Hegel and the Theatre

The editors of the special issue “Drama, Theatre, and Philosophy” of the journal Anglia1 call Hegel’s aesthetics a suitable starting point for their collection of essays. To this they quote Hegel’s formula of drama as the “the highest stage of poetry and of art generally” 2. This formula is occasionally distorted and related to the theatre instead of drama 3. The editors of the special issue of Anglia, of course, quote correctly, and add Hegel’s suggestion that drama, “therefore demands a complete scenic production in order to give real life to the whole work of art.” 4.
However, they do not mention that Hegel demands the subordination of all elements of the scenic performance to the spoken word. Thus he writes about the art of acting:

“In principle, it consists in calling on the aid of gestures, action, declamation, music, dancing, and scenery, but in giving overwhelming preponderance to speech and its poetic expression. ” 5

Of „the art of the theatre more independently of poetry” 6 he has no good opinion. Either the actor makes himself independent of the poet, but only the “insignificant and in fact downright bad productions” 7 of German playwrights give him opportunity for that, or it is opera, „whose visible magnificence (always a sign, it is true, of the already growing decadence of genuine art) there corresponds, as the most appropriate subject-matter, what is utterly devoid of any intel­ligible connection“,8 or it is ballet, where „we threaten to see more and more disappearing from modern ballet what alone could lift it into the free realm of art. 9.
If one wanted to take Hegel as a starting point for a discussion of the relationship between philosophy and the theatre, one would also have to accept Hegel’s definition of the purpose of art:

“All art aims at the identity, produced by the spirit, in which eternal things, God, and absolute truth are revealed in real appearance and shape to our contemplation, to our hearts and minds.”10.

Theatre as a form of art is the revelation of truth to our hearts and minds for our contemplation, – that would be a Hegelian definition of the theatre.

  1. David Kornhaber / Martin Middeke, “Drama, Theatre, and Philosophy: An Introduction”. in: Anglia. Journal of English Philology. Journal of English Philology. Special Issue Drama, Theatre, and Philosophy. Vol.136 (2018), 1, pp.1-10
  2. G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics. Lectures on Fine Art. Volume II. Translated by T.M. Knox. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975, p. 1158; all quotations from Hegel refer to this edition. available on the internet
  3. Acting school Athanor (Passau): “The theatre {sic!}, because it forms its contents as well as its form to the most perfect totality, must be regarded as the highest level of poetry and art in general.“ https://www.athanor.de. (transl. G.P.)
  4. p. 1158
  5. p. 1185f
  6. p. 1190
  7. p. 1190
  8. p. 1191
  9. p. 1192
  10. p. 1236

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