Is there a philosophy of theatre? Part 5: Philosophy and theatre criticism

Review of Tom Stern (ed.), The Philosophy of Theatre, Drama and Acting. London/New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. 209 pages

Tom Stern PTDA Titelbild

Part 5 of 5: Philosophy and theatre criticism

In none of the essays theatre criticism is a subject of enquiry, except for some mischievous sideswipes. But nevertheless two of the essays can be read as treatises on theatre criticism (against the grain).

Kristin Gjesdal 1 from Temple University Philadelphia examines the usually disregarded „Lectures on dramatic art and literature“ which August Wilhelm Schlegel held in Vienna in 1808. These lectures were completely ignored by philosophy, because they were seen as narrative presentation of European theatre literature. But Schlegel had in mind to combine the theory of dramatic art with its history 2. Gjesdal now lays open their theoretical nucleus. And due to the ambivalence of the concepts of „critic“ and „modern“ this can also be read as a list of requirements for theatre criticism of today3.

Gjesdal points out that Schlegel does not demand any fixed criteria of the critic, but a certain attitude. The „internal excellence“ of a work of art has to be judged. Therefore Schlegel postulates the „universality of mind“ of the „true critic or connoisseur“ 4 and the independence of „personal predilections and blind habits“ 5. Gjesdal emphasises that this independence cannot be claimed in advance, but has to be acquired through the encounter with different points of view. This kind of romantic (i.e. modern) criticism is an educational process which makes the reader understand himself better as well as the work of art. The critic should „treat the work of art as an individual and, all the same, explicate its universal dimension“ 6. The model for this apparently paradox procedure is again Shakespeare. His characters have a „concrete universality“ 7, a combination of individuality and general validity, which should serve as an example for critics 8. Contemporary theatre (Gjesdal thinks of both Schlegel’s present and ours) should „create artworks, through which modern (romantic) audiences can understand themselves“ 9. The critic should not prefer one of the life options, that a drama presents, „but should engage in a kind of syncretism that emerges from their interaction“ 10.

This description of the tasks of a critic, with which Schlegel actually referred to the critic of dramatic literature, is quite appropriate for the self-image of most theatre critics today. But it is not the image of the critic that still prevails in the minds of art theoreticians. Quite often the critic is a bogeyman which is erected in order to construct a view which can be argued against 11. It is insinuated that he claims objectivity for his judgements. But already Alfred Döblins demand „A chap must have an opinion“ 12 emphasizes the subjectivity of a theatre critic’s judgements. And since then, nearly all (German) theatre critics have similar views 13. The „independence of personal predilections“ that Schlegel demands refers to precluded judgements, which are fixed before the encounter with the work of art, i.e. the performance, and to preconceived emotional bonds to or economic dependance on certain artists. The criterion of „internal excellence“, that Schlegel advocates, means the rejection of all criteria of general validity. Flexibility is what is required of a critic to be able to engage with the peculiarities of the individual work of art. That was evident even in 1808.

Paul Woodruff 14 of the University of Texas Austin examines the question which is of vital importance for the professional critic: whether he or she should direct his or her attention to the technical side of theatre, to techniques of acting, stage set etc. Woodruff defines theatre from two sides: as the art of „making human acting worth watching (for performers), and as the art of „finding human action worth watching (for audiences)“ 15. For him, many different kinds of human actions belong to theatre: concerts, dance, improvisation, performances of scripted plays, rituals, religious ceremonies, lessons and spectator sports. Fiction and mimesis are different concepts for him, both of which do not necessarily belong to theatre. Attention to technique, however, can disturb mimetic effects of theatre. Only in pedagogy is the concentration on the” how?” of the performance desirable. The audiences have got to help mimesis along with their imagination.

But that does not apply to the critic. Woodruff comes to the sad conclusion:

„The critic’s job is not only to watch, but also to observe technique. Even at the cost of losing some joy in the experience.“ 16.

Woodruff’s examples, in accordance with his wide concept of theatre, come as well from classical music 17 as from Shakespeare 18. At the end of his essay he arrives at a somewhat milder judgement on the joy of the critic during a concert or a theatre performance. The better you are acquainted with the technical side of the performance, the less you have to concentrate on it. And then he develops a tangible criterion for artistic greatness in theatre:

„Can a performance steal the attention of educated watchers from technique?“ 19.

If a performance can elicit even in the hard-nosed critic a second naivety of emotional reaction, then it surely is great.

***

All the contributors of this volume write from a background of analytical philosophy. That leads to an accuracy in the explication of concepts which might seem pedantic in German eyes. But it is nearly always tied back to everyday use of language and to artistic practices. This method produces manifold illuminative insights. Only a few of the essays get lost in the jungle of theories. The concrete recourse to theatrical practice in some essays (Levy, Zamir, Hamilton, Saltz), however, demonstrates how narrow the empirical basis of these essays is. Shakespeare always is the prime example (in the historical essays it even is the German reception of Shakespeare, with Hegel, Schlegel and Nietzsche, that serves as a starting point). The multifarious experiments of American and British theatre groups are only acknowledged in abstract. Carol Churchill’s „Love and Information“ of 2012 ist the most advanced example 20. Classical German philosophy of the 19th century is screened with awe-inspiring expertise and accuracy for statements about theatre. But German theatre studies of today are hardly mentioned (similar to French philosophy 21). Not to mention German theatre productions of today. The reason might not only be the geographical distance from Germany of authors living in the USA, Israel, Australia or Britain, but also the linguistic obstacle. For the present, the internationalisation of spoken theatre is a oneway street and as long as there are different languages it will remain incomplete.

 

  1.  Kristin Gjesdal, „The theatre of thought: A.W. Schlegel on modern drama and romantic criticism“. PTDA, pp.43-63
  2.  „die Theorie der dramatischen Kunst mit ihrer Geschichte zu verbinden…“, August Wilhelm Schlegel, Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Literatur. Hg. Edgar Lohner. Erster Teil. Erste Vorlesung. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1966, S.17. Gjesdal: „his bottom up (rather than top-down) approach, to combine a historical and a systematic approach in aesthetics.“ PTDA, p. 44
  3. Schlegel calls „Kritik“ a mediator between theory and history. In English „Kritik“ is translated as „criticism“, and „literary criticism“ is the equivalent to „Literaturwissenschaft“. But the representative of this activity or branch of science is sometimes called „Kenner“ (connoisseur), sometimes „Kritiker“ (critic) by Schlegel. In the English translation this is nearly always „critic“. Schlegel also uses the terms „romantisch“ and „modern“ as synonyms. Accordingly Gjesdal always accompanies the word „modern“ with „romantic“ in brackets or vice versa, e.g. PTDA, p. 44, p.56. ︎
  4. „Vielseitigkeit oder Universalität des echten Kritikers“, August Wilhelm Schlegel, ibid. S. 19
  5. „Aber ein echter Kenner kann man nicht sein ohne Universalität des Geistes, d.h. ohne die Biegsamkeit, welche uns in den Stand setzt, mit Verleugnung persönlicher Vorliebe und blinder Gewöhnung, uns in die Eigenheiten anderer Völker und Zeitalter zu versetzen, sie gleichsam aus ihrem Mittelpunkte heraus zu fühlen…“ August Wilhelm Schlegel, ibid., S. 18. Quoted in Engl. at Gjesdal, PTDA, p.51
  6. Gjesdal, PTDA, p.54
  7.  Gjesdal, PTDA, p. 56
  8.  „Shakespeares ausführlich gezeichnete Personen haben unstreitig viele ganz individuelle Bestimmungen, aber zugleich eine nicht bloß für sie gültige Bedeutung: sie geben meistens eine ergründende Theorie ihrer hervorstechenden Eigenschaft an die Hand.“ August Wilhelm Schlegel, Vorlesungen über dramatische Kunst und Literatur. Hg. Edgar Lohner. Zweiter Teil, 26. Vorlesung. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1966, S. 131.
  9. Gjesdal, PTDA, p. 56
  10.  Gjesdal, PTDA, p. 57
  11. So does Juliane Rebentisch unfortunately as well: „Traditionell wurde der Kritiker als jemand vorgestellt, der seine Autorität durch eine Distanz zum Objekt etabliert, die seine Neutralität garantieren soll – so, als ob die Grenzen dieses Selbst und jenes Objekts stabil wären. Der so verstandene ideale Kritiker ist nicht nur objektiv, also von Vorurteilen möglichst frei, er zeigt auch möglichst wenig affektive Reaktionen vor allem keine heftigen wie beispielsweise Scham, Erregung, Angst oder Ekel. Neutralität ist nach dieser Vorstellung eine Voraussetzung für die kritische Urteilspraxis.“ Juliane Rebentisch, Theorien der Gegenwartskunst zur Einführung. Hamburg: Junius, 2013, S. 83 ︎
  12. Alfred Döblin, Ein Kerl muss eine Meinung haben. Berichte und Kritiken 1921-1924. München: dtv, 1981
  13. Two examples: „Der Kritiker ist nur der Sekretär seiner Eindrücke, seiner Empfindungen, seiner Erfahrungen. Hätte der Kritiker Maßstäbe, so wäre alles einfacher.“ („A critic is only the secretary of his impressions, his emotions, his experiences. If the civic had criteria, everything would be much easier“. Transl. G.P.) Georg Hensel, „Der Hordenkomiker, Alfred Kerr, Karl Valentin und Kollegen. Der Maßstab des Theaterkritikers oder Die Elle des tapferen Schneiderleins“, in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 12. Mai 1990. And: „Es gibt keine allgemein gültigen Kriterien, aber man muss trotzdem Urteile fällen. Denn nur am Argument entzünden sich unterschiedliche Betrachtungsweisen, die wiederum die Kreativität des Ganzen befördern. (…) Ein Kritiker darf hassen, gerührt sein, belehren, resignieren, persönlich werden oder jubeln, solange er seine Gefühle in eine verständliche Relation zu dem Gegenstand bringt.“ („There are no general criteria, but nevertheless we have to pass judgements. Because only an argument can elicit different approaches which in consequence increase the creativity of the whole. (…) A critic is allowed to hate, be moved, teach, resignate, get personal or cheer as long as he can bring his emotions into an understandable relation to his object.“ Trsl. G.P.) Till Briegleb, „Kritiker und Theater. 10 Thesen“, in: Dramaturgie. Zeitschrift der dramaturgischen Gesellschaft*, Heft 1/2006, S. 12-13 ︎
  14. Paul Woodruff, „Attention to technique in theatre“, PTDA, pp. 109-121
  15. PTDA, p. 110
  16. PTDA, p. 114
  17. Saint-Saëns, Cello concerto op. 33; Beethoven, Piano sonata op. 101
  18. „A Midsummernight’s dream“: Theseus’s and Hippolyta’s comments as they watch the artisans’ performance
  19. PTDA, p. 120
  20.  cf. Hamilton, PTDA, p. 143
  21. With the exception of a tribute to Derrida (PTDA, p. 31) and one to Rancière (PTDA, p. 148)

“Herrnburger Bericht“ revisited

Anecdotes about the reception of Bertolt Brecht with contemporary extensions, or:

Art and Politics Changing Place

 

This also is a kind of self-incrimination. But juvenile errors usually are forgiven. And in politics public admissions of guilt are a way to absolution.

The Brecht who nobody wanted (except me)

In 1976 I wrote an article about Bertolt Brecht’s „Herrnburger Bericht“ which was published in the magazine „Kämpfende Kunst“ of the German „Congregation of socialist cultural workers“ under the title „The Brecht who nobody wants“1. The article tried to re-evaluate Brecht’s and Dessau’s cantata from the point of view of the neo-communist party, whose student organisation I belonged to at that time. Since the publication of this article, I could no longer enter the GDR (as usual, reasons were not given, but it is likely that the article played a role in making me an undesirable alien to the GDR). After cleaning them of some of the most offensive communist jargon, I quote some sentences of this old text:

One of the most obvious proofs that Brecht cannot be absorbed by either East- or West-Germany, in spite of all the adulteration he is subjected to, is „Herrnburger Bericht“. By now you can read in print Brecht’s complete student poetry, in which he was still under the spell of Whileminian ideology and heralded Germany’s imperialist war and praised Wilhelm II. as the „king of the land / of Immanuel Kant“. The „Herrnburger Bericht“, however, with which Brecht supported the FDJ, has until today not been reprinted since its first publication in the SED-newspaper „Neues Deutschland“ and as a brochure of FDJ. He can neither be absorbed by the FRG nor the GDR. They have to discard it either as „pure communist propaganda“ or at least as „artistically worthless“ or have to ignore it completely.

In order to explain what my obliterated text about an obliterated work of propaganda has to do with the present situation of German theatre, I must go some lengths.

A short survey of a special case of how Brecht was received in Germany

After World War II the Cold War began. Brecht had to justify himself in front of the „House Un-American Activities Committee“ and hastily left his country of exile and settled in Switzerland. From there he returned to Berlin in 1949, to East-Berlin, capital of the just founded German Democratic Republik (DDR). As a fellow traveller of the German Communist Party (KPD) at the end of the Weimar Republic, he was highly welcome there, but was not part of the ruling group of functionaries. Following the instructions of Stalin’s Soviet Union, the government of the GDR pursued the course of blaming the Western Allies for the partition of Germany and presenting itself as the angel of peace campaigning for a neutral, unified Germany, disconnected from the Western Allies. For these aims, the FDJ (Free Democratic Youth), the youth organization of the GDR, was also employed.

In 1950 the FDJ organised a „German Meeting of Youth for Peace and Friendship Among the Peoples“ in East-Berlin. The FDJ had quite a large number of members also in the FDR. It was de facto the youth organisation of the Communist Party in the West. The West-German authorities tried to keep young people from taking part in the event. About 10,000 nevertheless travelled to East-Berlin. On the journey back they were arrested in the border-village of Herrnburg near Lübeck by West-German police who wanted to verify their identities. Officially, a health check was said to be the reason. The FDJ youngsters refused to obey and camped in front of the border between the two parts of Germany on GDR ground for two days, before they were released and were allowed to enter West-Germany without their identities being verified.

In 1951 the „3rd World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace“ was organised in East-Berlin. Paul Dessau, whose opera „The Interrogation of Lukullus“ with a libretto by Brecht, had just been condemned by the cultural officials of the GDR as a „failed experiment“, asked Brecht on this occasion to write a libretto for a scenic cantata which was to be staged several times during the festival. Brecht and Dessau chose the Herrnburg event of the previous year as its subject. Brecht wrote some simple, rhyming poems which told the story. Dessau composed easy, choral music which could be sung by non-professionals. But the work was performed only twice during the festival2.

Herrnburger Bericht Musikausgabe Titelseite.png

Initially it was assumed that the leadership of the ruling communist party SED, which had to approve the work in advance, had artistic or political objections and therefore decided to suppress the play quickly3. Only in 2013 it turned out that completely personal resentments were the reason. Werner Hecht, longterm director of the Brecht-Archive, was then able to demonstrate that Erich Honecker, then president of the leading body of the FDJ, had objected that in one of Brecht’s children’s songs the popular communist singer Ernst Busch was mentioned4. Honecker, the apparatchik, and Busch, the workers’ singer, actor and icon of revolutionary song, were intimate enemies5. Brecht offered delaying resistance, but could not prevent that in the advance publication in “Neues Deutschland” the poem “Einladung”, which contained the offensive lines, was omitted completely and that the following FDJ brochure contained the poem, but without these two lines. His friend Busch was subjected to a party control procedure, left the SED and the “Herrnburger Bericht” disappeared6.

In West-Germany and West-Berlin the FDJ was banned and dissolved in 1951 (even before the Communist Party), its leaders were sentenced to prison. In 1952, Philipp Müller, member of the FDJ was shot by a policeman during an unauthorized demonstration in front of Grugahalle in Essen: the first death during a political demonstration in the history of the Federal Republic. This whole affair would not be worth mentioning if it had not led to further reverberations. In 1982 another, a Bavarian, neo-communist group of sectarians (officially the „Federation of German Scouts“ BDP, but at that time steered by the „Workers federation for the rebuilding of the KPD“ usually called „Arbeiterbund“), supported by Brecht’s daughter Hanne Hiob, tried to stage the „Herrnburger Bericht“ in Essen, in the communal festival hall, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Philipp Müller’s death. The city of Essen denied the use of the venue for political reasons7. The first production in West-Germany could only be staged one year later as an open-air production in Essen8.

Flugblatt Herrnburger Bericht 1982 Essen.png

With this prohibition and postponing of the production, various activities of actors taking part in the production and supporters advertising the production were connected: publication of posters for the forbidden production in Munich 1982, a solemn vigil at the anniversary of Philipp Müller’s death in Essen 1983. In both cases participants were sentenced because of the law which forbids the public showing of signs of prohibited organizations (§86a StGB). The emblem of the FDJ was displayed on the poster in Munich, and the woman in Essen wore the uniform of FDJ. All this would be only quarrels of the past without much importance today, if these court proceedings had not ended up in front of the Federal Constitutional Court (Bundesverfassungsgericht, BVerfG), the highest German court. And this court passed a leading decision on the freedom of art which is in effect until today9.

Freedom of art in the decisions of the German Federal Constitutional Court

Freedom of art is guaranteed in the German Basic Law (Grundgesetz, GG) as a fundamental right without the possibility to curtail it by specific laws (GG §5 Abs 3). The experience of the persecution and instrumentalisation of art by the Nazi-regime is often mentioned as justification of this unrestrictable status of art10.

Since the decision on Klaus Mann’s novel „Mephisto“ of 1971, in which the ban on the publication of this roman a clef, portraying Gustav Gründgens in little disguise, was lifted, the Constitutional Court distinguishes between the „work produced“ (creation of a work of art) and the „effect produced“ (the distribution of a work of art). An earlier decision had also been passed on the occasion of a performance of a text by Brecht, the „Anachronistischer Zug“ (based on Shelley’s „The Masque of Anarchy“), which was also used for a political propaganda event by the „Arbeiterbund“ with the help of Hanne Hiob. In this decision there had already been some clarifications of the range of freedom of art: „The area of ‚committed art‘ is not exempt of this guarantee of freedom.“ The tendency of art to evade any definition of itself is acknowledged: „The aim of the ‚avantgarde‘ is to expand the borders of art (…) In addition, it must be taken into account that the visible preparation of a performance can belong to the overall artistic concept of modern theatre.“11

The decision on „Herrnburger Bericht“ is of importance because it states clearly that advertising for a work of art belongs to the „effect produced“ (Wirkbereich) of art and thereby is protected by the freedom of art, and to the same degree as the work of art itself. The media are included explicitly12.

But the decision on „Herrnburger Bericht“ also confirms that the freedom of art is not only limited in a state in which the function of art is predefined by politics and law13, but  also in a state in which its freedom is defined as a fundamental right. It cannot be restricted by political preferences of any kind or specific laws, but there can be conflicts with other fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution. Today, conflicts between freedom of art and the ban on the public use of symbols of anti-constitutional organisations usually are resolved in favour of art (e.g. Jonathan Messe presenting the Hitler salute14. But what if now the Hell’s Angels would start doing street theatre?). In most cases conflicts arise between freedom of art and the right of personality. This was the case in the prominent law suits centered on Klaus Mann’s novel „Mephisto“ and Maxim Biller’s novel „Esra“15.

The freedom of „Artivism“

With maximum judicial sensitivity, the Constitutional Court recognised that art has the tendency to „expand the borders of art“16. At the same time freedom of art is considered to be a „fundamental right of communication“ (Kommunikationsgrundrecht). These two characteristics of art are used by activist theatre or „artivism“. The neat judicial separation of „work produced“ and „effect produced“ is eliminated. The effect is the work of the artist. That is, the media response is the actual work of art17. Formerly advertising for a work of art, an exhibition or a theatre performance (the use of media to attract attention to the work) was an auxiliary means for the work. Now in activist theatre, the response of the media (the resulting attention in a medialised public) becomes the relevant work of art18.

The most prominent examples of this kind of procedure are the activities of the „Centre for Political Beauty“19. Its strategy seems to be: some kind of public attack attracting maximum attention in the media, and public repeal and legal retreat afterwards. The actual work of art, the object or performance, remains secondary. As soon as the conflict with the rights of personality of those attacked becomes serious, they retreat. This happened in the case of the action against the owners of the tank-factory Krauss-Maffei20 and also in the recent action against the politician Bernd Höcke of „Alternative for Germany“ (AfD)21. Any court action which would encompass a legal defense of freedom of art is avoided. The border between art and reality should remain blurred22. Art is expanded into all areas of society. An indication fo this expansion is the frequent use of the concept of „beauty“ in the area of politics.

The Beauty of Politics

Philipp Ruch, the founder of the „Centre for Political Beauty“ published a political manifesto entitled „If not us, who then?“ (Wenn nicht wir, wer dann?)23. There, the words „beautiful“ oder „beauty“ can be found on every page, but never a theory of the relation between art and politics is developed. Their identity is simply claimed. „There is no division between politics and art which could be maintained.“24 Ruch’s concept of beauty is purely moral25. His obtrusive use of the word „beautiful“ mirrors the ancient use of the concept “καλός” in antiquity26. Artists are only mentioned as examples of geniuses, of people who shine because of moral greatness. That is astonishing in view of the „Centre’s“ claim that its activities are political art (or even political theatre)27. For Ruch, only the beauty of actions matters. The claim that art should be beautiful would probably seem tautological for him. Politics has to be beautiful because politics means action28. Art can only be beautiful for him as beautiful action. Consequently the idea of freedom of art is irrelevant to him. The label „activism“ therefore is appropriate. In general, political movements name themselves according to their aims (as liberalism, socialism, communism). Ruch’s „movement“, however, is only concerned with activation. Eliminating the passivity of the citizens of our democracies is its aim. What they should  fight for then is the self-evident: humanity as proclaimed by the Constitution. This „movement“ does not really have a political aim, no new plan for the organisation of our commonwealth. In Cologne an initiative against xenophobic right-wing politics called itself „Arsch huh!“ (Get your ass in gear! Get off your duff! Move your blooming arse!)- that’s pure activism . But no direction for art.

Ruch, Wenn nicht wir Titelbild.jpg

Because Ruch does not in fact have any political vision, but declares his consent to the existing social order of western democracies without any ado, he can invoke conservative thinkers like Leo Strauss29, one of the intellectual grand-fathers of US-American Republicans, (and somewhat ashamedly even Oswald Spengler30 and Carl Schmitt31). Consequently there are sentences in which democracy and humanism (of the kind legitimised by natural law as postulated by Leo Strauss) are presented as contradictory32. Completely ambiguous is his relation to Kierkegaard, who he employs on the one hand for separating ethical life from aesthetic life33, and on the other hand for the confirmation of the view that moral action is beautiful, which amounts to the equation of ethical and aesthetic life34. But it is probably inappropriate to expect consistency of thought from a treatise like Philipp Ruch’s. The reproduction of the unusual disfiguration of Thomas Hobbes’s theory, the biased denunciation of Sigmund Freund’s theory and practice, the complete ignorance of John Locke, all these show the soteriological or pastoral character of this scripture. It is no scientific work of Philipp Ruch, the professional historian of ideas.

At first sight Ruch seems to belong to that sort of moral extremists who Larissa MacFarquahr portrays so sensitively and with critical distance at the same time35. But for them, morality is basically a duty of the individual to help strangers. For Ruch different things are important, he would like to found a new religion in which faith in humanity and the effectiveness of the action of individuals are the articles of faith36. He describes the result of the event called „The dead are coming“ (which the „Centre for Political Beauty“ staged in Berlin under Ruch’s direction, in which refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean were supposedly exhumed and buried at the Berlin Wall) as „wonder“37. He sees himself as the „chief negotiator of political beauty“, as its „messenger“38. Here, political beauty is personified as deity and Ruch as its prophet. An argumentum ad hominem cannot refute the statements of the person attacked, but someone who exposes his own person in a political treatise in such a way, cannot avoid being judged as a person.

Byung-Chul Hand, Errettung des Schönen Titelbild.jpg

What Ruch does not deliver, an explanation of the concept of beauty that would justify applying it to politics, is attempted by Buying-Chul Han39. Similar to Ruch he goes back to the connection of the ideas of „good“ and „beautiful“ in ancient Greece40. His focus, however, is not the justification of activism such as Ruch’s, but the resistance to the aestheticisation of everyday life, to the „neoliberal kalokratia“41 and the salvation of beauty as being of authoritative power. Ruch’s and Han’s conclusions for art, especially theatre, are contradictory to the extend that their conclusions for politics are similar42. Han polemicises with Botho Strauß against „affect theatre“, defends dialogue and compassion as basic elements of theatre from antiquity to modernism, scolds against the „pornographic nudism of souls“ of the „theatre of revelations“. And demands in Botho Strauß’s words a „nemological self-transcendency“ of the actor43.

From the politicisation of art to the aestheticisation of politics

Initially, the 1968 movement criticized art as a mechanism of power and commodity of the cultural industry. Beauty was a means of the power to be fought against. Then, an emancipatory, anti-capitalist kind of art should be developed44, finally the primacy of political activity over any artistic activity was postulated. Consequently in the seventies the debate was about safeguarding art against politics, art had to be justified as an activity of social significance. This justification was its politicisation. Today, the wind blows from the opposite direction. After politicisation, now the aestheticisation of politics is on the agenda.

This is part of an extensive social development. All parts of everyday life are aestheticised, everything is art and aesthetic stimuli are employed everywhere. In ethics and self-help literature good life is explained as beautiful life. You are supposed to sculpture your life like a work of art45. Against this aestheticisation of our living environment, which is being criticized by sociologists since the nineties46, Myung-Chul Han pits the seriousness and truth of art, and readily expands the claim that art conveys truth into the area of politics.

Since Walter Benjamin „aestheticisation of politics“ is a feature of fascism47. Criticising the aestheticisation of our living environment belongs to this tradition of skepticism against the expansion of the aesthetic. What Han and Ruch try to achieve is something else. It is an abstract moralisation of politics, without confronting the actual moral questions which have to be put to politics. There are enough attempts to think through the problems of worldwide migration and global injustice in the context of political philosophy and ethics and to make suggestions for solutions. Nothing of that kind is mentioned by either Ruch or Han – nothing of Thomas Pogge’s suggestions for international licensing rights of vital medicines or to the international legal regulations of the mining rights of rare metals48, nothing of David Miller’s ideas for the increase of participatory structures in democracies49, nothing of Martha Nussbaum’s attempt, inspired by Aristotle, of defining the essence of a good life across cultures50 – none of the attempts of contemporary philosophy to meddle with ugly politics is acknowledged. We only hear the thin voice of a slogan: „Ideal politics is politics of beauty“51.

From politicisation of art to aestheticisation of the living environment to politics of beauty, the realms of art and politics seem to have changed places. But the politicisation of art since 1968 was a process actually taking place in society, connected to the reform of many other parts of society. Today the cry for the politics of beauty comes from artists and art critics alone, it does not reflect any real social development. What actually is taking place is the purgation of art of its traditional elements of fiction and mimesis.

Anticriticsm of criticism of aestheticisation

Aestheticisation of politics (which is no „politics of beauty“) is a real phenomenon as is the aestheticisation of the environment of life – for reasons quite different and with effects quite different from a kind of politics of „goodness, truth and beauty“52 that Byung-Chul Han seems to imagine. In a broadly conceived study Juliane Rebentisch53 has tried so show how aestheticisation of politics is a necessary phenomenon of a modern democracy. Democracy as a form of government which is open to change and to its own perfection. It does not conceal that a people, δῆμος, as a unity does not exist without representation i.e. without governance. But it surrenders this governance to the judgement of the unknowing populace. This corresponds to the individual conception of oneself, Rebentisch explains. We as persons cannot understand ourselves without assuming roles and imitating others. Platon’s mocking phrase of „theatrokratia“54 is used by her and she turns it against the criticism of aestheticisation. Democracy is theatre because both rest on representation56. In this vein, as recognition of the alien in one’s own, theatriclisation is a necessary antidote against all tendencies towards totalitarian and identitarian politics56, 57, .

Rebentisch, Kunst der Freiheit Titelbild.jpg

Rebentisch carries her anti-criticism of the criticism of aestheticisation right through the main line of the history of philosophy, discussing prominent critics of aestheticisation like Platon, Rousseau, Hegel, Kierkegaard and Carl Schmitt before she comes to the author who has put criticism of aesthetics to the most succinct formula: Walter Benjamin. And this deviation will lead us back to Brecht (at last). First Rebentisch dispatches with Benjamin’s thesis of the aestheticisation of politics as a characteristic of fascism by simply exchanging words. What Benjamin calls „aestheticisation“ is labelled „anaestheticisation“ by Rebentisch. A demagogue using artistic means is an anaesthetist, not somebody who intensifies perception, but somebody who makes it sensationless, who switches off consciousness. In order to demonstrate that this is exactly what Benjamin in fact has in mind when writing about „aestheticisation“, Rebentisch resorts to his understanding of Brecht’s theatre58. According to Benjamin, Brecht’s theatre tries to transform the audience to an „assembly of interested people“, in which the individual’s judgement is given space61. The „false, veiling totality of audience“60 should be decomposed. „The prerequisite of a truly political theatre therefore lies with a practice of theatre which is able to free spectators from the passive position of an audience and put them in an intellectually interested, if you want, philosophical relation to what is presented.“61  Using three current examples, theatre productions by Christoph Marthaler, Christoph Schlingensief, and René Pollesch, she shows that today, theatre recognises the „political potential of its own aestheticity“ and explicitly emphasizes is own theatricality62.

Back to the Brecht who nobody wants (still)

After this review of some discussions of the relation of politics and art, how can the „Herrnburger Bericht“ be understood today? Brecht follows the given political course. The „Bericht“ is an occasional work for a clearly defined target audience at a specific event. It is „theatre of the real“, documentary theatre. (Egon Monk’s first and only production of 1951 integrated film material of the events of the previous year.) In an essay on the relation between simulation and reality in contemporary theatre Carol Martin mentions Brecht and Piscator63 as forefathers of a theatre that makes the examination of the relation between fiction and reality its theme: „theatre about real events; narratives that are in accord with reality that articulate fidelity to an ideal in ways that invite consideration of what was heretofore thought of as usual but are, in fact, strange.”64 The „Herrnburger Bericht“ belongs to this tradition.

It works with irony, parody and scorn. Even the infamous lines „And greetings from Josef Stalin/ And greetings from Mao-Tse-tung!“ sound playful rather than solemn65. That is unusual for theatre which is used only for the propagation of one particular political view. It is also uncommon in theatre for children or youngsters.

Martin Brady understands the simplicity of words and music not only as an adaption to the non-professional singers and the young audience for which they were intended, but also as a kind of intentionally „blunt way of thinking“ („plumpes Denken“). In this understanding, Brady relies on Walter Benjamin’s exegesis of Brecht’s theatre, just like Rebentisch. In Brecht’s „Dreigroschenroman“ Benjamin discovered the justification of this „blunt way of thinking“. Dialectics produces it as its counterpart, includes it and has need of it66. Brady uses the expressions of „experimental blatancy“ and „stählerne Einfalt“ („steely simplemindedness“) for the characterization of the style of „Herrnburger Bericht“. For him this style is no regression, but a further development of the style of Brecht’s learning plays (Lehrstücke) from the twenties. Paul Dessau’s music also uses „false“ baselines, alienation of harmonic functions, stylistic parodies and makes high demands on the audience in decoding the musical intentions67. Music also only pretends to adapt to the popular style demanded by the functionaries of the GDR in the debate on formalism which rattled the culture scene of the GDR in 1951.

That the „Herrnburger Bericht“ has disappeared from stages and concert halls completely is due to several factors:

  • the genre, a semi-scenic cantata for children and teenagers. Hardly any work of this kind is still performed today.
  • the political content. After the building of the Berlin Wall, the firing order for GDR border troops, dissolution of the GDR and reunification of Germany, a play in which the German border is closed by west-German policemen for young people returning from the GDR is an absurdity.
  • the relation of art and the state. Today „Herrnburger Bericht” is considered to be a work commissioned by a totalitarian state. That discredits it from the outset. It can only serve as a memorial for the evil of affirmative art. Art has to be critical to any existing social conditions or at least subversive.
  • the history of its reception. The comparison to Nazi panegyrics sticks. Even Brecht himself has contributed to devaluating his own work, with the remarks on his own insecurity of judging it in his „Arbeitsjournal“ and by not integrating it in his series of publications called „Versuche“. Even to him it seems to have appeared to be a questionable minor work68.

Now, what does the case of „Herrnburger Bericht“ show us? Only what we knew in advance: Freedom of art is necessary. And freedom is an art the GDR could not master. Historical distances sometimes cannot be bridged. Political art is tied to its historical time more for reasons of content than for reasons of style. Political theatre for children with non-professionals is an invidious task (except for those directly involved in the performance).

Still, nobody wants it. Now, we know why.

 


  1. Gerhard Preußer, „Der Brecht, den niemand haben will. Zu dem Chorwerk Bertolt Brechts und Paul Dessaus ‚Herrnburger Bericht’“ Kämpfende Kunst. Zeitschrift der Vereinigung sozialistischer Kulturschaffender, 2. Jahrgang Nr. 7/8 August/September 1976, pp. 6-11, reprinted in KSP Mainz 1976 ↩︎
  2. The information about the number of performances is varying. Hennenberg (Fritz Hennenberg, Dessau-Brecht. Musikalische Arbeiten. Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1963, p.128-131) gives a detailed account of the production on the basis of a report filed in Brecht-Archiv (Ms. He 2). The review of “Neues Deutschland”, the central organ of the ruling party SED, was critical but generally friendly (Reprinted in: Monika Wyss (ed.), Brecht in der Kritik, München: Kindler, 1977, p.302-304). In the West-German press the „Herrnburger Bericht“ was discarded as a botched piece similar to the adulations of the Nazi-poet Anacker ( W.N., „Herrnburger Bericht“, Die Zeit, 11.1953). Sabina Lietzmanns review in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung works with more subtle signals of irony. (Wyss (ed.), op.cit., pp. 304-5). In literary criticism the devaluation of the work persisted as well. Martin Esslin, at that time Head of BBC Radio Drama in London, wrote in 1959 with haughty irony: „(Brecht) war ein viel zu guter Dichter, um auftragsgemäß Propagandaverse schreiben zu können.“ (Martin Esslin, Brecht. Das Paradox des politischen Dichters. München: dtv, 1966 (orig. Brecht. A Choice of Evils, 1959), p. 233). Klaus Völker, biographer and one of the leading Brecht specialists in West-Germany, later to become head of the Ernst-Busch-School of actors, was the first to rehabilitate the „Herrnburger Bericht“. It was „voller Witz, satirischer Schärfe“ and had „die „Leichtigkeit von Kinderreimen“, he wrote (Klaus Völker, Bertolt Brecht. Eine Biographie. München: Hanser, 1976, p.377). And then Albrecht Dümling tried to find a balanced judgement in view of the circumstances. „Auf beiden Seiten galt ein Künstler, der die Höhe des Olymps verläßt, um sich in aktuelle Fragen einzumischen, als nicht geheuer.“ (Albrecht Dümling, Laßt euch nicht verführen. Brecht und die Musik. München: Kindler, 1985, p. 590). But even Brecht‘s official GDR-biographer, Werner Mittenzwei, took up the devaluation of the work: „Über die politische Wirkung der von ihm gewählten Form täuschte sich Brecht.“ (Werner Mittenzwei, Das Leben des Bertolt Brecht. Oder der Umgang mit den Welträtseln. Bd. 2 Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1987 (orig. Berlin und Weimar 1986) p. 439). ↩︎
  3. So does the entry in the first edition of Jan Knopf‘s Brecht-Handbuch: Knopf conjectures „zu viel kämpferischer ‚Selbstausdruck‘ (…) zu viel spontane Selbstorganisation“ were the reasons for the ban (Jan Knopf, Brecht-Handbuch. II Lyrik, Prosa, Schriften. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzlersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1986, p. 182). In the second edition of this Brecht-Handbuch, Lars Fischer summarises the different speculations of West-German authors about the aesthetic objections of the SED-government in detail. He also hints at the conflict between Brecht, Honecker and Ernst Busch. Lars Fischer, “Herrnburger Bericht“, in: Jan Knopf (ed.), Brecht-Handbuch, Bd 2 Gedichte. Berlin: Springer, 2001, pp. 434-439 ↩︎
  4. The poem has the title „Einladung“ (Invitation). The incriminated lines are: „Und wenn Ernst Busch singt -/Wärt ihr nur dabei!“ (Werner Hecht, Die Mühen der Ebenen: Brecht und die DDR. Berlin: Aufbau, 2013. pp. 46-61) ↩︎
  5. Werner Hecht indicates the probable reason of the animosities: It is believed that in a dispute about the production of a record Busch said: “The central council can lick my arse” (equivalent to „Screw you!“). President of the Central Council of the FDJ was Honecker. Honecker is said to have then denounced Busch to the president of the GDR, Wilhelm Pieck, claiming Busch had directed his invective at the Central Comittee of the SED. (Hecht op.cit, p. 320) ↩︎
  6. It was still missing in the „Werkausgabe“ of Brecht’s publisher Suhrkamp of 1967. Only in the volume with children‘s poems, two songs from “Herrnburger Bericht” had been included. The complete text was published again only in 1982 in the supplementary volume IV of this „Werkausgabe“ (Bertolt Brecht, Gesammelte Werke. Supplement-Band IV. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp 1982, pp. 424-428). In the Großen kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe (BFA), which now has become the standard edition of Brecht’s works, “Herrnburger Bericht” is printed according to the FDJ brochure, i.e. without the lines on Ernst Busch. The annotations explain the different changes in the text that were enforced by the FDJ, but do not refer to the personal enmity of Honecker and Brecht that was revealed by Hecht later. (Bertolt Brecht, Große kommentierte Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe. Gedichte 5. Gedichte und Gedichtfragmente 1940-1956. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1993, pp.246-253 and 455-462) — The supplementary volume IV of 1982 offered the opportunity of decrying one of my other crimes. In 1978 Klaus Völker read out some unpublished poems, which he had discovered in the Brecht-Archiv in East-Berlin and were critical of the GDR, but was not allowed to publish in print. I had taken them down by ear (with inaccurate line breaks and without Völker’s knowledge) and published one of them (“Die neue Mundart”) in the newspaper of which I was editor at that time. (Rote Fahne 1978, Nr.25). In the GDR magazine Sinn und Form (1980 Heft 5, p. 1088) Gerhard Seidel then mocked the „mutilating illegal print“, and felt obliged to publish the poem, now with correct line breaks. Following this crooked path, Brecht’s poems criticising the GDR found their way into the Supplement IV „Werkausgabe“ of Suhrkamp (op. cit. p. 428) and in die BFA Bd. 12 (op.cit. p.311). The annotations in BFA (p.449) explain that a note has been added to the manuscript saying that Brecht did not want these two poems to be published. This note is not from Brecht’s hand. Brecht’s intention was only corroborated orally by his assistant Elisabeth Hauptmann. ↩︎
  7. Brochure: Die Herrnburger in Essen: Erlebnisbuch zur westdeutschen Erstaufführung des ‚Herrnburger Bericht‘ von Bertolt Brecht und Paul Dessau. München: Kämpfende Jugend, 1983 ↩︎
  8. Sound recording of the first choral song, probably from the performance in Essen 1983 ↩︎
  9. Herrnburger Bericht, Urteil vom 3.11.1987, BVerfGE 77, 240 ↩︎
  10. “Zu berücksichtigen ist ferner, daß für den Verfassunggeber auf Grund der Erfahrungen aus der Zeit des NS-Regimes, das Kunst und Künstler in die völlige Abhängigkeit politisch-ideologischer Zielsetzungen versetzt oder zum Verstummen gebracht hatte, begründeter Anlaß bestand, die Eigenständigkeit und Eigengesetzlichkeit des Sachbereichs Kunst besonders zu garantieren.“ Mephisto-Urteil, BVerfGE 30, 173 vom 24.2.1971 ↩︎
  11. Anachronistischer Zug, Urteil vom 17. Juli 1984, BVerfGE 67, 213 ↩︎
  12. “Zu diesem Wirkbereich zählen auch die Medien, die durch Vervielfältigung, Verbreitung und Veröffentlichung eine unentbehrliche Mittlerfunktion zwischen Künstler und Publikum ausüben. Die Werbung für ein Kunstwerk ist zwar kein Medium, welches das Kunstwerk selber oder seinen Inhalt transportiert. Sie bildet aber ein Kommunikationsmittel, das ebenfalls zum Wirkbereich künstlerischen Schaffens gehört; denn die Kunst ist wie die Schutzgüter der anderen ‚Kommunikationsgrundrechte’ öffentlichkeitsbezogen und daher auf öffentliche Wahrnehmung angewiesen. Aus diesem Grund fällt auch die Werbung für ein Kunstwerk unter den Schutz dieses Grundrechts.“ BVerfGE 77,240 op.cit. ↩︎
  13. Verfassung der DDR, Art. 18 ↩︎
  14. preliminary proceedings Meese ↩︎
  15. BVerfG 119,1 vom 13.062007. The dispute about the ban on public display of the symbols of the FDJ, which even today is illegal in West-Germany (but not in East-Germany), is still continued in the present. Cf. a case in Berlin and one in Munich. ↩︎
  16. Anachronistischer Zug, Urteil vom 17. Juli 1984 ↩︎
  17. Florian Malzacher mentions the Croat theatre director Oliver Frljić as an example of a „neo-scandalist approach“ (F.M., „No organon to follow. Possibilities of political theatre today“ In: F.M. (ed.), Not just a mirror. Looking for the political theatre of today. Berlin: Alexander Verlag, 2015, p.27) ↩︎
  18. “Der Artivismus braucht Rückhall, er braucht die Medien. Oft genug definieren sich Künstler, die ein politisches Anliegen verfolgen, über das mediale Echo; das Echo ist ihr Werk.“ Hanno Rautenberg, „In den Fallen der Freiheit“, Die Zeit, 18.7.2015. Cf. also the somewhat milder judgement of Sophie Diesselhorst on Nachtkritik: „Und was ist mit den Artivisten? Die gewitzten, sophisticated durchdesignten Kampagnen von Peng, ZPS & Co. mögen weniger konkrete Veränderung bringen als sie möchten – aber für die Theater sind sie trotzdem wichtig, allerdings in ganz anderer Hinsicht: nämlich als spielerische Analysen unserer Multimedia-Gesellschaft und damit als Ideengeber für das alte Medium, das sein Publikum verliert, wenn es sich im analogen Raum abschottet.“ ↩︎
  19. See its Website ↩︎
  20. ZfpS gegen Krauss-Maffei ↩︎
  21. ZfpS gegen Höcke also Franz Wille‘s comment „Innige Umarmung“ in: Theater heute Nr. 1 (January 2018), p. 1 ↩︎
  22. Florian Malzacher mentions the US-American group „Yes Men“ as an example of „manipulating mass media with the aim of disseminating a message as widely as possible … Their strategy is first to make it into the news headlines with a false but disarming announcement, and then they make the news again by uncovering the prank.“ op.cit. p. 27. See also the website of Yes Men. This was also the strategy of ZfpS in the case of the leopard baby of Dortmund.↩︎
  23. Philipp Ruch, Wenn nicht wir, wer dann? Ein politisches Manifest. München: Ludwig, 2015. Cf. Dirk Pilz’ review on „Nachtkritik“ ↩︎
  24. Ruch, op.cit p. 23 ↩︎
  25. “Schönheit ist … in einer Welt ohne Wunder zutiefst ethisch.“ Ruch, op.cit. p. 189 ↩︎
  26. e.g. the Delphic saying „καλλιστόν τὸ δικαιότατον“ („The most beautiful is most just“) quoted by Aristotle, Eth. Nicom. 1099a27 and Eudemian Ethics 1214a5↩︎
  27. That it is inappropriate to bring the activities of the „Centre for political beauty“ to the theatre was shown at Schauspiel Dortmund, when the „Centre“ staged its production „2099“ there (19.9.2015).↩︎
  28. “Gute Politik sollte künstlerisch sein.“ Ruch, op.cit. p. 22 ↩︎
  29. Ruch op.cit. p. 127, 175 ↩︎
  30. Ruch op.cit. p. 126 ↩︎
  31. Ruch op.cit. p. 202 ↩︎
  32. “Demokraten muss es um politische Kompromisse gehen. Aggressiven Humanisten geht es um Gerechtigkeit.“ Ruch op.cit. p. 201 ↩︎
  33. “Der gestalterische Impuls der ästhetischen Lebensweise ist die Ungebundenheit. Ethisch zu leben bedeutet hingegen, sich zu verpflichten. Die Fähigkeit, eine Entscheidung zu treffen und sie zu verantworten. Darin lag für Kierkegaard die Hoffnung, dem Leben Tiefe zu geben.“ Ruch op.cit p. 139 ↩︎
  34. “Schönheit ist, wie Kierkegaard erkannte, in einer Welt ohne Wunder zutiefst ethisch.“ Ruch op.cit. p. 189 ↩︎
  35. Larissa MacFarquhar, Strangers drowning. Grappling with impossible idealism, drastic choice, and the overpowering urge to help. New York: Penguin, 2015 ↩︎
  36. Ruch op.cit. p. 170 ↩︎
  37. Ruch op.cit. p. 196 ↩︎
  38. Ruch op.cit p. 104 ↩︎
  39. Byung-Chul Han, Die Errettung des Schönen. Frankfurt/M: S. Fischer, 2nd 2015. In his speech „Die Wiederkehr der Schönheit. Über einige unangenehme Begegnungen“ Wolfgang Ullrich has pointed out the intellectual connections between Byung-Chul Han, Philipp Ruch and the right-wing movement of „identitarians“.↩︎
  40. Thereby the ancient aristocratic ideal of „καλοκἀγαθία”, the “beautifulandgood”, and its interpretation in Aristotle’s Eudemian Ethics are ripped out of context. If Han maintains „Here [Eudemian Ethics], the good is subordinated to the beautiful.“ („Das Gute wird hier dem Schönen untergeordnet oder nachgeordnet.“ (Han op.cit p.74), this is in contradiction to Aristotle’s own explanations in the same text: „πολλαχῶς τὸ ἀγαθόν, καὶ ἔστι τι αὐτοῦ καλόν“ (1218b4) „Manifold is the good and something of it is the beautiful.“ (transl. G.P.) ↩︎
  41. Han op.cit., 97) ↩︎
  42. “Die Politiker als freie Menschen müssen schöne Taten hervorbringen …“ Han op.cit., p. 73 ↩︎
  43. Han op.cit. p. 81 ↩︎
  44. On the one hand the ruling class beautify their office with art, on the other hand art should become a means for the production of consciousness. (SDS Gruppe ‚Kultur und Revolution‘, „Kunst als Ware der Bewusstseinsindustrie“, in: Die Zeit Nov. 1968). Or the debate about the alledged „death of literature“ in Kursbuch 15 (1968) ed. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and in particular Peter Schneider`s essay „Phantasie im Spätkapitalismus“ in Kursbuch 16 (1969). See also in this context F.C.Delius’ amusing retrospective speech at the opening of the exhibition „Protest!Literatur um 1968“ in Literaturhaus Berlin in 1999. The debates of the late sixties about the politicization of theatre and the related activities are presented and analysed in detail in Dorothea Kraus, Theater-Proteste. Zur Politisierung von Straße und Bühne in den 1960er Jahren. Frankfurt/M: Campus, 2007 ↩︎
  45. e.g. Wilhelm Schmidt following Foucault: „Die Ästhetik der Existenz (lässt sich) als Arbeit an der kunstvollen Gestaltung der Existenz bezeichnen, durch die das Leben selbst zum Kunstwerk wird.“ in: Wilhelm Schmid, Schönes Leben? Einführung in die Lebenskunst. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 2000, p. 174f ↩︎
  46. e.g. „Die vermisste Totalität des Sinns soll wenigstens in Form des Scheins präsent bleiben und deshalb wird den Künstlern Lebenshilfe aufgebürdet. Womit die Menschen auf der konkreten Handlungsebene nicht fertig werden, verliert im ästhetischen Medium alle Widerstände. Umgekehrt leiht es den ehedem unter üblem politischen Leumund leidenden Künstlern eine überraschende Würde, wenn sie auf eine Weise ernst genommen werden, die das Fiktive ausschließt.“ Rüdiger Bubner, „Ästhetisierung der Lebenswelt“, in: R.B., Ästhetische Erfahrung. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1989, p. 155 ↩︎
  47. “Der Faschismus versucht, die neu entstandenen proletarisierten Massen zu organisieren, ohne die Eigentumsverhältnisse auf deren Beseitigung sie hindrängen, anzutasten. Er sieht sein Heil darin, die Massen zum ihrem Ausdruck (beileibe nicht zu ihrem Recht) kommen zu lassen. Die Massen haben ein Recht auf Veränderung der Eigentumsverhältnisse, der Faschismus sucht ihnen einen Ausdruck in deren Konservierung zu geben. Der Faschismus läuft folgerecht auf eine Ästhetisierung des politischen Lebens hinaus. … So steht es um die Ästhetisierung der Politik, welche der Faschismus betreibt. Der Kommunismus antwortet im mit der Politisierung der Kunst.“ Walter Benjamin, Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit. Drei Studien zur Kunstsoziologie. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1977 pp. 42, 44 ↩︎
  48. Thomas Pogge, „Anerkannt und doch verletzt durch internationales Recht: Die Menschenrechte der Armen“, in: Barbara Fleisch, Peter Schaber (ed.), Weltarmut und Ethik. Paderborn: mentis, 2nd 2009, pp. 95-138 or David Miller, „Are they my poor: the problem of altruism in a world of strangers“, in: D.M, Justice for Earthlings. Essays in political philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013, pp. 183-205, cf. also: David Miller, Strangers in our midst. The political philosophy of Immigration. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2016 ↩︎
  49. David Miller, „Democracy“, in: D.M., Political Philosophy. A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003, pp.37-54 ↩︎
  50. Martha C. Nussbaum, „Der aristotelische Sozialdemokratismus“, in: M.N., Gerechtigkeit oder Das gute Leben. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1999 (orig. Engl. 1990) pp. 24-85 ↩︎
  51. Han op.cit., p. 74 ↩︎
  52. Inscription on the porch of “Alte Oper” in Frankfurt am Main ↩︎
  53. Juliane Rebentisch, Die Kunst der Freiheit. Zur Dialektik demokratischer Existenz. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2012 ↩︎
  54. θεατροκρατία, Platon, Leges, 701a. ↩︎
  55. „Die Demokratie ist (…) von der differentiellen Repräsentationslogik des Theaters geprägt: Die demokratische Souveränität ist darin relativ, dass sie ihre Setzungen als solche markiert oder ausstellt und damit an die Anerkennung durch ein nicht homogenes Publikum aussetzt.“ Rebentisch op.cit, p. 368 ↩︎
  56. “Eine Demokratie, die sich gegen die ästhetisierende Transformation ihres ethisch-politischen Selbstverständnisses immunisiert hätte, wäre keine mehr.“ p. 374. This refers to the defence against the danger of a decline of democracy to totalitarianism. Less convincing is Rebentisch’s argumentation for the defence against postdemocratic tendencies.. pp. 369-374 ↩︎
  57. Digression: It is astonishing how much Alan Badiou, the confesssing Platonic and despiser of parliamentary democracy, and Juliane Rebentisch, the anti-Platonic and and apologetic of an aestheticised democracy, agree if it comes to the relation between theatre and politics. Badiou also assumes „theatre-politics isomorphism“. (p. 9). Badiou distinguishes politics from the “monotonous administration of the State“ – Rebentisch would call that post-democray. For Badiou, politics comes into existence with a combination of three elements: „The masses who all of a sudden are gathered in an unexpected consistency (events); The points of view incarnated in organic and enumberable actors (subject-effects); a reference in thought that authorizes the elaboration of discourse“ (p. 7). For Badiou, these three elements are also elements of theatre and therefore they are the basis for a structural concord between theatre and politics. Like Rebentisch, Badiou thinks that the claim of the state to incorporate the common good (volonté généreal) is always contingent and revisable. „Some element of the symbolic is struck here, because it becomes manifest that its universality is purely contingent“ (p. 9) But Badiou’s ideas of how mass movements can change the state are much more radical than Rebentisch’s ideas of how theatricalized election campaigns are necessary for political change in parliamentary democracies. Alain Badiou, Rhapsody for the theatre. (ed.) Bruno Bosteels. London/New York: Verso, 2013 ↩︎
  58. Walter Benjamin, „Was ist das epische Theater (1) Eine Studie zu Brecht“ (1931), in: W.B., Versuche über Brecht. Rolf Tiedemann. Frankfurt/M: 1978. p. 17-29 ↩︎
  59. Rebentisch, op. cit. p. 348f ↩︎
  60. Benjamin cit. Rebentisch op.cit. p. 349 ↩︎
  61. Rebentisch op.cit, p. 354 ↩︎
  62. Rebentisch op.cit., p. 367 ↩︎
  63. It is astonishing in such regressions into the history of theatre which serve the legitimisation of contemporary experiments in theatre, that the particular political contexts in which these ancestors of political theatre developed their innovations are ignored. As often, there is a kind of anticapitalism which keeps silent about its Marxist origin. Piscator‘s Revue „Trotz alledem!“, which Carol Martin mentions, was staged only for the opening of the party conference of the communist party KPD in 1925 (cf. the detailed description in Jürgen Rühle, Theater und Revolution. München: dtv, 1963, p. 136f and two contradictory reviews of „Rote Fahne“ and „Berliner Tageblatt“ in: Günther Rühle, Theater für die Republik 1917-1933. Im Spiegel der Kritik. Frankfurt/M: S. Fischer, 1967, p. 645-650) ↩︎
  64. Carol Martin, „History and politics on stage. The theatre of the real“, in: Malzacher (ed.) op.cit., p. 43. ↩︎
  65. Bertolt Brecht, Gesammelte Werke. Supplementband IV. Gedichte aus dem Nachlass 2. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1982, p. 421 ↩︎
  66. Benjamin, „Brechts Dreigroschenroman“, in: W.B., op.cit. p. 60 ↩︎
  67. see the musical analyses in: Hennenberg op.cit.., pp. 234-236, 249 ↩︎
  68. “interessant, wie man sich ein kunstwerk anhört, das irgendwie verurteilt worden ist. (…) überhaupt wirkt nichts mehr auf den, der die wirkung abschätzt“ 17.8.51. Bertolt Brecht, Arbeitsjournal Zweiter Band 1942 bis 1955. Frankfurt/M: Suhrkamp, 1974, p.579. A more affirmative self-evaluation can be found in one of Brecht’s notes, which was published only in the annotations of BFA 1993: „Das ist eine Gelegenheitsarbeit über ein Thema in verschiedenen Variationen. Kunstmäßig, mit einem kleinen Zaun herum. Das ist nicht nachgefühlt oder abgelauscht, sondern bewusst künstlerisch abgesetzt. – Das hatten früher alle großen Stücke. Wallenstein und Wilhelm Tell waren zwar abgelauscht, aber doch mit Distanz gestaltet. Heute wird das Publikum aber ganz böse, wenn man davon spricht.“ (BFA Bd.15 p.456)

 

Thanks to Victoria for correcting my translation.↩︎

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 ↩︎