Is there a philosophy of theatre? Part 3: Theatre and life (as such)

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 3 of 5: Theatre and Life (as such)

If the essays on the relation of philosophy and theatre may for those who do not believe to be philosophers remain somewhat unrewarding, the collection also contains essays that could be interesting for non-philosophers.

Lior Levy from the university of Haifa examines Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of theatre 1 Sartre’s lecture „Epic and dramatic theatre“ of 1960 is usually understood as an attempt to find a middle ground between Brecht’s epic theatre and bourgeois theatre, i.e. as a justification of Sartre’s own type of drama. But Levy places this seemingly garrulous lecture in the context of Sartre’s systematic philosophy. He starts with explaining the difference between an „image“ and an „analogue“, as Sartre stated it in his early work „L’imaginaire“ (1940). As material objects, works of art are representing analogues . Images are, on the contrary, ideas which do not have any material existence. Levy applies this distinction to actors:

„Actors, as analogues, are present. Characters remain absent as images.“ 2

But in the theatre there are two analogues: the words of the play (or the events on stage) and the actor. The actors create images of the characters they represent for themselves. And they are analogues themselves for the audience who create images from these analogues for themselves. Theatre results from this overlapping of images 3.  4

For Sartre, action is the essence of theatre 5, not in the sense that some kind of plot must be narrated, but that the work of art which comes into existence on stage results from the action of human beings. In order to be able to act a person needs a project of himself 6. This project is not a certain aim, which a person sets himself or herself consciously, but an original act of choosing which is not directly accessible for the person acting. This original act of choosing oneself is the precondition of all particular acts of choosing. The actor also develops such a project without being able to say what it consists of when he creates an image of the character for himself 7. He does something that we also do in our lives. He enables us to recognize how we live 8 Theatre is a means of self-knowledge 9. We come to understand that the project of our life is lived by action, that we are not something or somebody before we act, but that we act first and then and therefore are something or somebody, because we are free in our actions. That is what theatre reminds us of, explains Levy.

From Tzachi Zamir’s reflections on acting we learn something else about our lives 10. He starts from a technique in acting which he calls „giving focus“. This means creating attention for another actor, diverting attention, playing down oneself. Every actor must learn that at some time. For Zamir this is a basic characteristic of all acting, not only because several actors cooperate on stage, but also because every single actor shows something, a character, a process – not himself. Contrary to the general opinion about actors – vain, hollow creatures wafted through by every breeze – and contrary to the ongoing change from actor to performer, who uses all means of increasing attention for himself 11, Zamir sees generosity as a basic virtue of acting, the ability to give attention away generously 12. He does not claim that every actor possesses this virtue, but he maintains that it necessarily results as an aim from the analysis of what acting is.

In addition Zamir refers to the function which artists have as ideal examples of shaping one’s life. Since Nietzsche the relation of the subject to his or her life is analogous to the relation of the artist to his work 13. We create and judge our lives according to aesthetic criteria. Life should be beautiful and not boring. Zamir also holds on to this analogy between artistic creation and authentic conduct of life 14. Proceeding from his analysis of the art of acting he sees other possibilities of creative self-design. Subordinating one’s own decisions to an effect which can only be achieved by a common effort can also be authentic. Thereby Zamir arrives at statements which are quite contrary to what guidebooks for leading an authentic life recommend (or the current fashion of theatre studies):

„I can choose to be a minor character in another’s life story, for example, and this decision can become a treasured part of what makes some aspects of my own life story meaningful and unique to me.“ 15

A further result of Zamir’s analysis of the deployment of attention by minor characters on stage is that empathy in theatre works in two directions. The audience feels with the characters on stage, but the actors also feel with the audience. Actors who direct the attention of the audience to another actor thereby often preempt reactions of the audience or make reactions visible which are suppressed or only half conscious in the members of the audience. As backward as this analysis might seem to defendants of the „aesthetics of the performative“, it is not naïve, it results from the close observation of actors on stage or in movies 16

It was promised we could learn something for our lives from these essays. Here it is:

„The actor’s selflessness can enrich the aesthetics of self-creation“ 17.

Learning from theatre means learning beautiful modesty. That is really good news 18.



  1.  Lior Levy, „The image and the act – Sartre on dramatic theatre“, PTDA, pp. 89-108
  2.  PTDA, p.95︎
  3.  „The interaction between actors’ and spectators’ imaginations, their joint participation in the constitution of images, makes theatre an inherently democratic art.“ PTDA, p.97
  4.  In one of Levy’s annotations the distance between anglophone philosophy of theatre and German theatre studies becomes apparent. Levy quotes from the English translation of Fischer-Lichtes Ästhetik des Performativen. Two models of the relation between performance and audience are mentioned: the traditional one with „staging strategies to stir the audience into guided and controlled responses“ and the model which originated in the ‘60s with performances „generated and determined by a self-referential feedback-loop.“ (PTDAp.106 Annotation 29). Levy groups Sartre with the second model, though he admits that for Sartre actors and spectators remain separate. Levys comment reveals his tendency to defend traditional theatre with a fixed script and a clear separation of stage and audience, but it also reveal the lack of understanding or underestimation of Fischer-Lichte’s conception of theatre. The interplay between actor and spectator in traditional theatre, even of Sartre’s variety, is definitively different from Fischer-Lichtes feedback-loop, in which actor and spectator become co-subjects or co-authors of an event. And with the model that Levy labels „traditional“ Fischer-Lichte does not refer to the middle-class theatre which originated in the 19th century, but to the attempts to create a politically activating theatre in the early 20th century, i.e. Ejsenstein and Piscator. (Erika Fischer-Lichte, Ästhetik des Performativen. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 2004, S.60)
  5.  „Il n’y a pas d’autre image au théâtre que l’image de l’acte, et si l’on veut savoir ce que c’est que le théâtre, it faut se de- mander ce que c’est qu’un acte, parce que le théâtre représents l’acte et it ne peut rien repré-senter d’autre.“ – „Es gibt kein anderes Bild im Theater als das Bild der Tat, und wenn man wissen will, was Theater ist, muss man sich fragen, was eine Tat ist, weil das Theater die Tat darstellt und nichts anderes darstellen kann.“ Jean-Paul Sartre, „Episches und dramatisches Theater“ (1960), in: J-P.S., Mythos und Realität des Theaters. Schriften zu Theater und Film 1931-1970. Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1991,S. 96︎
  6.  Heidegger’s concept, charged with ethymological meaning („Der Entwurf ist die existenzielle Seinsverfassung des Spielraums des faktischen Seinkönnens. Und als geworfenes ist das Dasein in die Seinsart des Entwerfens geworfen.“ Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 15. Aufl. 1979, S.145), changes with Sartre in French to a simple „projet“ („Toutes ces menues attentes passives du réel, toutes ces valeurs banales et quotidiennes tirent leur sens, à vrai dire, d’un premier projet de moi-même, qui est comme mon choix de mois-même dans le monde. Mai précisément, ce projet de moi vers une possibilité première, qui fait qu’il ya des valeurs, des appels, des attentes et en général un monde, ne m’apparait qu’au delà du monde comme le sens et la signification abstraits et logiques de mes enterprises.“ Jean-Paul Sartre, L’être et le néant. Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique. Paris: Gallimard, 1943, p.75
  7.  Textbooks for prospective actors try to schematize this procedure. Susan Batson e.g. writes : „Every scripted character has three basic dimensions – Public Persona, Need and Basic Flaw. Every person has the same three dimensions. In order really to act – to breathe life into a script – you must identify and explore these three dimensions in yourself.“ (Susan Batson, Truth: personas, needs and flaws in building actors and creating characters. New York: Webster\Stone, 2013 p.8) . And then all theatre characters are pinned down to these three character traits. That is, of course, not what Sartre had in mind. Sartre explains: „Totales Objekt sein könnte man entweder für die Ameisen oder für die Engel, aber als Mensch kann man es nicht für die Menschen sein.“ (Jean-Paul Sartre, „Episches und dramatisches Theater“ (1960), in: J-P.S., Mythos und Realität des Theaters. Schriften zu Theater und Film 1931-1970. Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1991, S.94. „Only for ants or angels we could be a total objects, but not as a human being for other human beings.“ Transl. G.P.) But it shows which direction an actor’s work has to pursue.
  8.  “The theatre is the place where we confront both the impossibility of knowing the project and the necessity of living it, of acting it out.“ PTDA, p.102
  9.  “Und folglich ist das, was wir wiedergewinnen wollen, wenn wir ins Theater gehen, natürlich wir selbst, aber wir selbst nicht insofern wir mehr oder weniger sentimental oder mehr oder weniger stolz auf unsere Jugend oder unsere Schönheit sind, sondern insofern wir handeln und arbeiten und auf Schwierigkeiten stoßen und Menschen sind, die Regeln haben, das heißt Regeln für diese Handlungen“. Jean-Paul Sartre, „Episches und dramatisches Theater“ a.a.O., S. 96. Levy summarizes this statement as: „Theatre is a means for self-discovery, a place where we can‚ rediscover (…) ourselves as we act‘“PTDA, p.103
  10.  Tzachi Zamir, „Giving focus“. PTDA, pp. 123-134
  11.  cf. Wolfgang Engler/Frank M. Raddatz, „Entfremdung verboten! Die Fallstricke des Authenitizitätsdikurses und die Freiheit des Spiels.“ Lettre International, No. 114 Herbst 2016, S. 52-74; or: Bernd Stegemann, „Achtung, echte Menschen“,, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 2.1.2017, and the contrary position: Christian Holtzhauer, „„Die Regeln des Spiels“, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 19.1.2017 und Eva Behrendt, , „Echte Tränen. Theaterkolumne“, Merkur, 2.1.2017
  12.  PTDA, p.129
  13.  “Die Künstler allein (…) enthüllen das Geheimnis, das böse Gewissen von jedermann, den Satz, daß jeder Mensch ein einmaliges Wunder ist; sie wagen es, uns den Menschen zu zeigen, wie er bis in jede Muskelbewegung er selbst, er allein ist, noch mehr, daß er in dieser strengen Konsequenz seiner Einzigkeit schön und betrachtenswert ist, neu und unglaublich wie jedes Werk der Natur und durchaus nicht langweilig.“ Friedrich Nietzsche, „Schopenhauer als Erzieher, in: Die Geburt der Tragödie. Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen I-IVetc. Kritische Studienausgabe Bd. 1, hg. G.Colli u. M.Montinari. München: dtv/de Gruyter, 1988, S.337f. Quoted in Engl. by Zamir, PTDA, p. 124
  14.  “Nietzsche was right to aestheticize authenticity.“ PTDA, p.128
  15.  PTDA, p.127︎
  16.  Zamir begins his essay with the example of a scene from Charly Chaplins „Goldrush“, in which Chaplin eats his shoe and is watched by another actor. Zamir is a lecturer at Hebrew University Jerusalem, so he probably is acquainted with the works of the Israeli director Yael Ronen and he has published a comprehensive study of philosophy of theatre, in which he also analyses the non-theatrical forms of performances. Tzachi Zamir, Acts. Theater, Philosophy and the performing self. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014
  17.  PTDA, p.128
  18.  Zamir’s view was confirmed recently by  Wiebke Puls’s acceptance speech when she was awarded the 3sat-prize for best actress at Theatertreffen Berlin 2018 in which she  thanked her fellow actresses and actors for the attention she has received from them. She also stressed that her success as an actress was only possible because she has had the opportunity to work in a permanent ensemble (Münchner Kammerspiele) for a long period of time.

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