s very ‘wrongness’ – material and bodily as much as moral – is where the key to its decadence might be found.

Fig 1. Théâtre d'art, printed serial [excerpt]. 20 March 1891. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département de la Réserve des livres rares.


Fig 2. Théâtre d'art, printed serial [excerpt]. 20 March 1891. Bibliothèque nationale de France, département de la Réserve des livres rares. Note the announcement in the centre: ‘Soon the theatre will give a benefit performance for the poet Paul Verlaine and the painter Paul Gauguin’, including works by Maurice Maeterlinck (L’Intruse), Paul Verlaine (Les Uns et les Autres), and Charles Morice (Chérubin).

Theatre is sick and its illness is chronic if routine allusions to its contagious properties are anything to go by. As Fintan Walsh sets out in his introduction to Theatres of Contagion: Transmitting Early Modern to Contemporary Performance (2019), ‘theatrical contagion’ tends to fall into one of three categories: the staging of sickness and plague; its associations with moral corruption; and the transmission of feeling, information and culture.8 Perhaps most famously, Plato took aim at theatre’s irremediable duplicity and its dangerous transmission of affect: a phenomenon that has the potential to spread like wildfire, not unlike a virus, especially when morally-dubious actions are at stake. The seventeenth-century polemicist William Prynne cast this line of thought in the mould of some impressively hyperbolic language, only it was not just playwrights and performers who risked spreading moral contagion. For Prynne, theatre audiences, being ‘contagious in quality’, were ‘apt to poison, to infect all those who dare approach them, than one who is full of running Plague-sores’.9 The closure of theatres over the course of the coronavirus pandemic is also hardly without precedent. Theatre closures during the 1918 influenza pandemic is one pertinent example (Fig. 3), but it is the closure of purpose-built theatres in the years of the bubonic plague that is most illuminating, as it is here that the threat of transmission came to be associated most explicitly with theatre’s moral dubiousness, whereby ‘to play out of plague time’ was to risk drawing the plague ‘by offendings of God upon occasion of such plays’.10

Fig 3. Variety, front page excerpt, 11 Oct. 1918. This edition was published at the end of Sarah Bernhardt’s final tour of the United States, as per the notice in the right-hand column. She had already had her leg amputated by this point, and was suffering from uremia, from which she would eventually die in 1923.

We ought at the very least to be hesitant about consigning declarations of theatre’s contagious moral corruption to the distant past, not least as artists and their critics look ahead to inevitable debates over the appropriate allocation of public funding at a time when economies and those they are meant to serve are under enormous pressure. For instance, in the twilight years of twentieth century, the so-called NEA 4 – Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes – served as scapegoats in a controversy around public arts funding in the United States. Their work as much as their sexualities were condemned by a resurgent breed of puritanism, which came to a tee on 27 June 1995 when the Christian Action Network (CAN) staged a ‘degenerate art’ exhibition in the Rayburn Building, Washington D. C., sponsored by the Republican politician Robert Dornan (the choice of wording made all the more harrowing in light of the Nazi’s notorious 1937 Entartete Kunst exhibition). For their critics, the NEA 4 and those tarnished with the same brush represented no less than ‘the Empire at the end of the decadence’, the spelling of ‘indolent acrostics’ (Q-U-E-E-R as much as A-I-D-S), and the demise of reproductive futurism. This perhaps explains the death certificates handed out by activists outside the exhibition:

Decedent’s name: NEA. Sex: Anything unnatural. Father’s Name: Lyndon Johnson. Mother’s Name: Jane Alexander. Decedent’s occupation: Attacking religion, tradition, morality. Funding left-wing causes. Promoting homosexuality. Lying to the media and Congress about its activities. Cause of death: using taxpayer funds to depict Christ as homosexual, a drug addict, and a child molester.11

It is not simply ‘the theatre’ that is ‘wrong’, ‘sick’ and ‘contagious’, then; the presence of a performing body that fails or refuses to fit within tightly-defined parameters of taste and decency is also subject to the pathological gaze. In the eyes of their critics, theatre and performance become paragons of decline, and are mobilised as such in political diatribes. However, their very ‘wrongness’ has also been identified as a significant asset.

It is remarkable just how frequently allusions to the plague were called upon over the course of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries to illustrate either a need for modernisation, or a more radical undercutting of social and cultural normativity. Hence, on the modernising side – in terms that would serve to inspire Edward Gordon Craig – we find performers like Eleonora Duse looking to rid the theatre of stultifying sclerosis, declaring that ‘[t]o save the Theatre, the Theatre must be destroyed, the actors and actresses must all die of the plague. They poison the air, they make art impossible’.12 On the side of a more pervasive social and cultural subversion, we find fin-de-siècle writers associated with decadence approaching sickness and especially the sick body as the ‘ground of a new consciousness, a new interpretation of the body’s relation to thought’.13 One’s mind might turn here to Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts (1882) – which, according to an oft-cited and particularly vitriolic review of its London premiere in 1891, was regarded as ‘a loathsome sore unbandaged’ that risked ‘infecting the modern theatre with poison’14 – but one might just as well turn to Paul Dartigny, the sickly protagonist in Rachilde’s Madame La Mort (1891) (Fig. 1). The character description depicts him thus: ‘pale, tall, thin, with a delicate, weary face. His feverish eyes’ never looking directly at those he addresses. We later find him with a poisoned cigar in hand, which prompts a dangerous liaison with the homonymous spectre in an ultimate act of submission.15 Think also of Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste ‘plucking their way through Baudelaire’s Fleurs de mal (1857)’ in their dances, screaming ‘Kokain / Aufschrei / Tiere / Blut / Alkohol / Schmerzen / Viele Schmerzen’ [Cocaine / Scream / Beasts / Blood / Alcohol / Pain / Much pain].16 Perhaps the most famous example of all is the French playwright, performer and theorist Antonin Artaud, who regarded the inducement of feverish, plague-like states as theatre’s raison d’etre,17 so long as these states can get at that part of ourselves that is yet to be overwhelmed by the social shaping of consciousness. In other words, for Artaud, theatre’s communicative ability to reach a certain kind of baseness – that (*ahem*, ‘essential’) part of ourselves that resides ‘beneath’ the structuring of thought and desire – might just awaken a corporeal basis for resisting subordination to an insipidly bourgeois status quo. 

It is notable that the sick body has been lauded to the extent that it has as ‘a new interpretation of the body’s relation to thought’ in poetry and prose of the fin de siècle. If the sick body is so important as ‘the ground of a new consciousness’, then why have arts of bodies in space – which is to say, theatre and performance – been maligned to the extent that they have in studies of decadence?18 The anti-theatrical prejudice would seem to loom large in a field well-suited to considering sick bodies in the flesh.

One wonders what performance, in the widest sense, might have to offer to how notions of physical degradation and moral corruption circulate in relation to, against, or for the bodies to which they are so often ascribed. For instance, Ron Athey’s ritualistic performances with Divinity P. Fudge, Julie Tolentino, and Pig Pen in Martyrs & Saints (1992), 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life (1993) and Deliverance (1995) prompted him to be seen as a wrecker of civilisation19 in the eyes of a much wider public than was previously the case. The controversy surrounding these works ultimately led to Athey’s being ostracised by the North American arts establishment during the culture wars, having mistakenly been accused of exposing audiences to his own HIV-positive blood in 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life. Rarely has there been an example as clear-cut as this that finds the performing body’s association with multiple narratives of contagion coming together so explicitly.

Bob Flanagan, another performance artist vilified by the conservative right at the time, was (quite literally) at pains to force the sick body into public consciousness, not least through his collaborations with fellow artist, dominatrix and lover Sheree Rose. Their collaborative work is deeply rooted in Flanagan’s experiences of living with – and dying from – cystic fibrosis, using performance (as well as writing and photography) to ‘fight sickness with sickness’, to borrow one of Flanagan’s best-known dictums, revelling in the term’s double-edge: sickness as an affliction of the body, and sickness as that which is deemed distasteful, or abject (Flanagan is a self-confessed ‘supermasochist’, and most of his performances incorporate masochism in one form or another). If we are to take seriously the task of tracing decadent genealogies, and of approaching the sick body as the ‘ground of a new consciousness, a new interpretation of the body’s relation to thought’, one wonders what better place there might be to start than with the corpus of Bob Flanagan.

Fig. 4: Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose on the anniversary of their wedding, 1995.
Photo by © Michel Delsol, all rights reserved. Courtesy of Sheree Rose and ONE Archives at the USC Libraries.

As well as those Flanagan has gone on to inspire… Martin O’Brien – who is one of the most important live artists working in the UK today – is taking up Flanagan’s mantle in more ways than one. Like Flanagan, O’Brien’s work is deeply rooted in his experiences of cystic fibrosis, and usually incorporates masochistic and submissive acts including cutting, piercing, spanking, binding, and breath restriction. He has also gone on to collaborate with Rose, often paying direct homage to Flanagan’s legacy, and has adopted and made his own the notion of fighting sickness with sickness by ‘punctur[ing] the abjection of his condition with glitter and gunge’, as performance scholar Gianna Bouchard so evocatively puts it.20 In O’Brien’s work, sickness is the starting point for working through the contingencies and uncertainties of his own life – approaching it as ‘a way of talking about the temporal experience of a life lived longer than expected’21 – just as it is the starting point for imagining an apocalyptic, though quasi-utopic, world ‘in which only the sick can survive.’22 O’Brien made one such depiction – a short film he developed with Suhail Merchant called The Unwell (2016) – freely available online during the pandemic, although you can also find one of his performance lectures on YouTube. As O’Brien puts it, these works ‘speak to the times we are living in. I'm currently trying to understand how to speak about [the coronavirus pandemic], which poses such a big threat to me personally, but which also means sickness is something everyone is having to face’.23 What results from these two works, especially, is a zombie time imagined in O’Brien’s zombie years: a depiction of sick consciousness as much as a sick socius, and a new interpretation of the body’s relation to thought as much as action, desire, and relationality.

Fig. 5: Martin O’Brien, Last(ing) (2013). Toynbee Studios, London. Credit: Guido Mencari.

Decadence, then, is no stranger to theatre and performance, not least as it manifests in relation to and through sickness in the senses of both degeneration and degeneracy (pitched either in pejorative or appropriated terms). Theatre is by no means the antithesis of decadence, as Baju claimed, although its susceptibility to commercialisation, of catching dinner and a show, and a prurient tendency toward self-censorship in the service of ‘bums on seats’ would certainly seem to counteract its decadent potentialities. But to say that theatre – and indeed any art of action – is anathema to decadence is to misunderstand one of decadence’s most important characteristics.24 Decadence is a process: less a state than a transition. As arts of precarious action, theatre and performance are art forms par excellence that lend themselves to decadence’s multiple and often conflicting valences. Theatre and performance are as ripe to suffer the rantings of puritanical critics bemoaning the ‘decadence’ of their offerings as they are likely to reclaim that decadence as an art worthy of the name. Moreover, theatre and performance demand that we move beyond misleading framings of decadence as ‘an irrevocable withdrawal of man unto himself’.25 Decadence is a process conducted always in relation to others, albeit with varying degrees of knowingness. The aristocratic writer may consider himself a monad; the cabaret performer does not. Both rely upon the labour of others, and both have their audiences.

If we are to understand decadence as ‘more than the collection of themes, tropes, and stock characters that critics have largely focused upon’, approaching it instead as the ‘perennial decay’ of boundaries and borders, we need to widen horizons of possibility beyond a focus on ‘textual strategies’.26 Important studies of decadence in film, visual art and popular culture have already been going some way toward achieving this end,27 but why not begin with bodies: leaky, sweaty, and spectacularly adorned bodies? What better starting point for exploring decadent sensuality?28 What might it mean for decadence to be danced, gulped down, enacted and encountered, journeying from the readerly retreat of an armchair to the shared space of a theatre, club performance, or dungeon – or at least to anticipate and aspire toward their possibilities until circumstances permit their realisation? Perhaps, as many hope, the virus might ultimately encourage us to discover a new relation to thought, but this is a shallow hope if shorn from corporeal pleasures, especially their mutual exploration. Desires experienced in conditions of relative constraint are felt all the more acutely as longings in want of connection. We will have had enough of metaphysical contemplation, I’m sure, and of treating the domestic setting as ‘a stage-set of sorts’. So perhaps communal stages of all kinds might just be where we go looking for glorious ‘wrongness’, inspiring us to open our bodies again to new kinds of transmission, sensation and experience.  


Adam Alston is a Senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Theatre at Goldsmiths, University of London, and an Arts and Humanities Research Council ECR Fellow and Principal Investigator of ‘Staging Decadence: Decadent theatre in the long twentieth century’.

This blogpost is co-published with the Staging Decadence Blog



1 This argument has been made by several scholars, but none as persuasively as Nicholas Ridout in his brilliant book Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

2 Arthur Rimbaud, ‘VIGILS (Illuminations XX: Veillées)’, in Arthur Rimbaud: Selected Works in Translation, ed. and trans. A. S. Kline (London: Poetry in Translation, 2008): 168. Note that Rimbaud was more sympathetic to the theatre to the extent that his poems are littered with compelling allusions to theatre, performance and the stage.

3 Frantisek Deak, Symbolist Theater: The Formation of an Avant-Garde (Baltimore and London:

Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993): 22-23.

4 Modernism’s aversion to theatre – even among playwrights – was nonetheless a generative influence on the evolution of theatre. See Martin Puchner, Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality, and Drama (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

5 These and other playwrights will feature in a forthcoming anthology of decadent plays. See Adam Alston and Jane Desmarais, eds., Decadent Plays: 1890-1930 (London: Bloomsbury, 2023). Even supposedly ‘unactable’ verse dramas are ripe for reconsideration as ‘living’ dramatic forms. See Ana Parejo Vadillo, ‘Another Renaissance: The Decadent Poetic Drama of A. C. Swinburne and Michael Field’, in Decadent Poetics: Literature and Form at the British Fin de Siècle, ed. Jason David Hall and Alex Murray (Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 116-40, 136-37.

6 Rachilde’s reputation helped to bring the Théâtre d’Art to the attention of Paris’s literary and intellectual elite with the 1890 premiere of her play La Voix du sang (Voice of Blood). She also joined the theatre’s programming committee, and wrote favourable reviews of thwart productions. Oscar Wilde, too, served as artistic advisor to the Théâtre d’Art. See Sos Eltis, ‘Theatre and Decadence’, in Decadence: A Literary History, ed. Alex Murray (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 201-17, 203.

7 See John Stokes on Duse’s being ‘firmly identified with Decadence as an international phenomenon’, in John Stokes, ‘The Legend of Duse’, Decadence and the 1890s, ed. Ian Fletcher (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, Inc., 1979), 151-72, 154. See also the connections Kerry Powell draws between the ‘mania’ for Sarah Bernhardt after her first English tour in 1879, and the ramping up of ‘Salomania’ with the controversies surrounding Wilde’s personal life and work, especially Salomé (1891). Kerry Powell, Oscar Wilde and the theatre of the 1890s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 40-45.

8 Fintan Walsh, ‘Introduction’, in Theatres of Contagion: Transmitting Early Modern to Contemporary Performance, ed. Fintan Walsh (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2019), 3-20, 4. For a reading of canonical Western twentieth-century theatre makers in light of the twenty-first century’s preoccupation with metaphors of the viral, see also Miriam Felton-Dansky, Viral Performance: Contagious Theaters from Modernism to the Digital Age (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2018).

9 William Prynne, Histriomastix: The Player's Scourge, or Actor's Tragedy (New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1972 [1632]), 152.

10 Qtd. in F. P. Wilson, The Plague in Shakespeare's London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), 51.

11 Qtd. in Linda S. Kauffman, Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Art and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 19.

12 Qtd. in Edward Gordon Craig, ‘The Actor and the Uber-Marionette,’ in On the Art of the Theatre (London: Heinemann, 1956 [1911]), 79.

13 Barbara Spackman, Decadent Genealogies: The Rhetoric of Sickness from Baudelaire to D’Annunzio, Ithaca and London: Cornell, 1989), ix.

14 Editorial comment from the Daily Telegraph (14 March 1891), in Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst, The Fin de Siècle: A Reader in Cultural History C. 1880-1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 127.

15 Rachilde, ‘Madame La Mort’, in Madame La Mort and Other Plays, trans. and ed. Kiki Gounaridou and Frazer Lively (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 120.

16 Laurence Senelick’s contribution to the Staging Decadence blog critiques the dances of Berber and Droste as ‘jejune and déja vu’, less a staging of decadence than a second-rate doppelganger ignorant of its own pastiche. Nonetheless, both would seem to have lived as they danced – which is to say, decadently – regardless of the sources (such as the prewar Salome craze) that came to inform their work. See Laurence Senelick, ‘The Mythical Decadence of Weimar Cabaret’, Staging Decadence Blog, 7 January 2021. Available at:

17 Antonin Artaud, ‘The Theater and the Plague’, in The Theater and Its Double, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York: Grove, 1958 [1934]), 27.

18 Notable exceptions include work by Sos Eltis, John Stokes, Rhonda K. Garelick, Petra Dierkes-Thrun, and Yvonne Ivory, although most of the scholarship exploring theatre and decadence focuses on acting and playwriting of the fin de siècle, or twentieth-century productions of plays written in the 1890s. See, for instance: Eltis, ‘Theatre and Decadence’; Stokes, ‘The Legend of Duse’; Rhonda K. Garelick, Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender and Performance in the Fin de Siècle (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014); Yvonne Ivory, ‘Gertrud Eysoldt and the Persistence of Decadence on the German Avant-Garde Stage’, Volupté: Interdisciplinary Journal of Decadence Studies, 2.1 (Spring 2019), 16-38. For a study of a twenty-first-century performance form attempting to approximate a decadent aesthetic, see Adam Alston, ‘Immersive theatre and the aesthetics of decadence: on the ruined worlds of Punchdrunk, SHUNT and Hammer Film Productions’, Theatre and Performance Design, 3.4 (2017), 199-217.

19 THE UK-based collective COUM Transmissions were dubbed ‘wreckers of civilisation’ by conservative Member of Parliament Nicholas Fairbairn in 1976. It was worn as a badge of honour; I imagine Athey doing the same.

20 Gianna Bouchard, ‘Introduction: With Diseased Affection’, in Survival of the Sickest: The Art of Martin O’Brien, ed. Martin O’Brien and David MacDiarmid (London: Live Art Development Agency, 2018), 6-8, 6.

21 Martin O’Brien, ‘Zombie Time’,, accessed 30 December 2020.

22 Martin O’Brien, ‘The Unwell’,, accessed 30 December 2020.

23 O’Brien, ‘The Unwell’.

24 For instance, Norberto Bobbio approaches decadentism as a ‘contemplative attitude’, although he does go on to consider it in tandem with ‘the practical point of view [… as] applied to action’. Norberto Bobbio, The Philosophy of Decadentism: A Study in Existentialism, trans. David Moore (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1948), 12.

25 Bobbio, 1948, 22.

26 Liz Constable, Dennis Denisoff, and Matthew Potolsky, ‘Introduction’, in Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, ed. Liz Constable, Dennis Denisoff, and Matthew Potolsky (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), 1-32, 11.

27 Studies of decadence in visual art were prominent before the expansion of Decadence Studies in Literature and Languages in the twenty-first century. Studies of decadence in cinema, though, are set to redefine the field in the years ahead. See, for instance, ‘Decadence and Cinema’, Volupté: Interdisciplinary Journal of Decadence Studies, 2.2 (Winter 2019). Kate Hext’s current project exploring 'The Legacies of Decadence in Early Hollywood' is also set to be another key reference point. For an illuminating study of decadence and popular culture, see Alice Condé, ‘Decadence and Popular Culture’, in Decadence and Literature, ed. Jane Desmarais and David Weir (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 379–99.

28 Petra Dierkes-Thrun, ‘Decadent Sensuality in Rachilde and Wilde’, in Decadence and the Senses, ed. Jane Desmarais and Alice Condé (Cambridge: Legenda, 2017), 51-65.

Posted on:Tuesday 9th February, 2021