Renovation or Restoration?

On the aesthetics and politics of interim venues of German theatres

(Translation of a text published by „nachtkritik.de“ in October 2017 under the headline „Freiräume“)

Theatres must yield. Or give way preliminarily, at least. They have to give way to extensive renovations of their splendorous, but rotting, old buildings. Three great theatres in North Rhine-Westphalia have had and will have to dwell in interim venues for years: Cologne, Düsseldorf, Dortmund. And these three are no exception in Germany: theatres in Frankfurt, Oldenburg, Stuttgart and many others will have to transfer to such interim venues, usually disused factory buildings, in the next years. What does this expulsion from the paradise of the grand old houses change? What effect does this widespread state of emergency have on stage – beside the strain on organization behind the scenes? How does it change the aesthetic conception?

There are four types:

  • Cologne Depot 1 (a huge former storehouse for submarine cables in a suburb of Cologne, part of a complex of factory buildings which is being converted for other uses): Going back from a site-specific concept to a site-neutral one with a fixed spectator stand for the audience, a red curtain and a proscenium arch. The most conservative solution.
  • Cologne Depot 2 (a smaller storage room next to Depot 1) and Düsseldorf Central (a large former store building for parcels of the German Post, situated right next to the main station and now encompassing two stages): A fixed spectator stand for the audience and an open space on floor level as stage. The most frequent and most cost-efficient solution for interim venues.
  • Dortmund Megastore (a former storehouse in a suburb of Dortmund, next to the ruins of a steelworks): Complete flexibility. Each production creates its own structure of the room. The spatial relation between the audience and the actors is a result of the format chosen by the production. The most hazardous and most stressful solution.
  • Bonn Halle Beuel (a scatter of buildings of a former jute spinning plant which also houses the workshops of the theatre and the opera): Abolition of the venue which allows a variable spatial design. The worst solution.

1 The conservative solution

Cologne is the most difficult case. For five years now the Schauspiel has to perform in its interim venue. And five more years are to come. In 2013, artistic director Stefan Bachmann decided to take over a warehouse in the suburb Mülheim, whereas his predecessor Karin Beyer had already chosen an exhibition hall near the city centre as her interim venue for one year. Centre or periphery? That is the question, and was even then. Now, Schauspiel Köln is firmly anchored in this peripheral area of the city. On the grounds of the former cable factory Felten & Guillaume there are other venues, media companies and publishing houses. And next door there are the restaurants of Keupstrasse, a street well known in Germany as a centre of the German-Turkish community. With theatre projects related to the site and the local area, and an urban garden, defiantly set up on the concrete surface, the theatre has taken root there so deeply that the venue will remain to be used by Schauspiel Köln even when it will return to its renovated theatre building in the city centre, some day.

Comparing the development of productions in the large hall of Depot 1 over the last five years, a change from theatre on location to a widescreen theatre with proscenium arch can be recognized. Raphael Sanchez’s opening production of Michael Frayns „Noises Off“ (Der nackte Wahnsinn) was an attempt to transform an intimate comedy into a widescreen format, which was a stunning failure. Stefan Bachmann’s following theatre version of Ayn Rand’s novel „Atlas Shrugged“ (Der Streik) made use of the vastness and emptiness of the warehouse: real iron rails which could be used by a Draisine were laid during the performance, a genuine GDR-lorry rattled stinkingly through the hall. But the problems became apparent as well: difficult acoustical conditions, wireless microphones had to be used, distances between actors and audience too great for nuanced acting. First, set designers tried to improve the acoustics and visibility by lifting the following productions up: the stage sets were designed so that everything took place somewhere at the middle height of the room. Then, in 2016, the width of the stage was reduced, a proscenium arch was built in: now, everything looks as in an ordinary playhouse. The stage now is metaphorical room, which signifies another, a fictional room, and in the consciousness of the spectator it appears no longer as a real room, which does not exclude a self-deprecating relation to this conception of theatre space. In Stefan Bachmann’s production of „Hamlet“ there were even two crimson velvet curtains: one in front of and one behind the stage.

2 The compromise

The common solution is a kind of compromise. There still is the separation of audience and stage, there still is the collective concentration on the fictional play. But the stage is open, without a proscenium arch marking the border between audience and stage. This border is blurred. The actor walks onto the stage in view of the audience as an actor and only there he turns into a stage character. The stage is a metonymic space (in terms of H.Th. Lehmann1). It is part of the real space, the storage house, and it remains that, is always perceived as such and nevertheless signifies another, fictional space. The industrial building, with its atmosphere of production, of work and of uncomfortable efficiency, tempers subconsciously the perception of the audience. This is the concept for most of the productions in Depot 2 of Cologne.

In the „Außenspielstätte am Offenbachplatz“ this is also the dominant conception. It was one of Bachmann’s strategic decisions to conquer this venue, the half-finished, new secondary stage on the eternal building site of the Cologne Opera house (which is supposed to be finished in 2022). Thereby „Schauspiel Köln“ again has its foot in the door to the city centre, where it belongs in Bachmann’s view. From him, the strangely outmoded demand can be heard, that the triad of city hall, church and theatre belong in the city centre.

The most versatile concept for dislocated theatre has been developed by „Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus“. When Wilfried Schulz signed his contract as artistic director, he thought he would come to a renovated theatre building, but now it has turned out that he will have to reside in exile until autumn 2020. His answer is to attack the problem head-on: making the dispersion useful. In the smaller venue of „Central“ you find the compromising concept. The audience looks down from the spectators´ stand to the plain of the stage area. In the larger venue (Große Bühne) little more is possible: In her version of „Animal Farm“ (Farm der Tiere) Daniela Löffner put the actors in the centre of the room enclosed by a square of spectator stands. Even Rimini-Protokoll had to place their carousel workshop on „The construction site as a model for society“ (Gesellschaftsmodell Großbaustelle) in the unchanged room with its fixed spectator stand, although this interactive installation, with groups of spectators elaborately guided around each other, needed a completely different structure for its venue.

In addition, Schulz tries to enter new places for his theatre with a circus tent. But in the opening production „Gilgamesh“ only the acrobats hurling their bodies through the air in minor parts reminded the audience of being in a circus. There was no arena, only the well-known confrontation of auditorium and stage. With „Faust to go“, the production of a German classical text designed to be appreciated by secondary school students, the theatre becomes even more mobile and goes touring the schools and community centres. On the other hand, Schulz, like Bachmann in Cologne, has begun an attempt to return to the magnificent „Schauspielhaus“ in the city centre. Robert Wilson’s musical „Sandman“ is shown in the Schauspielhaus though it is supposed to be closed, awaiting renovation, and can only be entered by the back entrance. And all the friends of the theatre are more than happy to return to their representative place in the heart of the city, though only temporarily.

3 The innovative solution

The Situation in Cologne and Düsseldorf is ambivalent, yet successful on the whole, but in Dortmund it is unambiguously successful. The expulsion from the little paradise of the Schauspielhaus in Dortmund and the escape to the warehouse „Megastore“ in the suburb Hörde was a relief for Kay Voges, the artistic director and his team. The first production in this venue, „Das schweigende Mädchen“ (The silent Girl) by Elfriede Jelinek, directed by Michael Simon, lead the audience into a room, in which actors were speaking at different corners in various fragments of stage sets. This setting combined free deployment of attention with general deconcentration, a mass audience was treated as individuals. Only after that beginning were you lead to a spectators’ stand. But even in the second half of the performance, the vastness of the venue was used by a large speaking choir of lay citizens. For Mike Daiseys monologue „The Trump Card“ (Trump), Marcus Lobbes developed a new and original format of stage: It was a kind of election party with poser tables and a mock-proscenium-stage, which were dismantled in the course of the performance. And Kay Voges’ much acclaimed „Borderline“ production with its huge filmset between two opposing spectators’ stands would have been completely impossible in the Schauspielhaus.

Because inside the storehouse „Megastore“ three separate rooms could be established, it was possible to stick to the German repertoire system of performing different plays nearly every day, though the number of spectators had to be reduced because of the limited capacity of these rooms. Taking root in the local community of Hörde was not Voges’ aim, understandable in view of the short time which was originally scheduled for the renovation of the Schauspielhaus. So the rusty towers of the old blast furnaces greeted the former storehouse for fan articles of the local football club BVB Dortmund, only as unrelated reminiscences. From December 2017 on, the theatre will return to its paradise in the city centre. The regret for the loss of adaptability of the rooms is mingled with relief because of the end of the miserable working conditions for the theatre producers.

4 The worst solution

The most questionable solution has been found in Bonn. Because of the reduction of the budget provided by the city, the alternative venue, „Halle Beuel“ was abandoned. This venue had been the site of many groundbreaking concepts of theatre rooms as the first production of Jelineks „Wolken.Heim“ (1988) or Peter Palitzschs production of „Antigone“ (1985). The drama department (Schauspiel) of the theatre of the former West-German capital Bonn was reduced to „Kammerspiele“, a former cinema in the suburb Bad Godesberg, and „Werkstatt“, a very small venue in the basement of the opera. „Halle Beuel“, situated on the right bank of the Rhine, near the university, which was attractive for a younger audience, was rented to a private cabaret theatre. This is the solution with the worst perspective for the future of drama.

*

The necessity of shutting down these great theatres was caused by the procrastination of maintenance and overhauling. In Düsseldorf as well as in Cologne these closures triggered off extensive public debates. These had at least the effect that the projects of refurbishing theatres were started – however slowly. For certain periods, the debates about the future of theatre buildings was at the center of local debate in Cologne and Düsseldorf. But these debates were ambivalent. Their impulse has always been conservation and perpetuation. Only with these aims, it seems, political participation can be mobilized in a German society, characterized by the fear of downward mobility. Theatre producers could only achieve minor concessions for the remodelling of stages and auditoria. As with most renovations of theatres the auditoria are reduced in size reflecting the diminished social importance of theatre (which has the effect of improving the figure for the degree of capacity utilisation). In Cologne, a movable front-stage is planned, in Düsseldorf the design of the entrance area will be opened into the direction of the city centre. Similarly, Johan Simons, the coming artistic director of Schauspiel Bochum, has achieved that in Bochum’s main theatre, the border between auditorium and stage can be defused by placing spectators on the stage. These are only marginal changes to the space concept inherent in the buildings of the 1960s and 70s.

The future of the past

In fact, there once were quite different concepts for such buildings. The secondary stage (Kleines Haus) inside the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus was built in 1970 as a „Raumbühne“, in which performances could be staged without a fixed spectators` stand and with adaptable spaces for auditorium and stage. The „Grillo-Theater“ in the centre of Essen was reconstructed in 1990 as a „variables Raumtheater“, in which the spatial relationship of audience and stage could be changed according to the needs of the production. In both cases the architects relied on the ideas of Kiesler, Piscator, Gropius and others from the 1920s2. But the innovative structures were used only for a short time. Set changes and adaptions were too expensive, too complicated for a repertory system which staged a different play day-to-day. Over the course of years, the technical crews were further reduced. For flexibility there was neither time nor money. The concept of theatre rooms in German municipal theatres is a financial question as wells an aesthetic one.

Milo Rau, the designated artistic director of Belgian state theatre NT Gent, complains about „theatre spaces, which are equipped with all the technical infrastructure, but are not adaptable to the reality of theatre today“3. But this does not apply to the interim venues, and only – in part – to the grand old houses. This lament has been around for quite a long time and the concentration of public debate on the preservation of substance has made any reanimation of the old plans for the future of German municipal theatres unlikely. A citizens’ initiative for the restructuring of the Schauspielhaus of Cologne as flexible open stage remains unthinkable. Because, as Dirk Baecker put it so nicely, an asynchronicity has overwhelmed people, „according to which their practice takes place in the present epoch of media, their intellect remains on the level of the previous and their emotions are stuck in the pre-previous one.“4

A pluralist solution

Surrendering the theatre fortresses in the city centres, tearing them down (which the mayor of Düsseldorf considered seriously in public), rebuilding them on the periphery of the cities (which was considered in Cologne and which is one of the possibilities discussed in Frankfurt now), would accommodate the current trend towards decentralization and dissolution of hierarchies in all areas of society. But even a society which consists of self-regulating, autopoietic subsystems, needs a centralized political system. Theatre as a media which is political by its own structure can assume such a centralizing function in a city. Therefore it belongs in its centre. On the other hand, the structures of communication and social life change under the influence of the internet and of social media. Theatre responds to these developments. And for this response, it needs a different structure of theatre spaces. This can be found in the factory buildings of the interim venues at the peripheries of the cities. Therefore, what do we need? A pluralist solution: a rededication of the provisional venues as permanent, decentralized secondary stages and a flexibilisation of the spatial structure of the theatre buildings in the centre in the course of their renovation: interim for evergreen, peep box to colourful cube and money for flexible municipal theatres.

 

  1. Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatisches Theater. Frankfurt/M: Verlag der Autoren, 1999, S.287 ↩︎
  2. cf. Stephen J. Phillips, Elastic Architecture: Frederick Kiesler and Design Research in the First Age of Robotic Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2017 p.73) ↩︎
  3. Milo Rau in „Nachdenken über ein Theater der Zukunft“, a discussion in organised by „Berliner Festspiele“ 2017 ↩︎
  4. Dirk Baecker, Wozu Theater. Berlin: Theater der Zeit 2013. S. 152 ↩︎

Immersion I

For John Dewey, immersion is a basic feature of art. Art is different from dream because the recipient connects with an object, a work of art, in such a way that his feelings and ideas are fused with the object, a work of art. It cannot be distinguished whether they are the feelings and ideas of the beholder or those of the picture. Feelings and ideas of the beholder must be saturated by the work of art to such a degree that they no longer have an existence independent of the work of art. This saturation is what Dewey calls „immersion“. Diving into an object like this is a necessary condition for perceiving this object as a work of art 1

If immersion is a basic feature of art, how has its importance changed today? If it has been around in art forever, you do not need to invent a new form of art. Is the essential change that immersion, as a kind of technique, has moved from art to commerce (video games and advertising) 2  and now art must reconquer this technique for being able to reflect on this technique in a critical way?

In the history of the arts, there seems to be a race between the development of ever new techniques of illusion and the competence of the recipients to see through these techniques and regain their distance from them 3. Today, what is being called „immersive art“ is in the vanguard of this movement. The dominant impulse, however, seems to be the wish to overwhelm, to eliminate the distance between the work of art and its recipient, the „increase of the power of suggestion“ 4. Of course, the aim is also to make transparent this power of images, the influence of suggestive techniques, by using ingenious concepts of art. And that is what is required if immersive art wants to assert itself as a kind of art: it requires the „development of an efficient antidote against the hype of virtual-immersive images, which is so widespread today“ 5.

 

  1.  „An esthetic product results only when ideas cease to float and are embodied in an object, and the one who experiences the work of art loses himself in irrelevant reverie unless his images and emotions are also tied to the object, and are tied to it in the sense of being fused with the matter of the object. It is not enough that they should be occasioned by the object: in order to be an experience of the object they must be saturated with its qualities. Saturation means an immersion so complete that the qualities of the object and the emotions that it arouses have mo separate existence.“ John Dewey, Art as Experience. New York: Penguin Perigree, 2005 (first 1934) p.288

  2.  „This new mode of storytelling is transforming not just entertainment (the stories that are offered to us for entertainment) but also advertising (the stories marketers tell us about their products) and autobiography (the stories we tell about ourselves)“. p.3 „And that immersiveness is what blurs the line, not just between story and game, but between story and marketing, storyteller and audience, illusion and reality.“ p. 15 Frank Rose, The Art of Immersion: How the digital generation is remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the way we tell stories. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2012

  3.  „Books, movies, television, virtual worlds – century after century, we port our willing suspension of disbelief to whatever new and more immersive medium appears. So, what do we do when the universe this latest medium spins for us begins to fall apart – as inevitably it will?“ Frank Rose, op. cit., p. 319 and Oliver Grau, Oliver Grau, Immersion und Interaktion: Vom Rundfresko zum interaktiven Bildraum, p.11/13

  4.  Oliver Grau,  Oliver Grau, Immersion und Interaktion: Vom Rundfresko zum interaktiven Bildraum, s.a. p.14

  5.  Oliver Grau,  Oliver Grau, Immersion und Interaktion: Vom Rundfresko zum interaktiven Bildraum, s.a. p.31

Alain Badiou on theatre

  • Alain Badiou, Rhapsodie für das Theater. Kurze philosophische Abhandlung. Transl. from French by Corinna Popp. Wien: Passagen Verlag, 2015 (first Paris 2014, revised edition of the first issue of 1990 with a new preface)

Philosophers try to avoid theatre: it’s too concrete. Communists try to avoid theatre: it’s too bourgeois. A communist philosopher who is a theatre goer? Yes, there still is one, Alain Badiou. He is the man who puts the relation of philosophy and theatre back on its feet the way it belongs. No more rejection on the grounds that it supplies us only with corrupted images of truth (Plato, Rousseau), no longer delimitation on the grounds that art is not concerned with truth at all (Aristotle), no longer glorification of art as a privileged way to truth (romanticism, Heidegger), and no reduction of theatre to theatre text only (Hegel). But: philosophy in service of theatre. Philosophy examines what kind of truths theatre can offer.

Therefore Badiou has become one of the most popular philosophers of dramaturges and in the last years he has been invited to all kinds of European theatre festivals. But Badiou is not Žižek, the all-purpose brumisator of sense with which you can spray intellectual fragrances. Badiou is more of an elegant philosophical sledgehammer, a dinosaurs gallicus, the only survivor of an extinct species, a Platonist for whom mathematics is the basis of ontology, the architect of an all encompassing edifice of thought grounded on the axioms of set theory.

Badiou, Rhapsodie für das Theater Titelbild.jpg  Badiou, Rhapsody Titelseite.jpg

Peter Engelmann, the publisher of „Passagen“ in Vienna, published in 2015 a German translation of the revised edition of Badiou’s „Rhapsody on Theatre“, which was originally published in France, in 1990. Badiou wrote a new preface in 2014, apart from that, the new edition is unchanged. All the lists of Badiou’s favourite theatre directors refer back to the eighties: Vitez, Grüber, Stein and so on. Badiou calls this period the period of „defensive didactics“1 in theatre. So we get a theory about theatre back in the eighties. What could be interesting in it today?

I can offer three attempts of interpretation:

  1. Theatre produces truth. For Badiou, truth is not a relation between thought and reality – he rejects all theories of truth from Aristotle to Tarski as not modern – but a process. In an event a truth comes into existence. What he means by „event“ he usually explains with the example of Galilei’s mathematisation of physics, the French revolution of 1792 or – and that is his favourite example – with May 68 in Paris. Interesting in our context is that Badiou applies this concept of truth not only to science, politics and love, but also to art, and thereby to theatre as well. Every theatre performance which deserves not to be written in quotation marks produces a truth. „There you have the singularity of the theatre-truth. seized in a purely immanent way. There, on the stage and nowhere else: a quasi-political experimental event, which amplifies our situation in history.“ 2
  2. Theatre thinks. Badiou writes: Theatre pronounces „itself about itself and about the world“ and „the knot of this double examination summons the spectator at the impasse of a form of thought.“ 3That means: Theatre must always make a statement about itself, i.e. it must be reflexive, conscious of its own form, and it must be possible to recognise this reflection. By fulfilling its form it must examine this form at the same time.Theatre must always make a statement about the world, it should not be limited to self-reference. It must lay claim to a statement about the world. But this statement should not be dogmatic (that’s the way it is), but must be a process of research (what is it like?).These two statements must be connected in the performance: no statement about the world without self-reflection of theatre and vice versa.By the connection and mutually dependency of these two types of statements, the audience experience a kind of intellectual discord: is the statement about the world true or is it only the result of the form the director has decided to use? The statement about the world should never be understood without recognising its artistic form. This ambivalence or polysemy sets the audience’s thoughts in motion. The pleasure of the spectator in theatre is „the doubtful product of the mind’s concentrated effort“4.
  3. Theatre is political. Badiou thereby does not refer to its content or themes but to its structure. He calls it the isomorphism of theatre and politics. And for Badiou, the truth seeker who remains faithful to the event of 1968, politics is not the process of balancing of interests in parliamentary democracy, but a mass movement with programmatic aims originating from an event. The three elements of what he calls politics – events which are produced by the congregation of masses of people, programmatic aims incorporated by political activists and a discursive intellectual background – correspond to the three elementary conditions of theatre – audience, actors, textual reference. For him theatre is always „figurative reknotting of politics“ 5.

His three practical suggestions for reform, presented with a sense of irony, also rest on this conception:

  1. The interval should be reintroduced in theatre, because only in it the audience can experience itself as a collective body in analogy to the political body. In theatre, this „paradoxical state“, the audience must be able to „vanish into a thick and tangible crowd6.“
  2. Applause for actors should be abolished, only the director and the authors must be applauded (dead authors are replaced by actor-dummies). Because only with the help of the text as the persisting reference and its interpretation of the director can theatre fulfill its function of „the elucidation of the instant by an encounter with the eternal7.“
  3. Visiting theatre should be made a legal duty. Certified visits of theatre in a prescribed frequency should entitle to tax reductions. Because theatre is „such a fundamental and valuable experience for us“ it should not be reserved for the few: „Elitist for everybody.“

In evaluating current trends of European theatre this conception of a 78-year-old leads to an apparently conservative tendency. In the 2014 preface Badiou argues against two common forms of social disorientation, against, „democratic self-indulgence and passive nihilism“. In theatre he diagnoses a „hypercritical position“, which he classifies as „vain negation“ belonging to „passive nihilism“8. In an interview with Florian Borchmeyer from „Schaubühne“ in Berlin, he calls a kind of theatre „which presents its own impossibility [of representation] in a world which is incommensurate with representation“ a nihilist theatre. In one of his many conversations published in print, however, he evaluated the current experiments in theatre in 2007 in a more nuanced, but nevertheless critical way: They should be understood as artistic projections of the dominant ideology „after the death of God and under the abstract rule of the market“. He believes they are only a „temporary phenomenon of ideology“. But he denies that they are subversive. Performance, in his view, can be a field of discovery of new forms and meanings, but not the discovery itself.

German theatre is looking for its justification, it is looking for its social function between affirmation and subversion of consensus. Reading Badiou could help here a bit.


Additional Literature:

  • Alain Badiou, Rhapsody for the theatre. Edited and Introduced by Bruno Bosteels. London/New York: Verso, 2013
  • Alain Badiou, „Theatre and Philosophy“, in: Alain Badiou, Rhapsody for the theatre. Edited and introduced by Bruno Bosteels. London/New York: Verso, 2013 p. 93-109 [first „Théâtre et philosophie“, a talk presented in May 1998 at Comédie de Reims, Reims: Noria, Cahier 13, also in: Frictions: théâtres-écritures 2 (Spring Summer 2000) pp.133-41]
  • Alain Badiou, „Thesen zum Theater“, in: A.B., Kleines Handbuch zur Inästhetik, 2. Auflage. Trans. from French by Karin Schreiner. Wien: Turin + Kant, 2012 [frz. Petit Manuel d’Inesthétique. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1998, zu-erst: „Dix thèses sur le theatre“, in: Les Cahiers de la Comédie Française. Paris 1995]
  • Alain Badiou, „A Theatre of Operations. A Discussion between Alain Badiou and Elie During“, Meseu d’Art Contemporani Barcelona, Exhibition Theatre without theatre 2007
  • Alain Badiou, „Event and Truth“, Vortrag bei dem Symposium Event in Artistic and Political Practices (26.-28.03.2013)
  • Alain Badiou, „Es gibt keine Welt. Alain Badiou im Gespräch mit Florian Borchmeyer“, in: Schaubühne Berlin, 2.Spielzeitheft 2014/15

 

Annotations:

  1. S. 19 Page numbers indicated by „p.“ refer to the English edition of „Rhapsody for the Theatre“. Wherever possible Bosteels’s translation is used. Quotations indicated with the German abbreviation for page: „S.“ refer to the German edition of „Rhapsodie für das Theater“. ↩︎
  2. “Theatre and Philosophy“ p. 103 ↩︎
  3. XXII, p. 21, S.44 ↩︎
  4. XXV, p. 24, S. 48 ↩︎
  5. XV, p. 13, S. 36 ↩︎
  6. XXXIX p. 42, S. 68 ↩︎
  7. LXXIX, p.79, S. 112 ↩︎
  8. S. 20 ↩︎

Tom Stern on Philosophy and Theatre

  • Tom Stern, Philosophy and Theatre. An Introduction. London and New York: Rutledge, 2014

Philosophy and theatre seem to have an intimate relationship in Germany. In all theatre programmes you can find philosophical text clippings. In theatre studies and prose by dramaturges, Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, Rancière, Flusser or Žižek are often invoked as authorities. But then philosophy is mostly used as source of legitimation for theatre or for a certain type of theatre. Rarely is theatre viewed by philosophy from its own, independent perspective.

Stern, Philosophy and Theatre Titelbild.jpg

Now there is an introduction into the relationship of philosophy and theatre written by an English philosopher who is engaged in theatre only as a spectator. Tom Stern is Senior Lecturer at University College London, his professional interest is in Nietzsche, the classics and theatre. 1 His basis is analytical philosophy of the Anglo-american type. There it is quite common to regard the history of philosophy as a series of footnotes to Plato and Aristotle. 2 Indeed, Stern traces all disputes about what theatre is, wants or is allowed to do, back to the opposition of these two forefathers of philosophy.

On the other hand, he refers to the not-very-numerous newer literature on theatre in the area of analytical philosophy. And he proceeds with the methods which belong there: problems are identified, arguments collected, ordered, tested and evaluated according to simple criteria of common sense, without any German system building or French subversive art of obfuscation.

It is an introduction resulting from lectures for beginners of theatre studies. The naive question of average theatergoers are Stern’s starting points. The answers to these questions are elaborated step by step to their full complexity and with historical depth of focus. Tom Stern’s training as an educator helps here: all arguments are carefully numbered, and after reviewing pros and cons a conclusion is drawn.

Tom Stern knows the present debates in the English-speaking theatre studies about the „fight against the hegemony of the text“ well enough. In his working definition of theatre as „an artistic event that takes place in a particular location with mutually aware performers and spectators engaged insome kind of play“ 3 he shows in detail how the theatre of today isolates each of these elements and tests the limits of the possibilities of theatre („Theatre that does not want to be theatre“, Thomas Oberender). But in the centre of his enquiries there is text-based theatre, which he considers still to be the dominant form.

Mimesis

In his chapter on mimesis Stern distinguishes between mimesis as imitation and mimesis as imagination. Thereby it becomes evident that theatre audiences are also engaged in mimetic activity. Stern distinguishes between sensory imagination – that I imagine something as picture in my mind – and propositional imagination – that I imagine something as true or false 4. Both belong to the mimetic activities of the spectator, the imaginative effort that I see the ghost of Hamlet’s father although it is only described by an actor, and the imaginative effort that I believe to be true (in the context of the play’s fictional world), that Hamlet’s father has died, although at the beginning of the play I cannot yet understand how. Such complex intellectual gymnastics is executed by the supposedly passive spectator even at the beginning of a performance of „Hamlet“ (if the first minutes of the performance have not already sent him or her to sleep, or if he does not just imagine the front of the lady in row 3, chair 52, whose back he unfortunately only can see or if she is ruminating whether Ophelia’s dress would suit herself as well).

In addition, make-belief or play-acting also belong to those mimetic activities. Stern discusses in this context Kendall Walton’s view that the reception of works of art generally is a kind of „unified, rule bound make-believe“ 5. That is how the activity of actors and actresses can be described. Remembering the complexity of this concept of mimesis is useful in view of polemics against a kind of theatre that sees itself as mimesis 6. The now common identification of mimesis and representation, which can be traced back to Rancière 7, is also corrected by Stern’s analysis of the concept of mimesis.

Today, if actors do not want to play make-believe any longer, as it is scorned as children’s game, and if audiences do not want to undergo the pains of imagining sensitively or propositionally – is that imaginative sloth or over-informed shrewdness? No other form of art can produce such complex entanglements of different types of mimesis. Instead of erecting „mimesis“ as a conceptual scarecrow which can then be overturned with Don-Quichote-like energy, Tom Stern unfurls the complex structure of this concept, which has been tossed to and fro by literature and theatre studies for thousands of years.

Truth

Closely connected with the dispute about the concept of mimesis is the question of truth in theatre. Stern does not linger with a definition of truth but simply starts with a quip by Bertrand Russell, who stated Shakespeare’s sentences in „Hamlet“ could not be true, because no person called Hamlet like the prince in the play has ever existed 8. With this referential concept of truth, the claim, theatre conveyed true knowledge, can be dismissed easily. Even implicit or universal truths are not learned in theatre. „We did not find a particular or special way in which we learn from theatre.“ 9 What remains is only the interaction of audience and stage, a stimulation to thought 10. It is a sobering diagnosis if it is compared to the high-flying justifications of theatre as an access to „superior“ 11 or „self-revealing truth“ 12 or the claim that art is a „procedure of gaining truths“ 13.

The complementary concept to truth is illusion. Here, Stern also withholds his judgement and starts with analysing exactly what this concept could mean in theatre. He distinguishes between four types of illusion: optical illusion (of the kind that can also be found outside theatre), stage-set illusion (material that seems to be different from what they really are), the illusionist’s illusion („Houdini-type tricks“) and illusions produced by the actors whose identities can be concealed or used. From these illusions he distinguishes „being under the spell“, the trance into which the spectator’s mind sometimes lapses. This is a voluntary contribution of the spectator which can be taken back at any time. It is what Samuel Coleridge already called „willing suspension of disbelief“14.

If you compare Stern’s analysis of the concepts of theatrical illusion with that of Hans-Thies Lehmann we see how arbitrarily these concepts are explicated sometimes. Lehman thinks illusion has three aspects: the aspect of magic, the aspect of eros and the aspect of concretisation. In Stern’s book, the aspect of eros is dealt with in chapter „Emotions“. For Lehmann it is the identification with the sensual intensity of the actors. The act of concretisation, gap-filling, is not typical of theatre, because it also occurs in everyday life. But Lehmann is concerned with demonstrating that illusion is possible without concretisation. In his view, concretisation ist a mark of fiction, of the creation of a fictional world on stage. And the aim of his analysis (or rather synthesis) of this concept of illusion is to show that fiction is superfluous in theatre. That concretisation is no necessary condition for theatre, on that both agree. But for Stern, this concretisation is a preliminary step to the spectator’s much more comprehensive activity which is part of theatrical mimesis. For Lehmann, fiction is a dispensable addition to erotic attraction and magic of theatre.

Morals and Emotion

Even if theatre does not supply us with truths, it still can serve as a school of morals – that is a justification of theatre dear to theatre lovers and professionals in Germany. And even if there are no more binding moral rules, theatre can nevertheless produce emotions and can help to understand the emotions of others. But both theories dissolve under Stern’s dissecting eyes into unresolved individual problems.

The question whether theatre can have any effect on morality is unfolded by Stern in two ways: its effect on the audience and its effect on actors. After perusing all arguments of the debate between Rousseau and d’Alembert15, he relieves theatre from the task of morally improving its audience . And after examining all of Diderot’s and Plato’s arguments against the wantonness and hollowness of professional actors, he also relieves actors from the allegation of immorality. In passing, the concept of authenticity, which is so beloved and beleaguered in recent German discussions on theatre, is also disassembled: it is based on a static concept of human being.16. Stern’s conclusion at the end of the chapter „A school of morals?“ is quite unambiguous this time: the assumption that theatre as a whole corrupts human beings is as unlikely as the assumption that it improves. 17 Theatre is neither moral nor immoral. It is morally irrelevant.

What remains is the emotional effect of theatre which can hardly be denied. But how does it come about and what does it consist of? Stern identifies three problems: Why do we react emotionally to characters who we know not to be real? Why do we enjoy events which would scare us in real life?18 What is this ominous catharsis which has been debated now for 2300 years?19. All questions are carefully examined.

To the first question he offers a pluralist solution: sometimes we feel compassion for people of who we know do not exist at all; sometimes we forget reality completely and believe the characters on stage who we empathise with really exist; sometimes we delude ourselves to have feelings that we actually do not have; sometimes we do not empathize at all, but just react to a theme that concerns us. 20 To the second question the answer is similarly pluralist: sometimes it is sadistic voyeurism, sometimes it is a stimulus to more reflection; sometimes sympathising with a hapless one can just be a pleasant feeling and sometimes a tragedy is simply abominable.21 In the discussion about catharsis Stern cautiously takes sides with those who warn against an interpretation that understands catharsis as moral purgation.22

Arguments are introduced as arguments, and only in the annotations you can find their origin from recent philosophical literature in English. But Stern’s conclusion is often indecisive. He does not take sides, he does not make claims. He shows the challenges that come up in the process of thinking about theatre, as is appropriate for a philosophical introduction.

Politics

Stern (like many other authors as well) understands theatre as political because of its structure, independent of whether its content is political or not 23. Therefore he examines the political dimension of theatre texts as well as of theatre performances. Starting from the example of Caryl Churchill’s play „Seven Jewish Children“, which deals with the Israeli-Palestinesian conflict, he argues against Plato’s criticism, artists do not have any knowledge or qualification justifying any influence on political decisions. Against this he confirms that the task of theatre in the area of politics is to raise questions and stir up attention24. In this statement Stern now is, despite all of his argumentative caution, very decisive. Considering the German discussion on this matter, the reflection on whether this political structure is also a democratic one is missing, because the common allegation against theatre on a stage and based on texts is that it reduces the audience to passive subjects of the events on stage, fettered to their seats for contemplation only.

The end of Stern’s introduction consists of a chapter on Brecht’s political theatre. The result of the evaluation is mainly negative. Brecht is shoved to Plato’s side. 25, his anti-aristotelean theatre is criticised with the same kind of argument that Aristotle used against Plato’s degradation of art as τρίτον ἀπ῾ἀλήθειας. His work as director and playwright is esteemed as a contribution to the modern development of theatre. But his work as a theoretician of theatre is disposed of by quoting Eric Bentley as a means to attract attention to his plays26.

For British readers this book seems to be a useful and demanding introduction to philosophical thinking about theatre. For German readers it is the introduction into a completely different way of thinking about theatre, different from what we are used to here in Germany. Perhaps apparently more naive, but even more precise instead.

 

  1. http://sterntom.com ↩︎
  2. “The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (1929) Part II, Section I ↩︎
  3. Stern p.6 ↩︎
  4. Stern, p.39 ↩︎
  5. Stern, p.40 ↩︎
  6. z.B. „At the centre of the critique (sic!) of dramatic theatre stood its use of however estranged mimetic representation, which was seen as discredited and was subsequently confronted with the notion of presence.“ Florian Malzacher, „No Organum to follow: Possibilities of political theatre today“, in: Florian Malzacher (ed.), Not just a Mirror. Looking for the political theatre of today. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2015 p.18 ↩︎
  7. “The aesthetic break has generally been understood as break with the regime of representation or the mimetic regime. But what mimesis or representation means has to be understood. What it means is a regime of concordance between sense and sense.“ Jacques Rancière, „Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art“. Art & Research. A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods. Volume 2. No. 1. Summer 2008, p.5 deutsch in : Friedrich Balke e.a. (Hg.), Ästhetische Regime um 1800. Paderborn: Fink, 2009 ↩︎
  8. Stern p. 49; oder Bertrand Russell: „The play ‚Hamlet‘ consists entirely of false propositions.“ in: An Inquiry into meaning and truth (1940). The contrary position can be found with Adorno: „Keine Aussage wäre aus Hamlet herauszupressen; dessen Wahrheitsgehalt ist darum nicht geringer.“ Theodor W. Adorno, Ästhetische Theorie. (=Gesammelte Schriften Bd. 7). Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1970, S. 193 ↩︎
  9. Stern, p.70 ↩︎
  10. “we are talking about a kind of interaction between spectator and performance … a certain kind of provocation or stimulation to thought“, Stern p.54 ↩︎
  11. “So ist die Handlung eines Schauspiels (…) schlechterdings als etwas in sich selbst Beruhendes da. Sie lässt kein Vergleichen mit der Wirklichkeit als dem heimlichen Maßstab aller abbildlichen Ähnlichkeit mehr zu. Sie ist über allen solchen Vergleich hinausgehoben – und damit über die Frage, ob denn das alles wirklich sei -, weil aus ihr eine überlegene Wahrheit spricht.“ Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode. Tübingen: Mohr,41975, S.107 ↩︎
  12. „Sie (die Wahrheit der Kunst) ist weder die bestehende noch die ignorierte, sondern die bis eben unbekannte, die sich offenbarende Wahrheit.“ Adolf Dresen, „Wahrheitsagen“, in: A.D., Siegfrieds Vergessen. Kultur zwischen Konsens und Konflikt. Berlin: Ch. Links, 1992, S. 223 ↩︎
  13. „Wahrheitsverfahren“ Alain Badiou, Kleines Handbuch zur Inästhetik. Wien: Turin & Kant, 2012 (frz. 1998), S. 20 ↩︎
  14. „that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith“, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1817). Ch. XIV, ebook Project Gutenberg, 2004 p.347 ↩︎
  15. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, „Brief an d’Alembert über das Schauspiel“, in: J-J.R., Schriften hg. v. Henning Ritter. Bd. 1. Berlin: Ullstein, 1981, S.433-474 ↩︎
  16. Stern, S. 119. For the German debate see: Wolfgang Engel/Frank M. Raddatz, „Entfremdung verboten! Die Fallstricke des Authentizitätsdikurses und die Freiheit des Spiels.“ Lettre International No. 114 Herbst 2016, S. 52-74. In a completely different language my short-time former teacher Hans Günther von Kloeden states a similar view: „Freiheit und Echtheit bedingen sich gegenseitig.(…) So entsteht also Wahrheit aus Freiheit.“ in: Hans Günther von Kloeden, Grundlagen der Schauspielkunst II: Improvisation und Rollenspiel. Velber: Friedrich Verlag, 1967, S.24 ↩︎
  17. Stern, p. 123 ↩︎
  18. without reference to Schiller’s canonical essay „Über den Grund des Vergnügen an tragischen Gegenständen“ von 1792 ↩︎
  19. without reference to Wolfgang Schadewaldts seminal essay „Furcht und Mitleid? Zur Deutung des aristotelischen Tragödiensatzes“ von 1955 ↩︎
  20. Stern, p. 138 ↩︎
  21. Stern, p. 148 ↩︎
  22. Stern, p. 155 ↩︎
  23. vgl. „So ist das Theater denn in der Tat die politische Kunst par excellence, nur auf ihm, im lebendigen Verlauf der Vorführung, kann die politische Sphäre des menschlichen Lebens überhaupt soweit transfiguriert werden, dass sie sich der Kunst eignet.“ in: Hannah Arendt, Vita activa oder vom tätigen Leben. München, Piper, 8th ed. 1998 engl. The Human Condition 1958, S. 180; and „Isomorphie Politik/Theater“ Alain Badiou, Rhapsodie für das Theater. Kurze Philosophische Abhandlung. Wien: Passagen, 2015, S. 30 ↩︎
  24. “My point is that, by moving away from thinking about the political play as informing us towards thinking about it as demanding certain kinds of attention or thoughts we place different and perhaps less stringent demands on its creators. Playwrights may not deserve the authority to tell us about the world, but anyone can tell us to look or to think.“ Stern, p.174 ↩︎
  25. “ (Brecht offered) a critique that has been opened in influence and to some extent in content to that of Plato.“ Stern p.189 ↩︎
  26. “’Back in the the early twenties, Brecht’s plays were not getting much attention. ‚What you need‘ a friend told him, ‚is a theory. To make your stuff important.‘“ Eric Bentley, quoted at Stern p. 189 ↩︎