Truth in Theatre – Part 4 Representation and Identity

The concept of truth has almost disappeared from the discussion in theory of theatre during the last 30 years. In the relevant German handbook “Lexikon der Theatertheorie”, the lemma “truth” is missing1. Florian Malzacher still mentions “truth” in the list of terms used carelessly in the theatre bubble, such as “reality” or “politics” 2, but without evidence. The term seems fundamentally suspect to the prevailing relativism.

Jakob Hayner’s love of truth

Jakob Hayner makes an exception with his essay “Warum Theater. Krise und Erneuerung” 3. He is well aware of his isolated position:

“What is still considered ridiculous today, however, is above all if you expect and demand  a relationship to truth from art.” 4

But he holds fast to the emphatic concept of truth in the tradition of Hegel and Adorno. For him, as for Hegel, art has the function of making truth appear. But this truth is one about society:

“Without being able to give a definition of art that is fixed for every time, there is nevertheless a concept of it that is fed by its inner movement. In this movement, art reacts to society and articulates a truth about it from its own standards.” 5

For him, the very concept of truth is what connects politics and art:

“In the expression of truth about the untruth of society, the otherwise separate spheres of art and politics touch.” 6

“Truth” here, then, is a term for a utopian, undefined state of society to which both art and politics are supposed to be committed. Truth is for him an ethical-political postulate. That this postulate cannot be justified without speculative metaphysics is obvious. Hayner does not shy away from the outmoded reference to religion or communism.

“The questions of metaphysics are not settled, merely forgotten. Not to evade the problems once articulated in religion, but to seek to solve them oneself, is to be truly modern in a world without gods.” 7

The problems articulated in religion are, after all, theodicy, the justification of evil in the world, and the path to eschatological redemption from evil. Modern art, according to Hayner, should therefore be dedicated to these problems. On the other hand, in a grand sweep, he manages to tie together Foucault, Hegel, Rötscher and Marx for a determination of the goal of art:

“Art points the way to one’s own desire. This desire, in which truth and beauty meet, could be called political and utopian at the same time, in other words, communist.”8

The idea of communism is for Hayner (following a formulation of Walther Benjamin) “the idea of redemption as a secular event.” 9 For him, the fictionality of  theatre, the mere “appearance” of  reality, brought about by a few plywood boards as a stage set, by the actors’ doubling of themselves into real bodies and signified figures and the imagination of the spectators, by the assertion of another reality on stage, – the whole as-if is not an obstacle to the appearance of truth, but the condition for it:

“In theatre, the as-if is the condition of its capacity for truth. Through it, the subject can enter into relationship with an otherness already present in it, realise its own knowledge and desire.” 10

For Hayner, however, truth is not a question of content or material, but one of form. As supporting evidence for his view he relies on Bertolt Brecht:

“A return to Brecht would be the resumption of the attempt to articulate social criticism through  artistic form . {…} By translating political impulses into aesthetic innovations within theatrical form, he renewed the capacity for truth of appearance.” 11

Hayner  believes mimetic theatre, in which role, text and action serve to represent reality artistically, can  criticise social reality through the distance of artistic form, and he wants to defend it against  the attacks of the advocates of a “performative turn” of theatre studies.

“It is with some surprise that one can note how eagerly work is being done on the re-enchantment of theatre in the gesture of performative renewal, in order to rule out theatre as a place of truth.” 12

But in doing so, he is striving for a Hegelian, neo-metaphysical concept of the truth of art, which can only be filled speculatively, quasi-religiously. In contemporary theatre, he finds this claim only in René Pollesch and Fabian Hinrichs, in their Friedrichstraßen-Palast project: „Glauben an die Möglichkeit der völligen Erneuerung der Welt“ (“Believing in the Possibility of the Complete Renewal of the World”, Berlin 2019), but apparently also only in its title and in its conclusion, when Hinrichs floated off into the artificial starry sky13.

The crisis of representation

So why has truth disappeared from theatre-theoretical discourse? Because the Hegelian construction of the true as the whole of the unfolded world has evaporated and even for the Marxist heirs of Hegel, truth was too nebulous a concept for the goal of art.
There was no crisis of truth, it disappeared silently.

But there was a noisy crisis of representation. Actually, the concepts of truth and representation belong to different domains (at least in the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas): Truth to propositional logic, representation to sign theory. The statements of art are not true, but they represent something, they have a meaning. And this meaning is not something arbitrary, as in everyday language or in the forests of signs in the consumer world that surrounds us. Art should mean something essential in some way. This became questionable around 1900. The more one understands the connection between sign and signification, the more crumbling becomes the bridge between signifiant and signifié, first in literature (Mallarmé’s poetry, Hofmannsthal’s Chandos letter, Lukacs’ theory of the novel14. The terms representation, likeness, illusion, fiction and mimesis are often used indiscriminately). Theatre, initially as literary theatre, participates in this crisis of representation. Since Alfred Jarry and Antonin Artaud at the latest, however, theatre has freed itself from literature. But representation remains.

“Freed from the text and from the god-creator, staging would thus be given back its creative and instaurative freedom. Director and participants (who henceforth would no longer be actors or spectators) would no longer be tools and organs of representation. Does this mean that Artaud would have refused to give the theatre of cruelty the name of representation? No, provided one understood the difficult and ambiguous meaning of this term {…}. End of representation, yet original representation, end of interpretation, yet original interpretation, which no imperious language, no project of domination have occupied and flattened from the outset. Visible representation admittedly, in opposition to the language that is stolen from the gaze, {…} whose visibility, however, is not a spectacle organised by the lord’s language. Representation as self-presentation of the visible and even of the purely sensual.”15

This critique of representation mediated by Derrida was certainly very influential for the development of post-dramatic, re-theatricalised theatre. But in the verbiage of the propagandists of post-dramatic theatre, the crisis of representation became the abolition of representation, instead of asking, with Derrida-Artaud, for the “original representation” of theatre.

From the spatio-temporal identity of aesthetic act and act of reception16 it is hastily concluded that theatre should therefore “create its own, genuine situation in the copresence of the audience.” 17 “Real” here means: without representation of another reality. This is a way out of the “representation trap” 18.

If what takes place on stage is not a representation, neither that of a literary text nor any other representation of something material or ideal outside the stage, then the stage is lying when it claims to be a place other than the empty space of a theatre or when the actor claims to be perceived as someone he is not.

The concept of truth, if one starts from the classical Aristotelian version, is a two-digit relation: A (the idea) agrees with B (the thing). What this relation consists of, what distinguishes A from B, is the real epistemological question. A equals A, that would be identity. Identity is the term for equality with oneself. But the relation of actor and character is not such a relation, neither truth nor identity.

If one wants to treat acting like a propositional sentence, acting representation is something like a meaningful informative identity statement: A equals A’, actress A (Sandra Hüller) is character A’ (Hamlet), the object (actress) is identified by the spectator in two different ways, the sense is different, but the meaning is the same, as with Venus as morning and evening star in Frege 19.

But if we cannot perceive the stage in two different ways, as reality and also as appearance, if we do not adopt the spectatorial attitude that Samuel Coleridge classically characterised as the “willing suspension of disbelief”20, then all that remains is a trivial identity statement: A equals A, it makes sense but has no informative content. That Sandra Hüller is Sandra Hüller is true, but it is nothing new.21.

Either one accepts representation, then A can be equal to A’, or not, then “A is equal to A’ ” is a deception or even a fraud. And deception is evil, then we want truth.22 The complicated emotional mechanics of real and shown feelings of the actors are no longer of interest if not represented. We want the truth and that is the identity of the actor or actress with himself or herself, the identity of the shared space of auditorium and stage, the identity of the moment experienced together. You cannot escape from performance theatre that is hostile to representation and pretends to be avant-garde by imposing the goal of truth on theatre.

Thus, the liberation of theatre from the demand for truth, which has been justified many times, results in a short-circuit rejection of representation and the demand for identity instead of analysing and developing the theatre-specific mode of representation. In his discussion with Florian Malzacher, Wolfgang Engler has pointed out that there are two types of criticism of representation:

“One problematises the frame, the other breaks it, abuses people and de-theatricalises theatre.” 23

Florian Malzacher calls the use of “real” people on stage, like the experts at Rimini Protokoll, a way out of the “representation trap”. He acknowledges, however,  that the “authenticity of these people is also just a role” but calls this role “the role of their lives” 24. In contrast, Jens Roselt points out, using the example of the performance Sabenation (a project with ex-empolyees of the Belgian airline Sabena, Berlin, Hebbel Theater 2004), that real life has no privileged place,

“neither in the suburbs nor on stage. One cannot seek out reality, but it seeks us out or haunts us, everywhere, unexpectedly and uninvited. Reality cannot be prefabricated and exhibited. Rather: it happens.” 25

Putting experts or imperfect amateurs on stage instead of actors does not bring us closer to the truth.

“The conflation of the performer and his actual biography does not at all lead to a form of immediacy, {…} but to a distance.” The aesthetic framework in which these people are placed on stage always makes it clear “that it is not a question here of depicting or pretending true life in a more or less realistic sense.” 26

Only if one understands a performance as an event between player and recipient, independent of representation or non-representation, does one escape the gaze that seeks truth, identity or authenticity.

The performance: an in-between event

From the perspective of phenomenological philosophy, Jens Roselt attempts to justify the performative turn in theatre studies less as a prophecy about the future of theatre than as a necessary step from semiotic staging analysis to performance analysis. And his conclusion: theatre is an in-between event, an event between stage and audience, regardless of whether one thinks it represents something or not. From a phenomenological point of view, experience is a “dialogical in-between event”. And the situation of a performance is one of experience:

“Stage and audience thus enter into a dialogue with each other that does not have to take place linguistically. Spectators are engaged by the performance, just as they themselves question it.” 27

With the phenomenologist Bernhard Waldenfels, Roselt assumes a “responsive difference” that characterises the relationship between stage and spectator. Stage and spectator behave like question and answer. But there is

“an answer is conceivable that opens up something that the question did not anticipate. Such an answer no longer obeys the division into right and wrong.” 28

And certainly not to the division into truth and lies.

“Spectators {are} not merely asked to be vicarious agents of someone else’s intention in the performance.” 29

Roselt even criticises his teacher Fischer-Lichte for not taking this responsive difference into account with her notion of the feedback loop. 30 This also applies to a theatre of as-if, in which an actor or actress represents a character:

“The figure that occurs between actors and spectators is a third that is not exclusively owned by anyone.” [11 Roselt, p. 248.]

The spectators are a “constitutive part of the performance”. The modes of perception and experience of the spectators thus have a productive dimension, even in the representation of a character on stage by an actor or actress:

“Only in the performance [is] an appearance constituted, which can neither be reduced to the individual person of the actor nor to a role specification, since the intentions of the spectators are also meaningful here.” 31

When one acknowledges the productive activity of the spectators in a performance, all spectres of truth and identity disappear.

  1. Erika Fischer-Lichte e.a. (ed.), Metzler Lexikon Theatertheorie. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2nd ed. 2011
  2. Florian Malzacher, Gesellschaftsspiele. Politisches Theater heute. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2020, p.40
  3. Jakob Hayner, Warum Theater. Krise und Erneuerung. Berlin: Matthes und Seitz, 2020
  4. p. 62
  5. p. 13
  6. p. 79
  7. p. 152
  8. p. 150
  9. p.149f
  10. p. 148
  11. p.77 and p. 126.
  12. p. 127. Cf. also his detailed criticism of Fischer-Lichte’s aesthetics of the performative in the chapter “Wiederverzauberung oder Entzauberung der Welt” pp. 100-121
  13. Hayner’s comment on this: “The possibility of desiring an idea that transcends the world appears in the work of art.” cf. Christian Rakow’s critique
  14. E.g. “The visionary reality of the world appropriate to us, art, has thus become independent: it is no longer a copy, for all models have sunk; it is a creating totality, for the natural unity of the metaphysical spheres is forever torn asunder.” Georg Lukacs, Theorie des Romans. Ein geschichtsphilosophischer Versuch über die Formen der großen Epik. Berlin: Cassirer, 1920, p.12
  15. Jacques Derrida, “Das Theater der Grausamkeit und die Geschlossenheit der Repräsentation”, in: J.D., Die Schrift und die Differenz. transl. v. Rudolphe Gosché. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1976 (first as a lecture in Parma 1966)
  16. Malzacher wrongly quotes Hans-Thies Lehmann here. Lehmann names a basic condition of theatre, of dramatic as well as postdramatic or performative theatre, cf. Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatisches Theater. Frankfurt/M: Verlag der Autoren, 1999, p.12
  17. Malzacher p.36.
  18. ibid
  19. Gottlob Frege, Funktion, Begriff, Bedeutung. Five logical studies. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1969, p. 41, cf. also Tugendhat/Wolf, Logisch-semantische Propädeutik, Stuttgart: Reclam, p.176
  20. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, *Biographia Literaria* (1817). Ch. XIV, ebook Project Gutenberg, 2004 p.347. cf. my review of Tom Sterns, Philosophy and theatre. An Introduction. Jakob Hayner puts it aptly in German: “One pretends to believe what one sees. Or to put it another way: one does not act as if one did not believe what is presented to one.” Hayner, p.124
  21. Tugendhat/Wolf, p. 183
  22. Hans-Thies Lehmann also works with the pair of opposites truth and deception: “If theatre is to offer truth, it must now reveal and exhibit itself as fiction and in its process of producing fictions, instead of deceiving about it.” Lehmann, p. 186.
  23. Wolfgang Engler, Authentizität! Von Exzentrikern, Dealern und Spielverderbern. Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2017, p. 136
  24. Malzacher, p. 32
  25. Jens Roselt, Phänomenologie des Theaters. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2008, p.280
  26. Roselt, p.281
  27. Roselt, p. 194f
  28. Roselt, p.179
  29. Roselt, p.185
  30. Roselt p.195
  31. Roselt, p. 300

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