The term “metatheatre“, coined by Lionel Abel, has entered into common critical usage; however, there is still much uncertainty over its proper definition and what dramatic techniques might be included in its scope. Many scholars have studied its usage as a literary technique within great works of literature.
Abel described metatheatre as reflecting comedy and tragedy, at the same time, where the audience can laugh at the protagonist while feeling empathetic simultaneously. The technique reflects the world as an extension of human conscience, not accepting prescribed societal norms, but allowing for more imaginative variation, or a possible social change.
Abel also relates the character of Don Quixote as the prototypical, metatheatrical, self-referring character. He looks for situations he wants to be a part of, not waiting for life, but replacing reality with imagination when the world is lacking in his desires. The character is aware of his own theatricality.
Alva Ebersole adds to the idea of metatheatrical characters saying that the technique is an examination of characters within the broader scheme of life, in which they create their own desires and actions within society. He adds that role-playing derives from the character not accepting his societal role and creating his own role to change his destiny.
The word “metatheatre” comes from the Greek prefix ‘meta’, which implies ‘a level beyond’ the subject that it qualifies; “metatheatricality” is generally agreed to be a device whereby a play comments on itself, drawing attention to the literal circumstances of its own production, such as the presence of the audience or the fact that the actors are actors, and/or the making explicit of the literary artifice behind the production.
Some critics use the term to refer to any play which involves explicit ‘performative’ aspects, such as dancing, singing, or role-playing by onstage characters, even if these do not arise ‘from specifically metadramatic awareness’ ; whereas others condemn its use except in very specific circumstances, feeling that it is too often used to describe phenomena which are simply ‘theatrical‘ rather than in any sense ‘meta’.
Stuart Davis suggests that “metatheatricality” should be defined by its fundamental effect of destabilizing any sense of realism:
” ‘Metatheatre’ is a convenient name for the quality or force in a play which challenges theatre’s claim to be simply realistic — to be nothing but a mirror in which we view the actions and sufferings of characters like ourselves, suspending our disbelief in their reality. Metatheatre begins by sharpening awareness of the unlikeness of life to dramatic art; it may end by making us aware of life’s uncanny likeness to art or illusion.
By calling attention to the strangeness, artificiality, illusoriness, or arbitrariness — in short, the theatricality — of the life we live, it marks those frames and boundaries that conventional dramatic realism would hide.”