Is there a philosophy of theatre? Part 5: Philosophy and theatre criticism

Review of Tom Stern (ed.), The Philosophy of Theatre, Drama and Acting. London/New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. 209 pages

Tom Stern PTDA Titelbild

Part 5 of 5: Philosophy and theatre criticism

In none of the essays theatre criticism is a subject of enquiry, except for some mischievous sideswipes. But nevertheless two of the essays can be read as treatises on theatre criticism (against the grain).

Kristin Gjesdal 1 from Temple University Philadelphia examines the usually disregarded „Lectures on dramatic art and literature“ which August Wilhelm Schlegel held in Vienna in 1808. These lectures were completely ignored by philosophy, because they were seen as narrative presentation of European theatre literature. But Schlegel had in mind to combine the theory of dramatic art with its history 2. Gjesdal now lays open their theoretical nucleus. And due to the ambivalence of the concepts of „critic“ and „modern“ this can also be read as a list of requirements for theatre criticism of today3.

Gjesdal points out that Schlegel does not demand any fixed criteria of the critic, but a certain attitude. The „internal excellence“ of a work of art has to be judged. Therefore Schlegel postulates the „universality of mind“ of the „true critic or connoisseur“ 4 and the independence of „personal predilections and blind habits“ 5. Gjesdal emphasises that this independence cannot be claimed in advance, but has to be acquired through the encounter with different points of view. This kind of romantic (i.e. modern) criticism is an educational process which makes the reader understand himself better as well as the work of art. The critic should „treat the work of art as an individual and, all the same, explicate its universal dimension“ 6. The model for this apparently paradox procedure is again Shakespeare. His characters have a „concrete universality“ 7, a combination of individuality and general validity, which should serve as an example for critics 8. Contemporary theatre (Gjesdal thinks of both Schlegel’s present and ours) should „create artworks, through which modern (romantic) audiences can understand themselves“ 9. The critic should not prefer one of the life options, that a drama presents, „but should engage in a kind of syncretism that emerges from their interaction“ 10.

This description of the tasks of a critic, with which Schlegel actually referred to the critic of dramatic literature, is quite appropriate for the self-image of most theatre critics today. But it is not the image of the critic that still prevails in the minds of art theoreticians. Quite often the critic is a bogeyman which is erected in order to construct a view which can be argued against 11. It is insinuated that he claims objectivity for his judgements. But already Alfred Döblins demand „A chap must have an opinion“ 12 emphasizes the subjectivity of a theatre critic’s judgements. And since then, nearly all (German) theatre critics have similar views 13. The „independence of personal predilections“ that Schlegel demands refers to precluded judgements, which are fixed before the encounter with the work of art, i.e. the performance, and to preconceived emotional bonds to or economic dependance on certain artists. The criterion of „internal excellence“, that Schlegel advocates, means the rejection of all criteria of general validity. Flexibility is what is required of a critic to be able to engage with the peculiarities of the individual work of art. That was evident even in 1808.

Paul Woodruff 14 of the University of Texas Austin examines the question which is of vital importance for the professional critic: whether he or she should direct his or her attention to the technical side of theatre, to techniques of acting, stage set etc. Woodruff defines theatre from two sides: as the art of „making human acting worth watching (for performers), and as the art of „finding human action worth watching (for audiences)“ 15. For him, many different kinds of human actions belong to theatre: concerts, dance, improvisation, performances of scripted plays, rituals, religious ceremonies, lessons and spectator sports. Fiction and mimesis are different concepts for him, both of which do not necessarily belong to theatre. Attention to technique, however, can disturb mimetic effects of theatre. Only in pedagogy is the concentration on the” how?” of the performance desirable. The audiences have got to help mimesis along with their imagination.

But that does not apply to the critic. Woodruff comes to the sad conclusion:

„The critic’s job is not only to watch, but also to observe technique. Even at the cost of losing some joy in the experience.“ 16.

Woodruff’s examples, in accordance with his wide concept of theatre, come as well from classical music 17 as from Shakespeare 18. At the end of his essay he arrives at a somewhat milder judgement on the joy of the critic during a concert or a theatre performance. The better you are acquainted with the technical side of the performance, the less you have to concentrate on it. And then he develops a tangible criterion for artistic greatness in theatre:

„Can a performance steal the attention of educated watchers from technique?“ 19.

If a performance can elicit even in the hard-nosed critic a second naivety of emotional reaction, then it surely is great.


All the contributors of this volume write from a background of analytical philosophy. That leads to an accuracy in the explication of concepts which might seem pedantic in German eyes. But it is nearly always tied back to everyday use of language and to artistic practices. This method produces manifold illuminative insights. Only a few of the essays get lost in the jungle of theories. The concrete recourse to theatrical practice in some essays (Levy, Zamir, Hamilton, Saltz), however, demonstrates how narrow the empirical basis of these essays is. Shakespeare always is the prime example (in the historical essays it even is the German reception of Shakespeare, with Hegel, Schlegel and Nietzsche, that serves as a starting point). The multifarious experiments of American and British theatre groups are only acknowledged in abstract. Carol Churchill’s „Love and Information“ of 2012 ist the most advanced example 20. Classical German philosophy of the 19th century is screened with awe-inspiring expertise and accuracy for statements about theatre. But German theatre studies of today are hardly mentioned (similar to French philosophy 21). Not to mention German theatre productions of today. The reason might not only be the geographical distance from Germany of authors living in the USA, Israel, Australia or Britain, but also the linguistic obstacle. For the present, the internationalisation of spoken theatre is a oneway street and as long as there are different languages it will remain incomplete.


  1.  Kristin Gjesdal, „The theatre of thought: A.W. Schlegel on modern drama and romantic criticism“. PTDA, pp.43-63
  2.  „die Theorie der dramatischen Kunst mit ihrer Geschichte zu verbinden…“, August Wilhelm Schlegel, Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Literatur. Hg. Edgar Lohner. Erster Teil. Erste Vorlesung. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1966, S.17. Gjesdal: „his bottom up (rather than top-down) approach, to combine a historical and a systematic approach in aesthetics.“ PTDA, p. 44
  3. Schlegel calls „Kritik“ a mediator between theory and history. In English „Kritik“ is translated as „criticism“, and „literary criticism“ is the equivalent to „Literaturwissenschaft“. But the representative of this activity or branch of science is sometimes called „Kenner“ (connoisseur), sometimes „Kritiker“ (critic) by Schlegel. In the English translation this is nearly always „critic“. Schlegel also uses the terms „romantisch“ and „modern“ as synonyms. Accordingly Gjesdal always accompanies the word „modern“ with „romantic“ in brackets or vice versa, e.g. PTDA, p. 44, p.56. ︎
  4. „Vielseitigkeit oder Universalität des echten Kritikers“, August Wilhelm Schlegel, ibid. S. 19
  5. „Aber ein echter Kenner kann man nicht sein ohne Universalität des Geistes, d.h. ohne die Biegsamkeit, welche uns in den Stand setzt, mit Verleugnung persönlicher Vorliebe und blinder Gewöhnung, uns in die Eigenheiten anderer Völker und Zeitalter zu versetzen, sie gleichsam aus ihrem Mittelpunkte heraus zu fühlen…“ August Wilhelm Schlegel, ibid., S. 18. Quoted in Engl. at Gjesdal, PTDA, p.51
  6. Gjesdal, PTDA, p.54
  7.  Gjesdal, PTDA, p. 56
  8.  „Shakespeares ausführlich gezeichnete Personen haben unstreitig viele ganz individuelle Bestimmungen, aber zugleich eine nicht bloß für sie gültige Bedeutung: sie geben meistens eine ergründende Theorie ihrer hervorstechenden Eigenschaft an die Hand.“ August Wilhelm Schlegel, Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Literatur. Hg. Edgar Lohner. Zweiter Teil, 26. Vorlesung. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1966, S. 131.
  9. Gjesdal, PTDA, p. 56
  10.  Gjesdal, PTDA, p. 57
  11. So does Juliane Rebentisch unfortunately as well: „Traditionell wurde der Kritiker als jemand vorgestellt, der seine Autorität durch eine Distanz zum Objekt etabliert, die seine Neutralität garantieren soll – so, als ob die Grenzen dieses Selbst und jenes Objekts stabil wären. Der so verstandene ideale Kritiker ist nicht nur objektiv, also von Vorurteilen möglichst frei, er zeigt auch möglichst wenig affektive Reaktionen vor allem keine heftigen wie beispielsweise Scham, Erregung, Angst oder Ekel. Neutralität ist nach dieser Vorstellung eine Voraussetzung für die kritische Urteilspraxis.“ Juliane Rebentisch, Theorien der Gegenwartskunst zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius, 2013, S. 83 ︎
  12. Alfred Döblin, Ein Kerl muss eine Meinung haben. Berichte und Kritiken 1921-1924. München: dtv, 1981
  13. Two examples: „Der Kritiker ist nur der Sekretär seiner Eindrücke, seiner Empfindungen, seiner Erfahrungen. Hätte der Kritiker Maßstäbe, so wäre alles einfacher.“ („A critic is only the secretary of his impressions, his emotions, his experiences. If the civic had criteria, everything would be much easier“. Transl. G.P.) Georg Hensel, „Der Hordenkomiker, Alfred Kerr, Karl Valentin und Kollegen. Der Maßstab des Theaterkritikers oder Die Elle des tapferen Schneiderleins“, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 12. Mai 1990. And: „Es gibt keine allgemein gültigen Kriterien, aber man muss trotzdem Urteile fällen. Denn nur am Argument entzünden sich unterschiedliche Betrachtungsweisen, die wiederum die Kreativität des Ganzen befördern. (…) Ein Kritiker darf hassen, gerührt sein, belehren, resignieren, persönlich werden oder jubeln, solange er seine Gefühle in eine verständliche Relation zu dem Gegenstand bringt.“ („There are no general criteria, but nevertheless we have to pass judgements. Because only an argument can elicit different approaches which in consequence increase the creativity of the whole. (…) A critic is allowed to hate, be moved, teach, resignate, get personal or cheer as long as he can bring his emotions into an understandable relation to his object.“ Trsl. G.P.) Till Briegleb, „Kritiker und Theater. 10 Thesen“, in: Dramaturgie. Zeitschrift der dramaturgischen Gesellschaft*, Heft 1/2006, S. 12-13 ︎
  14. Paul Woodruff, „Attention to technique in theatre“, PTDA, pp. 109-121
  15. PTDA, p. 110
  16. PTDA, p. 114
  17. Saint-Saëns, Cello concerto op. 33; Beethoven, Piano sonata op. 101
  18. „A Midsummernight’s dream“: Theseus’s and Hippolyta’s comments as they watch the artisans’ performance
  19. PTDA, p. 120
  20.  cf. Hamilton, PTDA, p. 143
  21. With the exception of a tribute to Derrida (PTDA, p. 31) and one to Rancière (PTDA, p. 148)

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