Alain Badiou on theatre

  • Alain Badiou, Rhapsodie für das Theater. Kurze philosophische Abhandlung. Transl. from French by Corinna Popp. Wien: Passagen Verlag, 2015 (first Paris 2014, revised edition of the first issue of 1990 with a new preface)

Philosophers try to avoid theatre: it’s too concrete. Communists try to avoid theatre: it’s too bourgeois. A communist philosopher who is a theatre goer? Yes, there still is one, Alain Badiou. He is the man who puts the relation of philosophy and theatre back on its feet the way it belongs. No more rejection on the grounds that it supplies us only with corrupted images of truth (Plato, Rousseau), no longer delimitation on the grounds that art is not concerned with truth at all (Aristotle), no longer glorification of art as a privileged way to truth (romanticism, Heidegger), and no reduction of theatre to theatre text only (Hegel). But: philosophy in service of theatre. Philosophy examines what kind of truths theatre can offer.

Therefore Badiou has become one of the most popular philosophers of dramaturges and in the last years he has been invited to all kinds of European theatre festivals. But Badiou is not Žižek, the all-purpose brumisator of sense with which you can spray intellectual fragrances. Badiou is more of an elegant philosophical sledgehammer, a dinosaurs gallicus, the only survivor of an extinct species, a Platonist for whom mathematics is the basis of ontology, the architect of an all encompassing edifice of thought grounded on the axioms of set theory.

Badiou, Rhapsodie für das Theater Titelbild.jpg  Badiou, Rhapsody Titelseite.jpg

Peter Engelmann, the publisher of „Passagen“ in Vienna, published in 2015 a German translation of the revised edition of Badiou’s „Rhapsody on Theatre“, which was originally published in France, in 1990. Badiou wrote a new preface in 2014, apart from that, the new edition is unchanged. All the lists of Badiou’s favourite theatre directors refer back to the eighties: Vitez, Grüber, Stein and so on. Badiou calls this period the period of „defensive didactics“1 in theatre. So we get a theory about theatre back in the eighties. What could be interesting in it today?

I can offer three attempts of interpretation:

  1. Theatre produces truth. For Badiou, truth is not a relation between thought and reality – he rejects all theories of truth from Aristotle to Tarski as not modern – but a process. In an event a truth comes into existence. What he means by „event“ he usually explains with the example of Galilei’s mathematisation of physics, the French revolution of 1792 or – and that is his favourite example – with May 68 in Paris. Interesting in our context is that Badiou applies this concept of truth not only to science, politics and love, but also to art, and thereby to theatre as well. Every theatre performance which deserves not to be written in quotation marks produces a truth. „There you have the singularity of the theatre-truth. seized in a purely immanent way. There, on the stage and nowhere else: a quasi-political experimental event, which amplifies our situation in history.“ 2
  2. Theatre thinks. Badiou writes: Theatre pronounces „itself about itself and about the world“ and „the knot of this double examination summons the spectator at the impasse of a form of thought.“ 3That means: Theatre must always make a statement about itself, i.e. it must be reflexive, conscious of its own form, and it must be possible to recognise this reflection. By fulfilling its form it must examine this form at the same time.Theatre must always make a statement about the world, it should not be limited to self-reference. It must lay claim to a statement about the world. But this statement should not be dogmatic (that’s the way it is), but must be a process of research (what is it like?).These two statements must be connected in the performance: no statement about the world without self-reflection of theatre and vice versa.By the connection and mutually dependency of these two types of statements, the audience experience a kind of intellectual discord: is the statement about the world true or is it only the result of the form the director has decided to use? The statement about the world should never be understood without recognising its artistic form. This ambivalence or polysemy sets the audience’s thoughts in motion. The pleasure of the spectator in theatre is „the doubtful product of the mind’s concentrated effort“4.
  3. Theatre is political. Badiou thereby does not refer to its content or themes but to its structure. He calls it the isomorphism of theatre and politics. And for Badiou, the truth seeker who remains faithful to the event of 1968, politics is not the process of balancing of interests in parliamentary democracy, but a mass movement with programmatic aims originating from an event. The three elements of what he calls politics – events which are produced by the congregation of masses of people, programmatic aims incorporated by political activists and a discursive intellectual background – correspond to the three elementary conditions of theatre – audience, actors, textual reference. For him theatre is always „figurative reknotting of politics“ 5.

His three practical suggestions for reform, presented with a sense of irony, also rest on this conception:

  1. The interval should be reintroduced in theatre, because only in it the audience can experience itself as a collective body in analogy to the political body. In theatre, this „paradoxical state“, the audience must be able to „vanish into a thick and tangible crowd6.“
  2. Applause for actors should be abolished, only the director and the authors must be applauded (dead authors are replaced by actor-dummies). Because only with the help of the text as the persisting reference and its interpretation of the director can theatre fulfill its function of „the elucidation of the instant by an encounter with the eternal7.“
  3. Visiting theatre should be made a legal duty. Certified visits of theatre in a prescribed frequency should entitle to tax reductions. Because theatre is „such a fundamental and valuable experience for us“ it should not be reserved for the few: „Elitist for everybody.“

In evaluating current trends of European theatre this conception of a 78-year-old leads to an apparently conservative tendency. In the 2014 preface Badiou argues against two common forms of social disorientation, against, „democratic self-indulgence and passive nihilism“. In theatre he diagnoses a „hypercritical position“, which he classifies as „vain negation“ belonging to „passive nihilism“8. In an interview with Florian Borchmeyer from „Schaubühne“ in Berlin, he calls a kind of theatre „which presents its own impossibility [of representation] in a world which is incommensurate with representation“ a nihilist theatre. In one of his many conversations published in print, however, he evaluated the current experiments in theatre in 2007 in a more nuanced, but nevertheless critical way: They should be understood as artistic projections of the dominant ideology „after the death of God and under the abstract rule of the market“. He believes they are only a „temporary phenomenon of ideology“. But he denies that they are subversive. Performance, in his view, can be a field of discovery of new forms and meanings, but not the discovery itself.

German theatre is looking for its justification, it is looking for its social function between affirmation and subversion of consensus. Reading Badiou could help here a bit.

Additional Literature:

  • Alain Badiou, Rhapsody for the theatre. Edited and Introduced by Bruno Bosteels. London/New York: Verso, 2013
  • Alain Badiou, „Theatre and Philosophy“, in: Alain Badiou, Rhapsody for the theatre. Edited and introduced by Bruno Bosteels. London/New York: Verso, 2013 p. 93-109 [first „Théâtre et philosophie“, a talk presented in May 1998 at Comédie de Reims, Reims: Noria, Cahier 13, also in: Frictions: théâtres-écritures 2 (Spring Summer 2000) pp.133-41]
  • Alain Badiou, „Thesen zum Theater“, in: A.B., Kleines Handbuch zur Inästhetik, 2. Auflage. Trans. from French by Karin Schreiner. Wien: Turin + Kant, 2012 [frz. Petit Manuel d’Inesthétique. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1998, zu-erst: „Dix thèses sur le theatre“, in: Les Cahiers de la Comédie Française. Paris 1995]
  • Alain Badiou, „A Theatre of Operations. A Discussion between Alain Badiou and Elie During“, Meseu d’Art Contemporani Barcelona, Exhibition Theatre without theatre 2007
  • Alain Badiou, „Event and Truth“, Vortrag bei dem Symposium Event in Artistic and Political Practices (26.-28.03.2013)
  • Alain Badiou, „Es gibt keine Welt. Alain Badiou im Gespräch mit Florian Borchmeyer“, in: Schaubühne Berlin, 2.Spielzeitheft 2014/15



  1. S. 19 Page numbers indicated by „p.“ refer to the English edition of „Rhapsody for the Theatre“. Wherever possible Bosteels’s translation is used. Quotations indicated with the German abbreviation for page: „S.“ refer to the German edition of „Rhapsodie für das Theater“. ↩︎
  2. “Theatre and Philosophy“ p. 103 ↩︎
  3. XXII, p. 21, S.44 ↩︎
  4. XXV, p. 24, S. 48 ↩︎
  5. XV, p. 13, S. 36 ↩︎
  6. XXXIX p. 42, S. 68 ↩︎
  7. LXXIX, p.79, S. 112 ↩︎
  8. S. 20 ↩︎

Leave a Reply