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Brecht and mimesis #3

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The significance of mimesis in Bertolt Brecht’s critique of ‘Aristotelian theatre’.

Next in a series following:

Brecht and mimesis #1

Brecht and mimesis #2

Illusion: the real and the representational

shell-01Let us now consider the shell Venus is standing on. It is perfectly straightforward that a spectator should see a picture of a shell both as a shell and as a picture – and therefore not a shell. Ignoring the special case of trompe l’oeuil, it is facts about the picture of the shell (it is flat and made of canvas and oil paint) that prevent one from believing it to be a shell, although it can be seen as a shell.

In the case of a naturalistic theatrical performance the situation is different. In the case of the actor playing Clov in Endgame the more naturalistic the performance the more true it is that only facts external to the actual actor playing Clov prevent one from believing he actually is Clov (ie that there really is a person called Clov and this is he). For example the fact that he is on a stage under lights, the fact that it is a play by Samuel Beckett, the fact that people are watching, and so on. Facts ‘internal’ to the actor (eg that he is an actor and therefore pretending) may not be apparent. So would one say that the more naturalistic the performance the greater is the likelihood of momentary lapses of memory – lapses into illusion – on the part of the audience? These would be equivalent to trompe l’oeuil but far more immediate since the medium of the represented object is the same as that of the representing object, and the actor would try to keep the ‘internal’ facts as hidden as possible.

Talk of ‘illusion’ may however invite misconception if we take too absolute a view of the divorce between ‘real’ and ‘representational’. Consider in turn a drawing of a hammer; a papier mâché model of a hammer; a plastic toy hammer; and a metal toy hammer which somehow managed to find its way into the toolbox and was found to be the perfect tool for tapping in panel pins. It would be hard to allocate that last example to either the ‘real’ or the ‘representational’ category exclusively, and any decision would have to be arbitrary. The special nature of the problem may not be unconnected with the fact that hammers are not natural kinds but artificial objects. But then so are many of the social situations, confrontations, alliances etc that we see portrayed on stage. Consider the following examples: a bank robbery is portrayed on stage; a group of students on rag day ‘stage’ a robbery in a real bank; a gang impersonate security guards so as to carry out a bank robbery. Or again imagine a struggle for power among the executive of a political party, who must however face their members and present a united front: they must perform or portray ‘harmony’. Countless examples of ‘representation’ can be found in all aspects of individual and social life, in religion, education, sexuality, business etc.

Brecht and the ‘Aristotelian theatre’

For convenience I shall repeat here the two formulations from the previous section Brecht and mimesis #2 regarding dramatic (rather than pictorial) representation:

(iii) X dramatically (or theatrically) represents (a) Y if and only if X is a dramatic representation (eg a film or a play or part of one) and is intentionally so designed that a normal spectator in normal conditions would be disposed to perceive X as a dramatic representation and as (a) Y on account of an irreducible analogy between experiences of perceiving X and experiences of perceiving Y(s).

(iv) X dramatically (or theatrically) represents (a) Y if and only if X is a dramatic representation (eg a film or a play or part of one) and is intentionally so designed that a normal spectator in normal conditions would be disposed to perceive X as (a) Y on account of his recognition of the intention behind X that it should be seen as a (a) Y as if there were an irreducible analogy between experiences of perceiving X and experiences of perceiving Y(s).

Dramatic representations – both (iii) and (iv) – are a specialised subset of ‘representations in the medium of the human being’, and their distinctive features will depend in part on the kind of theatre under consideration: Shakespearean, Attic tragedy, Grotowskian, and so on. The subject of Brecht’s attacks was the ‘Aristotelian theatre’ [Bertolt Brecht, The Messingkauf dialogues, translated by John Willett, Eyre Methuen, London (1965)].

We should mention though that there is some debate as to just how ‘Aristotelian’ Brecht’s ‘Aristotelian theatre’ is. Brecht’s principal complaint was about empathy, and may be summarised like this. The power of the tragic effect (the catharsis of pity and fear, say, although this will not be discussed here) operates through the creation of empathy. Empathy in turn depends on (among other things) the suppression or suspension of the audience’s critical faculty. Brecht wants the audience to be able to subject the actual events depicted, not the imitation of them qua imitation, to detached criticism. But the audience is prevented from doing this by persuasively naturalistic performances which they cannot help identifying with. Why identification should inhibit criticism cannot really be answered until we are clear as to what ‘identification’ means. For the moment we will accept Brecht’s point that the better the imitation, the sooner the critical faculty is lost.

Persuasive naturalism may not have a great deal to do with Aristotle however:

Tragedy is primarily an imitation of action, and… it is mainly for the sake of the action that it imitates personal agents.

[Aristotle, On the art of poetry, translated by Ingram Bywater, OUP (1920), 6.II]

John Jones [On Aristotle and Greek tragedy, Chatto & Windus, London (1962), pp 13-61] makes a strong case for the true Aristotelian actor (ie the player on the Attic stage) as one who ‘enacts’ rather than imitates. Aristotle is reaffirming (and fighting a vain rearguard action in support of) a one-time commonplace of Greek thought whereby action takes precedence over self. Self is adverbial on action rather than action being adjectival on self [ibid., pp 32-33]:

The task of the actors is to support the action by forming props on which it can be spread out for the audience to contemplate… [At] the living heart of the tradition the actor is the mask and the mask is an artefact-face with nothing to offer but itself. It has – more important, it is known to have – no inside.

[ibid., p 45]

But if Brecht’s attacks fail against the ‘true Aristotelian theatre’, they can be redirected against the ‘Aristotelian theatre’ which self-consciously grew up in the shadows of successive misreadings of Aristotle. I shall take the risk of continuing to refer to this as the ‘Aristotelian theatre’ – because it did and does exist, it was and is prevalent, and it was the object of Brecht’s critique.

One particular Brechtian objection can in fact be levelled at both, and that concerns the treatment of causality. Neither the ‘true Aristotelian theatre’ nor the ‘Aristotelian theatre’ can really cope with impersonal (eg economic) causes, and will tend either to ignore them or to personalise and so misrepresent them. For Aristotle causality is merely a means to creating a successful mimesis, to the extent that

a convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility.

[Aristotle, op. cit., 25.III]

In the Brechtian theatre of socio-political demonstration, however, causality is one of the principal offerings for scrutiny by an audience in full possession of its critical faculties.

What then are the distinctive characteristics of ‘Aristotelian’-type theatrical representations, as a subset of ‘representations in the medium of the human being’? A decision between ‘real’ and ‘representational’ is easy for a normal spectator to make, since such an ‘Aristotelian’ play takes place within an accepted pattern of conventions. By definition the ‘normal spectator’ knows what a play is when she encounters one. More importantly she knows what an ‘Aristotelian’ play is. She did not just ‘find herself’ in the theatre. She decided to go.

It would be pedantic to describe in terms of signs and indications all the many features of the convention: one arrives, ticket in wallet, at a large building with the name of a theatre on it; one buys a programme and takes one’s seat while the house lights are on; one stares expectantly at the closed curtains for a while. Then the lights dim, the buzz of conversation dies and the curtains whisk back to reveal a brightly-lit trapezoid room where two or three people in make-up and old-fashioned clothes sit in armchairs as if the audience was a fireplace.

But if instead of the houselights dimming a man in evening dress walked on stage and stood in front of the closed curtains and introduced himself as the house manager and launched into profuse apologies about the evening’s performance having to be replaced at the last moment for some reason, the ‘normal spectator’ would probably automatically assume he was the house manager and was telling the truth. The audience would not see him as an actor.

Later however the audience, or part of it, may begin to suspect that he might be an actor, by reason of his manner of delivery or some other sign or indication which contradicts the other signs and indications (the evening dress, the houselights, the closed curtains etc). The convention is demonstrated by being flouted. Otherwise the signs and indications are ‘read’ automatically rather than attentively. The suggestion or persuasion to see everything before the curtains open as ‘real life’ and everything afterwards as ‘representation’ is habitual and goes unnoticed.

While the spectator is uncertain whether to see the figure in evening dress as a house manager or as an actor, her attention is focused on her uncertainty. When the puzzle is solved however, then either the man turns out to have been the house manager all along, and he leaves the stage and the alternative (Aristotelian) play can now begin; or the audience is finally convinced that he is an actor, and realises that the evening’s (non-Aristotelian) entertainment has already begun, and begins to see it as such.

The final part of this series develops the argument in the direction of identification and concept of self.

© Chris Lawrence 2008


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