Who needs theatre reviews?

In the aftermath of the discussion about theatre criticism following the dog excrement attack on dance critic Wiebke Hüster, Thomas Rothschild asked about the justification of theatre criticism in a Nachtkritik commentary on an essay by Christine Wahl:

“What I miss is an explanation why actors, directors, choreographers have to endure what most professions are spared of. The fact that the arts have to face criticism is not a law of nature. It is a historically developed tradition that can be welcomed, but not necessarily.”

The following is a kind of attempt at justification of theatre criticism:

There is no criticism of rubbish collection and no applause for it. But the  fashion of ranking  is spreading everywhere, to coffee machines, software, doctors, novels, films and so on. Andreas Reckwitz has analysed this as a symptom of the society of singularities. The genre of the review is also spreading from literature into all areas. (There are teacher reviews in every high school newspaper.) But there are other reasons for theatre criticism, independent of the current change in communication structures through the internet.

For one thing, theatre criticism is art criticism. Art reception provokes aesthetic judgements. You don’t come out of an art exhibition without having found it good or bad or somehow. Aesthetic judgements (there’s no getting around Kant) are not universally valid judgements about facts, they only pretend to be universally valid, they only “sense approval”. They challenge contradiction and discussion.

On the other hand, theatre criticism is the criticism of a collectively experienced public event. One does not walk singly at one’s own pace in a space of art objects, but experiences the simultaneous presence of actors crammed in alongside other spectators. This increases the need for conversation compared to other art forms. Audiences occasionally decide on a possible theatre visit based on reviews, but they also compare their experience of a theatre visit with the evaluation by a professional critic. Making theatre performances discussable is also a rationale for theatre criticism. That is the service it provides for spectators.

It is understandable that theatre-makers, like all artists, dislike pejorative judgements about their works. Art wants affirmation. But the insight that art only has meaning when it enters into open social discourse should also be clear to every artist, even if he or she is not guided by it in the creative process. There must also be pejorative aesthetic judgements. If there were only approving judgements in public discourse, the discourse-initiating function of criticism would be limited. One can heed the old rule, slurs short, anthems long, but respect for artists should not be completely supplanted by the experiential component (i.e. the reviewer’s anger).

Incidentally, Rebekka Kricheldorf’s play„Homo empathicus“ provided an entertaining satire of the “positive society” back in 2014.

Excrement on critics – On choreographer Marco Goecke’s attack on dance critic Wiebke Hüster

On 11 February 2023, Marco Goecke, the ballet director of the Hanover State Opera, physically assaulted Wiebke Hüster, the dance critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), during the intermission of the premiere of the dance evening “Glaube, Liebe, Hoffnung”. In the course of an argument about Wiebke Hüster’s derogatory reviews of Goecke’s choreographies, Goecke pulled a bag of dog excrement from his dachshund Gustav out of his pocket and smeared the contents in Hüster’s face. The Hanover State Opera then suspended Goecke and banned him from the house.

Marco Goecke’s action was a performance. All the characteristics apply: in front of an audience, existential risk of the artist, crossing borders, de-fictionalisation of art. “She’s also been throwing shit at me for years,” says Marco Goecke. So it’s not only an action that seeks to repay like with like, but also the translation of a linguistic metaphor into physical action. And that, precisely, is Marco Goecke’s professional activity as a choreographer. So here someone has forgotten the difference between art and reality. And blurring this difference is one of the common strategies of contemporary art. It is a case of loss of reality. What is an effect in art is a crime in reality.

Theatre critic Tobi Müller pointed out in his commentary that the aggravation of the climate between theatre criticism and theatre art, or the aggravation of the theatre-makers’ traditional aversion to critics, also comes from the existential fears of both sides. Both sides have an increased need for public attention because the importance and regard of their activities in the public sphere is diminishing. Invective increases attention. Name-calling brings more clicks than compliments.

Karin Beier’s now frequently quoted bon mot about the “shit on the sleeve” is, in contrast, only a verbal gaffe with which she justifies why she does not read reviews. 1She is describing the effect of not only negative but also uninformed reviews. And therefor, theatre critics have to take a good look at themselves. The precarious financial position of theatre criticism also lowers its average standard. Today, there is neither the space (an available number of characters in a public medium) nor the thoroughness of description and analysis that theatre criticism by Rolf Michaelis or Hellmuth Karasek had (to stay with the Hamburg examples). Anyone who wants to write theatre criticism today cannot make a living from it. Anyone who wants to write theatre criticism today has to master the art of quick, concise, short writing. And that hardly makes you a serious interlocutor for theatre-makers.

Marco Goecke has put Karin Beier’s casual vulgarism into practice, as an act of revenge. Wiebke Hüster’s immediately preceding critique of Goecke’s dance evening “In the Dutch Mountains” in The Hague is an example of the common stylistic device of exaggeration: “While watching, one is alternately driven mad and killed by boredom. Every now and then there are two brilliant, coherent minutes. … It is an embarrassment and an impertinence, and the choreographer must be blamed for both all the more …”. (FAZ 11.2.2023)] But also a personal attack. With personal attacks on theatre-makers in reviews (“bloody” slurs) one must expect counter-reactions. But they have to remain verbal (the comment function at nachtkritik.de offers a forum for this). It is not true that Wiebke Hüster has tried to destroy Goecke journalistically for twenty years. For example, only recently she praised Goecke’s “magnificent realisation of Marguerite Duras’ novel The Lover” and combined this with an explicit advertisement for a visit to the theatre (FAZ 26.10.2022 and 01.03 2021). And in 2012, she praised Goecke’s Stuttgart choreography for “Dancer in the Dark” at length (FAZ 1.12.2012).

“Excrement on critics” is also the intensification of the principle of “mashed potatoes on art”. Symbolic communication is taking up more and more space in the public sphere. Those who have something to say say it through the flower (or through action). Demonstrations are becoming more and more similar to theatre performances (as the Federal Constitutional Court already stated in 1984 in its decision on the „Anachronistischer Zug“ ). Analogue communication, based on similarity, is more effective when it comes to affective effects than verbal communication. So Goecke has struck with the weapons at his disposal. Only he miscalculated the effect. The physical expression of his emotional state cannot count on the empathy of the audience as it does on stage. On the contrary, disgust hits him, pity the critic. Did no one really film the scene in the foyer of the Hanover theatre?


Three days after the incident, Marco Goecke has submitted a letter, which he understands as an apology. “I would like to apologise  sincerely {“ich möchte mich … aufrichtig entschuldigen”) to all those involved, first and foremost to Ms Hüster, for my action, which I absolutely do not condone. In hindsight, I clearly realise that this was a shameful act in the heat of the moment and an overreaction.”

The offender’s use of language “ich entschuldige mich” (literally “I forgive myself”, used as “I apologise”) in German is common today, but of course it should be “ich bitte um Entschuldigung” (literally “I ask to be forgiven”). Blame can only be forgiven by the one to whom evil has been done, not by the wrongdoer. Used in such a way, the phrase “Entschuldigung …” becomes a justification for effrontery. One is familiar with this when someone pushes his way forward in a queue with a muttered “excuse me”.

He also writes that it would be appropriate for all media to “reconsider a certain form of destructive, hurtful reporting that damages the entire cultural enterprise”. Cultural criticism must ask itself where it “crosses the line into insulting, denigrating works, bullying, attempting to create negative opinion and damaging business”. (SZ 14.02.23). So he justifies his attack again, shows no understanding for the fact that art only gains a social significance in the dispute of opinions.

If one wants to find “hurtful reporting” in Wiebke Hüster’s competent and balanced critique of „In the Dutch Mountains“, only the word “impudence” comes into question. This is a moral evaluation that is explicitly related to the person of the choreographer. It is not a verbal jury, not an insult, and moral judgements are permitted, even necessary, in public (politicians know a thing or two about this). Morality is also communication of respect, and that must be public. But it is a question of the critic’s self-control whether one allows oneself to be carried away by such outbursts against a person. In any case, one must (or wants to) expect reactions. However, not with dog excrement.

The clearest devaluation of Goecke by Hüster can be found, significantly, in her blog “Aufforderung zum Tanz” from 2012: “Marco Goecke, whose meaningless nullity dances are not needed by anyone”. This quote is in the context of a judgmental tour d’horizon through the German ballet scene, which does not leave a good hair on the German ballet dramaturgies, with the exception of Düsseldorf and Munich. The fact that this quote is found in an internet blog perhaps shows one of the causes of the aggravation of the tone between (some) critics and (some) theatre people. The internet is an emotion machine, the inhibition threshold for unbridled emotionality becomes lower compared to a newspaper printed on paper. Criteria for a good blog are, after all, speed of reaction, topicality, directness and subjectivity. With its comment code, nachtkritik.de is exemplary in containing such art-critical low blows.

  1. Here is the decisive section of the interview transcribed: “And there I think we don’t meet on a level that is really interesting to me. And then that in relation to what then unfortunately sticks. So really, to put it nicely in German, like shit on my sleeve, I think, no, I don’t do that.”

Marginalia Eur. Alc. 800-803 – Anne Carson’s translation

Heracles is a kind of comic figure in “Alkestis” by Euripides.1 To the servant mourning for Alcestis he proclaims his carpe diem philosophy: “Be merry, drink, remember, only the here and now is yours, the rest is chance!” (788-789 εὖφραινε σαυτόν, πῖνε, τὸν καθ᾽ ἡμέραν \ βίον λογίζου σόν, τὰ ἄλλα τῆς τύχης) 2. His pep talk culminates in the toast, “Let him who is mortal cherish mortal thoughts.” (ὄντας δὲ θνητοὺς θνητὰ καὶ φρονεῖν χρεών. 799).
In this context, it does come as a surprise to read in Anne Carson’s translation:

“‘We’ are all mortal you know. Think mortal./ Because my theory is, there’s no such thing as life, / it’s just catastrophe.” 3

The Bochum version, created by Susanne Winnacker and Mieke Koenen from Anne Carson’s English translation for Johan Simons’ production (2022 Athens Epidauros Festival and Schauspielhaus Bochum4), reads:

„Es ist doch so, dieses Leben gibt es gar nicht, es existiert nicht, alles ist nichts weiter, als eine einzige Katastrophe.“ 5

The original text of these verses reads:

“ὡς τοῖς γε σεμνοῖς καὶ συνωφρυωμένοις \ ἅπασιν ἐστιν, ὥς γ᾽ εμοὶ χρῆσθαι κριτῇ \ οὐ βίος ἀλητῶς ὁ βίος, ἀλλὰ συμφορά.” (Eur. Alc. 800-803).

Heracles thus turns against any killjoys or mourners (like the servant) who cannot enjoy life. σεμνοῖ are the venerable or, pejoratively, those putting on airs. συνωφρυωμένοι are those who contract the eyebrows (ὀφρύες). It is the eyebrow-knitting people who mourn their mortality in advance, for whom life is an evil coincidence.

The usual German translations of the last lines are:

„Denn den feierlichen Stirnrunzlern,/ allen, ist, soll ich darüber Richter sein, das Leben nicht eigentlich Leben, sondern schiere Plage.“ (Kurt Steinmann)

„Für all die ernsten Stirnrunzler bleibt / Das Leben – wenn du meinem Urteil traust – / Kein wahres Leben, nur ein Missgeschick“ (Ernst Buschor)

Common English translations are 6:

“As for those who are solemn and knit their brows together, their life, in my judgement, is no life worthy of the name but merely a disaster.” (David Kovacs)

“To all solemn and frowning men, life I say is not life, but a disaster.” (Richard Aldington)

How did Anne Carson and the editors of the Bochum version come to deviate so much from the original and ascribe to Heracles a conception of life that he had previously expressly rejected? What is the reason for this deviation in the otherwise modern, but always sensible translation?

The starting point is probably Heracles’ call to “think mortal”. In the context of his speech, it becomes clear that Heracles means to consider one’s own mortality, that is, to enjoy life while it lasts. But “to think mortal” for Carson seems to mean to think not of life but of death. This radical pessimism, however, does not fit the function of Heracles’ speech. (It would only justify Alcestis’ readiness to die.) The actor of Heracles in the Bochum performance (Pierre Bokma) can only save himself in irony: Life a catastrophe? – It’s all a joke!

Anne Carson’s translation results from simply omitting verse 800. Was it omitted on purpose? Was it an oversight? Was it the unusual word συνωφρυωμένοις? Was it to reinterpret the figure of Heracles from burlesque swashbuckler to cynic?

  1. A. Lesky „Rudimente der Komödienfigur“, F. Stoessl „burleske Gestalt“, zit. bei Kurt Steinmann, Nachwort zu Euripides, Alkestis. Griechisch-Deutsch. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1981, S. 134f
  2. Steinmann, p.73
  3. Euripides, Grief Lessons. Four Plays. Translated by Anne Carson. New York: New York Review of Books, 2006, 682-684 p.288
  4. See Andreas Willink`s review on Nachtkritik
  5. Alcestes {sic!} by Euripides. Version by Mieke Koenen and Susanne Winnacker. Translation from English (Ann {sic!} Carson) Susanne Winnnacker. Manuscript Schauspielhaus Bochum
  6. Ted Hughes, whose personal fate became a public one through the death of his wife Sylvia Plath, deleted this humorous part in his adaptation of “Alcestis” and replaced it with a dialogue about the deeds of Heracles, culminating in Heracles` exclamation: “I see my wife. I see my dead wife. Who killed her?”

Friendly Fire – Part 1

Notes on interviews about the Berliner Theatertreffen

In July 2022, Berliner Festspiele, the state-funded organization responsible for a bunch of festivals taking place in Berlin every year,  announced that the new management of the Berliner Theatertreffen, which is one of these festivals, would consist of the team Olena Apchel, Marta Hewelt, Carolin Hochleichter und Joanna Nuckowska. The recently appointed artistic director of Berliner Festspiele, Matthias Pees , explained that this team is intended to “connect the Theatertreffen more closely with the Central and Eastern European region”.
A small flurry of public discussion followed, with many commentators expressing their lack of understanding or scepticism for this decision, e.g.  Christian Rakow. Then people looked back at an interview that Matthias Lilienthal and Amelie Deuflhard had already published on the Theatertreffen website in May. And finally, Matthias Pees himself gave two interviews, one on Nachtkritik.de, , the other in „Der Spiegel“, in which he explained his intentions.

In the following – as in Friendly Fire Part 2– some sentences from these three interviews are commented on because they are of general importance. The quotations are translated and   speakers are indicated by (ML) for Matthias Lilienthal, (AD) for Amelie Deuflhard, (Pees) for Matthias Pees.

German language

“The previous restriction of the Theatertreffen to German-speaking countries is no longer in keeping with the times.” (Pees)

That something is “no longer in keeping with the times” (“nicht zeitgemäß”) is the cheapest formula for those who want to abolish something and avoid giving reasons. Anything can be “no longer in keeping with the times”:  Café Mohrenkopf, an ice rink in summer, television, the privileges of the churches, compulsory vaccination, breast size descriptions in theatre reviews, SUV cars, hunting, animal testing, the Nutcracker ballet – whatever one happens to find annoying. Politicians like to use the phrase out of professional opportunism. “Times” is a rather vague term and opinions about what is “in keeping” with them differ widely. Even if a regulation, an institution, a procedure is no longer “in keeping with the times”, the question remains whether it is good if something is in keeping with the times. As we know, there are good times and bad times.

“The Theatertreffen as it refers to a ‘German-speaking territory’ also unconsciously perpetuates colonial structures.” (ML)

That Germany wants to colonise Austria is something not even the FPÖ dared to claim. And the German-Swiss, with reference to William Tell, will politely but firmly refuse to be called a subjugated colony of Germany. But probably one can also consider the “Council for German Orthography” a totalitarian attempt at colonisation. There was German colonisation of the Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages and German imperial colonisation in Africa and Asia in the 19th century. And there was the attempt to subjugate Eastern Europe in the Second World War. This must be borne in mind if one wants to create a Central European 1 theatre festival in Berlin. In doing so, there is indeed the danger of “unconsciously perpetuating colonial structures”. A Central European theatre festival with structures that would take on the representative claim of the Berlin Theatertreffen would probably have to take place in Krakow, not Berlin.

“Theatre culture has long since detached itself from the German language.” (ML)

It’s just a pity that the German theatre audience has not yet detached itself from the German language.

“In drama, the German language has turned out to be a great barrier”.(Pees).

Drama used to be called “spoken theatre”, in distinction from the “singing theatre” of opera. Those days are long gone. Through authors and directors like Edward Gordon Craig, Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowiski, Tadeusz Kantor or Pina Bausch, the visual and physical components of drama have emancipated themselves from words. And the tendency of all the arts to blur or leap over boundaries between sections, genres or art forms, the tendency towards the “fraying of the arts” (“Verfransung der Künste”) 2 is unbroken.

But some kind of verbal component almost always remained in the play (with the exception of some extreme cases in Handke or Beckett). The fact that drama is essentially moored to a national language has always been a “barrier” against the internationalisation of drama. Unlike music, painting or ballet, free movement across borders was restricted for drama. But word-bound, literary drama always had a means of overcoming all barriers: translation. Thus Calderon, Molière, Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov and Grombrowicz could dance on the barricade of the German language.

The problem only arose with the emancipation of the play from the word. When staging and no longer a theatrical text is the original work of art, the whole apparatus with actors, set, sound, including the spoken part, etc. must be hoisted over the barrier. A re-staging with a translated text would destroy the work of art. Theatre technology offered the means of surtitles. Opera was the first to use it. Text comprehensibility has always been an insoluble problem for opera singers anyway, so the practice of translating foreign-language opera texts into German was ended in Germany, operas are now performed in their original language and text projections are used. The fact that these can only imperfectly and in abbreviation reproduce the libretto text was acceptable in view of the gain of being able to hear the correspondence of melody and original language vocalisation.

That theatre then resorted to this means has three causes: the mobility of productions across language borders, the mobility of the audience (cultural tourism) and, to a lesser extent, the linguistic heterogeneity of the local audience. The linguistic loss through surtitling is disproportionately greater in drama than in opera. Nuances of meaning and linguistic beauties are lost. The spoken word is reduced to a dennotative framework, which must then be supplemented by the audience through perception of analogue communication (gestures, body language, facial expressions). In translated plays of the repertoire, curious retranslations also occur (for example, in a “King Lear” production, Shakespeare’s mocking metaphor of man as a “forked animal” appeared on the surtitle screen as a “two-legged animal” via the diversion of a German translation).

In German theatre, the language of the surtitles is either English or German, depending on the language spoken on stage. The assumption that everyone in the audience somehow understands English is likely to be refuted in a Central European audience and mostly excludes the first generation of migrants in Germany. But even among an average Western European theatre audience, English proficiency is likely to be limited. How much would a German audience understand of an original language production of a play by John Osborne or Simon Stephen (or even from a French one of a play by Bernard-Marie Koltès)? Do we want to make the presentation of language certificates compulsory at the theatre box office? Productions designed for the international festival circuit have found ways out: untranslated English, complete renunciation of spoken language, reduction of language to sentences presented in writing, or rare languages without translation as an exotic attraction3.

But without speaking the language of the actually present audience, drama can at best discuss, deepen or make perceptible general human problems. What is lost in the process can perhaps be shown by the example of Nuran Calis` project “Mölln 92/22” (Schauspiel Köln). It deals with a central conflict in German society: violence against migrants. The German language is indeed sometimes an obstacle here. The production depicts the real multilingualism of German society. But it is not transportable. Even if there are similar conflicts in other European countries, it would hardly be understandable in France or England or even Poland, not because it is too deeply rooted in traditional German culture, but because it is anchored in contemporary German culture and its current conflicts. Without spoken language, a theatre that wants to be political only achieves an emotional effect, but never the discursive level on which politics takes place. The structural analogy, the isomorphism of politics and theatre 4 is not possible without verbal language.

This is not to say that drama cannot or should not respond to the multilingualism of the world. Édouard Glissant sums up his experience as a speaker of the Creole of Martinique and French thus: “that I can no longer defend my language monolingually either. I have to defend it in the knowledge that it is not the only one in the world under threat.” For him, multilingualism is “the presence of all the languages of the world in the practice of one’s own.”5 To show the multilingualism of the world in the practice of German theatre is the paradoxical task. There have been many attempts in recent decades to make multilingual productions comprehensible to a German audience.6 Multiplying the surtitle screens (English, German, Polish, Turkish …) will not solve the task. German communal theatres will hardly be able to afford surtitle screens in the backs of the seats on which one can choose between different languages, as in the Vienna State Opera or the Metropolitan Opera in New York. A surtitle app for smartphones like “Burgtheater Promt” is cheaper, but leads to a forest of dimly lit mini-screens in the auditorium that disturbs everyone’s concentration.

There is a somewhat forgotten model for dealing with Europe’s multilingualism in German theatre: the Bonn Biennale “New Plays from Europe” (“Neue Stücke aus Europa”)7. From 1992 to 2004, this festival took place at Schauspiel Bonn during the directorship of Manfred Beilharz, supported with considerable federal funding. With a network of “godfathers” in many European countries, mostly playwrights, productions of new plays from these countries were selected and shipped to Bonn. There were no surtitles, but translators who sat in a booth during the performance and interpreted simultaneously, knowing the text of the play. The audience was given one (!) earplug free of charge and could listen to the translation. The second ear remained free for the original language. Thus, with a little more concentration, one could both hear and also understand Icelandic, Russian or Serbian. The cultural contexts of the plays remained foreign, of course, and could at best be relayed in panel discussions. But the incentive to learn about the cultural contexts remained. This model incurs considerable costs, but takes better account of the multilingualism of the world than English surtitles for everything or a battery of mini-screens for all languages.

Finally, if the German language has turned out to be a major barrier – barrier to whom or what? Matthias Pees says, for “all those who do not have a sufficient command of the German language”. Are they audience members or theatre-makers? Or does the Theatertreffen only count on an audience that is professionally connected to theatre anyway? German language as a barrier to attracting audiences to the Berlin Theatertreffen? Probably not. Barrier to selecting productions for the Theatertreffen in which German is not spoken? That is not the case. Meg Stuart’s “Alibi” was already invited in 2002 and Alain Platel’s „Wolf“ in 2003. And many other productions followed in which the German language did not play a role, also in this year’s selection of 10. Barrier to the import of productions produced internationally in other languages? Yes, certainly. Barrier to attracting non-German-speaking directors and actors? Only in part.

“The challenge of having to find a common language on many levels is being met in many German theatres today.” (Pees)

This is true. The list of directors at German theatres whose primary language is not German is long, from Laurent Chétouane to Oliver Frljić, Alvis Hermanis, Antonio Latella, Ewelina Marciniak, Toshiki Okada, Dušan Parizek to Kiril Serebrennikov. They work in the German city and state theatre system because they find comfortable working conditions and good fees there. And the potential for aesthetic innovationl of these foreign workers is enormous. German theatre has gained a lot from this openness. But the effort required for such productions is also enormous: translation problems everywhere, in writing the text, in the rehearsal process, in communicating it to the audience. Communication via Google translators is tedious, time-consuming and ineffective. In the Nachtkritik.de interview, Matthias Pees also has to admit that theatre is bound to a national culture and language: “It is true that artists from our neighbouring countries to the east are already present in this country – but often with works that are weaker than those they stage in their home countries, because they work with new, foreign ensembles in a foreign language.”

The association „drama-panorama“ is dedicated to these translation problems. Barbora Schnelle, for example, writes “When I translate political theatre from the Czech Republic, I have to think very carefully about where I want to go from and to and ask myself, for example: What does the German-speaking audience know about Czech oligarchic structures? Where do I have to convey what, where do I have to enlighten, where do I have to contextualise and where is it best to find domestic parallels?” This need for translation and contextualisation will increase if one wants to achieve a stronger connection of German theatre with Central European theatres.

A parallel model, as proposed by Matthias Pees in the Nachtkritik interview, in which there is a group of productions from Central Europe, also selected by a jury, in addition to the existing selection of productions from German-speaking countries, would necessarily lead to a reduction in the number of invited productions from German-speaking countries. Even if the funding for the doubled Theatertreffen were increased, a reduction in the number of performances would be unavoidable.

  1. On the term “Central Europe” cf. the works of Karl Schlögel, e.g. Karl Schlögel, Die Mitte liegt ostwärts. Europa im Übergang. Munich: Hanser, 2002
  2. “In recent development, the boundaries between the genres of art flow into each other or, more precisely, their lines of demarcation fray.” Theodor W. Adorno, “Die Kunst und die Künste”, in: Ders., Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 10.1, Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1997, p. 432
  3. See my report on this year’s Ruhrfestspiele Recklinghausen in: Theater heute 7/2022
  4. cf. Alain Badiou, Rhapsodie für das Theater. Kurze philosophische  Abhandlung. Vienna: Passagen, 2015, pp. 36, 48
  5. Edouard Glissant, Kultur und Identität. Ansätze zu einer Poetik der Vielheit. Heidelberg: Wunderhorn: 2nd ed. 2013
  6. e.g. Karin Beiers production of Shakespeare’s “Summer Night Room” in 1995 at the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus, in which actors of different nationalities not only spoke their languages but also practised their national styles of performance. See my old review in the taz of 4.11.1995
  7. The last two directors of the Theatertreffen, Iris Laufenberg and Yvonne Büdenhölzer, acquired their first experience as festival organisers there.

Friendly Fire – Part 2

Notes on interviews about the Berliner Theatertreffen

In July 2022, Berliner Festspiele, the state-funded organization responsible for a bunch of festivals taking place in Berlin every year,  announced that the new management of the Berliner Theatertreffen would consist of the team Olena Apchel, Marta Hewelt, Carolin Hochleichter und Joanna Nuckowska. The recently appointed artistic director of Berliner Festspiele, Matthias Pees , explained that this team is intended to “connect the Theatertreffen more closely with the Central and Eastern European region”.
A small flurry of public discussion followed, with many commentators expressing their lack of understanding or scepticism for this decision, e.g.  Christian Rakow. Then people looked back at an interview that Matthias Lilienthal and Amelie Deuflhard had already published on the Theatertreffen website in May. And finally, Matthias Pees himself gave two interviews, one on Nachtkritik.de, , the other in „Der Spiegel“, in which he explained his intentions.

In the following – as in “Friendly Fire – Teil 1” – some sentences from these three interviews are commented on because they are of general importance. Here (ML) stands for Matthias Lilienthal, (AD) for Amelie Deuflhard, (Pees) for Matthias Pees.

Criticism of the existing jury procedure

“‘Best of’ is not a forward-looking principle.” (AD)

The rampant expansion of ranking lists also in the theatre sector speaks for the fact that “best of” is at least a current principle. Andreas Reckwitz explains why rankings (“quantitative techniques for representing particularities”) are necessary, especially in singularity markets (such as theatre)1. In the endless competition for attention of singular productions, visibility must be generated. Rankings serve this purpose. The time-honoured principle of “Theatertreffen” of selecting ten equally remarkable productions is more cautious in this respect. The jury has always resisted any ranking among the ten invited productions. This preserves to some extent the singularity, the incomparability, of the work of art. However, any selection based on the “best of” principle is under the constraint of having to define its selection area and actually cover it completely. Hence the restriction to the German-speaking area and the intensive travelling of the jurors.

“Medium-sized and smaller theatres are visited by the jury to a much greater extent than is then reflected in the final selection”. (Pees)

This is a basic problem of the Theatertreffen. But it also has its place in the system. One can think of the German, Swiss and Austrian municipal and state theatre system as an autopoietic system that is stable in itself and can regenerate itself. It is also capable of resonance, of reacting to its environment (other social subsystems, other theatre systems). Such a system needs elements for self-observation, self-imaging subsystems. The Theatertreffen has always been such a subsystem for self-observation of the German-speaking theatre system. The Deutsche Bühnenverein, the association of all German  theatres,  is a different one, with different guiding distinctions. The specific difference of the Theatertreffen subsystem is “aesthetically remarkable/not remarkable”. The individual theatres as subsystems of the larger theatre system interact with each other in many ways. Actors change, dramaturges discuss, artistic directors go on merry-go-rounds, authors receive prizes, and so on. But how does the overall system perceive itself? Without self-observation, no readjustment of interactions, no change of structures is possible.

The theatre system is also financially controlled. Theatres in large cities have larger budgets than those in small towns. This also creates a market for actors, directors, stage managers, production managers, etc. It is therefore not surprising that the aesthetic singularity market correlates with the financial market. The best directors move to where they earn the most or at least have the best working conditions. This correlation is never perfect. The Theatertreffen owes its existence to the fact that this correlation of art and money was blurred after 1945. The aesthetic centre of theatre culture in the Federal Republic moved between 1945 and 1989 from Darmstadt (Sellner, Hering) to Bremen (Hübner, Zadek) to Bochum (Zadek, Peymann) to Berlin (Stein, Grüber). There was a need for an artificial centre to reconcile perceptions. After 1989, with the inclusion of the former GDR and the development of Berlin into the actual capital, there was a natural centre, the correlation of art and money was perfected. But still, the system needs an element of introspection as a whole system. Without a province, there is no capital. The manifold interactions, the opportunities for advancement and internal differences of the subsystems are essential for the stability of the whole. Permanent self-observation is necessary for the permeability of the overall system. The significance of the Theatertreffen for small theatre towns lies not only in the invitations (which are rare), but in the permanence of observation.

Criticism of theatre critics

“Theatre critics are no more neutral or objective than we are.” (AD)
“As a dramaturge, I also still see myself as a kind of critic.” (Pees)

Of course theatre critics do not judge objectively. Christine Wahl formulates the credo of theatre critics: “But there is one conviction that unites us all: The eternally plural attracts us.”2 Aesthetic judgements are never objective. An aesthetic judgement only suggests approval to everyone3, i.e. it must argue in order to gain persuasive power. However, this subjective generality of the critic is different from that of the dramaturg. Internally, a dramaturge may be as sharp a critic of a production as a newspaper writer. But externally, towards the audience and the public, he has to be careful. He has an interest in a positive judgement. His or her contract renewal also depends on how far he or she succeeds in contributing to audience acquisition, to a positive public reaction or to the creative climate in the house.

After all, when several media judge a production, the subjectivity of the judgements becomes clear. The fact that there were critics who hid their subjectivity behind categorical praise and slurs, writing in the tone of the authoritative ex cathedra judgement, was due to the need for self-assertion of newspaper writers in a differentiated media landscape. But the grand critics have disappeared, partly because the media landscape has thinned out and almost no newspaper can afford a full-time theatre critic any more. On the contrary, since the 1970s, the emphasis on the subjectivity of the theatre experience has become a quality feature of theatre criticism (even if the “I” in the formulations is still frowned upon). The extent to which the critic succeeds in both linguistically conveying the subjective experience and argumentatively backing up his or her own emotional reaction is decisive for the effect of a theatre review on the reader. Till Briegleb has summed up this understanding of criticism: “A critic may hate, be moved, instruct, resign, become personal or cheer, as long as he brings his feelings into an understandable relation to the subject matter.” 4

“Critics writing against the decline of theatre criticism.” (ML)
“Theatre critics’ fear of loss of significance”. (Pees)

I can’t see any fear on the part of critics of losing their own significance. Those who write theatre criticism today know the marginal importance of their work. If there is a fear among critics, it is that of the theatre’s loss of significance. And there is just as much of this fear among theatre directors, actors and curators.

“Whether there are enough critics left at all, who still want to do it – or can afford it at all.” (Pees)

This question is justified. (Almost) no one can afford to make a living from theatre criticism. The fees are pitiful or non-existent. The clamour about the poor qualifications of theatre critics is age-old:

“Yes, theatre criticism is not infrequently the last refuge of a degenerate talent, of a mentally and morally disintegrated person who finds himself excluded from all other literary activities, which require the acquisition and mastery of a rich material.”

This was written by H.Th. Rötscher, himself a theatre critic, as early as 18645. Michael Billington, the theatre critic of the British “Guardian”, provided a friendlier self-description of the type person that becomes a theatre critic:

“Critics are born, not made: possibly because of some temperamental deficiency or innate shyness, many of us discover at an early age that we prefer to be among the watchers than the watched … We find our emotional energies released by appraising the work of others.”6

But the qualifications of today`s critics are high. Most of them have a degree in theatre studies as intellectual background. But no one stays in the business for long, unless they have sufficient other income. Some become dramaturges, a few get editorial posts in the mixed feuilleton, some become lecturers at universities, others switch to curating festivals. Theatre criticism has become a sideline or a transitional occupation 7.

“I doubt that journalism still is really as independent as it was or supposedly once was.” (Pees)
“A view of journalism that is out of date.” (AD)

Frugal rewards for theatre criticism naturally encourage susceptibility to subtle attempts of corrupting critics. Till Briegleb’s iron rule “A sincere critic does not fraternise with the theatre.”8 is being softened. This applies above all to local criticism. If newspaper editors are still interested in theatre coverage, they want preliminary reports, interviews, portraits. These require closer contact with the theatre. Local theatre critics tend to be mild in their assessment of the productions of their city’s theatre anyway9.

“In times of social media, one can communicate oneself through quite a few channels. This creates the possibility of criticism of criticism.” (AD)

Nachtkritik.de is the medium that has best succeeded in using these possibilities of interactive communication on the internet for theatre criticism.10 But the social internet media accelerate the fragmentation of the public sphere through the algorithms of attention steering working in the background. The public sphere is a field in which opinions compete for attention. The media have always been segmented, newspapers had a basic political slant. Nevertheless, they were open to the reading public. Anyone who read a conservative critique of a theatre performance in the “Welt” (or “Daily Telegraph”) could have their opinion confirmed by reading a more liberal critique in the “Frankfurter Rundschau” (or “Guardian”). Back then, it was a long time ago.  What the segmentation of the public through attention-grabbing and choice architecture on the internet does, can be seen in the political development of American democracy. However, it is short-sighted to conclude from the reduction of the importance of print media that theatre criticism is dying.

Christine Wahl sees the fatal tendency to understand the task of theatre criticism as an invitation to “join in a community of values” 11. Deuflhard and Lilienthal seem to orient themselves more towards the model of the market economy. Each producer advertises his product. The theatres can criticise themselves; after all, every dramaturge is also a critic, according to Matthias Pees. After all, every expert assessment for some theatre by the management consultancy Actori, which specialises in theatre consulting, has shown that the marketing department needs to be staffed more strongly, despite or precisely because of all the theatres’ efforts to save money. So marketing departments of theatres simulate journalism in their own interest.

However, one function of theatre criticism (in addition to providing guidance on possible performance attendance, reporting) is to draw theatre into the realm of public debate. A theatre performance is an event in the simultaneous physical presence of many. Making this event debatable is also a function of criticism. This includes some kind of judgement, positive or negative, that makes a debate for-and-against possible. This debate is not only the great public one, but also the private one between spectators of the same production and between actual and potential spectators. A theatre review is not only part of a public debate, but can also be the subject of a private debate. Such micro-discussions form the root network of a pluralistic democracy. Theatre criticism is not marketing. A theatre production is more than just a commodity to be sold. Theatre criticism is debate culture. And the aesthetic debate about the value of jointly experienced representations of human conditions is the pleasurable preliminary exercise for the debates about the political regulation of social relations.


“Set an example for how we on this continent intend to live and communicate with our neighbours in the future in general.” (Pees)

That is the best intention of the whole enterprise of restructuring the Berlin Theatertreffen. But there does not yet seem to be a coherent concept for how it is to be realised.

  1. Andreas Reckwitz, Die Gesellschaft der Singularitäten. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2017. p.175. See also my article “Theatre and Theatre Criticism in the Society of Singularities.”
  2. Christine Wahl: Zum Stand der Theaterkritik. nachtkritik.de 4 May 2022
  3. “The judgement of taste itself does not postulate everyone’s approval {…}; it only suggests this approval to everyone.” Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft. Analytik des Schönen, §8
  4. Till Briegleb, “Kritiker und Theater. 10 Thesen” in: Dramaturgie. Zeitschrift der Dramaturgischen Gesellschaft. Resümée des Symposions ‚Radikal Sozial‘. Berlin 2006
  5. Heinrich Theodor Röscher, Die Kunst der dramatischen Darstellung in ihrem organischen Zusammenhang wissenschaftlich entwickelt. First volume. Leipzig: Otto Wiegand, 2nd edition 1864, p.50
  6. Michael Billington, One Night Stands. A Critic`s View of modern British theatre. London: Nick Hern, 1993, p. IXf
  7. I have always understood my appointment to the jury of the Theatertreffen in 2000 as the beginning of the decline of the profession of theatre critic. I was probably the first person in that position who did not earn his living as a journalist.
  8. Rule No.1, Till Briegleb op. cit.
  9. On the differences between regional and national theatre criticism, see: Vasco Bönisch, “Die Aufgaben der Theaterkritik”, in: V.B., Krise der Kritik? Was Theaterkritiker denken – und was ihre Leser erwarten. Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2008, pp. 103-150
  10. See Christiane Wahl’s essay “Zum Zustand der Theaterkritik” nachtkritik.de 4 May 2022
  11. in: Zum Stand der Theaterkritik”  nachtkritik.de 4.5.2022

Truth in Theatre – Part 3 Acting


So there is no truth to be found in the theatre text. Adorno said that you can’t squeeze a statement out of “Hamlet”. And Bertrand Russell concluded succinctly that all the propositions in “Hamlet” are false because the person Hamlet never existed2. But the actor (or actress) who plays Hamlet does exist.  And he (or she) is supposed to be true.

Truth in theatre is not knowledge that can be experienced or formulated, it is a demand on the performance of actors and actresses. This use of the term “truth” has a long tradition in the theory of acting.

Truth as deception

One of the oldest formulations of this ideal of the art of acting is found in 1749 by the French theatre theorist Sainte-Albine:

“Dramatic poems please us the more they resemble true stories, and the perfection we demand in their performances is actually what is called truth, in the language of the theatre. One understands by this word here the confluence of all probabilities which can serve to deceive the spectators.” 3.

Johann Jakob Engel, for a time director of the Berlin National Theatre, still adopted this view in 1785:

“When words, tone, movement, are in the most perfect agreement with each other, and all in the most perfect agreement with passion, situation and character; only then does the highest possible degree of truth arise, and through this truth the highest possible deception.” 4

Here, then, truth has the function of deceiving. The fact that this contradiction in terms somehow overstretches the concept of truth was soon to be noticed.

Denis Diderot was more cautious in his use of the term:

“Think for a moment about what being true means in the theatre. Does it mean showing things as they are in nature? Not at all. The true, in this case, would be nothing other than the ordinary. But what is the true on stage? It is the conformity of actions, of speech, of appearance, of voice, of movement and gesture to an ideal conceived by the poet and often exaggerated by the actor. This true is the miracle.” 5

Here, then, the true is the miracle – also a use of the concept of truth that needs a lot of explanation.

Truth and beauty

In contrast to his teacher Hegel, for whom the truth of art consists in the concordance of the external and the internal 6, for the theatre critic Heinrich Theodor Rötscher, truth in the performing arts is only one of the two sides that theatre must combine.

“In the art of acting, which is based on the sensualisation of drama, they {the opposites of the general and the individual} appear in the demand to let beauty as well as truth come to their rights in equal measure.”7

For him, beauty stands for ideality, truth for sensually perceptible reality. Without ideality, meaning the dramatic text created by the poet, the actor sinks down to mere “natural truth” 8. Truth alone is not enough. In Rötscher’s idealistic theatre aesthetics, then, truth is no longer the term used to designate the supreme goal of the art of acting.

Truth as belief

It is Stanislavski who gives the concept of truth in theatre a more precise meaning. For him, truth is a quality of the actor’s inner feeling.

“In the theatre it is not important that Othello’s dagger is made of cardboard or metal, but that the inner feeling of the actor himself, which justifies Othello’s murder, is true, sincere and genuine. … We talk about this truth of feeling in the theatre. Here is that scenic truth which is necessary for the actor at the moment of his creation. There is no real art without such truth and belief!” 9.

In Stanislavski’s work, the conceptual pair “truth-deception”, which could be  seen in Sainte-Albine and Engel, becomes the connection “truth-belief”. What the actor’s truth produces is no longer “deception” but “belief”:

“Truth produced belief.” 10.

This “truth” is something the actor or actress produces, not something he or she finds or names.

“Logic and consistency of the actor’s physical actions and sensations lead to truth. 11

Truth for Stanislavski is something internal:

“Truth on stage is what we sincerely believe both in our inner selves and in the souls of our partners.” 12.

This internal state is twofold: it is both a psycho-physical state experienced by the actress or actor and the reflection of this state: one “sincerely believes” in this state. With Stanislavski’s psycho-technique, the actor creates an inner process in order to achieve an effect (belief of the spectator). Because the actor or actress believes in his or her deliberately aroused emotion and feels it as his genuine emotion the audience believes this emotion to be the “truth”.

That the concept of “truth” (Правда) is once again overstretched here only became clear to Stanislawski’s German translators at a later stage. In the GDR, they initially followed Alexandra Meyenburg’s old translation. Ottofritz Gaillard (after 1945 director of the German Theatre Institute in Weimar and later of the acting department of the Theatre Academy in Leipzig) wrote in his handbook for training actors in 1947:

“The truth of the stage as a framework for the truth of sensation and, on the other hand, the truth of sensation as a prerequisite for the truth of the stage, that is the knowledge on which we continue to build.” 13.

His mentor Maxim Vallentin (1927-1932 director of the agitprop group Rotes Sprachrohr, artistic director of the Maxim Gorki Theatre 1952-1968) goes even further: the “stage of truth” unites

“three truths – the truth of feeling, the truth of the stage and the social truth” 14

Here the concept of truth is transferred from the actor (“sensation”) via the content of the theatre productions (“stage”) to politics: the construction of socialism in the GDR is the “social truth” that the theatre serves.

Truth as truthfulness

In West-Germany, people were a little more cautious when dealing with truth. Hans-Günther von Klöden, director of the Hanover Drama School since 1950, felt a slight unease about this Stanislavskian concept of truth:

“So what are we to understand by ‘truth’? […] Perhaps we have made a linguistic slip-up and ‘truthfulness’ is what is meant?” 15

“Truthfulness” (“Wahrhaftigkeit”) is also the term used by the translators of the later GDR edition of Stanisławski’s writings to translate Правда (Pravda).  16 Von Klöden is not satisfied with this way out either:

” … for we are nevertheless thrown back on the concept of truth, since truthfulness is nothing other than the virtue of always telling the truth.”17

Nevertheless, he returns to the concept of “truth”:

“Aristotle only speaks of the truth of propositions or more precisely of  ‘judgements’. But we think that a thing, a process or any other phenomenon can also be true ‘in itself’. And thus ‘truth’ takes on the meaning of ‘reality’, ‘authenticity’. Authenticity of action arises from the ‘centre of gravity’ of the human being. (…) We are not only concerned with playing inwardly, but from the inside out. According to this, art would be above all: the ability to speak the truth clearly.” 18

Here, too, the actor’s truth is something complex: genuine acting out of the person’s centre of gravity and its deliberate clarification.

In English-language textbooks, on the other hand, the Stanislavskian notion of truth seems to persist: “Truth” is the word emblazoned in large letters on the cover of Susan Batson’s acting textbook.

“Stanislavski understood that actors bring characters to life by using the truth of their own experience. The actor’s truth is the truth of honest sensation.” 19.

The German publisher has carefully added a subtitle to the triumphant title: “Wahrhaftigkeit im Schauspiel” (truthfulness in acting).

Truth as an individual relation

In his essay “On the Philosophy of the Actor” (“Zur Philosophie des Schauspielers”), Georg Simmel tries to save the concept of truth in the actor by redefining it. For him, truth is no longer the correspondence between statement and object, nothing universally objective, but a relation between an individual and an object:

“What we call truth about an object is something very diverse, depending on the being for which the truth is to apply (…) Thus for every being there is a truth about every given object that is different because of its individuality.”20

Truth is not a relation between subject and object that would be the same for all intelligent subjects but is different for each “species of being”. “Truth” for Simmel is only the “expression for the appropriate relation between subject and object”. Actors who are “different in their temperaments and talents” also belong to such different “types of being”. Thus, for every type of actor there is a “true” portrayal of a certain role (the example, as always, is Hamlet), but it is not the same for every type of actor and this truth is not always achieved. Thus the concept of truth dissolves and becomes an individual ideal of the relationship between actor and role. How this ideal is to be recognised remains open. The only indication of this ideal is that, if this ideal is not achieved, the viewer’s emotional reaction will be: this realization of this role in this performance  “does not satisfy us” (“befriedigt uns nicht”).

In his collection of texts, Jens Roselt has traced the zigzag path of acting theory between hot and cold actor, between playing from the outside in or from the inside out, in all its details and concludes:

“The dispute about the ‘genuineness’ of feelings cannot be settled in theory.” 21

Intermediate result 3

Truth as a term to denote the goal of acting, of the embodiment of a role, has a tradition that goes back a long way. However, on closer analysis of this use of the term, it dissolves and proves to be unsuitable.

  1. Please forgive me that I use of the generic masculine. The reason for this lies in the texts of acting theory reproduced here. Even in the 21st century, the masculine “the actor” is often used in them when speaking of acting in general. Where it is stylistically bearable, I have tried to make it clear that the statements also refer to actresses as well.
  2. “The propositions in the play are false because there was no such man.” Bertrand Russell, An Enquiry into Meaning and Truth, London: Allen and Unwin, 1962, p. 277
  3. Engl. transl. G.P. „Dramatische Erdichtungen gefallen uns desto mehr, je ähnlicher sie wahrhaften Geschichten sind, und die Vollkommenheit, die wir in ihren Vorstellungen verlangen, ist eigentlich das was man in der Sprache des Theaters, Wahrheit nennet. Man versteht durch dieses Wort hier den Zusammenfluss aller Wahrscheinlichkeiten, welche dienen können, die Zuschauer zu täuschen.“ Rémond de Sainte-Albine, der Schauspieler. Übers. v. Friedrich Justin Bertuch. Altenburg 1772, p.49, original: “Les fictions Dramatiques nous plaisant d’autant plus, qu’elles sont plus semblables à des aventures réelles, la perfection que nous desirons le plus dans la Représentation est ce qu’au Théatre on nomme Vérité. On y entend par ce mot le concours des apparences, qui peuvent servir à tromper des Spectateurs.” Le comédien : ouvrage divisé en deux parties / par M. Remond de Sainte-Albine. Nouvelle édition augmentée & corrigée. Paris: Desaint & Saillant, 1749. p.107. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=ucm.5323613769&view=1up&seq=137. Bertuch translates “apparences” as “probabilities (Wahrscheinlichkeiten)” while actually “appearances” is meant
  4. Engl. transl. G.P. „Wenn Worte, Ton, Bewegung, auf das vollkommenste unter einander, und alle auf vollkommenste mit Leidenschaft, Situation und Charakter übereinstimmen; dann erst entsteht der höchste mögliche Grad der Wahrheit, und durch diese Wahrheit die höchste mögliche Täuschung.“ zit. in: Jens Roselt (Hg.), Schauspieltheorien. Seelen mit Methode. Schauspieltheorien vom Barock – bis zum  postdramatischen Theater. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2005, S.154
  5. „Denken Sie einen Augenblick darüber nach, was auf dem Theater Wahrsein bedeutet. Heisst das, die Dinge so zu zeigen, wie sie in der Natur sind? Keineswegs. Das Wahre in diesem Fall, wäre nichts anderes als das Gewöhnliche. Aber was ist denn das Wahre auf der Bühne? Es ist die Übereinstimmung der Handlungen, des Sprechens, der Erscheinung, der Stimme, der Bewegung und der Geste mit einer von dem Dichter ersonnenen Idealvorstellung, die vom Schauspieler oft noch übersteigert wird. Das ist das Wunder.“ Engl. transl. Ftom German G.P., Denis Diderot, Paradox über den Schauspieler. transl. u. eingeführt von Felix Rellstab. Wädenswil: Verlag Stutz & Co, 1981, p.22. Original: “Réfléchissez un moment sur ce qu’on appelle au théâtre être vrai. Est-ce y montrer les choses comme elles sont en nature? Aucunement. Le vrai en ce sens ne serait que le commun. Qu’est-ce donc que le vrai de la scène? C’est la conformité des actions, des discours, de la figure, de la voix, du mouvement, du geste, avec un modèle idéal imaginé par le poet, et souvent exagéré par le comédien. Voilà le merveilleux.” Denis Diderot, Paradoxe sur le comédien. Ouvrage posthume. Paris: Sautele, 1830. p. 21. https://books.google.be/books?id=gksHAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&hl=fr&source=gbs_v2_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
  6. G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik I. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1970 (= Theorie Werkausgabe Bd. 13), S.205
  7. Engl. transl. G.P. „In der Schauspielkunst, welche auf die Versinnlichung des Dramas ausgeht, treten sie {die Gegensätze des Allgemeinen und des Individuellen} zunächst in der Forderung auf, die Schönheit wie die Wahrheit gleichmäßig zu ihrem Rechte kommen zu lassen.“ Heinrich Theodor Rötscher, Die Kunst der dramatischen Darstellung in ihrem organischen Zusammenhang wissenschaftlich entwickelt. (First volume) Leipzig: Otto Wiegand, 2nd edition 1864, p.19
  8. “Naturwahrheit”, ibid. p.21
  9. Engl. transl. from German G.P. „Im Theater ist nicht wichtig, dass der Dolch des Othello aus Karton oder Metall ist, sondern, dass das innere Gefühl des Schauspielers selbst, das den Mord des Othello rechtfertigt, wahr, aufrichtig und echt ist. … Über diese Wahrheit des Gefühls sprechen wir im Theater. Hier ist jene szenische Wahrheit, die für den Schauspieler im Augenblick seines Schaffens nötig ist. Es gibt  keine echte Kunst ohne solche Wahrheit und Glaube!“ Konstantin Sergejewitsch Stanislawskij, Das Geheimnis des schauspielerischen Erfolges.  übers. v. Alexandra Meyenburg. Zürich: Scientia AG, o.J (1940?). {zuerst Moskau 1938}. S.185
  10. „Die Wahrheit erzeugte den Glauben.“ ibid. p.225
  11. Engl. transl. from German G.P „Logik und Folgerichtigkeit der physischen Handlungen und Empfindungen“ des Schauspielers führt zur Wahrheit. ibid. p. 225
  12. „Die Wahrheit auf der Bühne ist das, woran wir aufrichtig sowohl in unserem Innern glauben, als auch in den Seelen unserer Partner.“ Ibid. p. 185
  13. „Die Wahrheit der Bühne als Rahmen für die Wahrheit der Empfindung und andererseits die Wahrheit der Empfindung als Voraussetzung für die Wahrheit der Bühne, das ist die Erkenntnis, auf der wir weiterbauen.“ Ottofritz Gaillard, Das deutsche Stanislawski-Buch. Lehrbuch der Schauspielkunst nach dem Stanislawski-System. Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1947, S.191
  14. Die Bühne der Wahrheit“ vereine „die drei Wahrheiten – die Wahrheit der Empfindung, die Wahrheit der Bühne und die gesellschaftliche Wahrheit“ ibid. Geleitwort S.11.
  15. „Was also sollen wir unter ‚Wahrheit‘ verstehen? (…) Vielleicht ist uns eine sprachliche Schlamperei unterlaufen, und es ist ‚Wahrhaftigkeit‘ gemeint?“ Hans Günther von Klöden, Grundlagen der Schauspielkunst II: Improvisation und Rollenstudium. Velber bei Hannover: Friedrich Verlag, 1967 (Reihe Theater heute 24) p.19
  16. Stanisławski. Die Arbeit des Schauspielers an sich selbst. Tagebuch eines Schülers. Teil 1 Die Arbeit an sich selbst im schöpferischen Prozess des Erlebens. übers. v. Ingrid Tintzmann. Westberlin: das europäische Buch, 1981, z.B. S. 148ff, 181
  17. „ … denn wir werden doch wieder auf den Begriff der Wahrheit zurückgeworfen, da ja Wahrhaftigkeit nichts anderes ist als die Tugend, stets die Wahrheit zu sagen.“ A similar, but not entirely synonymous definition is found in Otto Friedrich Bollnow: “While truth (according to the traditional, but for the present context entirely sufficient definition) means the (objective) agreement of a statement with its object, truthfulness means its (subjective) agreement with the opinion of the speaker. (…) But truthfulness (or untruthfulness) turns inwards, i.e. it lives in man’s relation to himself. (…) Truthfulness, therefore, goes to the behaviour of the human being towards himself. It means the inner transparency and the free standing up for oneself.” Übers. G.P., „Während die Wahrheit (nach der überkommenen, aber für den gegenwärtigen Zusammenhang völlig ausreichenden Bestimmung) die (objektive) Übereinstimmung einer Aussage mit ihrem Gegenstand bedeutet, meint die Wahrhaftigkeit ihr (subjektive) Übereinstimmung mit der Meinung des Sprechers. (…) Die Wahrhaftigkeit aber (oder Unwahrhaftigkeit) wendet sich nach innen, d.h. sie lebt in der Beziehung des Menschen zu sich selbst. (…) Die Wahrhaftigkeit geht also auf das Verhalten des Menschen zu sich selbst. Sie bedeutet die innere Durchsichtigkeit und das freie Einstehen für sich selbst.“ Otto Friedrich Bollnow, Wesen und Wandel der Tugenden. Frankfurt/M: Ullstein, 1958, S.138f
  18. “Bei Aristoteles ist nur von der Wahrheit einer Aussage, genauer eines ‚Urteils‘ die Rede. Wir aber meinen, daß auch eine Sache, ein Vorgang oder sonst irgendein Phänomen „in sich“ wahr sein kann. Und damit bekommt die ‚Wahrheit‘ die Bedeutung von ‚Wirklichkeit‘, ‚Echtheit‘. Echtheit des Handelns erwächst aus dem ‚Schwerpunkt‘ des Menschen. (…) Es geht uns nicht nur darum, innerlich, sondern von innen nach außen zu spielen. Kunst wäre hiernach vor allem: die Fähigkeit, die Wahrheit deutlich zu sagen.” v. Klöden, op. cit., p. 20f.
  19. Susan Batson, Truth: Personas, Needs, and Flaws in the Art of Building Actors and Creating Characters. Webster/Stone, 2006 (German: Truth. Wahrhaftigkeit im Schauspiel. Ein Lehrbuch. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2014)
  20. Georg Simmel, “Zur Philosophie des Schauspielers”, in: G.S., Das individuelle Gesetz. Philosophische Exkurse, ed. by Michael Landmann. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1987, p. 85f. The essay was first published posthumously from the estate in: Internationale Zeitung für die Philosophie der Kultur, vol. 9 (1920-1921), pp.339-362. It is not identical with the essay of the same title in: Der Morgen 2.Jg., No.51/52, 18 December 1908, pp.1685-1689
  21. „Der Streit um die ‚Echtheit‘ von Gefühlen kann in der Theorie nicht beigelegt werden.“ Jens Roselt (ed.), Schauspieltheorien. Seelen mit Methode. Schauspieltheorien vom Barock – bis zum  postdramatischen Theater. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2005, introduction p.47

Truth in Theatre – Part 2 Drama

Neither Hegel nor Heidegger nor Adorno apply the concept of truth to theatre. They are concerned with art in general, and in Hegel’s case with drama in particular. The side of theatre that is not identical with the word, the visualisation of text in a theatre performance or the non-linguistic side of theatre, are not essential for its truth content. The work of art is the work of words.

Theatre text and theatre performance

Hegel completely devalues the non-linguistic side of theatre 1 and if a theatre performance succeeds, it is only because the theatre poet has created the right conditions for it in the text.2.
For Heidegger, even all art is ultimately poetry.3 As for Hegel, language has a superior role in art4. If Heidegger mentions theatre once in passing, then in a pejorative sense as a machine of experience, as a medium of showmanship5.
Adorno, on the other hand, describes himself as “half a theatre child.”6. But by “theatre” he always means either drama or opera. His “Notes on Literature” contain the influential essays on dramas by Goethe, Beckett, Brecht, Horvath, etc. In the lovingly ironic essay “Natural History of the Theatre”, which is more a collection of aperçus about the audience and the various premises of a theatre building, it is also only about the opera audience and opera houses.7 He thinks nothing of opera directors who try to save operas “through the mise en scene” or try to “modernise it somehow” 8. Thus, one can expect little enlightenment from Adorno on the relationship of theatre (not drama and not opera) to truth.

One of the few theatre practitioners who dealt with the concept of truth was the director Adolf Dresen 9. He emphasises that the truth of art is a new truth, thus, similar to Heidegger, Adorno and Badiou, he sees truth as something developing, emerging, not as something fixed that art must achieve10. For him, the truth of art is always a “new truth”, and – entirely in the Heideggerian idiom – a truth that reveals itself11. But he too only explains his understanding of the truth of “art” in general, not of the particular role of truth in theatre.

The truth of the theatre text

If one now tentatively agrees to understand truth on the theatre only as the truth of drama, i.e. the theatre text, – what can be said about it using the example of Jon Fosse’s drama “Dream in Autumn” addressed by Ivan Nagel?12

Let’s take the first sentence of Jon Fosse’s text:

“MAN: No is it you”13

No criterion of truth can be applied to this sentence: it is the beginning of a dialogue (between a man and a woman), it is spoken in a specific situation (reunion at the cemetery), it is fictional (part of a text that constructs its own reality), it is an interrogative sentence. Let’s try another sentence:

“MOTHER: Nothing stays / everything moves / like clouds / A life is a cloudy sky /before it gets dark.”14

This looks like a propositional sentence, but how are we to judge that it is true? It contains a metaphor and judges something as general as “a life”. Metaphors cannot be true. Nor is the truth of a theatre text to be sought at this level. There are only a few such life-like sentences in Fosse’s work. He also immediately devalues them with sentences like:

“MAN: We’re just talking /Actually all nonsense /What we say /Just talk/ Yes”15.

Fosse himself also sees the truth of his texts not in the individual sentences but, quite Hegelian, in the whole:

“Didn’t someone say here: Truth is always concrete? … I am concerned with the whole of a text, and the world in the text speaks of the whole and is therefore present in every part, in every detail of the text.”16

The truth of a drama, or its participation in truth, cannot therefore lie in individual propositions, but only in the drama as a whole. The drama as a whole speaks a non-discursive language (although it also consists of many discursive sentences). So what this truth is that the drama expresses or conveys cannot be discursively formulated. But nevertheless it is supposed to exist, this trans-subjective something, the truth of the work of art. For Adorno, then, critique would have to work out this truth, although it cannot be squeezed out of the drama as a statement (see Adorno’s remark about “Hamlet”17).

The example of “Dream in Autumn”

So what would be true about “Dream in Autumn”? The experience of time, for example, how past and present mix in consciousness. In Fosse’s play, the time levels mix imperceptibly, forwards and backwards. Of course, in real life we can distinguish past and present, but in our consciousness current perceptions, memories and plans for the future do mix. Only these expanded temporal dimensions give meaning and significance to our perceptions in the here and now. Would that be the truth of this play? If so, – it has been worked out, it is the result of the reflections of an individual recipient. It is trans-subjective at most as an imposition on others to agree with this truth (cf. Kant’s judgement of taste) 18. Of course, “Dream in Autumn” has a part in the “untruthfulness of the age”: the characters are not happy, their communication is unconsciously instrumental, the image of women that the three female characters portray is pitiful, even if at the end they march into the future as a surviving, seemingly reconciled trio.

What is crucial, however, is that what is called “truth” in Heideggersch-Adornitic diction emerges from a communicative act between artwork and recipient. Viewed soberly, this “truth” is different in every head – and thus loses the justification of a supra-individual validity. If everyone has their own truth, there is no point in ascribing truth to these different thoughts of different individuals. 19 That these many thoughts are stimulated by a single object, the work of art, or in theatre by a common experience, is the essence of art. Art is communication, not truth, that is the insight of hermeneutics20. Gadamer does take up the question of the truth of art, but then resolves it in the back and forth of the playful conversation between the work of art and the art recipient. The claim of “lifting {so-called} reality to its truth” through art 21 becomes in the end only the “truth of play” 22. This overstretches the concept of truth beyond its possible meanings.

If there were one or more “truths” in “Dream in Autumn”, they must surely have been noticed by someone. In the reviews of the world premiere at the Schaubühne Berlin and in those of the production of the Münchner Kammerspiele invited to the Theatertreffen, the word “truth” is not to be found, not even the adjective “true”. The judgements of the play, the theatre text as distinguished from its performance, are cautiously positive in the premiere, but negative in the Munich production. The relationship between the evaluation of the theatre text and the production is reversed. Günther Grack in the Tagesspiegel only notes at the premiere that Fosse’s play abstains from “any message pointing beyond it” 23. Eva Corino criticises “flight into false simplicity” 24, Barbara Villiger-Heilig complains on the occasion of the Munich performance that the text “cannot hide its weak points where it becomes philosophical” 25. Marietta Piekenbrock immediately hands out “the sour pickle for the weakest play of the season” 26. The production of the world premiere is benevolently depreciated (“schade” Dirk Pilz 27, “remarkably successful in extracting a maximum of atmospheric appeal and psychological tension from the diffuse web”, Günther Grack28), the Munich production unambiguously praised: “wonderful” (Dirk Pilz), “wonderful” (Rüdiger Schaper29), “great” (Simone Meier 30).
If you look for truth-apt sentences in these reviews that go beyond the description of what happens on stage and the reproduction of the audience’s feelings, the most you will find are sentences like the one by Dirk Pilz:

“To live is to prepare for death, to love is to practice saying goodbye.” 31

Or Christopher Schmidt’s:

“Two things, death and love, take you off your feet.” 32

However, as in many theatre reviews, these sentences deliberately remain in limbo between the reproduction of views attributed to the theatre text or production and general statements by the critic. They are part of the game. Such statements do not claim general validity, they are subjective attempts to mediate between the theatre text or the experienced performance and the spectator, are tentative generalisations that are aware of their unalterable subjectivity. 33.

Interim result 2

The application of the concept of “truth” to a theatre text is thus only possible if truth is something absolute, the idea, the whole, being or the like. Truth as propositional truth is not applicable to texts of theatre literature. Empirically, the use of the term “truth” as an evaluative concept of art reception seems to have died out sometime in the 1970s. Only the philosophical fossil Alain Badiou still uses it.


See also Truth in Theatre Part 3 Acting. Part 4 on Representation will (hopefully) follow soon.

  1. see my contribution “Hegel and the Theatre” https://theatermarginalien.com/en/2019/08/17/hegel-and-the-theatre/
  2. see my contribution “With Hegel in the Theatre” https://theatermarginalien.com/en/2021/05/10/with-hegel-in-the-theatre/
  3. “All art, as letting happen the arrival of the truth of being as such, is in essence poetry.” „Alle Kunst ist als Geschehenlassen der Ankunft der Wahrheit des Seienden als eines solchen im Wesen Dichtung.“ Martin Heidegger, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks. Mit der „Einführung“ von Hans-Georg Gadamer und der ersten Fassung des Textes (1935) Frankfurt/M: Klostermann, 2012, p.59
  4. “Nevertheless, the linguistic work, poetry in the narrower sense, has a distinguished position in the whole of the arts.” “Gleichwohl hat das Sprachwerk, die Dichtung im engeren Sinne eine ausgezeichnete Stellung im Ganzen der Künste.“ Heidegger, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks, op. cit. p.61
  5. “Everything to be represented should only act as foreground and surface, aiming at the impression, the effect, the wish to impress and stir up: ‘theatre’.” „Alles Darzustellende soll nur wirken als Vordergrund und Vorderfläche, abzielend auf den Eindruck, den Effekt, das Wirken- und Aufwühlenwollen: ‚Theater‘.“ Martin Heidegger, „Nietzsche I“ in: Gesamtausgabe Bd. 6,1. Frankfurt/M: Klostermann, 1996, S.85. Quoted by Marten Weise, „Heideggers Schweigen vom Theater“, in: Leon Gabriel, Nikolaus Müller-Schöll (Hg.) Das Denken der Bühne. Szenen zwischen Theater und Philosophie. Bielfeld: Transkript, 2019. Weise fictionalises a vision of theatre  that Heidegger should have written but did not
  6. “After all, I consider myself half a theatre child.” “Ich betrachte mich ja selber als ein halbes Theaterkind.“ Theodor W. Adorno, „Theater, Oper, Bürgertum“ in: Egon Vietta (Hg.), Theater. Darmstädter Gespräch 1955. Darmstadt: Neue Darmstädter Verlagsanstalt, 1955, p.139
  7. Adorno, Musikalische Schriften I-III. Gesammelte Werke Vol. 16, pp.309-320. The individual texts first appeared in the “Blättern des Hessischen Landestheaters, Darmstadt” 1931-33.
  8. Adorno, Darmstädter Gespräch 1955, op. cit. p.139
  9. Adolf Dresen (1935-2001) was a theatre director first in the GDR at the Deutsche Theater, then at the Burgtheater in Vienna, in Frankfurt am Main and later an opera director at various European theatres
  10. “The truth of art is {…} the new truth, it depends on the real discovery of truth. When truth is discovered, it is in contradiction with the previous image of the world, with the previous truth, the old truth. The truth of art takes truth seriously as a historical category.” „Die Wahrheit der Kunst ist {…} die neue Wahrheit, es kommt ihr an auf die wirkliche Entdeckung der Wahrheit. Wenn die Wahrheit entdeckt wird, ist sie im Widerspruch mit dem bisherigen Bild der Welt, mit der bisherigen Wahrheit, der alten Wahrheit. Die Wahrheit der Kunst macht Ernst mit der Wahrheit als einer historischen Kategorie.“ Adolf Dresen, „Wahrheitsagen“, in: Siegfrieds Vergessen. Kultur zwischen Konsens und Konflikt. Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 1992 {auch in Sinn und Form 1992}, p.212
  11. “It is this crust of self-evidence that art breaks through. {…} Truth is a performance. It is the reality behind reality, the other reality not of the existing, the recognised, the established, but of the astonishing, the astounding, even the miraculous. {…} The truth of art is the new truth, but it is also the new truth. It is neither a flat imitation nor pure aestheticism, but cognition. It is neither the existing truth nor the ignored truth, but the truth that has been unknown until now, the truth that is revealing itself.” „Es ist diese Kruste der Selbstverständlichkeit, die die Kunst durchbricht. {…} Die Wahrheit ist eine Leistung. Sie ist die Wirklichkeit hinter der Wirklichkeit, die andere Wirklichkeit nicht des Bestehenden, Anerkannten, Festgestellten, sondern des Erstaunlichen, Verblüffenden, ja des Wunderbaren. {…} Die Wahrheit der Kunst ist die neue Wahrheit, aber sie ist eben auch die neue Wahrheit. Sie ist weder der platte Abklatsch noch der pure Ästhetizismus, sondern Erkennen. Sie ist weder die bestehende noch die ignorierte, sondern die bis eben unbekannte, die sich offenbarende Wahrheit.“ Adolf Dresen op. cit., p.222f.
  12. An excellent, methodologically very conscious and detailed work on Jon Fosse’s “Dream in Autumn” is the thesis by Marion Titsch, Das Ungesagte im Gesagten. Dramaturgische Untersuchungen zu Jon Fosses Theatertexten Draum om hausten und Svevn sowie deren Inszenierungen von Luk Perceval und Michael Thalheimer. Diplomarbeit Universität Wien 2009. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/11585761.pdf
  13. „MANN: Nein bist du das“ Jon Fosse, Traum im Herbst und andere Stücke. Reinbek: Rowohlt, 2001 p. 91
  14. “MUTTER: Nichts bleibt / alles zieht / wie Wolken / Ein Leben ist ein Wolkenhimmel /bevor es dunkel wird“ p.135
  15. „MANN: Wir reden ja nur / Eigentlich alles Unsinn /was wir sagen /Nur Gerede/ Ja“ p.115
  16. „Sagte nicht jemand hier: Die Wahrheit ist immer konkret? … Es geht mir um das Ganze eines Textes, und die Welt im Text spricht vom Ganzen und ist daher in jedem Teil, in jedem Detail des Textes präsent.“ Programme booklet for “Traum im Herbst” Münchner Kammerspiele. Premiere 29 November 2001. The someone Fosse is referring to is probably Hegel, although the quote was subsequently attributed to Lenin and Brecht. “The true, the spirit, is concrete {…} Only the concrete is the real, which bears the differences.” „Das Wahre, der Geist, ist konkret {…} Nur das Konkrete ist das Wirkliche, welches die Unterschiede trägt.“ Hegel, WA vol. 18 Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie , p.45 u. 53
  17. “Keine Aussage wäre aus *Hamlet* herauszupressen; dessen Wahrheitsgehalt ist darum nicht geringer.“ Ästhetische Theorie, p. 193
  18. That was roughly the meaning of my awkward answer to Ivan Nagel, that I consider truth to be something objective, whereas the critical appraisal of a play depends on the justification of a subjective judgement
  19. „If it’s open to the individual spectator to derive certain implications into one universal proposition or another, then we are no longer talking about a straightforward instance of learning from true propositions (implicitly) expressed in the play; instead we are talking about a kind of interaction between spectator and performance, in which the spectator develops or reflects upon her own view in relation to the play.“ Tom Stern, Philosophy and Theatre. An introduction. London: Routledge, 2014, p.54
  20. “For the dialectic of question and answer which we have exhibited makes the relation of understanding appear as an interrelation of the kind of a conversation. It is true that the text does not speak to us in the same way as a you. We, the understanders, must first make it talk to us. But it has been shown that such an understanding making it speak is not an arbitrary use of its own origin, but is itself related as a question to the answer expected in the text. {…} This is the truth of effect-historical consciousness.” „Denn die Dialektik von Frage und Antwort, die wir aufwiesen, lässt das Verhältnis des Verstehens als ein Wechselverhältnis von der Art eines Gesprächs erscheinen. Zwar redet der Text nicht so zu uns wie ein Du. Wir, die Verstehenden, müssen ihn von uns aus erst zum Reden bringen. Aber es hatte sich gezeigt, dass solche verstehendes Zum-Reden-Bringen kein beliebiger Einsatz aus eigenem Ursprung ist, sondern selber wieder als Frage auf die im Text gewärtigte Antwort bezogen ist. {…} Das ist die Wahrheit des wirkungsgeschichtlichen Bewusstseins.“ Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1960,, p.359
  21. “Aufhebung der {sogenannten} Wirklichkeit zu ihrer Wahrheit“ Gadamer op. cit., p. 108
  22. Gadamer op. cit., p. 465
  23. „jeder über es hinausweisenden Botschaft“ https://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/traum-im-herbst-liebe-auf-dem-totenacker/264256.html
  24. „Flucht in die falsche Einfachheit“ in: “Fjord Idyll. Das Phänomen Jon Fosse” Berliner Zeitung 18.12.2001
  25. „da wo er philosophisch wird, seine Schwachstellen nicht verbergen“ in: “Leben vor dem Tod. München mit Traum im Herbst” Neue Zürcher Zeitung 1.12.2001
  26. “die saure Gurke für die schwächste Spielvorlage der Saison“ Marietta Piekenbrock, “Heilige Hedda! In München eilt Luk Perceval durch den ‘Traum im Herbst'” Frankfurter Rundschau 1.12.2001
  27. “Verfall, Verlust und Niedergang. Elegisch: Wulf Twiehaus versetzt an der Schaubühne mit Jan Fosse’s Trauerspiel ‘Traum im Herbst’ sein Publikum in einen anhaltenden Zitterzustand”, die tageszeitung 1. 2.2001 https://taz.de/Verfall-Verlust-und-Niedergang/!1145941/
  28. „bemerkenswert gelungen, aus dem diffusen Gespinst ein Maximum an atmosphärischen  ein Maximum an atmosphärischen Reizen und psychologischen Spannungen herauszuholen“ Der Tagesspiegel 17.10.2201
  29. “Das Wunder einer Stunde. Luk Perceval illuminiert Jon Fosses ‘Traum im Herbst’ an den  Münchner Kammerspielen” Der Tagesspiegel 1.12.2001 cf. Wolfgang Behrend’s wonderful Nachtkritik column “Wunderbar wegkürzen!” https://nachtkritik.de/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19662:kolumne-als-ich-noch-ein-kritiker-war-wolfgang-behrens-ueberlegt-welche-formulierungen-er-fuer-die-theaterkritik-auf-den-index-setzen-wuerde&catid=1503&Itemid=100389
  30. “Mehr November war selten auf einer Bühne. Trauerarbeit in den Münchner Kammerspielen: ‘Traum im Herbst’ von Jon Fosse, inszeniert von Luk Perceval”, Tages-Anzeiger 1.12.2002
  31. „Leben heißt Vorbereitung auf den Tod, Lieben Einübung in den Abschied.“die Tageszeitung 1.2.2001
  32. „Zwei Dinge, Tod und Liebe, holen einen von den Beinen.“ Christopher Schmidt, “Ist ein Cutter, der heißt Tod. Lachender Moribund: luk Perceval inszeniert Jon Fosses ‘Traum im Herbst’ an den  Münchner Kammerspielen”, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 1.12.2001
  33. After twenty years, it is touching to read  these sentences about death by the two great theatre critics Dirk Pilz ✝︎2018 and Christopher Schmidt ✝︎2017 who died so too soon, one vacillates between shuddering and indignation at death or at life.

Truth in Theatre – Part 1 Art

The primal scene

It was in 2002, in the mirror tent of the Berlin Theatertreffen, where the audience discussions following the performances took place at the time:

“This juror has no idea what truth is”1

the universally revered Ivan Nagel exclaimed from the auditorium. It was the evening after the performance of Luk Perceval’s production of Jon Fosse’s then new play “Dream in Autumn.” The Munich Kammerspiele were guests at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele with Dagmar Manzel and Stephan Bissmeier. And it had been my turn to present the reasons for the jury’s selection of this production2.

“What is truth?” asked Pontius Pilate in a famous trial, and then rendered the most momentous miscarriage of justice in Western history. That bumbling juror on the podium was indeed somehow barking up the wrong tree, but he wasn’t quite as clueless as he seemed, even then. The tumult in the mirror tent and Franz Wille’s eloquent defense of my position prevented Ivan Nagel from explaining further what exactly he understood by truth. So what could Ivan Nagel have meant by truth in the theatre?

The concept of truth

Truth on the Theatre  is different from ordinary truth. The concept of truth, when used by theatre people, has a completely different meaning than in science. With the theories of truth in contemporary philosophy – semantic or representative concept of truth, evidential, consensual, or coherence theory of truth3 – it has nothing to do. In any case, modern philosophy of science gets along largely without the concept of truth.4 The concept of truth in theatre (and theatre theory) comes more from the Plato-Hegel-Heidegger-Adorno-Badiou line of tradition than from the Aristotle-Thomas Aquinas-Kant-Wittgenstein line.

There is no treatise on truth in Nagel’s writings; only once does he mention Alfred Kerr’s enthusiastic exclamation in the face of a guest performance of Stanislavsky’s production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” in 1906.

“It is the truth – the truth!” 5

It is obvious to assume that Ivan Nagel, as a student of Adorno, referred to his academic teacher’s concept of truth. But Adorno’s concept of truth must also be placed in the context of Hegel’s and Heidegger’s theories of truth in order to understand what the concept of truth can and cannot mean in its application to theater. This essay is not just a ridiculously vain effort to wipe an old slate clean, but also to shed some light on the current discussion of authenticity and representation in the theatre.

The truth of art

In order to be able to say something about truth in theatre, one must first clarify the concept of truth, then its application to art, and finally one must consider the special conditions of theatre as an art form. The following account is certainly simplified in layman’s terms and does not take into account the widely differing basic assumptions of the various philosophers, and remains on the surface of what is of interest to theatre theory, but is thereby perhaps understandable the general public.

The most common concept of truth is that first formulated by Aristotle:

“To say of something that is that it is not, or of something that is not that it is, is false; whereas to say of something that it is, and of something that is not, that it is not, is true.”6.

This correspondence concept of truth, or this adequation theory of truth, limits the application of the concept of truth to propositional sentences. From Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas and Ockham to Kant, there is agreement that truth is propositional truth, correspondence of thought and object. The circularity of this definition is noticed only in the 20th century and leads to various attempts to save (Tarski) or to replace (Habermas) this correspondence theory. Art has nothing to do with this business.

From Plato to Hegel

Plato, on the other hand, had related the concept to a higher reality: the ideas (forms) are true for him because they have a higher form of reality than empirical reality7. It is to this ontological-gnoseological concept of truth that Hegel links8 (following Fichte) when he devalues the correspondence concept of truth to mere “correctness” 9 and truth defined as “agreement of a content with itself.”10. For Hegel, truth is only the spirit that has come to itself, agreement of the absolute spirit with itself. So only the whole is the truth11, not a proposition, but the whole self-developing apprehension of reality.

In this process of the spirit’s coming to itself, art has a decisive role. Through the correspondence of the concept of a work of art with its concrete Dasein, through its combination of complete freedom of the parts and necessity of their correspondence, a work of art (“the beautiful”) has truth.

“For according to its essence, in the beautiful object both its concept, its purpose, and the soul of it, as well as its external determinateness, diversity, and reality, must appear as effected by itself and not by others, in that, as we saw, it has truth only as an intrinsic unity and as correspondence of determinate existence and genuine essence and concept. {…} Both must be present in the beautiful object: the necessity that its particular sides belong together which is set by its concept,  and the appearance of freedom of its particular parts as being produced for themselves and not only for the unity of the whole. {…} Through this freedom and infinity, which the concept of the beautiful bears in itself as well as the beautiful object and its subjective contemplation, the the area of the beautiful is wrested from the relativity of finite relations and elevated into the absolute realm of the idea and its truth.”12

Here, then, art receives a function in a process whose goal is truth, and only because it is part of this process can there be talk of the end of art in Hegel, namely when, in this process of self-development and self-understanding of the absolute spirit, art cedes its role as “front man” to pure reflection, i.e. philosophy.

From Heidegger to Adorno

This emphatic concept of truth, that truth is the whole and cannot be attributed to a single proposition, will – in spite of all Nietzsche’s polemics against the concept of truth13 – be crucial to philosophical aesthetics and art theory in the 20th century . Both Heidegger and Adorno see the task of art in this process of unfolding a truth. The similarities are striking despite all political, and stylistic contrasts, despite all different basic assumptions – if one reduces them to the aspect of the relation of art to truth – and ignores what the two great thinkers each understand by truth14.

The work of art relates the individuals, the recipients of art, to something super-individual. The reception of a work of art is not only an individual experience, not only a process of excitation in the consciousness of the recipients, but the mediation of a connection to something supra-individual, which both Heidegger and Adorno call “truth.”


“…does not degrade the work into the role of an catalyst of excitement. The preservation of the work does not isolate people to their experiences, but engages them into affiliation of the truth happening in the work….” 15


“The truth of the work of art, however, cannot be imagined in any other way than that in the subjectively imagined An sich something trans-subjective becomes legible. Its mediation is the work.” 16

For Heidegger as for Adorno, truth is nothing static, nothing existing. For both, art is a becoming, a happening, and truth then a Gewordenes, something that has happened:


“Art is the establishing of truth setting itself up in the form (Gestalt).{…} So art is the creating preservation of truth in the work. Then art is a becoming and happening of truth.” 17


“Art is interpretable only by its law of motion, not by invariants. It determines itself in relation to what it is not. {..} Axiomatic for a reoriented aesthetics is the insight, developed by the late Nietzsche against traditional philosophy, that what has evolved can also be true. The traditional view demolished by him would have to be turned upside down: Truth only exists  as something that has evolved (Gewordenes).” 18

Both Heidegger and Adorno emphasize the ambiguity, the paradox of art’s relation to truth:


“To the essence of truth as the unconcealed belongs this denial in the manner of the twofold concealment.”
“The essence of truth is in itself the primordial dispute, in which that open middle is contended for, into which being enters and from which it withdraws into itself.” 19


“Art is true insofar as that which speaks from it and it itself is ambivalent, unreconciled, but this truth is granted to it when it synthesizes the split and thereby determines it only in its irreconcilability. Paradoxically, it has to testify to the unreconciled and at the same time tend to reconcile it; this is possible only to its non-discursive language.” 20

Because truth is not simply present in art, it depends on the right way of dealing with works of art in order to unfold truth. Heidegger calls this unfolding of the truth of the work of art “preservation”; for Adorno it is “philosophical reflection” and “critique.”


“To follow this dislocation means: to transform the habitual references to the world and to the earth and henceforth to hold back all familiar doing and valuation, knowing and looking, in order to dwell in the truth happening in the work. […] To let the work be a work, we call the preservation of the work.” 21 Das Werk ein Werk sein lassen, nennen wir die Bewahrung des Werkes.“ Heidegger op. cit., p.53.]
“The very reality of the work, on the other hand, comes into play only where the work is preserved in the truth that occurs through it.” 22


“The truth content of the works of art is the objective resolution of the riddle of each individual work. By demanding the solution, it points to the truth content. This can only be gained through philosophical reflection. … No statement could be squeezed out of Hamlet; its truth content is therefore no less.” “Grasping the truth content postulates criticism. Nothing is apprehended whose truth or untruth is not apprehended, and that is the critical business.” 23

Here, from the point of view of theater criticism, in search of the instruction manual for dealing with the artworks of theater, lies the crucial difference: according to Heidegger, the artwork is to be “preserved” in its reception; according to Adorno, it is to be critically reflected upon.
In Adorno’s “Early Introduction” to his Ästhetische Theorie, there is a passage that perhaps captures what Ivan Nagel would have wanted to reproach the uninformed juror back then in 2002, had he been allowed to finish:

“Works of art are understood only where their experience reaches the alternative of true and untrue or, as its preliminary stage, that of right and wrong. Criticism is not external to aesthetic experience, but immanent to it. Understanding a work of art as a complexion of truth brings it into relation with its untruth, for there is none that does not participate in the untruth apart from it, that of the world age. Aesthetics, which does not move in the perspective of truth, slackens before its task; most often it is culinary. Because the moment of truth is essential to works of art, they participate in cognition and thus the legitimate relation to them (participates in cognition).” 24

Badiou’s scheme

Alain Badiou has attempted to organize theories about the relationship between art and truth into three schemes:

  1. The didactic schema (Plato): art cannot produce truth. It is only the deceptive appearance of truth. Truth exists only outside art. Therefore art must be regulated.
  2. the romantic scheme: truth exists only in art (and in philosophy, but art truth is the completion of philosophical truth by embodiment).
  3. the classical scheme (Aristotle): there is no truth in art, but that is not bad. It has other tasks.

Against this Badiou puts his own theory of truth25. There is no such thing as truth, only truths. Truth, for Badiou, is not a property of a judgment, but a process in reality through which something new emerges. There are four different truth processes: Science, Politics, Love (!) and Art. The truths of art are immanent to it, found only in it, and they are singular, existing nowhere else26. For Badiou, however, it is not the artworks themselves that are the truths, but:

“A work of art represents an inquiry into the truth that is actualized in the work of art as its locus, or whose finite fragment it is.” 27

For Badiou, artistic truth is also not the individual work, but an “artistic configuration” that goes back to a triggering event, an upheaval. By configuration, Badiou means something like an artistic paradigm, an epoch, or a dominant style. He cites as examples of modernism: “serialism, romantic prose, the age of poets, a break with pictorial representation.” 28

For Badiou, Heidegger’s theory of art clearly belongs to the Romantic schema. This should also be true for Adorno’s theory, if one wants to follow Badiou’s somewhat crude scheme. After all, for Adorno, philosophical reflection is only an aid to disentangling the truth content of the work of art.

Interim result 1

Preliminary result thus: Ivan Nagel had a Romantic-Adornite conception of truth and now wanted to demand of the critic that he justify the selection of the production as one of the most “remarkable” of the vintage with its “truth.”

  1. In the following annotations you will find English translations of the German original, which are my own, followed by the original quotation in German.
  2. Franz Wille called it a scene of “Homeric power” and took it as the occasion for his season essay in the yearbook of “Theater heute”: Franz Wille, „Im Auge des blinden Flecks. Über das Theater der Repräsentationen und seine Matrix, über Schwierigkeiten mit der Wahrheit von Nietzsche bis Nagel und manche andere Perspektive.“ Theater heute Jahrbuch 2003, pp. 102-113
  3. For a clear, brief account of modern theories of truth, see Thomas Grundmann, Philosophische Wahrheitstheorien. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2018. Grundmann considers the clarification of the concept of truth to be an urgent political task. A more detailed, older account is L. Bruno Puntel, Wahrheitstheorien in der neueren Philosophie. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1983. The main basic texts can be found in Gunnar Skirbekk (ed.), Wahrheitstheorien. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1977.
  4. Karl Popper does hold to the “idea of absolute truth,” but only as a limiting concept to refer to our infinite fallibility: “The idea of absolute truth is necessary so that we live incessantly in the consciousness of our fallibility.” Karl Popper, „Interview mit l’Express“ 1982, dt. in: Aufklärung und Kritik 2/1994, pp. 38ff
  5. „Manchmal, {…} sagt man sich: nun ja, die einzelnen sind Darsteller, bescheidene Einzelwerte … aber das Ganze gefaßt, glaubt man, wie der Diable boiteux in abgedeckte Häuser zu blicken … Es ist die Wahrheit – die Wahrheit.“  English: “Sometimes, {…} one says to oneself: well, the individuals are performers, modest individual values … but the whole taken together, one thinks one is looking, like the Diable boiteux, into covered houses … It is the truth – the truth.” Alfred Kerr, “Ich sage, was zu sagen ist” Theaterkritiken 1893-1919 (Werke Bd. VII.1) ed. Günther Rühle. Frankfurt/M: S. Fischer 1998, p.267
  6. „τὸ μὲν γὰρ λέγειν τὸ ὄν μὴ εἶναι ἢ τὸ μὴ ὂν εἶναι ψεῦδος, τὸ δὲ τὸ ὂν εἶναι καὶ τὸ μὴ ὂν μὴ εἶναι ἀληθές” „Von etwas, was ist, zu sagen, dass es nicht ist oder von etwas, was nicht ist, dass es ist, ist falsch; hingegen ist wahr, von etwas zu sagen, dass es ist und von etwas, das nicht ist, zu sagen, dass es nicht ist.“ Metaphysics IV,7 1011b
  7. Jan Szaif proves that even the late Plato formulated this correspondence concept of truth in his Sophistes: Jan Szaif, „Die Geschichte des Wahrheitsbegriffs in der klassischen Antike“ in: Markus Enders & Jan Szaif (Hg.), Die Geschichte des philosophischen Begriffs der Wahrheit. Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2006, p.16f
  8. “Hegel’s doctrine of truth thus appears at first glance as a dynamized variant of Christian Platonism.” „Hegels Lehre von der Wahrheit erscheint somit auf den ersten Blick als dynamisierte Variante des christlichen Platonismus.“  Herbert Schnädelbach, Antrittsvorlesung 26. Mai 1993. https://edoc.hu-berlin.de/bitstream/handle/18452/2275/Schnaedelbach.pdf?sequence=1
  9. “Correctness and truth are very often regarded as synonymous in common life, and accordingly the truth of a content is often spoken of where mere correctness is concerned. Correctness only refers to the formal agreement of our conception with its content, whatever else this content may be. Truth, on the other hand, consists in the agreement of the object with itself, i.e., with its concept.” “Richtigkeit und Wahrheit werden im gemeinen Leben sehr häufig als gleichbedeutend betrachtet, und demgemäß wird oft von der Wahrheit eines Inhalts gesprochen, wo es sich um bloße Richtigkeit handelt. Diese betrifft überhaupt nur die formelle Übereinstimmung unserer Vorstellung mit ihrem Inhalt, wie dieser Inhalt auch sonst beschaffen sein mag. Dahingegen besteht die Wahrheit in der Übereinstimmung des Gegenstandes mit sich selbst, d.h. mit seinem Begriff.” G.W.F. Hegel, Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften I. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1970 (WA Bd.8), S. 323, §172 Zusatz
  10. “In the philosophical sense, on the other hand, truth, expressed abstractly in general, means agreement of a content with itself. {…} Untrue then means as much as bad, in itself inappropriate. {…} the bad and untrue in general consists in the contradiction that takes place between the determination or the concept and the existence of an object.” „Im philosophischen Sinn dagegen heißt Wahrheit, überhaupt abstrakt ausgedrückt, Übereinstimmung eines Inhalts mit sich selbst. {…} Unwahr heißt dann soviel als schlecht, in sich selbst unangemessen. {…} das Schlechte und Unwahre überhaupt besteht in dem Widerspruch, der zwischen der Bestimmung oder dem Begriff und der Existenz eines Gegenstandes stattfindet.“ G.W.F. Hegel, WA Bd.8, S. 86 §24 Zusatz 2 . Rainer Schäfer sets out the reasons for this change in the definition of truth. They lie in the idealistic basic conception of Fichte, Schelling and Hegel. Cf. Rainer Schäfer, „Das holistisch-systemische Wahrheitskonzept im deutschen Idealismus (Fichte-Hegel)” In: Enders & Szaif (eds.) op. cit. S. 251
  11. “The true is the whole…. But the whole is only the being completing itself through its development.” „Das Wahre ist das Ganze.. Das Ganze aber ist nur das durch seine Entwicklung sich vollendende Wesen.“ G.W.F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes, Einleitung. (WA Bd. 3) Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1970, p. 24
  12. “Denn dem Wesen nach muss in dem schönen Objekt sowohl der Begriff, der Zweck und die Seele desselben wie seine äußere Bestimmtheit, Mannigfaltigkeit und Realität überhaupt aus sich selbst und nicht durch andere bewirkt erscheinen, indem es, wie wir sahen, nur als immanente Einheit und Übereinstimmung des bestimmten Daseins und echten Wesens und Begriffs Wahrheit hat. {…} Beides muss im schönen Objekte vorhanden sein: die durch den Begriff gesetzte Notwendigkeit im Zusammengehören der besonderen Seiten und der Schein ihrer Freiheit als für sich und nicht nur für die Einheit hervorgegangener Teile. {…} Durch diese Freiheit und Unendlichkeit, welche der Begriff des Schönen wie die schöne Objektivität und deren subjektive Betrachtung in sich trägt, ist das Gebiet des Schönen der Relativität endlicher Verhältnisse entrissen und in das absolute Reich der Idee und ihrer Wahrheit emporgetragen.“ G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik I. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1970 (WA Bd. 13), p.156f
  13. The hackneyed quotation may not be missing here: “So what is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations, which, poetically and rhetorically enhanced, have been transmitted, adorned, and which, after long use, seem to a people fixed, canonical, and binding: the truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are any, metaphors which have become worn out and sensually powerless.” „Was ist also Wahrheit? Ein bewegliches Heer von Metaphern, Metonymien, Anthropomorphismen, kurz eine Summe von menschlichen Relationen, die, poetisch und rhetorisch gesteigert, übertragen, geschmückt wurden und die nach langem Gebrauch einem Volke fest, kanonisch und verbindlich dünken: die Wahrheiten sind Illusionen, von denen man vergessen hat, dass sie welche sind, Metaphern, die abgenutzt und sinnlich kraftlos geworden sind.“ Friedrich Nietzsche, „Über Wahrheit und Lüge im außenmoralischen Sinne“, https://www.projekt-gutenberg.org/nietzsch/essays/wahrheit.html
  14. Heidegger deals extensively and repeatedly with the concept of truth, e.g. in “Being and Time” §44: “The statement is true, means: it discovers the being in itself {…} Wahrsein (truth) of the statement must be understood as entdeckend-sein (discovering).” „Die Aussage ist wahr, bedeutet: sie entdeckt das Seiende an ihm selbst {…} Wahrsein (Wahrheit) der Aussage muss verstanden werden als entdeckend-sein.“ Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 15th ed. 1979, p.218. Here Heidegger tries to ground the traditional correspondence-theoretical concept of truth existentially ontologically in the structure of human existence: “Truth in the original sense is the the state of being discovered of human existence, to which the discovering of the inner-worldly being belongs.” “Wahrheit im ursprünglichen Sinne ist die Erschlossenheit des Daseins, zu der die Entdecktheit des innenweltlichen Seienden gehört.“op. cit. S.223.
    Adorno refuses to define truth for good reasons. Even in his lecture “Philosophical Terminology” (1962/63) the term “truth” does not appear as a terminus of philosophy to be explained, but it is nevertheless constantly used. After all, there is a definition of philosophy: “This is how I would define {…} philosophy: as the movement of the mind whose own intention is truth, without imagining to have this truth as an already finished thing in one of its own propositions or in any shape of immediacy.” „So würde ich {…} Philosophie definieren: als die Bewegung des Geistes, deren eigene Intention Wahrheit ist, ohne dass sie wähnte, nun in einem ihrer eigenen Sätze oder in irgendeiner Gestalt der Unmittelbarkeit dieses Wahrheit als ein bereits Fertiges zu haben.“ Theodor W. Adorno, Philosophische Terminologie I und II, Hg.v. Henri Lonitz. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2016, p.114. And a concise determination of the relationship between art and philosophy: “If in art the truth or the objective or the absolute becomes entirely expression, then conversely in philosophy expression, at least according to its tendency, becomes truth.” P. 113. Adorno, of course, is not uncritical of Hegel: “Spirit, which is supposed to be totality, is a nonsense.” Geist, der Totalität sein soll, ist ein Nonsens.“ (Adorno, Negative Dialetik. Jargon der Eigentlichkeit. Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 6, Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1984, p.199.) Adorno’s dialectic is the negative one, therefore, for him, “The whole is the untrue.” „Das Ganze ist das Unwahre.“ Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia. Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1980 (= Bibliothek Suhrkamp 236) Nr. 29, S. 57 The whole is the “spell, the negative” ( p.161): “The calamity lies in the conditions which condemn people to impotence and apathy and yet could be changed by them.” „Das Unheil liegt in den Verhältnissen, welche die Menschen zur Ohnmacht und Apathie verdammen und doch von ihnen zu ändern wären.“ (p.191). Against this only “determinate negation” (bestimmte Negation) helps
  15. „…setzt das Werk nicht herab in die Rolle eines Erlebniserregers. Die Bewahrung des Werkes vereinzelt die Menschen nicht auf ihre Erlebnisse, sondern rückt sie ein in die Zugehörigkeit zu der im Werk geschehenden Wahrheit….“ Martin Heidegger, „Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes“ in: Holzwege. Frankfurt/M: Klostermann, 6th ed. 1980, p.54
  16.  „Die Wahrheit des Kunstwerks aber kann nicht anders vorgestellt werden, als dass in dem subjektiv imaginierten An sich ein Transsubjektives lesbar wird. Dessen Vermittlung ist das Werk.“ Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie. (=Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 7). Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1970, p. 421
  17. „Kunst ist das Feststellen der sich einrichtenden Wahrheit in die Gestalt.{…} Also ist die Kunst: die schaffende Bewahrung der Wahrheit im Werk. Dann ist die Kunst ein Werden und Geschehen der Wahrheit.“ Heidegger op. cit. p. 57.
  18. „Deutbar ist Kunst nur an ihrem Bewegungsgesetz, nicht durch Invarianten. Sie bestimmt sich im Verhältnis zu dem, was sie nicht ist. {…} Axiomatisch ist für eine umorientierte Ästhetik die vom späten Nietzsche gegen die traditionelle Philosophie entwickelte Erkenntnis, dass auch das Gewordene wahr sein kann. Die traditionelle, von ihm demolierte Ansicht wäre auf den Kopf zu stellen: Wahrheit ist einzig als Gewordenes.“ Adorno op. cit. p. 12.
  19. „Zum Wesen der Wahrheit als der Unverborgenheit gehört dieses Verweigern in der Weise des zwiefachen Verbergens.“
    „Das Wesen der Wahrheit ist in sich selbst der Urstreit, in dem jene offenen Mitte erstritten wird, in die das Seiende hereinstellt und aus der es sich in sich selbst zurückzieht.“ Heidegger op. cit., p.40f
  20. „Wahr ist Kunst, soweit das aus ihr Redende und sie selber zwiespältig, unversöhnt ist, aber diese Wahrheit wird ihr zuteil, wenn sie das Gespaltene synthetisiert und dadurch erst in seiner Unversöhnlichkeit bestimmt. Paradox hat sie das Unversöhnte zu bezeugen und gleichwohl tendenziell zu versöhnen; möglich ist das nur ihrer nicht-diskursiven Sprache.“  Adorno op. cit. p. 251.
  21. „Dieser Verrückung folgen heißt: die gewohnten Bezüge zur Welt und zur Erde verwandeln und fortan mit allem geläufigen Tun und Schätzen, Kennen und Blicken ansichhalten, um in der im Werk geschehenden Wahrheit zu verweilen. […
  22. „Die eigenste Wirklichkeit des Werkes kommt dagegen nur da zum Tragen, wo das Werk in der durch es selbst geschehenden Wahrheit bewahrt wird.“ Heidegger op. cit., p.55
  23. „Der Wahrheitsgehalt der Kunstwerke ist die objektive Auflösung des Rätsels eines jeden einzelnen. Indem es die Lösung verlangt, verweist es auf den Wahrheitsgehalt. Der ist allein durch philosophische Reflexion zu gewinnen. … Keine Aussage wäre aus *Hamlet* herauszupressen; dessen Wahrheitsgehalt ist darum nicht geringer.“ „Den Wahrheitsgehalt begreifen postuliert Kritik. Nichts ist begriffen, dessen Wahrheit oder Unwahrheit nicht begriffen wäre, und das ist das kritische Geschäft.“ Adorno op. cit., p. 193f.
  24. „Verstanden werden Kunstwerke erst, wo ihre Erfahrung die Alternative von wahr und unwahr erreicht oder, als deren Vorstufe, die von richtig und falsch. Kritik tritt nicht äußerlich zur ästhetischen Erfahrung hinzu, sondern ist ihr immanent. Ein Kunstwerk als Komplexion von Wahrheit begreifen, bringt es in Relation zu seiner Unwahrheit, denn keines ist, das nicht teilhätte an dem Unwahren außer ihm, dem des Weltalters. Ästhetik, die nicht in der Perspektive der Wahrheit sich bewegt, erschlafft vor ihrer Aufgabe; meist ist sie kulinarisch. Weil Kunstwerken das Moment von Wahrheit wesentlich ist, partizipieren sie an Erkenntnis und damit das legitime Verhältnis zu ihnen.“ Adorno op. cit. p. 515f.
  25. See also Badiou’s lecture “Event and Truth” at the symposium “Event in Artistic and Political Practices” (26-28 March 2013) in Amsterdam; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IE97dwA8wrU (part 1; parts 2-4 also on YouTube
  26. “What makes art unique among truth processes is that the subject of truth in it is taken from the sensuous.” “Was die Kunst unter den Wahrheitsprozessen einmalig macht, ist, dass das Subjekt der Wahrheit bei ihr dem Sinnlichen entnommen wird.” Alain Badiou, Dritter Entwurf eines Manifestes für den Affirmationismus. hg. und um ein Gespräch mit Alain Badiou erweitert von Frank Ruda und Jan Völker. a.d. Frz.v. Ronald Vouillié. Berlin: Merve, 2007, S. 26
  27. „Ein Kunstwerk stellt eine Untersuchung über die Wahrheit dar, die im Kunstwerk als ihr Ort aktualisiert ist oder deren endliches Fragment es ist.“ Alain Badiou, Kleines Handbuch der Inästhetik, Berlin: Turia + Kant, 2+2012 (first French 1998), p.25
  28. Badiou op. cit. p.29

With Hegel in the theatre – Hegel’s anti criticism of Raupach’s comedy “Die Bekehrten”

Hegel was an avid theatre-goer and a connoisseur of dramatic literature. But in his aesthetics, drama is given a prominent position, not theatre. For Hegel, beautiful art is the “sensuous appearance of the idea.”1, but the sensuous appearance of the drama, the theatrical performance, is secondary for him. The drama is the “highest stage of poetry and of art in general.”2, but the art of acting is secondary and all elements of theatrical performance “gesture, action, declamation, music, dance and scenery” 3 are subordinate to speech. For Hegel, drama has the highest position in poetry because, as a dialogical art of words, it unites subjectivity and objectivity, and is thus closest to philosophy. 4. The performance of the drama, on the other hand, is only a necessary accessory5. Out of the staging trappings, movement, music, stage setting, the “poetic word” stands out as the “salient centre … in free domination”6.

Thus Hegel’s theory. This is not to say that Hegel was incapable of appreciating and enjoying a theatrical performance. There exists the curious document of a pages-long slating review by Hegel 7 – not of a theatre performance, but of a theatre criticism, published in 1826 in a journal called “Schnellpost”, edited by Hegel’s friend Moritz Gottlieb Saphir 8]. The subject of the criticised review was the premiere of the comedy “Die Bekehrten” by Ernst Raupach. Raupach is completely forgotten today, but was a much-played, highly decorated, highly paid playwright between 1825 and 18509.

In his comedy “Die Bekehrten”, a pair of lovers quarrel and separate. The lover’s uncle then marries the young woman as a sham to keep her in custody for his nephew and protect her from other suitors, fakes his death, obtains an annulment of his marriage and reunites the two formerly quarrelling lovers. The action of the play, however, begins with the pretend-married uncle, who has supposedly died, disguised as a monk, giving his former wife-in-custody advice and thus the opportunity to tell the back story.

This was too much of an improbable construction for the critic of the “Schnellpost”. The author of the review in “Schnellpost” accused Raupach of having rendered the plot implausible with coincidences that were too extra-essential (“außerwesentlich”) and an overscrewed task of violence (“überschraubte Gewaltsamkeit”). This outraged Hegel, especially since the audience had also reacted lukewarmly. Hegel, however, was enthusiastic. So he wrote a detailed exposition of the necessary role of chance in comedies. This is a salute to the drama, to Raupach’s text.

Berliner Schnellpost Titelseite

But at least in one sentence it becomes clear that Hegel’s fascination with this simple comedy had its reason in the performance.

For Hegel, the playwright has to fulfil the “main task” so that the actors can unfold and assert their capacity10. Hegel, as a connoisseur, brings a number of examples of this from performances he has seen and from actors and actresses whose “ability” he can judge 11.

Hegel first raves about the leading actress of “Alanghu”, another completely unsuccessful drama by Raupach12:

The play had “enabled the actress to unfold all sides of her talent, mind and spirit, and to bring before our souls the attractive painting of fiery, restless, active passion with naive, amiable youthfulness, the liveliest, most determined energy, fused with sensitive, witty gentleness and grace” (trsl. G.P.)13.

Auguste Stich

Hegel then describes how an actress, whom he had already admired as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (it was Auguste Stich), plays the charming embarrassment („reizende Verlegenheit“) of a character called Klothilde in “Die Bekehrten” when she meets her lover Torquato again (Act II, Scene 5).

“Position and arms remain, the eye, which one is otherwise accustomed to see in lively movement, does not dare to look up at first, its muteness interrupts here and there a heaving of the breast that does not become a sigh, it dares a few furtive glances that fear to meet those of Torquato, but it presses upon him when his own eyes turn elsewhere. The poet is to be esteemed fortunate whose conception is executed by an artist who makes it superfluous for the narration of the content expressed by the language to indicate more than the features of the soulful eloquence of her gesture.” 14

Here, then, for Hegel, the silent play of the actress, the “eloquence of gesture”, makes language superfluous. Hegel knows what “appeals” and “attracts” in a theatre performance. It is not the word.

His aesthetic theory could not accommodate this independent function of theatre vis-à-vis drama; he had to acknowledge it in his theatre experience.

  1. „Das Schöne bestimmt sich dadurch als das sinnliche Scheinen der Idee.“ G.W.F.Hegel, Werke in zwanzig Bänden. Theorie Werkausgabe Bd. 13 Ästhetik I. Frankfurt/ M: Suhrkamp, 1970, p. 151
  2. „Das Drama muss, weil es seinem Inhalte wie seiner Form nach sich zur vollendeten Totalität ausbildet, als die höchste Stufe der Poesie und der Kunst überhaupt angesehen werden.“ Hegel, Bd. 15 Ästhetik III p. 474
  3. Ästhetik III, p. 510
  4. „Denn die Rede allein (ist) das der Exposition des Geistes würdige Element … die dramatische Poesie (ist) diejenige, welche die Objektivität des Epos mit dem subjektiven Prinzip der Lyrik in sich vereinigt.“ Ästhetik III, p. 474
  5. „fordert deshalb (…) die vollständige szenische Aufführung.“ ibid.
  6. „hervorstechender Mittelpunkt … in freier Herrschaft“, Ästhetik III, p. 505
  7. G.W.F. Hegel “Über Die Bekehrten”. in: G.W.F.Hegel, Werke in zwanzig Bänden. Theorie Werkausgabe, Bd. 11 Berliner Schriften 1818-1831, pp.72-82
  8. in three instalments: Berliner Schnellpost, 18. Jan. 1826 Nr. 8, 21. Jan. 1826, Nr.9 https://digitale-sammlungen.ulb.uni-bonn.de/periodical/pageview/1723191, https://digitale-sammlungen.ulb.uni-bonn.de/periodical/pageview/1723193 und Beiwagen zur Berliner Schnellpost, 23. Jan. 1826, Nr. 4 https://digitale-sammlungen.ulb.uni-bonn.de/periodical/pageview/1723203
  9. cf: Artikel „Raupach, Ernst Benjamin Salomo“ von Max Bendiner in: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, ed. by Historischen Kommission bei der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Band 27 (1888), S. 430–445, Wikisource https://de.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=ADB:Raupach,_Ernst_Benjamin_Salomo&oldid=-
  10. „ihr Vermögen entfalten und geltend machen“, Bd. 11 Berliner Schriften, p. 73
  11. Eduard Devrient, from his own experience as an actor, also appreciates Raupach’s merit in the promotion of the art of acting: „(es ist) ganz bestimmt nachzuweisen, dass er die Talente {der Schauspielerinnen und Schauspieler} nicht nur benutzt und sich ihnen accomodirt, sondern durch seine Aufgaben ihre Entwicklung und Erweiterung entschieden gefördert hat.“ Eduard Devrient, Geschichte der deutschen Schauspielkunst. Neu-Ausgabe in zwei Volumes, Vol. II Berlin: Otto Elsner, 1905 {first 1848-1874} p. 281
  12. Devrient: “Seine dramatische Erzählung ‚Alanghu‘ wirkte nicht.“ p. 190
  13. Das Stück habe „die Schauspielerin in den Stand gesetzt, alle Seiten ihres Talents, Gemüts und Geistes zu entfalten und uns das anziehende Gemälde feuriger, unruhiger, tätiger Leidenschaftlichkeit mit naiver, liebenswürdiger Jugendlichkeit, der lebhaftesten, entschlossensten Energie, mit empfindungsvoller, geistreicher Sanftmut und Anmut verschmolzen, vor die Seele zu bringen“, Bd. 11, p.77
  14. „Stellung und Arme bleiben, das Auge, das man sonst in lebhafter Bewegung zu sehen gewohnt ist, wagt es zuerst nicht aufzusehen, seine Stummheit unterbricht hier und da ein nicht zum Seufzen werdendes Heben der Brust, es wagt einige verstohlene Blicke, die denen Torquatos zu begegnen fürchten, es drängt sich aber auf ihn, wenn die seinigen sich anderwärts hinwenden. Der Dichter ist für glücklich zu achten, dessen Konzeption von einer Künstlerin ausgeführt wird, die es für die Erzählung des Inhalts, der durch die Sprache ausgedrückt ist, überflüssig macht, mehr als die Züge der seelenvollen Beredsamkeit ihrer Gebärde anzugeben.“ Bd. 11. p. 79

Attention – Experiences with online theatre premieres

Theatre streaming in the Corona pandemic results in an increase of the number of spectators, e.g. 10,000 instead of 600 for a live stream of “Zauberberg” at Deutsches Theater Berlin on 20/11/2020, 1. But what kind and what degree of attention do theatre performances get thereby?

The social trappings of presence theatre also work as an engine that increases attention. To watch two or even three hours silently, staring in one direction, with minimal shifts of gaze and attention, takes preparation. It takes collectivity. The mutual insinuation of expectation in the foyer brings our attention engine to operating temperature. You don’t do this alone.

Attention as a means of payment

By streaming performances, theatres enter the large attention market of the internet, where attention is billed as a means of payment 2. The scarcity of the commodity of users’ attention leads to competition for this scarce commodity. But it is not the commodity, the content of the media providers, that is devalued, but the means of payment, attention 3. It is faked, diluted, divided, dispersed. What can one do while streaming a video of a theatre performance: eat, drink beer, sleep, do gymnastics, make phone calls, write messages, browse through other applications, let the streaming image run along as a small picture.

Attention as a gift

A visit to the theatre is a collective gift of attention. You don’t get attention in return. It is not an exchange of equals and by no means always an exchange of equivalents. The thrill of thought and sense that a theatre performance produces in the audience is a gift in return, but of a different kind. This also true for streamed performances, but there, we give less. Somehow the gift of attention is tied to the physical presence of a human being. On the internet we are customers, we only give as much as we receive. In an auditorium, we are donors, we waste our attention. (At least temporarily, after that comes the theatre sleep for which the theatre critic Henning Rischbieter was famous).

The compulsion to sit for hours in narrow rows next to smelly neighbours, cramped behind towering ballerina knots or broad curly heads and confined to minimal movements, an imprisonment which so many young people cannot endure, results in a minimal gain in freedom: you can focus your attention as you like, left corner of the stage or right, this actor or that actress, that handsome back in row 5 or that enigmatic detail of the set. In a streamed performance, my gaze is directed. My body is freer, but my attention is constrained to a screen, directed by camera work, cuts and image editing.

Distributed attention

A theatre performance actually requires from the audience what is called distributed attention 4: it is best to have everything in view, to perceive everything: movement, light, language, music, speech. Concentrating exclusively on a screen, on the other hand, requires a “deepened concentration”, which in the 19th century was understood to be the root of mental illness, paranoia. We naturally resist this. We are trained in divided attention. We also apply this to the screen, cultivating and enhancing the ability to scattered perception of simultaneous events, which the city dweller has become accustomed to 5. But the intensity and duration of attention decreases. So it is only logical when Pınar Karabulut breaks up her online production of Marlowe/Palmetshofer’s “Edward II” for Schauspiel Köln into a six-part series. 20 to 30 minutes in front of the screen is enough 6. The collective, bodily presence of audience and actors, on the other hand, enables an increase in the duration and intensity of attention that cannot be achieved in other reception settings.

It is therefore wrong to ascribe an old-fashioned, deepened attention to theatre and a modern, disjointed attention to the streamed internet event. The theatre of physical co-presence encounters the same people with the same habits of perception as the video on screen. But physical co-presence and collectivity produce an increase in attention that cannot be achieved any other way. Bodies we pay attention to, pixels we pay nothing to. Bodies get our attention for free because we assume that they too can pay attention to us. We do this even if, as in the theatre of the fourth wall, the agreement is that they do not give us attention back but pay us back in another currency, the currency of mental-sensual stimulation.


According to Michael Tomasello, shared intentionality, the ability to adopt another’s perspective on something third, is a crucial prerequisite for the evolution of the human species compared to primates 7. This we-intentionality, the shared attention to the stage, this basic human disposition, is the reason for the pleasure of the collective theatre experience. Sitting next to others in a shared space and looking at the same thing with the same intention is an archetypal situation of humanity. This cannot be replaced by the freedom of movement in front of the home screen.

  1. cf. Sophie Diesselhorst, “Gekommen um zu bleiben”. in: Theater heute 5/2021 p. 27
  2. “The reduction of attention to a currency produces a kind of soul blindness.” (trsl. G.P.) Georg Franck, „Warum der Begründer der ‚Ökonomie der Aufmerksamkeit` immer noch goldrichtig liegt“. Interview with Klaus Janke, Horizont 24.10.2017. https://www.horizont.net/medien/nachrichten/Georg-Franck-Warum-der-Begruender-der-oekonomie-der-Aufmerksamkeit-immer-noch-goldrichtig-liegt-162087
  3. cf. Georg Franck, Ökonomie der Aufmerksamkeit. München: Hanser, 1998
  4. Petra Löffler, Verteilte Aufmerksamkeit. Eine Mediengeschichte der Zerstreuung. Zurich-Berlin: Diaphanes, 2014, e.g. pp 92-93
  5.  “Zerstreuung als notwendige Aufmerksamkeitstechnik” beim “Navigieren durch die moderne Signalwelt” Löffler, p. 332
  6. cf. G.P. “Im Irrgarten der Referenzen”, in: Theater heute 5/2021, pp. 54-56
  7. “Human cooperative communication is more complex than ape intentional communication because its underlying social-cognitive infrastructure comprises not only skills for understanding individual intentionality but also skills and motivations for shared intentionality.” Michael Tomasello, Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2008, p.321