Is there a philosophy of theatre? Part 2: Theatre and philosophy

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 2 of 5: Theatre and philosophy

Even if traditional philosophy has rarely dealt with theatre (not to be confused with drama), it has always been present in philosophy as a metaphor 1. As an artform of its own, theatre, independent of drama, has hardly ever been considered. Hegel thought the art of acting to be so unimportant that he mentioned it only in some condescending remarks. The actor is a serious artist only as an „instrument on which the poet plays“ 2, whereas only „very bad products provide an occasion for the free productivity of the actor.“ 3

Starting from Hegel’s philosophy, Jennifer Ann Bates, an American expert on Hegel, therefore does not access theatre as performance, but theatre as text: Shakespeare’s drama „The Merchant of Venice“ 4.  She parallelises Hegel’s stages of the development of reason (Vernunft), especially observing reason, from „Phenomenology of Spirit“ 5 with Portia’s method of selecting a husband: the procedure of three princes choosing from three caskets. And she applies a phrase from Hegel’s philosophy of nature, „the inner of the inner“ 6, meaning the dialectical triad of universality, particularity and individuality, to Belmont, Portias domain 7. Bates believes the dangerous ambivalences of Shakespeare’s plays can be resolved (sublated, in Hegel’s sense of „aufheben“) with the help of Derrida’s playful concept of „relevant translation“ (French: „traduction relevante“, German: „relevante, d.h. aufhebende Übersetzung“) 8. In the understanding of Shakespeare’s play this means: if shylock is evil, he is not only responsible himself, but also Venetian society. A quite predictable result.

And the result of the examination of the relation of philosophy and drama is only that the stages of the development of absolute spirit, art, religion and philosophy, are not ordered according to priority, but that philosophy needs art, and drama as its highest form in particular, and that art needs philosophy. This complicated line of argument remains completely hermetically encapsulated in the conceptual cosmos of Hegel’s philosophy. Even literary theatre does not have any need for such a kind of philosophy.

Tom Stern’s own contribution to his collection of essays examines the opposite direction: what does theatre mean for philosophy? He takes the example of Nietzsche. His elegant fireworks of concepts are dismantled by Stern. Each conceptual spark is scrutinised. And, of course, he finds contradictions. To philosophers, Nietzsche recommends hiding behind a masque, but he also warns against philosophers behaving like actors 9  10. Stern resolves this contradiction by analysing three kinds of acting: the immersive, the gymnastic and the marionette-like 11.

  • – As an immersive actor you internalise the inner life of the character, you are completely immersed in his or her emotions 12.
  • – As a gymnastic actor you create signs for certain emotions which have been agreed upon with the audience, without feeling this emotion yourself 13.
  • – As a marionette-like actor you act like a puppet, as a body, without any inner involvement 14.

Nietzsche obviously warns against the first type of actor, who poses as „martyr of truth“ and is completely addicted to the applause of the audience, but Nietzsche recommends the philosopher to act behind a masque on the stage of philosophical dispute – a game of hide-and-seek for the sake of faithfulness to truth, in which the thinker does not betray himself. By approving Nietzsche to a certain degree Stern warns against a „naturalist“ interpretation of Nietzsche. “The pursuit of the naturalist philosophy will naturally undermine the possibility of its successful pursuit.“ 15



  1.  In Schelling’s „System des transzendentalen Idealismus“ the relation between freedom and historical law is illustrated with the simile of a performance of a drama whose author only exists virtually in the individual actors. F.W.J. Schelling, System des transzendentalen Idealismus. Hamburg: Meiner, 1957 (first Tübingen 1800), S.271. Hegel often uses the metaphor of theatre as well, e.g. in his introduction to his Lectures on the philosophy of history.G.W.F. Hegel, Theorie Werkausgabe Bd. 12. Frankfurt/M: 1970, S.34-35
  2.  G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik III. Theorie Werkausgabe Bd. 15. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1970 S.513 ︎
  3.  ibid. S. 516
  4.  Jennifer Ann Bates, „Hegel’s ‚Instinct of Reason‘ and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: What is a relevant Aufhebung of nature? of Justice?“ PTDA, pp. 15-41
  5.  G.W.F. Hegel, Phänomenologie des Geistes. Theorie Werkausgabe Bd.3. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1970 S.185-187 u. 233-262
  6.  G.W.F. Hegel, Enzyklopädie der Wissenschaften II. Theorie Werkausgabe Bd.9. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1970 S. 22
  7.  Terry Eagleton’s interpretation of „The Merchant of Venice“ is helpful in understanding Bates’ Essay. Eagleton discovers the contrast between the general and the particular in the concept of law which Shylock and Portia interpret in different, contradictory ways. In Hegel, Bates finds a reconciliation of this contrast, a sublation to a higher level. She believes this reconciliation can also be demonstrated in details of Shakespeare’s text. Terry Eagleton, „Law: The Merchant of Venice“, in: T.E., William Shakespeare. London: Blackwell, 1986, pp.35-48
  8.  Jacques Derrida, „What is a ‚relevant Translation?“ Critical Inquiry27 (Winter 2001), p.174-200
  9.  I use the generic masculine as most authors of the collection do, although in English the female form „actress“ has always been in use. Everything said about actors in my text also refers to actresses. An appreciation of the differences between actresses and actors, which is non-feminist but influenced by Lacan, can be found in Alain Badiou, Rhapsodie für das Theater. Kurze philosophische Abhandlung. Wien: Passagen 2015, XLVI S.74-76 und LVIII-LX S. 86-90︎
  10.  Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse, § 25: „Seht euch vor, ihr Philosophen und Freunde der Erkenntnis,(…) Flieht in’s Verborgene! Und habt eure Maske und Feinheit, dass man euch verwechsele! (…) Das Martyrium des Philosophen, seine »Aufopferung für die Wahrheit« zwingt an’s Licht heraus, was vom Agitator und vom Schauspieler in ihm steckte; und gesetzt, dass man ihm nur mit einer artistischen Neugierde bisher zugeschaut hat, so kann in Bezug auf manchen Philosophen der gefährliche Wunsch freilich begreiflich sein, ihn auch einmal in seiner Entartung zu sehn (entartet zum »Märtyrer«, zum Bühnen- und Tribünen-Schreihals).“ ︎
  11.  PTDA, pp. 71-74
  12. cf. Stanislawski. Stern calls this type of philosopher a “Wagnerian entertainer“ PTDA, p.78
  13. cf. Diderot︎
  14. cf. Kleist
  15.  PTDA, p.83

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