Truth in Theatre – Part 3 Acting


So there is no truth to be found in the theatre text. Adorno said that you can’t squeeze a statement out of “Hamlet”. And Bertrand Russell concluded succinctly that all the propositions in “Hamlet” are false because the person Hamlet never existed2. But the actor (or actress) who plays Hamlet does exist.  And he (or she) is supposed to be true.

Truth in theatre is not knowledge that can be experienced or formulated, it is a demand on the performance of actors and actresses. This use of the term “truth” has a long tradition in the theory of acting.

Truth as deception

One of the oldest formulations of this ideal of the art of acting is found in 1749 by the French theatre theorist Sainte-Albine:

“Dramatic poems please us the more they resemble true stories, and the perfection we demand in their performances is actually what is called truth, in the language of the theatre. One understands by this word here the confluence of all probabilities which can serve to deceive the spectators.” 3.

Johann Jakob Engel, for a time director of the Berlin National Theatre, still adopted this view in 1785:

“When words, tone, movement, are in the most perfect agreement with each other, and all in the most perfect agreement with passion, situation and character; only then does the highest possible degree of truth arise, and through this truth the highest possible deception.” 4

Here, then, truth has the function of deceiving. The fact that this contradiction in terms somehow overstretches the concept of truth was soon to be noticed.

Denis Diderot was more cautious in his use of the term:

“Think for a moment about what being true means in the theatre. Does it mean showing things as they are in nature? Not at all. The true, in this case, would be nothing other than the ordinary. But what is the true on stage? It is the conformity of actions, of speech, of appearance, of voice, of movement and gesture to an ideal conceived by the poet and often exaggerated by the actor. This true is the miracle.” 5

Here, then, the true is the miracle – also a use of the concept of truth that needs a lot of explanation.

Truth and beauty

In contrast to his teacher Hegel, for whom the truth of art consists in the concordance of the external and the internal 6, for the theatre critic Heinrich Theodor Rötscher, truth in the performing arts is only one of the two sides that theatre must combine.

“In the art of acting, which is based on the sensualisation of drama, they {the opposites of the general and the individual} appear in the demand to let beauty as well as truth come to their rights in equal measure.”7

For him, beauty stands for ideality, truth for sensually perceptible reality. Without ideality, meaning the dramatic text created by the poet, the actor sinks down to mere “natural truth” 8. Truth alone is not enough. In Rötscher’s idealistic theatre aesthetics, then, truth is no longer the term used to designate the supreme goal of the art of acting.

Truth as belief

It is Stanislavski who gives the concept of truth in theatre a more precise meaning. For him, truth is a quality of the actor’s inner feeling.

“In the theatre it is not important that Othello’s dagger is made of cardboard or metal, but that the inner feeling of the actor himself, which justifies Othello’s murder, is true, sincere and genuine. … We talk about this truth of feeling in the theatre. Here is that scenic truth which is necessary for the actor at the moment of his creation. There is no real art without such truth and belief!” 9.

In Stanislavski’s work, the conceptual pair “truth-deception”, which could be  seen in Sainte-Albine and Engel, becomes the connection “truth-belief”. What the actor’s truth produces is no longer “deception” but “belief”:

“Truth produced belief.” 10.

This “truth” is something the actor or actress produces, not something he or she finds or names.

“Logic and consistency of the actor’s physical actions and sensations lead to truth. 11

Truth for Stanislavski is something internal:

“Truth on stage is what we sincerely believe both in our inner selves and in the souls of our partners.” 12.

This internal state is twofold: it is both a psycho-physical state experienced by the actress or actor and the reflection of this state: one “sincerely believes” in this state. With Stanislavski’s psycho-technique, the actor creates an inner process in order to achieve an effect (belief of the spectator). Because the actor or actress believes in his or her deliberately aroused emotion and feels it as his genuine emotion the audience believes this emotion to be the “truth”.

That the concept of “truth” (Правда) is once again overstretched here only became clear to Stanislawski’s German translators at a later stage. In the GDR, they initially followed Alexandra Meyenburg’s old translation. Ottofritz Gaillard (after 1945 director of the German Theatre Institute in Weimar and later of the acting department of the Theatre Academy in Leipzig) wrote in his handbook for training actors in 1947:

“The truth of the stage as a framework for the truth of sensation and, on the other hand, the truth of sensation as a prerequisite for the truth of the stage, that is the knowledge on which we continue to build.” 13.

His mentor Maxim Vallentin (1927-1932 director of the agitprop group Rotes Sprachrohr, artistic director of the Maxim Gorki Theatre 1952-1968) goes even further: the “stage of truth” unites

“three truths – the truth of feeling, the truth of the stage and the social truth” 14

Here the concept of truth is transferred from the actor (“sensation”) via the content of the theatre productions (“stage”) to politics: the construction of socialism in the GDR is the “social truth” that the theatre serves.

Truth as truthfulness

In West-Germany, people were a little more cautious when dealing with truth. Hans-Günther von Klöden, director of the Hanover Drama School since 1950, felt a slight unease about this Stanislavskian concept of truth:

“So what are we to understand by ‘truth’? […] Perhaps we have made a linguistic slip-up and ‘truthfulness’ is what is meant?” 15

“Truthfulness” (“Wahrhaftigkeit”) is also the term used by the translators of the later GDR edition of Stanisławski’s writings to translate Правда (Pravda).  16 Von Klöden is not satisfied with this way out either:

” … for we are nevertheless thrown back on the concept of truth, since truthfulness is nothing other than the virtue of always telling the truth.”17

Nevertheless, he returns to the concept of “truth”:

“Aristotle only speaks of the truth of propositions or more precisely of  ‘judgements’. But we think that a thing, a process or any other phenomenon can also be true ‘in itself’. And thus ‘truth’ takes on the meaning of ‘reality’, ‘authenticity’. Authenticity of action arises from the ‘centre of gravity’ of the human being. (…) We are not only concerned with playing inwardly, but from the inside out. According to this, art would be above all: the ability to speak the truth clearly.” 18

Here, too, the actor’s truth is something complex: genuine acting out of the person’s centre of gravity and its deliberate clarification.

In English-language textbooks, on the other hand, the Stanislavskian notion of truth seems to persist: “Truth” is the word emblazoned in large letters on the cover of Susan Batson’s acting textbook.

“Stanislavski understood that actors bring characters to life by using the truth of their own experience. The actor’s truth is the truth of honest sensation.” 19.

The German publisher has carefully added a subtitle to the triumphant title: “Wahrhaftigkeit im Schauspiel” (truthfulness in acting).

Truth as an individual relation

In his essay “On the Philosophy of the Actor” (“Zur Philosophie des Schauspielers”), Georg Simmel tries to save the concept of truth in the actor by redefining it. For him, truth is no longer the correspondence between statement and object, nothing universally objective, but a relation between an individual and an object:

“What we call truth about an object is something very diverse, depending on the being for which the truth is to apply (…) Thus for every being there is a truth about every given object that is different because of its individuality.”20

Truth is not a relation between subject and object that would be the same for all intelligent subjects but is different for each “species of being”. “Truth” for Simmel is only the “expression for the appropriate relation between subject and object”. Actors who are “different in their temperaments and talents” also belong to such different “types of being”. Thus, for every type of actor there is a “true” portrayal of a certain role (the example, as always, is Hamlet), but it is not the same for every type of actor and this truth is not always achieved. Thus the concept of truth dissolves and becomes an individual ideal of the relationship between actor and role. How this ideal is to be recognised remains open. The only indication of this ideal is that, if this ideal is not achieved, the viewer’s emotional reaction will be: this realization of this role in this performance  “does not satisfy us” (“befriedigt uns nicht”).

In his collection of texts, Jens Roselt has traced the zigzag path of acting theory between hot and cold actor, between playing from the outside in or from the inside out, in all its details and concludes:

“The dispute about the ‘genuineness’ of feelings cannot be settled in theory.” 21

Intermediate result 3

Truth as a term to denote the goal of acting, of the embodiment of a role, has a tradition that goes back a long way. However, on closer analysis of this use of the term, it dissolves and proves to be unsuitable.

  1. Please forgive me that I use of the generic masculine. The reason for this lies in the texts of acting theory reproduced here. Even in the 21st century, the masculine “the actor” is often used in them when speaking of acting in general. Where it is stylistically bearable, I have tried to make it clear that the statements also refer to actresses as well.
  2. “The propositions in the play are false because there was no such man.” Bertrand Russell, An Enquiry into Meaning and Truth, London: Allen and Unwin, 1962, p. 277
  3. Engl. transl. G.P. „Dramatische Erdichtungen gefallen uns desto mehr, je ähnlicher sie wahrhaften Geschichten sind, und die Vollkommenheit, die wir in ihren Vorstellungen verlangen, ist eigentlich das was man in der Sprache des Theaters, Wahrheit nennet. Man versteht durch dieses Wort hier den Zusammenfluss aller Wahrscheinlichkeiten, welche dienen können, die Zuschauer zu täuschen.“ Rémond de Sainte-Albine, der Schauspieler. Übers. v. Friedrich Justin Bertuch. Altenburg 1772, p.49, original: “Les fictions Dramatiques nous plaisant d’autant plus, qu’elles sont plus semblables à des aventures réelles, la perfection que nous desirons le plus dans la Représentation est ce qu’au Théatre on nomme Vérité. On y entend par ce mot le concours des apparences, qui peuvent servir à tromper des Spectateurs.” Le comédien : ouvrage divisé en deux parties / par M. Remond de Sainte-Albine. Nouvelle édition augmentée & corrigée. Paris: Desaint & Saillant, 1749. p.107. Bertuch translates “apparences” as “probabilities (Wahrscheinlichkeiten)” while actually “appearances” is meant
  4. Engl. transl. G.P. „Wenn Worte, Ton, Bewegung, auf das vollkommenste unter einander, und alle auf vollkommenste mit Leidenschaft, Situation und Charakter übereinstimmen; dann erst entsteht der höchste mögliche Grad der Wahrheit, und durch diese Wahrheit die höchste mögliche Täuschung.“ zit. in: Jens Roselt (Hg.), Schauspieltheorien. Seelen mit Methode. Schauspieltheorien vom Barock – bis zum  postdramatischen Theater. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2005, S.154
  5. „Denken Sie einen Augenblick darüber nach, was auf dem Theater Wahrsein bedeutet. Heisst das, die Dinge so zu zeigen, wie sie in der Natur sind? Keineswegs. Das Wahre in diesem Fall, wäre nichts anderes als das Gewöhnliche. Aber was ist denn das Wahre auf der Bühne? Es ist die Übereinstimmung der Handlungen, des Sprechens, der Erscheinung, der Stimme, der Bewegung und der Geste mit einer von dem Dichter ersonnenen Idealvorstellung, die vom Schauspieler oft noch übersteigert wird. Das ist das Wunder.“ Engl. transl. Ftom German G.P., Denis Diderot, Paradox über den Schauspieler. transl. u. eingeführt von Felix Rellstab. Wädenswil: Verlag Stutz & Co, 1981, p.22. Original: “Réfléchissez un moment sur ce qu’on appelle au théâtre être vrai. Est-ce y montrer les choses comme elles sont en nature? Aucunement. Le vrai en ce sens ne serait que le commun. Qu’est-ce donc que le vrai de la scène? C’est la conformité des actions, des discours, de la figure, de la voix, du mouvement, du geste, avec un modèle idéal imaginé par le poet, et souvent exagéré par le comédien. Voilà le merveilleux.” Denis Diderot, Paradoxe sur le comédien. Ouvrage posthume. Paris: Sautele, 1830. p. 21.
  6. G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik I. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1970 (= Theorie Werkausgabe Bd. 13), S.205
  7. Engl. transl. G.P. „In der Schauspielkunst, welche auf die Versinnlichung des Dramas ausgeht, treten sie {die Gegensätze des Allgemeinen und des Individuellen} zunächst in der Forderung auf, die Schönheit wie die Wahrheit gleichmäßig zu ihrem Rechte kommen zu lassen.“ Heinrich Theodor Rötscher, Die Kunst der dramatischen Darstellung in ihrem organischen Zusammenhang wissenschaftlich entwickelt. (First volume) Leipzig: Otto Wiegand, 2nd edition 1864, p.19
  8. “Naturwahrheit”, ibid. p.21
  9. Engl. transl. from German G.P. „Im Theater ist nicht wichtig, dass der Dolch des Othello aus Karton oder Metall ist, sondern, dass das innere Gefühl des Schauspielers selbst, das den Mord des Othello rechtfertigt, wahr, aufrichtig und echt ist. … Über diese Wahrheit des Gefühls sprechen wir im Theater. Hier ist jene szenische Wahrheit, die für den Schauspieler im Augenblick seines Schaffens nötig ist. Es gibt  keine echte Kunst ohne solche Wahrheit und Glaube!“ Konstantin Sergejewitsch Stanislawskij, Das Geheimnis des schauspielerischen Erfolges.  übers. v. Alexandra Meyenburg. Zürich: Scientia AG, o.J (1940?). {zuerst Moskau 1938}. S.185
  10. „Die Wahrheit erzeugte den Glauben.“ ibid. p.225
  11. Engl. transl. from German G.P „Logik und Folgerichtigkeit der physischen Handlungen und Empfindungen“ des Schauspielers führt zur Wahrheit. ibid. p. 225
  12. „Die Wahrheit auf der Bühne ist das, woran wir aufrichtig sowohl in unserem Innern glauben, als auch in den Seelen unserer Partner.“ Ibid. p. 185
  13. „Die Wahrheit der Bühne als Rahmen für die Wahrheit der Empfindung und andererseits die Wahrheit der Empfindung als Voraussetzung für die Wahrheit der Bühne, das ist die Erkenntnis, auf der wir weiterbauen.“ Ottofritz Gaillard, Das deutsche Stanislawski-Buch. Lehrbuch der Schauspielkunst nach dem Stanislawski-System. Berlin: Aufbau-Verlag, 1947, S.191
  14. Die Bühne der Wahrheit“ vereine „die drei Wahrheiten – die Wahrheit der Empfindung, die Wahrheit der Bühne und die gesellschaftliche Wahrheit“ ibid. Geleitwort S.11.
  15. „Was also sollen wir unter ‚Wahrheit‘ verstehen? (…) Vielleicht ist uns eine sprachliche Schlamperei unterlaufen, und es ist ‚Wahrhaftigkeit‘ gemeint?“ Hans Günther von Klöden, Grundlagen der Schauspielkunst II: Improvisation und Rollenstudium. Velber bei Hannover: Friedrich Verlag, 1967 (Reihe Theater heute 24) p.19
  16. Stanisławski. Die Arbeit des Schauspielers an sich selbst. Tagebuch eines Schülers. Teil 1 Die Arbeit an sich selbst im schöpferischen Prozess des Erlebens. übers. v. Ingrid Tintzmann. Westberlin: das europäische Buch, 1981, z.B. S. 148ff, 181
  17. „ … denn wir werden doch wieder auf den Begriff der Wahrheit zurückgeworfen, da ja Wahrhaftigkeit nichts anderes ist als die Tugend, stets die Wahrheit zu sagen.“ A similar, but not entirely synonymous definition is found in Otto Friedrich Bollnow: “While truth (according to the traditional, but for the present context entirely sufficient definition) means the (objective) agreement of a statement with its object, truthfulness means its (subjective) agreement with the opinion of the speaker. (…) But truthfulness (or untruthfulness) turns inwards, i.e. it lives in man’s relation to himself. (…) Truthfulness, therefore, goes to the behaviour of the human being towards himself. It means the inner transparency and the free standing up for oneself.” Übers. G.P., „Während die Wahrheit (nach der überkommenen, aber für den gegenwärtigen Zusammenhang völlig ausreichenden Bestimmung) die (objektive) Übereinstimmung einer Aussage mit ihrem Gegenstand bedeutet, meint die Wahrhaftigkeit ihr (subjektive) Übereinstimmung mit der Meinung des Sprechers. (…) Die Wahrhaftigkeit aber (oder Unwahrhaftigkeit) wendet sich nach innen, d.h. sie lebt in der Beziehung des Menschen zu sich selbst. (…) Die Wahrhaftigkeit geht also auf das Verhalten des Menschen zu sich selbst. Sie bedeutet die innere Durchsichtigkeit und das freie Einstehen für sich selbst.“ Otto Friedrich Bollnow, Wesen und Wandel der Tugenden. Frankfurt/M: Ullstein, 1958, S.138f
  18. “Bei Aristoteles ist nur von der Wahrheit einer Aussage, genauer eines ‚Urteils‘ die Rede. Wir aber meinen, daß auch eine Sache, ein Vorgang oder sonst irgendein Phänomen „in sich“ wahr sein kann. Und damit bekommt die ‚Wahrheit‘ die Bedeutung von ‚Wirklichkeit‘, ‚Echtheit‘. Echtheit des Handelns erwächst aus dem ‚Schwerpunkt‘ des Menschen. (…) Es geht uns nicht nur darum, innerlich, sondern von innen nach außen zu spielen. Kunst wäre hiernach vor allem: die Fähigkeit, die Wahrheit deutlich zu sagen.” v. Klöden, op. cit., p. 20f.
  19. Susan Batson, Truth: Personas, Needs, and Flaws in the Art of Building Actors and Creating Characters. Webster/Stone, 2006 (German: Truth. Wahrhaftigkeit im Schauspiel. Ein Lehrbuch. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2014)
  20. Georg Simmel, “Zur Philosophie des Schauspielers”, in: G.S., Das individuelle Gesetz. Philosophische Exkurse, ed. by Michael Landmann. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1987, p. 85f. The essay was first published posthumously from the estate in: Internationale Zeitung für die Philosophie der Kultur, vol. 9 (1920-1921), pp.339-362. It is not identical with the essay of the same title in: Der Morgen 2.Jg., No.51/52, 18 December 1908, pp.1685-1689
  21. „Der Streit um die ‚Echtheit‘ von Gefühlen kann in der Theorie nicht beigelegt werden.“ Jens Roselt (ed.), Schauspieltheorien. Seelen mit Methode. Schauspieltheorien vom Barock – bis zum  postdramatischen Theater. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2005, introduction p.47

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