Truth in Theatre – Part 2 Drama

Neither Hegel nor Heidegger nor Adorno apply the concept of truth to theatre. They are concerned with art in general, and in Hegel’s case with drama in particular. The side of theatre that is not identical with the word, the visualisation of text in a theatre performance or the non-linguistic side of theatre, are not essential for its truth content. The work of art is the work of words.

Theatre text and theatre performance

Hegel completely devalues the non-linguistic side of theatre 1 and if a theatre performance succeeds, it is only because the theatre poet has created the right conditions for it in the text.2.
For Heidegger, even all art is ultimately poetry.3 As for Hegel, language has a superior role in art4. If Heidegger mentions theatre once in passing, then in a pejorative sense as a machine of experience, as a medium of showmanship5.
Adorno, on the other hand, describes himself as “half a theatre child.”6. But by “theatre” he always means either drama or opera. His “Notes on Literature” contain the influential essays on dramas by Goethe, Beckett, Brecht, Horvath, etc. In the lovingly ironic essay “Natural History of the Theatre”, which is more a collection of aperçus about the audience and the various premises of a theatre building, it is also only about the opera audience and opera houses.7 He thinks nothing of opera directors who try to save operas “through the mise en scene” or try to “modernise it somehow” 8. Thus, one can expect little enlightenment from Adorno on the relationship of theatre (not drama and not opera) to truth.

One of the few theatre practitioners who dealt with the concept of truth was the director Adolf Dresen 9. He emphasises that the truth of art is a new truth, thus, similar to Heidegger, Adorno and Badiou, he sees truth as something developing, emerging, not as something fixed that art must achieve10. For him, the truth of art is always a “new truth”, and – entirely in the Heideggerian idiom – a truth that reveals itself11. But he too only explains his understanding of the truth of “art” in general, not of the particular role of truth in theatre.

The truth of the theatre text

If one now tentatively agrees to understand truth on the theatre only as the truth of drama, i.e. the theatre text, – what can be said about it using the example of Jon Fosse’s drama “Dream in Autumn” addressed by Ivan Nagel?12

Let’s take the first sentence of Jon Fosse’s text:

“MAN: No is it you”13

No criterion of truth can be applied to this sentence: it is the beginning of a dialogue (between a man and a woman), it is spoken in a specific situation (reunion at the cemetery), it is fictional (part of a text that constructs its own reality), it is an interrogative sentence. Let’s try another sentence:

“MOTHER: Nothing stays / everything moves / like clouds / A life is a cloudy sky /before it gets dark.”14

This looks like a propositional sentence, but how are we to judge that it is true? It contains a metaphor and judges something as general as “a life”. Metaphors cannot be true. Nor is the truth of a theatre text to be sought at this level. There are only a few such life-like sentences in Fosse’s work. He also immediately devalues them with sentences like:

“MAN: We’re just talking /Actually all nonsense /What we say /Just talk/ Yes”15.

Fosse himself also sees the truth of his texts not in the individual sentences but, quite Hegelian, in the whole:

“Didn’t someone say here: Truth is always concrete? … I am concerned with the whole of a text, and the world in the text speaks of the whole and is therefore present in every part, in every detail of the text.”16

The truth of a drama, or its participation in truth, cannot therefore lie in individual propositions, but only in the drama as a whole. The drama as a whole speaks a non-discursive language (although it also consists of many discursive sentences). So what this truth is that the drama expresses or conveys cannot be discursively formulated. But nevertheless it is supposed to exist, this trans-subjective something, the truth of the work of art. For Adorno, then, critique would have to work out this truth, although it cannot be squeezed out of the drama as a statement (see Adorno’s remark about “Hamlet”17).

The example of “Dream in Autumn”

So what would be true about “Dream in Autumn”? The experience of time, for example, how past and present mix in consciousness. In Fosse’s play, the time levels mix imperceptibly, forwards and backwards. Of course, in real life we can distinguish past and present, but in our consciousness current perceptions, memories and plans for the future do mix. Only these expanded temporal dimensions give meaning and significance to our perceptions in the here and now. Would that be the truth of this play? If so, – it has been worked out, it is the result of the reflections of an individual recipient. It is trans-subjective at most as an imposition on others to agree with this truth (cf. Kant’s judgement of taste) 18. Of course, “Dream in Autumn” has a part in the “untruthfulness of the age”: the characters are not happy, their communication is unconsciously instrumental, the image of women that the three female characters portray is pitiful, even if at the end they march into the future as a surviving, seemingly reconciled trio.

What is crucial, however, is that what is called “truth” in Heideggersch-Adornitic diction emerges from a communicative act between artwork and recipient. Viewed soberly, this “truth” is different in every head – and thus loses the justification of a supra-individual validity. If everyone has their own truth, there is no point in ascribing truth to these different thoughts of different individuals. That these many thoughts are stimulated by a single object, the work of art, or in theatre by a common experience, is the essence of art. Art is communication, not truth, that is the insight of hermeneutics19. Gadamer does take up the question of the truth of art, but then resolves it in the back and forth of the playful conversation between the work of art and the art recipient. The claim of “lifting {so-called} reality to its truth” through art 20 becomes in the end only the “truth of play” 21. This overstretches the concept of truth beyond its possible meanings.

If there were one or more “truths” in “Dream in Autumn”, they must surely have been noticed by someone. In the reviews of the world premiere at the Schaubühne Berlin and in those of the production of the Münchner Kammerspiele invited to the Theatertreffen, the word “truth” is not to be found, not even the adjective “true”. The judgements of the play, the theatre text as distinguished from its performance, are cautiously positive in the premiere, but negative in the Munich production. The relationship between the evaluation of the theatre text and the production is reversed. Günther Grack in the Tagesspiegel only notes at the premiere that Fosse’s play abstains from “any message pointing beyond it” 22. Eva Corino criticises “flight into false simplicity” 23, Barbara Villiger-Heilig complains on the occasion of the Munich performance that the text “cannot hide its weak points where it becomes philosophical” 24. Marietta Piekenbrock immediately hands out “the sour pickle for the weakest play of the season” 25. The production of the world premiere is benevolently depreciated (“schade” Dirk Pilz 26, “remarkably successful in extracting a maximum of atmospheric appeal and psychological tension from the diffuse web”, Günther Grack27), the Munich production unambiguously praised: “wonderful” (Dirk Pilz), “wonderful” (Rüdiger Schaper28), “great” (Simone Meier 29).
If you look for truth-apt sentences in these reviews that go beyond the description of what happens on stage and the reproduction of the audience’s feelings, the most you will find are sentences like the one by Dirk Pilz:

“To live is to prepare for death, to love is to practice saying goodbye.” 30

Or Christopher Schmidt’s:

“Two things, death and love, take you off your feet.” 31

However, as in many theatre reviews, these sentences deliberately remain in limbo between the reproduction of views attributed to the theatre text or production and general statements by the critic. They are part of the game. Such statements do not claim general validity, they are subjective attempts to mediate between the theatre text or the experienced performance and the spectator, are tentative generalisations that are aware of their unalterable subjectivity. 32.

Interim result 2

The application of the concept of “truth” to a theatre text is thus only possible if truth is something absolute, the idea, the whole, being or the like. Truth as propositional truth is not applicable to texts of theatre literature. Empirically, the use of the term “truth” as an evaluative concept of art reception seems to have died out sometime in the 1970s. Only the philosophical fossil Alain Badiou still uses it.

 

Part 3 (The Actor’s Truth) and Part 4 (Truth and Representation) will (hopefully) follow soon.

  1. see my contribution “Hegel and the Theatre” https://theatermarginalien.com/en/2019/08/17/hegel-and-the-theatre/
  2. see my contribution “With Hegel in the Theatre” https://theatermarginalien.com/en/2021/05/10/with-hegel-in-the-theatre/
  3. “All art, as letting happen the arrival of the truth of being as such, is in essence poetry.” „Alle Kunst ist als Geschehenlassen der Ankunft der Wahrheit des Seienden als eines solchen im Wesen Dichtung.“ Martin Heidegger, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks. Mit der „Einführung“ von Hans-Georg Gadamer und der ersten Fassung des Textes (1935) Frankfurt/M: Klostermann, 2012, p.59
  4. “Nevertheless, the linguistic work, poetry in the narrower sense, has a distinguished position in the whole of the arts.” “Gleichwohl hat das Sprachwerk, die Dichtung im engeren Sinne eine ausgezeichnete Stellung im Ganzen der Künste.“ Heidegger, Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks, op. cit. p.61
  5. “Everything to be represented should only act as foreground and surface, aiming at the impression, the effect, the wish to impress and stir up: ‘theatre’.” „Alles Darzustellende soll nur wirken als Vordergrund und Vorderfläche, abzielend auf den Eindruck, den Effekt, das Wirken- und Aufwühlenwollen: ‚Theater‘.“ Martin Heidegger, „Nietzsche I“ in: Gesamtausgabe Bd. 6,1. Frankfurt/M: Klostermann, 1996, S.85. Quoted by Marten Weise, „Heideggers Schweigen vom Theater“, in: Leon Gabriel, Nikolaus Müller-Schöll (Hg.) Das Denken der Bühne. Szenen zwischen Theater und Philosophie. Bielfeld: Transkript, 2019. Weise fictionalises a vision of theatre  that Heidegger should have written but did not
  6. “After all, I consider myself half a theatre child.” “Ich betrachte mich ja selber als ein halbes Theaterkind.“ Theodor W. Adorno, „Theater, Oper, Bürgertum“ in: Egon Vietta (Hg.), Theater. Darmstädter Gespräch 1955. Darmstadt: Neue Darmstädter Verlagsanstalt, 1955, p.139
  7. Adorno, Musikalische Schriften I-III. Gesammelte Werke Vol. 16, pp.309-320. The individual texts first appeared in the “Blättern des Hessischen Landestheaters, Darmstadt” 1931-33.
  8. Adorno, Darmstädter Gespräch 1955, op. cit. p.139
  9. Adolf Dresen (1935-2001) was a theatre director first in the GDR at the Deutsche Theater, then at the Burgtheater in Vienna, in Frankfurt am Main and later an opera director at various European theatres
  10. “The truth of art is {…} the new truth, it depends on the real discovery of truth. When truth is discovered, it is in contradiction with the previous image of the world, with the previous truth, the old truth. The truth of art takes truth seriously as a historical category.” „Die Wahrheit der Kunst ist {…} die neue Wahrheit, es kommt ihr an auf die wirkliche Entdeckung der Wahrheit. Wenn die Wahrheit entdeckt wird, ist sie im Widerspruch mit dem bisherigen Bild der Welt, mit der bisherigen Wahrheit, der alten Wahrheit. Die Wahrheit der Kunst macht Ernst mit der Wahrheit als einer historischen Kategorie.“ Adolf Dresen, „Wahrheitsagen“, in: Siegfrieds Vergessen. Kultur zwischen Konsens und Konflikt. Berlin: Christoph Links Verlag, 1992 {auch in Sinn und Form 1992}, p.212
  11. “It is this crust of self-evidence that art breaks through. {…} Truth is a performance. It is the reality behind reality, the other reality not of the existing, the recognised, the established, but of the astonishing, the astounding, even the miraculous. {…} The truth of art is the new truth, but it is also the new truth. It is neither a flat imitation nor pure aestheticism, but cognition. It is neither the existing truth nor the ignored truth, but the truth that has been unknown until now, the truth that is revealing itself.” „Es ist diese Kruste der Selbstverständlichkeit, die die Kunst durchbricht. {…} Die Wahrheit ist eine Leistung. Sie ist die Wirklichkeit hinter der Wirklichkeit, die andere Wirklichkeit nicht des Bestehenden, Anerkannten, Festgestellten, sondern des Erstaunlichen, Verblüffenden, ja des Wunderbaren. {…} Die Wahrheit der Kunst ist die neue Wahrheit, aber sie ist eben auch die neue Wahrheit. Sie ist weder der platte Abklatsch noch der pure Ästhetizismus, sondern Erkennen. Sie ist weder die bestehende noch die ignorierte, sondern die bis eben unbekannte, die sich offenbarende Wahrheit.“ Adolf Dresen op. cit., p.222f.
  12. An excellent, methodologically very conscious and detailed work on Jon Fosse’s “Dream in Autumn” is the thesis by Marion Titsch, Das Ungesagte im Gesagten. Dramaturgische Untersuchungen zu Jon Fosses Theatertexten Draum om hausten und Svevn sowie deren Inszenierungen von Luk Perceval und Michael Thalheimer. Diplomarbeit Universität Wien 2009. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/11585761.pdf
  13. „MANN: Nein bist du das“ Jon Fosse, Traum im Herbst und andere Stücke. Reinbek: Rowohlt, 2001 p. 91
  14. “MUTTER: Nichts bleibt / alles zieht / wie Wolken / Ein Leben ist ein Wolkenhimmel /bevor es dunkel wird“ p.135
  15. „MANN: Wir reden ja nur / Eigentlich alles Unsinn /was wir sagen /Nur Gerede/ Ja“ p.115
  16. „Sagte nicht jemand hier: Die Wahrheit ist immer konkret? … Es geht mir um das Ganze eines Textes, und die Welt im Text spricht vom Ganzen und ist daher in jedem Teil, in jedem Detail des Textes präsent.“ Programme booklet for “Traum im Herbst” Münchner Kammerspiele. Premiere 29 November 2001. The someone Fosse is referring to is probably Hegel, although the quote was subsequently attributed to Lenin and Brecht. “The true, the spirit, is concrete {…} Only the concrete is the real, which bears the differences.” „Das Wahre, der Geist, ist konkret {…} Nur das Konkrete ist das Wirkliche, welches die Unterschiede trägt.“ Hegel, WA vol. 18 Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie , p.45 u. 53
  17. “Keine Aussage wäre aus *Hamlet* herauszupressen; dessen Wahrheitsgehalt ist darum nicht geringer.“ Ästhetische Theorie, p. 193
  18. That was roughly the meaning of my awkward answer to Ivan Nagel, that I consider truth to be something objective, whereas the critical appraisal of a play depends on the justification of a subjective judgement
  19. “For the dialectic of question and answer which we have exhibited makes the relation of understanding appear as an interrelation of the kind of a conversation. It is true that the text does not speak to us in the same way as a you. We, the understanders, must first make it talk to us. But it has been shown that such an understanding making it speak is not an arbitrary use of its own origin, but is itself related as a question to the answer expected in the text. {…} This is the truth of effect-historical consciousness.” „Denn die Dialektik von Frage und Antwort, die wir aufwiesen, lässt das Verhältnis des Verstehens als ein Wechselverhältnis von der Art eines Gesprächs erscheinen. Zwar redet der Text nicht so zu uns wie ein Du. Wir, die Verstehenden, müssen ihn von uns aus erst zum Reden bringen. Aber es hatte sich gezeigt, dass solche verstehendes Zum-Reden-Bringen kein beliebiger Einsatz aus eigenem Ursprung ist, sondern selber wieder als Frage auf die im Text gewärtigte Antwort bezogen ist. {…} Das ist die Wahrheit des wirkungsgeschichtlichen Bewusstseins.“ Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode. Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1960,, p.359
  20. “Aufhebung der {sogenannten} Wirklichkeit zu ihrer Wahrheit“ Gadamer op. cit., p. 108
  21. Gadamer op. cit., p. 465
  22. „jeder über es hinausweisenden Botschaft“ https://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/traum-im-herbst-liebe-auf-dem-totenacker/264256.html
  23. „Flucht in die falsche Einfachheit“ in: “Fjord Idyll. Das Phänomen Jon Fosse” Berliner Zeitung 18.12.2001
  24. „da wo er philosophisch wird, seine Schwachstellen nicht verbergen“ in: “Leben vor dem Tod. München mit Traum im Herbst” Neue Zürcher Zeitung 1.12.2001
  25. “die saure Gurke für die schwächste Spielvorlage der Saison“ Marietta Piekenbrock, “Heilige Hedda! In München eilt Luk Perceval durch den ‘Traum im Herbst'” Frankfurter Rundschau 1.12.2001
  26. “Verfall, Verlust und Niedergang. Elegisch: Wulf Twiehaus versetzt an der Schaubühne mit Jan Fosse’s Trauerspiel ‘Traum im Herbst’ sein Publikum in einen anhaltenden Zitterzustand”, die tageszeitung 1. 2.2001 https://taz.de/Verfall-Verlust-und-Niedergang/!1145941/
  27. „bemerkenswert gelungen, aus dem diffusen Gespinst ein Maximum an atmosphärischen  ein Maximum an atmosphärischen Reizen und psychologischen Spannungen herauszuholen“ Der Tagesspiegel 17.10.2201
  28. “Das Wunder einer Stunde. Luk Perceval illuminiert Jon Fosses ‘Traum im Herbst’ an den  Münchner Kammerspielen” Der Tagesspiegel 1.12.2001 cf. Wolfgang Behrend’s wonderful Nachtkritik column “Wunderbar wegkürzen!” https://nachtkritik.de/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19662:kolumne-als-ich-noch-ein-kritiker-war-wolfgang-behrens-ueberlegt-welche-formulierungen-er-fuer-die-theaterkritik-auf-den-index-setzen-wuerde&catid=1503&Itemid=100389
  29. “Mehr November war selten auf einer Bühne. Trauerarbeit in den Münchner Kammerspielen: ‘Traum im Herbst’ von Jon Fosse, inszeniert von Luk Perceval”, Tages-Anzeiger 1.12.2002
  30. „Leben heißt Vorbereitung auf den Tod, Lieben Einübung in den Abschied.“die Tageszeitung 1.2.2001
  31. „Zwei Dinge, Tod und Liebe, holen einen von den Beinen.“ Christopher Schmidt, “Ist ein Cutter, der heißt Tod. Lachender Moribund: luk Perceval inszeniert Jon Fosses ‘Traum im Herbst’ an den  Münchner Kammerspielen”, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 1.12.2001
  32. After twenty years, it is touching to read  these sentences about death by the two great theatre critics Dirk Pilz ✝︎2018 and Christopher Schmidt ✝︎2017 who died so too soon, one vacillates between shuddering and indignation at death or at life.

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