The Poetic Failure of Mata Hari

STEVENS, Fraser (2022). The Poetic Failure of Mata Hari. Performance Research, 26 (8), 29-40.

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What is failure? Defining failure broadly, Colin Feltham explains it as ‘some sort of breakdown, some malfunctioning or underperformance’. As many would suspect, espionage is rife with it. In espionage, it is often difficult to identify failure due to the secretive nature of the profession. Moreover, what is one’s failure is almost always another’s success, and vice versa. Espionage is inherently a theatrical and performative practice. Yet lacking from scholarly discussion on this subject is the role that failure plays within espionage work. Failure often acts as a point of generation for new undertakings, or, as noted above, indicates the success of the opposing side. In intelligence work, it is part of the dialectic that feeds the self-perpetuating nature of espionage. We also see this sort of success-failure dialectic in certain forms of theatre and performance. This article engages the case study of the infamous performer, and supposed double agent, Mata Hari, whose ultimate execution by the French during the First World War signifies total failure when viewed from multiple perspectives. By analysing the life, trial, and execution of Mata Hari through the lenses of failure and success as they relate to theatre and performance, we are able to expose and explore the dialectic at the core of espionage. To ground this analysis the essay first engages with the theatricality found in Mata Hari’s work as a spy and in her execution, a weaving together of archival documentation and biographies, and ideas from Conquergoode, Althusser, and Harbinger. Following this, the essay turns to the work of Sarah Jane Bailes and Elinor Fuchs, relating the death of Mata Hari, who stands in for all clandestine agents, to their speculations on performance theatre and the death of character. By investigating success and failure in espionage as it parallels forms of theatre and performance, this essay looks to expose the dialectic at the heart of espionage, expand the terms in which we discuss failure in theatre and performance, and challenge the conceptualization of utopias within the discourse of live art.

Item Type: Article
Uncontrolled Keywords: 1901 Art Theory and Criticism; 1904 Performing Arts and Creative Writing; Drama & Theater
Identification Number:
Page Range: 29-40
SWORD Depositor: Symplectic Elements
Depositing User: Symplectic Elements
Date Deposited: 29 Nov 2022 14:58
Last Modified: 12 Oct 2023 08:48

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