Tom Stern on Philosophy and Theatre

  • Tom Stern, Philosophy and Theatre. An Introduction. London and New York: Rutledge, 2014

Philosophy and theatre seem to have an intimate relationship in Germany. In all theatre programmes you can find philosophical text clippings. In theatre studies and prose by dramaturges, Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, Rancière, Flusser or Žižek are often invoked as authorities. But then philosophy is mostly used as source of legitimation for theatre or for a certain type of theatre. Rarely is theatre viewed by philosophy from its own, independent perspective.

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Now there is an introduction into the relationship of philosophy and theatre written by an English philosopher who is engaged in theatre only as a spectator. Tom Stern is Senior Lecturer at University College London, his professional interest is in Nietzsche, the classics and theatre. 1 His basis is analytical philosophy of the Anglo-american type. There it is quite common to regard the history of philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle. 2 Indeed, Stern traces all disputes about what theatre is, wants or is allowed to do, back to the opposition of these two forefathers of philosophy.

On the other hand, he refers to the not-very-numerous newer literature on theatre in the area of analytical philosophy. And he proceeds with the methods which belong there: problems are identified, arguments collected, ordered, tested and evaluated according to simple criteria of common sense, without any German system building or French subversive art of obfuscation.

It is an introduction resulting from lectures for beginners of theatre studies. The naive question of average theatergoers are Stern’s starting points. The answers to these questions are elaborated step by step to their full complexity and with historical depth of focus. Tom Stern’s training as an educator helps here: all arguments are carefully numbered, and after reviewing pros and cons a conclusion is drawn.

Tom Stern knows the present debates in the English-speaking theatre studies about the „fight against the hegemony of the text“ well enough. In his working definition of theatre as „an artistic event that takes place in a particular location with mutually aware performers and spectators engaged insome kind of play“ 3 he shows in detail how the theatre of today isolates each of these elements and tests the limits of the possibilities of theatre („Theatre that does not want to be theatre“, Thomas Oberender). But in the centre of his enquiries there is text-based theatre, which he considers still to be the dominant form.


In his chapter on mimesis Stern distinguishes between mimesis as imitation and mimesis as imagination. Thereby it becomes evident that theatre audiences are also engaged in mimetic activity. Stern distinguishes between sensory imagination – that I imagine something as picture in my mind – and propositional imagination – that I imagine something as true or false 4. Both belong to the mimetic activities of the spectator, the imaginative effort that I see the ghost of Hamlet’s father although it is only described by an actor, and the imaginative effort that I believe to be true (in the context of the play’s fictional world), that Hamlet’s father has died, although at the beginning of the play I cannot yet understand how. Such complex intellectual gymnastics is executed by the supposedly passive spectator even at the beginning of a performance of „Hamlet“ (if the first minutes of the performance have not already sent him or her to sleep, or if he does not just imagine the front of the lady in row 3, chair 52, whose back he unfortunately only can see or if she is ruminating whether Ophelia’s dress would suit herself as well).

In addition, make-belief or play-acting also belong to those mimetic activities. Stern discusses in this context Kendall Walton’s view that the reception of works of art generally is a kind of „unified, rule bound make-believe“ 5. That is how the activity of actors and actresses can be described. Remembering the complexity of this concept of mimesis is useful in view of polemics against a kind of theatre that sees itself as mimesis 6. The now common identification of mimesis and representation, which can be traced back to Rancière 7, is also corrected by Stern’s analysis of the concept of mimesis.

Today, if actors do not want to play make-believe any longer, as it is scorned as children’s game, and if audiences do not want to undergo the pains of imagining sensitively or propositionally – is that imaginative sloth or over-informed shrewdness? No other form of art can produce such complex entanglements of different types of mimesis. Instead of erecting „mimesis“ as a conceptual scarecrow which can then be overturned with Don-Quichote-like energy, Tom Stern unfurls the complex structure of this concept, which has been tossed to and fro by literature and theatre studies for thousands of years.


Closely connected with the dispute about the concept of mimesis is the question of truth in theatre. Stern does not linger with a definition of truth but simply starts with a quip by Bertrand Russell, who stated Shakespeare’s sentences in „Hamlet“ could not be true, because no person called Hamlet like the prince in the play has ever existed 8. With this referential concept of truth, the claim, theatre conveyed true knowledge, can be dismissed easily. Even implicit or universal truths are not learned in theatre. „We did not find a particular or special way in which we learn from theatre.“ 9 What remains is only the interaction of audience and stage, a stimulation to thought 10. It is a sobering diagnosis if it is compared to the high-flying justifications of theatre as an access to „superior“ 11 or „self-revealing truth“ 12 or the claim that art is a „procedure of gaining truths“ 13.

The complementary concept to truth is illusion. Here, Stern also withholds his judgement and starts with analysing exactly what this concept could mean in theatre. He distinguishes between four types of illusion: optical illusion (of the kind that can also be found outside theatre), stage-set illusion (material that seems to be different from what they really are), the illusionist’s illusion („Houdini-type tricks“) and illusions produced by the actors whose identities can be concealed or used. From these illusions he distinguishes „being under the spell“, the trance into which the spectator’s mind sometimes lapses. This is a voluntary contribution of the spectator which can be taken back at any time. It is what Samuel Coleridge already called „willing suspension of disbelief“14.

If you compare Stern’s analysis of the concepts of theatrical illusion with that of Hans-Thies Lehmann we see how arbitrarily these concepts are explicated sometimes. Lehman thinks illusion has three aspects: the aspect of magic, the aspect of eros and the aspect of concretisation. In Stern’s book, the aspect of eros is dealt with in chapter „Emotions“. For Lehmann it is the identification with the sensual intensity of the actors. The act of concretisation, gap-filling, is not typical of theatre, because it also occurs in everyday life. But Lehmann is concerned with demonstrating that illusion is possible without concretisation. In his view, concretisation ist a mark of fiction, of the creation of a fictional world on stage. And the aim of his analysis (or rather synthesis) of this concept of illusion is to show that fiction is superfluous in theatre. That concretisation is no necessary condition for theatre, on that both agree. But for Stern, this concretisation is a preliminary step to the spectator’s much more comprehensive activity which is part of theatrical mimesis. For Lehmann, fiction is a dispensable addition to erotic attraction and magic of theatre.

Morals and Emotion

Even if theatre does not supply us with truths, it still can serve as a school of morals – that is a justification of theatre dear to theatre lovers and professionals in Germany. And even if there are no more binding moral rules, theatre can nevertheless produce emotions and can help to understand the emotions of others. But both theories dissolve under Stern’s dissecting eyes into unresolved individual problems.

The question whether theatre can have any effect on morality is unfolded by Stern in two ways: its effect on the audience and its effect on actors. After perusing all arguments of the debate between Rousseau and d’Alembert15, he relieves theatre from the task of morally improving its audience . And after examining all of Diderot’s and Plato’s arguments against the wantonness and hollowness of professional actors, he also relieves actors from the allegation of immorality. In passing, the concept of authenticity, which is so beloved and beleaguered in recent German discussions on theatre, is also disassembled: it is based on a static concept of human being.16. Stern’s conclusion at the end of the chapter „A school of morals?“ is quite unambiguous this time: the assumption that theatre as a whole corrupts human beings is as unlikely as the assumption that it improves. 17 Theatre is neither moral nor immoral. It is morally irrelevant.

What remains is the emotional effect of theatre which can hardly be denied. But how does it come about and what does it consist of? Stern identifies three problems: Why do we react emotionally to characters who we know not to be real? Why do we enjoy events which would scare us in real life?18 What is this ominous catharsis which has been debated now for 2300 years?19. All questions are carefully examined.

To the first question he offers a pluralist solution: sometimes we feel compassion for people of who we know do not exist at all; sometimes we forget reality completely and believe the characters on stage who we empathise with really exist; sometimes we delude ourselves to have feelings that we actually do not have; sometimes we do not empathize at all, but just react to a theme that concerns us. 20 To the second question the answer is similarly pluralist: sometimes it is sadistic voyeurism, sometimes it is a stimulus to more reflection; sometimes sympathising with a hapless one can just be a pleasant feeling and sometimes a tragedy is simply abominable.21 In the discussion about catharsis Stern cautiously takes sides with those who warn against an interpretation that understands catharsis as moral purgation.22

Arguments are introduced as arguments, and only in the annotations you can find their origin from recent philosophical literature in English. But Stern’s conclusion is often indecisive. He does not take sides, he does not make claims. He shows the challenges that come up in the process of thinking about theatre, as is appropriate for a philosophical introduction.


Stern (like many other authors as well) understands theatre as political because of its structure, independent of whether its content is political or not 23. Therefore he examines the political dimension of theatre texts as well as of theatre performances. Starting from the example of Caryl Churchill’s play „Seven Jewish Children“, which deals with the Israeli-Palestinesian conflict, he argues against Plato’s criticism, artists do not have any knowledge or qualification justifying any influence on political decisions. Against this he confirms that the task of theatre in the area of politics is to raise questions and stir up attention24. In this statement Stern now is, despite all of his argumentative caution, very decisive. Considering the German discussion on this matter, the reflection on whether this political structure is also a democratic one is missing, because the common allegation against theatre on a stage and based on texts is that it reduces the audience to passive subjects of the events on stage, fettered to their seats for contemplation only.

The end of Stern’s introduction consists of a chapter on Brecht’s political theatre. The result of the evaluation is mainly negative. Brecht is shoved to Plato’s side. 25, his anti-aristotelean theatre is criticised with the same kind of argument that Aristotle used against Plato’s degradation of art as τρίτον ἀπ῾ἀλήθειας. His work as director and playwright is esteemed as a contribution to the modern development of theatre. But his work as a theoretician of theatre is disposed of by quoting Eric Bentley as a means to attract attention to his plays26.

For British readers this book seems to be a useful and demanding introduction to philosophical thinking about theatre. For German readers it is the introduction into a completely different way of thinking about theatre, different from what we are used to here in Germany. Perhaps apparently more naive, but even more precise instead.


  1. ↩︎
  2. “The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (1929) Part II, Section I ↩︎
  3. Stern p.6 ↩︎
  4. Stern, p.39 ↩︎
  5. Stern, p.40 ↩︎
  6. z.B. „At the centre of the critique (sic!) of dramatic theatre stood its use of however estranged mimetic representation, which was seen as discredited and was subsequently confronted with the notion of presence.“ Florian Malzacher, „No Organum to follow: Possibilities of political theatre today“, in: Florian Malzacher (ed.), Not just a Mirror. Looking for the political theatre of today. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2015 p.18 ↩︎
  7. “The aesthetic break has generally been understood as break with the regime of representation or the mimetic regime. But what mimesis or representation means has to be understood. What it means is a regime of concordance between sense and sense.“ Jacques Rancière, „Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art“. Art & Research. A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods. Volume 2. No. 1. Summer 2008, p.5 deutsch in : Friedrich Balke e.a. (Hg.), Ästhetische Regime um 1800. Paderborn: Fink, 2009 ↩︎
  8. Stern p. 49; oder Bertrand Russell: „The play ‚Hamlet‘ consists entirely of false propositions.“ in: An Inquiry into meaning and truth (1940). The contrary position can be found with Adorno: „Keine Aussage wäre aus Hamlet herauszupressen; dessen Wahrheitsgehalt ist darum nicht geringer.“ Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie. (=Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 7). Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1970, S. 193 ↩︎
  9. Stern, p.70 ↩︎
  10. “we are talking about a kind of interaction between spectator and performance … a certain kind of provocation or stimulation to thought“, Stern p.54 ↩︎
  11. “So ist die Handlung eines Schauspiels (…) schlechterdings als etwas in sich selbst Beruhendes da. Sie lässt kein Vergleichen mit der Wirklichkeit als dem heimlichen Maßstab aller abbildlichen Ähnlichkeit mehr zu. Sie ist über allen solchen Vergleich hinausgehoben – und damit über die Frage, ob denn das alles wirklich sei -, weil aus ihr eine überlegene Wahrheit spricht.“ Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode. Tübingen: Mohr,41975, S.107 ↩︎
  12. „Sie (die Wahrheit der Kunst) ist weder die bestehende noch die ignorierte, sondern die bis eben unbekannte, die sich offenbarende Wahrheit.“ Adolf Dresen, „Wahrheitsagen“, in: A.D., Siegfrieds Vergessen. Kultur zwischen Konsens und Konflikt. Berlin: Ch. Links, 1992, S. 223 ↩︎
  13. „Wahrheitsverfahren“ Alain Badiou, Kleines Handbuch zur Inästhetik. Wien: Turin & Kant, 2012 (frz. 1998), S. 20 ↩︎
  14. „that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith“, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817). Ch. XIV, ebook Project Gutenberg, 2004 p.347 ↩︎
  15. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, „Brief an d’Alembert über das Schauspiel“, in: J-J.R., Schriften hg. v. Henning Ritter. Bd. 1. Berlin: Ullstein, 1981, S.433-474 ↩︎
  16. Stern, S. 119. For the German debate see: Wolfgang Engel/Frank M. Raddatz, „Entfremdung verboten! Die Fallstricke des Authentizitätsdikurses und die Freiheit des Spiels.“ Lettre International No. 114 Herbst 2016, S. 52-74. In a completely different language my short-time former teacher Hans Günther von Kloeden states a similar view: „Freiheit und Echtheit bedingen sich gegenseitig.(…) So entsteht also Wahrheit aus Freiheit.“ in: Hans Günther von Kloeden, Grundlagen der Schauspielkunst II: Improvisation und Rollenspiel. Velber: Friedrich Verlag, 1967, S.24 ↩︎
  17. Stern, p. 123 ↩︎
  18. without reference to Schiller’s canonical essay „Über den Grund des Vergnügen an tragischen Gegenständen“ von 1792 ↩︎
  19. without reference to Wolfgang Schadewaldts seminal essay „Furcht und Mitleid? Zur Deutung des aristotelischen Tragödiensatzes“ von 1955 ↩︎
  20. Stern, p. 138 ↩︎
  21. Stern, p. 148 ↩︎
  22. Stern, p. 155 ↩︎
  23. vgl. „So ist das Theater denn in der Tat die politische Kunst par excellence, nur auf ihm, im lebendigen Verlauf der Vorführung, kann die politische Sphäre des menschlichen Lebens überhaupt soweit transfiguriert werden, dass sie sich der Kunst eignet.“ in: Hannah Arendt, Vita activa oder vom tätigen Leben. München, Piper, 8th ed. 1998 engl. The Human Condition 1958, S. 180; and „Isomorphie Politik/Theater“ Alain Badiou, Rhapsodie für das Theater. Kurze Philosophische Abhandlung. Wien: Passagen, 2015, S. 30 ↩︎
  24. “My point is that, by moving away from thinking about the political play as informing us towards thinking about it as demanding certain kinds of attention or thoughts we place different and perhaps less stringent demands on its creators. Playwrights may not deserve the authority to tell us about the world, but anyone can tell us to look or to think.“ Stern, p.174 ↩︎
  25. “ (Brecht offered) a critique that has been opened in influence and to some extent in content to that of Plato.“ Stern p.189 ↩︎
  26. “’Back in the the early twenties, Brecht’s plays were not getting much attention. ‚What you need‘ a friend told him, ‚is a theory. To make your stuff important.‘“ Eric Bentley, quoted at Stern p. 189 ↩︎

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