Is there a philosophy of theatre? Part 4: Theatre as art

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 4 of 5: Theatre as art

The status of theatre as an autonomous art of its own is unquestionable for all contributors to the collection. James R. Hamilton also presupposes this status 1. He examines the relation of observed and participatory theatre. At the beginning of his essay he analyses the various intellectual activities of a spectator in „observed“ theatre. The essential activities are „event segmentation“, i.e. structuring the flow of events into meaningful sections, and „belief-revision in time“, i.e. the perpetual adjustment of expectations what might follow in the course of the performance. Hamilton does not see any conceptual difference between „performance“ and „acting“ 2. This applies to narratively structured performances as well as to non-narrative ones. Reverting to empirical research on audience behaviour, Hamilton provides the differentiated conceptual foundation for Jacques Rancière’s claim:

„Le spectateur aussi agit.“ 3

Hamilton looks into the theory of participatory theatre in detail. There is the moral problem: participation usually means cooperation. But can it be called cooperation if spectators and performers do not pursue a common aim? Is cooperation possible without the consent of the participating spectators to a common aim or if they do not know this aim at all? Many projects of participatory theatre claim to have the license to transgress these elsewhere undisputed moral norms.

In addition, Hamilton analyses the concept of interactivity and arrives at the conclusion that it must be scalable.

„All theatre is interactive.“ 4

Observed theatre and participatory theatre only differ in the degree of their interactivity. The question only remains, which level of interactivity is sufficient for justifying the label „participatory theatre“? This type of theatre is often vindicated as offering „attention-training exercises“ 5. That leads to the question, whether this training has any consequences for the spectators when they have left the theatre. Hamilton reverts to the results of empirical research of the effects of video-games on the increase of attention of gamers. He arrives at the conclusion that interactive attention-training is in fact transferrable to other dimensions of life . The small chance that competences acquired in a training situation can be transferred to everyday life is increased by interactivity. But this effect does not depend on the level of interactivity. Even at a low level of interactivity, as in observed theatre, a transfer of the increase of attention to other areas is an observable effect. The categoric difference between passive spectators and active participants of a performance in a feedback-loop is blurred to a gradual one, in which a higher level of interactivity is not at all a prerequisite of an improved effect 6

Hamilton clearly underpins Rancière’s rehabilitation of the activity of the spectator, which was influential in Germany, but he does not mention the critical discussion of Rancière’s view in German theatre theory. Attention-training is a very modest aim compared to the „re-enchantment of the world“, which Fischer-Lichte hopes to be achieved with the aesthetics of the performative 7. Juliane Rebentisch criticizes Rancière because he does not consider the dual character of participation in art. Participation is not active learning, Rebentisch thinks. In performative works of contemporary art „participation itself becomes an object of reflection through artistic interventions“. The observing audience is made aware of observation as one form of participation among others 8. In contrast to Hamilton’s attention-training, these lofty aims of performative theatre elude empirical verification. And that is quite okay, German theory of art thinks:

„Whether such reflections in fact lead to a change of consciousness which results in practical action, is a question, which is not decided by art itself.“ 9

Theatre is a form of art among others and cooperating with others. The relationship between theatre and film suggests itself to consideration because, since the days of its appearance, film has been competitor as well as model, supplier of stories or material to be integrated into theatre. David Z. Saltz 10 sees the difference mainly on a presentational level 11. For him, the film image is a visually replete representation of a fictional world 12. „Replete“ means everything that is visible in a film image belongs to the fictional world, even the cockroach which crawls up the wall behind the protagonist unnoticed. It is not understood as a defect or accident. This does not apply to theatre. As a rule we do not believe that the theatre moths that buzz around the flood lights belong to Hamlet’s royal castle.

In addition, Saltz distinguishes between „infiction“ and „outfiction“. Usually the activity of the spectator is understood as reading a fictional narrative from the events on stage happening in the real world („outfiction“). But also the reverse process is taking place. With the help of his or her knowledge of the fictional narrative the spectator reads a certain meaning into the events on stage happening in the real world („infiction“). But this double process only applies to theatre. In film these two directions of constitution of meaning coincide. The film audience does not have to decode the meaning of visual events with the help of its previous knowledge of the fictional narrative, because film is visually replete. Saltz explains the role of infiction with the concept of „constitutive rule“ 13. Such rules are not visible, but without them the visible activity which is ruled by them would not exist at all. They are arbitrarily invented rules of the game. Such rules play an important part in theatre. Every action on stage can represent any other. The tenor sings in his aria that he will stab his enemy with a knife, but has a pistol in his hand. We have to know these rules if we want to understand theatre. And these constitutive rules differ from production to production. We have to discover them in the performance itself. Saltz calls this mode of representation „ludic“ and the mode of representation of film „pictorial“.

So far the concepts of theatre and film have been separated nicely and cleanly. But Saltz also knows about the hybrid forms. There also is (or was) a theatre that tries to be as replete as film (e.g. Alvis Hermanis’ production of „Oblomov“ in Halle Kalk of Schauspiel Cologne in 2011) 14. There are films that try to be as empty or visually scarce as theatre (e.g. Lars von Trier’s „Dogville“ of 2003). And there are musicals which should belong to the ludic genre, but are subjected to the visually replete mode of representation in musical films15. Therefore Saltz comes to the conclusion that film and theatre typically use their specific and distinct strategies, but that this correlation is culturally conditioned and changeable 16

And because these strategies can be handled so flexibly and because their use is historically and culturally conditioned, it is deplorable that Saltz’ examples are so limited in scope. He refers to Thornton Wilder’s „Happy Journey“ of 1931 and Peter Shaffer’s „Equus“ of 1973 (resp. its film version of 1977) as examples of the visual minimalism of theatre. But in the meantime, German stages have been flooded by a wave of filmic means of presentation: projection screens, film clips, live cameras on stage, interactive computer generated images etc. – every kind of hybridization is experimented with 17). It would be rewarding to try and analyse how Hamilton’s modes of representation, which mold the viewing habits of film and theatre, influence each other in this type of theatre which is so frequent today.


  1.  James R. Hamilton „What is the relationship between ‚observed‘ and ‚participatory‘ performance?“ PTDA, pp.137-164
  2. PTDA, p. 145
  3. Jacques Rancière, Le spectateur émancipé.Paris: La fabrique éditions, 2008; quoted in English by Hamilton, PTDA, p.148 ︎
  4. PTDA, p.154
  5. PTDA, p.150
  6. “… thinking of so-called participatory and observed theatre as merely marking different degrees of interactivity is important.“ PTDA, p.156 ︎
  7. Fischer-Lichte ibid., S.360 ︎
  8. Juliane Rebentisch, Theorien der Gegenwartskunst zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius, 2013, S.89. This is true of productions like Milo Raus „Mitleid. Die Geschichte des Maschinengewehrs“ („Compassion. The history of the machine gun“), Schaubühne Berlin 2016. Cf. The review in: Tageszeitung (taz) vom 19.1.2016 or in: Freitag 31.1 2016
  9. Rebentisch ibid. S.79 Translation G.P.
  10. David Z. Saltz, „Plays are games, movies are pictures: Ludic vs. pictorial representation“. PTDA, pp.165-182︎
  11. PTDA, p.168
  12. „The film image is a visually replete representation of the fictional world.“ PTDA,   p.169. Saltz adopts the concept of „repleteness“ from Nelson Goodman. Goodman compares an electrocardiogram with a drawing of Fujiama by the Japanese painter Hokusai: „Einige Aspekte, die im bildlichen Schema (Zeichnung von Hokusai) konstitutiv sind (Dicke oder Farbe der Linie usw.), (werden) im diagrammatischen Schema (Elektrokardiogramm) zu kontingenten Aspekten abgewertet; die Symbole im bildlichen Schema sind relativ voll (replete).“ Nelson Goodman, Die Sprachen der Kunst. Ein Ansatz zu einer Symboltheorie. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1973, S. 231
  13. Saltz adopts John R. Searle’s concept: „Constitutive rules constitute (and also regulate) an activity the existence of which is logically dependent on the rules.“ John R. Searle, Speech Acts. An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969, p. 34
  14. cf. the review by Peter Michalzik  13.02.2011
  15. It is strange that Saltz does not mention the genre of opera at all.
  16. “The difference between the two mediums (…) is ontologically grounded in the sense that theatre and film are highly compatible with their characteristic modes of representation. Nonetheless, it remains historically and culturally contingent and mutable, not baked into the ontology of the two mediums.“ PTDA, p.179 ︎
  17. Kay Voges, artistic director of Schauspiel Dortmund, likes to make use of all the technical possibilities to rearrange these modes of representation. In his production of Wolfram Lotz’ play „Einige Nachrichten aus dem All“ (“Some news from outer space”) the audience watched a film version of the play on a screen for about an hour until at the end suddenly a real car smashed into the screen from behind, hovering just above the heads of the audience (cf. the review on Nachtkritik 14.09.2012). And in the project called „hell. ein augenblick“ (“light. an instant”) actors and actresses were photographed while acting visibly on stage and were immediately turned into huge static black-and-white pictures projected onto two huge screens. Two completely different modes of representation were combined and juxtaposed (cf. the review on Nachtkritik 11.02.2017︎).

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