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A History of Dramaturgy

Emily Anne Gibson traces the origins of this up-and-coming field -- which originated in the 18th century. logo

G. E. Lessing

"In the ecology of theatre-making, dramaturgs and literary managers forge a critical link between artists and institutions, and institutions and their communities ." -- from the LMDA website

My family came to visit this past weekend, and as we sat in a theater reading the program note for Sweeny Todd, my grandmother said, "You know, I know a lot of people who went to school for theater, but I never heard the word 'dramaturg' until you came here. You should write your next article about the history." My mother, my father, my sister - everyone agreed. And so, Gibson clan, this one's for you.

The fact that so many people haven't even heard the term "dramaturgy" might suggest that it's a new field, some new position in the theater that is up-and-coming. Well, I do think it's up-and-coming, but dramaturgy is hardly new. Dramatic criticism and analysis have been around since the days of Aristotle, but dramaturgy as I study it was born in 18th-century Germany from the pen of G. E. Lessing.

Lessing is a kind of demi-god to the Carnegie Mellon "Ghostlight Collective" (our dramaturgy department). We do bake sales in his name, name-drop him, and hail him as the father of dramaturgy. I'd say he invented it, but I think the term "invented" does a disservice to the inherent natural existence of dramaturgy. Point is, what we do now all comes down to that guy. His collection of works, the Hamburg Dramaturgy, is an enormous resource of theater criticism and dramaturgy, although it is currently not available in its entirety in English, and the last translation was made in the 1950s.

Now, if dramaturgy is so established, why doesn't everyone know about it? That's a kind of difficult question to answer. Theater practitioners have been implementing dramaturgy whether they know it or not, and in Europe, dramaturgy positions are much more established. American dramaturgy today puts an emphasis on new play development, working with playwrights and directors in a collaborative setting. It's difficult to say where the movement began, but the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) was founded in 1985 by an already active dramaturgy community.

In the world today, dramaturgs can do a lot of things. We write articles and participate in academia. We conduct research, both for specific shows and to better our understanding of society. We watch theater. We critique. We work with playwrights in development. We work as literary managers. We host community events to create a dialogue. We become artistic directors. We run outreach programs. A foundation in dramaturgy prepares us to intellectually and emotionally engage our communities through theater.


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