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Provocative And Debatable

Theatre History

Nicholas Ridout “Theatre and Ethics” , Palgrave Macmillan , October 30, 2020
Theatre History by Nicholas Ridout “Theatre and Ethics” “Theatre and Ethics” is a short, full, dense, provocative book. It comes with an underlying thesis that courses throughout. It is a thesis with which I almost entirely disagree.

The article of three weeks ago, October 9th, made an attempt to link theatre to contemporary ethics. Its argument was that the art form at its heart makes material Levinas' concept of encounter with the Other. Levinas features in this book, first in his rejection of Heidegger.

The focus of Dasein, says the book, “the task of human life the fullest and most authentic realisation of who you are” is false. Since good thinking often involves the puncturing of dichotomies this Levinas-Heidegger dichotomy may itself not hold up. Certainly the social interactionists would think so. The human mind, with a cognitive motor but no innate content of its own, is made of material it finds in the world.

The reading of “Theatre and Ethics” is inseparable from the last book on theatre's history, below 18th December 2018. That author cites the German tradition of “Theatrwissenschaft” as being “suspicious of practical work.” The anti-empirical tendency can be seen in the citation here from Hans-Thies Lehman. Lehmann posits an ethics of theatre that contrasts with a saturation of other media.

“The basic structure of perception", says Lehman, "mediated by media [sic] is that there is no experience of a connection among the individual images received.”

He has, perhaps, a point. Theatre's virtue is that it has a spatial unity within a temporal span. But as cognitive description it is false since the mind is nothing if not a connection-making mechanism. The larger objection is its presumption to know the minds of others. Ethical modesty would say that the minds of others are always unknown to us. The making of culture, the antithesis to organic separation, is a means to cognitive fusion.

An earlier German is cited. Kant set the moral imperative of relation to others; that they be treated as ends in themselves and not as means. From the “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” of 1785 the categorical imperative is interpreted as “the ethics derived from this principle is a way of regulating, or of managing the relationship between the particular (individual) and the universal (humanity at large).”

The author does call this “one of the great emancipatory achievements of the enlightenment.” The book does not cover the translation of the categorical imperative onto the stage by Schiller and others. There is some time spent with the greats of the Enlightenment, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing and Adam Smith. The focus is on the lesser-known Smith, author of the “Theory of Moral Sentiments" of 1759. (The book has a personal connection, a treasured first edition being among the 22,500 books of the Phillips collection held in Lampeter.) But the interpretation has an oddity to it:

“the book's particular significance in our context is that it proposes a theatrical way of thinking about ethics, in which we judge our own behaviour in the guise of an imaginary “spectator” within us.”

Not really; the route to an ethical existence is to view the self as an object and others as a subject. But oddity occurs in other places in critical observation. “King Lear” is interpreted as a shift “put, very simply, from feudalism to capitalism.” Edmund is made into a spokesperson for capital. Not as I ever saw it.

When it comes to Ibsen: “A Doll's House” and “Hedda Gabler” present not abstract reflections on marriage, childbirth and the life of women but concrete embodiments of a crisis intrinsic to a society about which the plays were written and in which they were received. “

But theatre does not do abstract reflection. It is the most material of arts, human beings in presence moving in real space and time. Even figures in an unlocated place or time, like Vladimir and Estragon, are humanly material.

In the modern age Kierkegaard does not get a mention. More than any other he grappled with the tension between the ethical and the aesthetic. The figure of Judge Wilhelm in “Equilibrium Between the Aesthetic and the Ethical in the Composition of Personality” in “Either-Or II.” is important. More questionable is the attitude towards the Enlightenment as a whole. It is true, as a critic put it, that “Lessing’s entire philosophical outlook appears to be based on the assumption that literature can bring ethical rationality into the world as a condition of its being.” But this description is far from the actual experience of viewing, say, “Don Carlos” or “Maria Stuart.”

“In place of the discredited enlightenment model”, thinks the book, “in which the audience gains moral and sentimental education out at the civic or national theatre, we might be able to develop a model of performance ethics, in which we come face to face with the other, in a recognition of our mutual vulnerability which encourages relationships based on openness, dialogue and a respect for difference. This represents a shift in terminology in which the theatre of moral instruction gives way to performance as ethical practice”

This does not feel like criticism; but if theatre is going to do all these good things that makes it no less instructional than Enlightenment theatre is depicted as being.

In the nature of university interests an example is taken from a company which will be largely unknown to regular patrons of theatre. In this case it is the group Goat Island:

“Their aesthetic arises from a sustained practice of living with the material with which they work, so that a “final” piece takes the form on an organic melding of elements, a life-world which the performers inhabit.”

Sagging, or false, description comes with an invariable giveaway. Abstract nouns pile up at the cost of denotative nouns that refer to something specific. The adjective “organic” is hauled in here not as a descriptor but as a flag of virtue to say “this is good.”

Theatre studies is a movement that places first value on formal novelty. It is a posture of political conservatism. As below December 2018 “Theatre, no longer needing to be a mirror to society and realistic, a job better done on a global scale by television, has now developed into an art form in which the theatre space becomes the exhibiting gallery, its audiences an informed few.”

Audiences are interested in society. Theatre studies consequently do not care for audiences much; the preferred informed few are colleagues. Here this is extrapolated to an ethical plane:

“Increasingly the relationship between theatre and ethics comes to be a question of form rather than content. This focus on process and form goes hand in hand with an openness to the future rather than a closure around a specific ethical position.”

So, in that last phrase get bracketed the rest of us. We lack openness to the future. But then we are also people who do not inhabit the classroom but actually buy tickets to go to theatre.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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