Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Using Theatre as Philosophy

During his discussion of 'truth and illusion, Tom Stern evokes Bertrand Russell's belief that 'the prepositions in the play (Hamlet) are false because there was no such man' (Philosophy and Theatre, 2014). Stern complicates Russell's statement by suggesting that a performance can contain accurate information, whether it is in the form of historical fact or moral epigrams, but is dissatisfied both with the blanket condemnation of Hamlet as a falsehood and his own counter-arguments.

Stern's survey of the relationship between theatre and philosophers covers a rocky road. Plato's early objections to the dishonesty of the actor are revived even into the eighteenth century (by Rousseau), and the tension between Christianity and the drama even led to a ban on theatre during the puritan-inspired British Commonwealth. The importance of 'truth' for philosophers appears to be challenged by performance which celebrates imitation, pretense and fiction. It's not until the post-modern era, when Derrida and Foucault and the gang attacked the possibility of truth itself, that theatre and philosophy start to get together.

Stern's interest in the philosophical possibilities presented by theatre, however, are suggestive. Far from making an argument for any particular position, he offers an introduction towards a wider study, revolving around the question of theatre's social purpose. He doesn't accept the enlightenment hope that theatre can be a 'school of morals', but doesn't dismiss its value. In his final chapter, he veers towards a political analysis, concluding that Brecht had 'a vision for a new kind of theatre'. 

This mining of theatre for philosophy eschews aesthetic analysis or consideration of form. It is predominantly  - that is, the script is taken as the art, and productions are rarely mentioned. Lines from Hamlet are bandied about, but there's no consideration of how different directors have handled the script. Equally, the notion of pure entertainment is rarely evoked. Stern recognises plays, at least, as a medium for communication.

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