Is drama out cold? Is theatre?

Alexander García Düttmann

Can There Be a Society Without Ceremony or the Critical Question of Theatre

Veröffentlicht am 04.07.2017


Is drama out cold? Is theatre? Is it sliding into chaos? In a short philosophical essay entitled “Rhapsody for the Theatre,” first published in 1990, Alan Badiou calls the art form the “ceremony of all ceremonies.”1 For theatre makes the state visible, and does not show the revolution. It is concerned with the consciousness attained in a particular political condition or circumstance, explains the status quo, is the inventory of all parts of a cohesive or “closed situation,” but under the sign of catastrophe, precipitousness, or emergency, as if all outstanding debts had to be paid and theatre were looking to an outburst, a blow-out, a conclusion, not a balance. The artistically expert, “strategic” listing of passions on stage, the encounter with power, causes tears or laughter. Inasmuch as it depend on the state, the call to which theatrical practice responds is that of representation. Theatre, drama, is not the art that presents the disclosure of a place, the constitution of a particular condition or circumstance, the emergence of a state, but the art that represents the state, and with it representation, in a performance. Hence theatre is a “ceremony of all ceremonies” in the sense that it could not exist without a state, a particular condition or circumstance, a closed situation, but always in such a way that this representation of representation aims for an outburst and is governed by Ideas. For Badiou understands the representation of representation as free and political, that is as a representation that passes judgment and in so doing proves to be critical. A critical representation of representation has to draw on Ideas, as it is the Idea that renders it possible. It relates the state, the particular condition or circumstance, to the Idea, to the intellectual representative that represents representations while also interrupting the mechanism of representation.2 But if freedom of judgment, critique, is a decisive element of the art of theatre as an art that stages, establishes, performs, celebrates the “ceremony of all ceremonies,” then the critical question of theatre is the question of how to understand the “ceremony of all ceremonies,” or the representation of representation, or the representation that is accompanied by a double crisis, by a crisis of outburst and judgment, of affect and Idea. Does the “ceremony of all ceremonies,” as a suspension of the status quo, the particular circumstance, the state, the closed situation and its representation, already refer to an interruption of the ceremonial act, to a society without ceremony, to something that is no longer a state, a particular condition or circumstance, a closed situation? Does it refer to some kind of anarchy?

In his fifth lesson on the “case” of Wagner, in which he examines the opera Parsifal, Badiou returns to the question of the ceremony in the early years of the new millennium, as if opera were the other “ceremony of all ceremonies,” or as if music theatre were more of a “ceremony of all ceremonies” than spoken word theatre. He now asks whether there can be a modern ceremony. This question is raised by the opera Parsifal itself, by Parsifal’s attempt to replace an old ceremony with a new one. As the other “ceremony of all ceremonies,” as the ceremony that ultimately puts sound and word side by side as equals, opera must address itself, thematize itself as drama, theatre, or music theatre: “One could defend the theory that the question posed by Parsifal is the question of whether a ceremony without transcendence is possible. A ceremony without transcendence, but one that nevertheless does not turn to the fundamentals of survival and interest, as the ‘original’ ceremony of Montsalvat does, which goes astray because it devotes itself to Titurel’s survival.”3

If we follow Badiou’s early rhapsody, spoken word theatre is literally an “embodiment [mise-en-corps] of the Idea”4 which allows for a critical judgment aimed at representation. This judgment is inherent in the drama or play, in the tragedy or comedy, and is also passed by the audience itself, whose participation amounts to more than laughter or crying, to more than therapeutic effects associated with the theatrical treatment of affective identification. Yet just as the theatre of the word, so the theatre of sound is an “Idea” that “permeates the material,”5 in this case a material that results from the musical and the dramatic element merging indistinguishably. In the “consecrating stage festival” [Bühnenweihfestspiel] Parsifal the opera is primarily Idea where it is concerned expressly with ceremony, with the formal procedures or matters of protocol ceremony involves. But the Idea here is not merely an Idea that mobilizes theatre, either in order to distance representation from representation by way of judgment’s critical detachment or in order to educate the audience by way of a participation in Ideas and a sharpening of the ability to judge. Rather, the Idea here is one that aims critically at the Idea of the “consecrating stage festival” itself, which is a further “ceremony of all ceremonies.”6 It aims critically at the musically designed ceremony of uncovering the Grail, presided over first by Amfortas, then by Parsifal, and also at the ceremony for which the name of Bayreuth stands, since Bayreuth names a “representation of representation”7 whose inherent judgment is passed uncritically and thus retracts itself as a judgment. For does an affirmative judgment not negate, through doubling and aggrandizement, the distance from which it derives, the distance between representation and representation, between theatrical and state representation? Does it not reinforce the representation of the existing state of affairs? Does it not represent it as a closed situation?

The viewer or listener addresses a critical question to the opera, to the musical drama, or to the consecrating stage festival he attends, a question already prescribed, however, by the “ceremony of ceremony.” He addresses a critical question to the opera because he expects nothing other of it than a restoration of the old outdated ceremony, a restoration of the state, the ruling status quo. From this critical question, from the critical judgment by which the viewer or listener turns against theatre or musical drama, against Parsifal, we can discern an additional characteristic that qualifies spoken word theatre and music theatre as “representation of representation” and as “ceremony of ceremony.” This is the characteristic of renewal, of the creation of the new. If restoration, immediately affirmative or nostalgically inspired, amounts to doubling and aggrandizement, to a negation of the distance that comes between representation and representation, ceremony and ceremony, it may be claimed that recourse to an Idea, through which the distancing of the representation of representation, of theatre, from the state and the state of affairs takes place, must always effect a renewal that opens theatre up to something new and different, and threatens to unhinge the closed situation, the status quo, the state. Perhaps there is no Idea of restoration, only an Idea of innovation, even though Badiou also speaks of a restorative realization of the Idea. If uncritical judgment retracts itself by seeking to cover the tracks of distancing in affirming its object, the Idea of restoration does away with itself by negating the distancing and taking on a consolidating function. Ideas cling to their distance from what exists, and should not be confused with what exists. By virtue of their essential distance from what exists, a distance that triggers a crisis, they partake in what is new and different, in renewal and innovation. And it is only because of innovation that the judgment based on an Idea can prove itself to be critical.

Yet it is also the “ceremony of ceremony” itself that prescribes the critical question to the viewer or listener. It prescribes critical judgment, or recourse to an Idea, because as “embodiment of the Idea,” spoken word theatre and music theatre are self-reflections of representation and ceremony, and every “self-reflection”8 contains a self-reflectively indissoluble ambiguity. So it appears to be almost inevitable that with every performance the question explicitly or implicitly arises that Wagner, according to Badiou, is concerned with in Parsifal: the question of a ceremony that has to be renewed or affirmed in as much as theatre plunges representation into crisis, however inconspicuously. This ceremony, once celebrated in powerful states as a parade on a large central square or as a civil initiation ceremony, has deteriorated in post-democratic, more or less anomic societies with weak state structures to the singing of the national anthem at football matches and to the symbolic return of a national holiday with official ceremonies. In Berlin it has become a Sunday in Berghain. The self-reflectively indissoluble ambiguity of self-reflection lies in its inability to go beyond the point at which it is confronted with something inconclusive, as can be gauged from what Badiou says, namely that the theme or the Idea of Parsifal is perhaps to be discerned in the impossibility of being able to distinguish “clearly and distinctly”9 between restoration and innovation. The “new ceremony” hangs in the balance. Is this not because self-reflection has to pass on a recognizability, the recognizability of what it reflects, in Parsifal the recognizability of the old ceremony of uncovering the Grail? Is this not because self-reflection can do nothing other than effect a continual confusion and contamination of the old and the new, an ambiguous preservation or retrieval of the old in the new, which may then no longer be as new as it purports to be? When Badiou leaves open the question of whether there can be a modern ceremony at all, a ceremony without transcendence, what transpires from such inconclusiveness is the fact that the new ceremony is still the ceremony of a ceremony, or that there can only be self-reflective ceremonies that self-reflectively repair or, if we are mindful of the equivocal meaning of the word, re-new a sort of originary ceremony. This originary ceremony must be considered as the expression, the assertion, the justification or the performative act required to provide relevance, and thus stability, to a state, a particular condition or circumstance, a status quo, a closed situation.

Surely it is conceivable that a ceremony can come into existence that reveals itself to be modern, a ceremony without transcendence, a ceremony that glorifies neither the submission to a god or a great leader nor the affiliation to a state or a party and their “despotic immobility,”10 a ceremony that is repeated regularly in one and the same place, which it delimits as a symbolic place of assembly, a ceremony that demands a crowd and a figure, a modern priest, a minister, or a freely chosen representative of the people, who steps before all those who have gathered and discharges his duties while handling symbolic objects and revealing himself to be skilled at showing, performing and uncovering these objects. But in as far as there is no conceivable ceremony that does not renew an originary ceremony and is not inconclusively situated between the old and the new on account of its intrinsic conservatism, every modern ceremony, every ceremony without transcendence, without divine service, must escape attempts at supervising it and take on a life of its own, a life devoted to celebrating a state, a particular circumstance, or a status quo. In this sense, the self-reflective and ambiguous nature of a ceremony prescribes to the viewer or listener the critical question of whether the renewal of a ceremony is not merely its restoration, whether spoken word theatre or music theatre, those “ceremonies of ceremony” or “ceremonies of all ceremonies,” can ever go so far as to trigger a crisis that is not paralyzed by inconclusiveness.

When Badiou, in his comments on Parsifal, anticipates a ceremony or representation that has yet to be invented, a ceremony that organizes the “reflection of infinite potentialities”11 and is thereby oriented to the openness of the future, not to the immutability of the past; when Badiou considers the possibility of a poietic and “true celebration of communism,” of a self-manifestation and self-presentation of the collective as an agent expressing and asserting itself, performing its own creative ability before itself, then we have to ask him if a ceremony that seeks to be a real ceremony does not have to reinscribe openness into a cohesive situation, thus placing it under the sign of closure. Must not a real ceremony, a ceremony whose legitimating and meaningful organization aims at recognizability, assume the role of transcendence, regardless of whether a connection to transcendence can still be established? Must it not do so for structural reasons? We have to ask Badiou whether the indistinguishability of restoration and innovation does not indicate the conservatism of ceremony. A ceremonial form averts anarchy, it curbs the inexhaustible creative potential attributed to the people, or the crowd, in that it playfully generates it. It presents a “myth”12 of the new and introduces a formula for a re-enactment that also applies to the political “anarchic revolt,”13 both retrospectively and prospectively, given that the “true ceremony of communism” is supposed to undertake the task of imbuing “popular communist movements”14 with new life, as if from the very beginning the political “anarchic revolt” had to be opposed with form, with theatre, or as if from the very beginning the revolt were its own domesticated and domesticating invocation, a revolt that never really transpires because it has always already transpired. Yet critical judgment, the recourse to the Idea of the new that is meant to do justice to its object and that is contained in, and required by, the theatrical representation of representation or the “ceremony of all ceremonies,” keeps threatening the festive and apotropaic disposition of the representation or the ceremony called theatre. For critical judgment remains incompatible with the stabilizing and legitimizing function peculiar to form, if it is true that form cannot be apprehended because it is intrinsically conservative. Critical judgment as recourse to the Idea of the new is characterized by an anarchic, resistive, disorganizing, juridically unregulated surplus, no matter how objective and rigorous it may be.

The critical question of theatre, of spoken word theatre and music theatre, the question of a society or community without ceremony, without the stability and consistency that organized ceremony provides solely to preserve it from anarchy, is, if we take Badiou at his word, “our question,”15 and thus establishes the timeliness and the contemporaneity, the presence, actuality, and urgency of a drama or theatre concerned with the future. Must theatre not be a future theatre by endowing future society with a modern ceremony, thus transforming it into a self-sustaining and open community, into a community that remains open to its own unpredictable and incalculable inventions? It is the “power to construct the present”16 in the present that characterizes the essence of theatrical practice and distinguishes it from film, for example, from a “donation” of presence that is not a construction, as Badiou observed fifteen years ago in a conversation with the dramatist, dramaturge, and philosopher François Regnault, a conversation which he included in a lecture series on “Images of the Present Time.” According to Badiou, theatre indicates the present, is an indication of the present, in that it acknowledges the variety of its heterogeneous elements in a disjunctive synthesis. So what, then, is the critical question of theatre if, as has become apparent, the question of an asserted and affirmed modern ceremony leads to inconclusiveness, to the ambiguity of an always already averted anarchy or a revolt that has always already transpired? What is the critical question of theatre if the assertion of a modern ceremony, of a “myth of the new,” cannot but compromise the new? The question may be phrased as follows: is there a ceremony that is not only a ceremony without transcendence but also a ceremony without ceremony?

A social ceremony without ceremony is nothing other than art itself, considered under the aspect of its theatrical essence, although it is admittedly only so if on the one hand we assume the uncertainty of art, the possibility of an end of art, and do not simply accept and hypostasize art as self-evident, and on the other hand, perhaps because of its uncertainty, free art from the alleviating strategies that currently disarm and normalize it. The ceremony asserted and affirmed as a ceremony, the justificatory ceremony, must either build on a transcendence from which it draws its own coherence and consistence, its meaningful and consolidating condition, the power of its affirmationism, or, as a ceremony without transcendence, it must locate the power that was once contained in transcendence within the immanence of society, which it transforms into a community, as if it had the power to absorb the power of transcendence and function or operate in a similar fashion to transcendence. The price paid for this functionality is a self-reflective ambiguity that is indissoluble from the affirmationism of the ceremony, a bias involving a double bind: the more innovative the affirmation, the more restorative it must remain; the more it succeeds in averting anarchy, the more it has to produce it. Is not such a double bind—the double blind of affirmationism, of the fundamental intangibility of a ceremony that continually exposes itself—always the source of an affirmation, an affirmative character that locks the Idea of communism in a particular condition or circumstance, a state, a situation ultimately closed upon itself, and deprives it of its ideality?

A ceremony without ceremony does not assert and affirm itself, does not justify anything, creates neither a justificatory connection to a transcendence nor a justificatory connection to an immanence, not even to an immanence open to the future. Rather, it relates to itself, to the particular condition or circumstance of art, or of theatre, by referring to an outside, to an outside within itself. It thereby proves itself to be an unjustified and questionable ceremony, a ceremony that exhibits its own precariousness and is thus nothing less than a permanent challenge. For this reason the ceremony without ceremony is the true ceremony of critical judgment, the ceremony that interrupts its own self-reflectivity, the self-reflectivity that pertains to it as “ceremony of ceremony,” as “ceremony of all ceremonies,” as spoken word theatre or music theatre, as art in general.

The point, then, is not the realization of the idea of communism but the realization of communism as an idea, or as a challenge. It is not a matter of accomplishing art in communist life, in a condition or circumstance that can be changed through invention and creation, but never in such a way that this condition or circumstance can be questioned. Communism allied with form, with the form of a modern ceremony, does not allow for anarchy or anomie—for the anarchy and anomie that can be found in every invention and creation, in every eventful occurrence of the new, to put it pleonastically, and in every critical judgment that stems from an Idea and does more than apply a rule or a concept—to suspend the principle of the formation of form. It does not allow for the infringement of the one form that the “modern ceremony” or the communal communist ritual adopts, namely the form of formability, or the form of productivism. Hence, instead of confronting every challenge in advance, as in a communist community sealed and animated at regular intervals by a modern immanent ceremony, one should encourage and promote an art of challenge that maintains a tension between itself and society and in so doing permeates society with a tension, causing an outside, an exteriority that is dangerous to society, to its particular condition or circumstance, to break into the social enclosure.

The theatrical practice intended here was developed in the twentieth century by the film and stage director Luchino Visconti, who, as is well known, invented modern Italian theatre after the Second World War along with, but also independently from, his antipode Giorgio Strehler. From the perspective of theatre and its future, its critical question or critical judgment, which, as Badiou’s remarks on spoken word theatre and music theatre make perfectly clear, is not merely an arbitrary perspective but rather “our” perspective, the perspective of the present, Visconti’s theatrical practice has perhaps put together one of those “irretrievable images of the past”17 whose truth is said to flit by. In his fifth proposition on the concept of history, Walter Benjamin showed how these images provide the present with an access to itself, in other words with one that connects it to a future. They provide the present with an access to itself and connect it to a future if the present manages to seize a unique opportunity to recognize itself in the images or experience itself as a present “meant” by them. The “moment” in which the recognition happens is the “moment” in which the images also become recognizable, as if there were, at least in the realm of history, no knowledge of indifferent material, or as if knowledge amounted less to the appropriation of content than to the sudden triggering of a transformative impulse, as befits the precipitous connection of the present to the future. The space that Visconti’s challenging theatrical practice contrived and explored until his final production for the spoken word theatre, the controversial Roman staging of the play Old Times in 1973, is the boxing ring. Federica Mazzocchi, a scholar who has systematically researched Visconti’s many works in the field of spoken word theatre and like the critic Gerardo Guerrieri sees the boxing ring as their “key image,” notes that the fight “begins and rages on various fronts: on the front of the text, the actors, the space, and the audience.”18 Can contemporary theatre recognize itself in the boxing ring so that its fist, the fist of the past, strikes a forceful and violent blow, making the present unbearable, destroying the mirror image in which capitalism and terrorism intoxicate one another, and challenging itself from a future that cuts through the ropes of an affirmationist ceremony? Is it possible to represent a boxing ring? Can a boxing ring be representative?

Perhaps today Frank Castorf’s stagings can be said to result from a practice that has recognized itself in the image of the boxing ring and that has channeled the impulse to alter things into a reinvention of Viscontian melodrama under present conditions. Let us recall that, when turning melodrama into a boxing ring, Visconti not only intensified it into an interplay of word, music, gesture, color, and movement, but also placed it under the sign of uncompromising exaggeration, of rupture. The fact that this reinvention occurs and has to occur under present conditions also means, however, that Castorf’s theatrical practice runs the risk of being trivialized into the drug of an intellectually stimulated or consumeristically extended party, and of becoming the ceremony without transcendence of a post-democratic society. The spectators congregating in the theatre threaten to neutralize its transformative impulse by appropriating it and constituting themselves as a community. Once captured, the transformative impulse, the crisis, and the challenge are submitted to a form, to a particular condition or circumstance, to a representation that functions as the precondition of the formable. If it is indeed true that the form of the community is being dissolved because Castorf is leaving the Volksbühne to make way for what is likely to be an “event theatre,” this is not just a victory for capitalism and terrorism but is equally a failure of theatre itself.

The transformation of the performance into a party, the affirmative appetite for the pure and pleasurable play of forms, for their emergence and disappearance, for their ritual or ceremony aestheticizes and de-politicizes theatre, whether the ceremony is carried out in the theatre evening after evening or once a year in a social or communal environment. Where, as a consequence, all content is abandoned, the theatre performance becomes a slave to indifferent “economism.”19 It degenerates into an apologist for life as it is, proves to be a technique that serves the desired or undesired self-preservation of this life. The affirmative appetite for the pure play of forms is quasi-anarchic, not anarchic in a radical sense. It would be radically anarchic if it did not reduce content to form or formlessness, to the pure play of forms, if it tackled the content and the content-related mediatedness of the play of forms, in the case of Castorf’s Brothers Karamazov, to cite but one example, with the alternative between general licentiousness and general restraint after the death of God.

So everything revolves around whether, along with Badiou, we wish to avoid the struggle against the old world becoming incessant and endless, and therefore attempt to “strictly” control the “unavoidable”20 use of negation and push its destructive power to the periphery through the mobilization of a stronger, more constructive “power of affirmation,” through a modern ceremony without transcendence, through a theatre that as “ceremony of all ceremonies” draws on a state, a condition, a particular circumstance, an existing stock. Everything revolves around whether the avoidance of an incessant, unstoppable struggle against the old world, against the world that is currently generating the mirror image of capitalism and terrorism, does not become more unlikely through the attempt to regulate and reduce the use of negation, namely in the extent to which such an attempt becomes entangled in the double bind of the affirmed modern ceremony.

Can anarchy be equated at all with a negativity confronted by the positivity of an affirmation? Does it not exceed the opposition of negativity and positivity? Perhaps at this point, as so often at decisive points, there is no better argument, only a militant passion, a militant belief, a militant effort, only a militant practice, especially in the theatre. For to define anarchic impact is to stress that anarchy cannot be reduced to a slide into chaos, at least if it is really anarchy, not merely the specter of a state, a particular condition or circumstance, not merely the Old Nick of those who frustrate change.

Is drama out cold? Is theatre? Is it sliding into chaos? “The killing of a criminal can be moral—but never its justification.”21 Whether theatre and drama have a future will depend on whether they take this sentence, this leap, this critical judgment, this crisis seriously or not.


1 Alain Badiou, “Rhapsody for the Theatre: A Short Philosophical Treatise,” trans. B. Bosteels, in Theatre Survey, 49:2 (Nov. 2008) Cambridge 2008, p. 206. | 2 Theatre “authorizes itself by representing representations. Thus, by the Idea (in Plato’s sense)”, ibid. (my emphasis, AGD). | 3 Translated from Alain Badiou, Cinq leçons sur le ‘cas’ Wagner, Caen 2010, p. 180. Translator’s note: For his German text, Alexander García Düttmann translated from Badiou’s original French. Badiou, however, revised his text in collaboration with its English translator, and the lectures in their published English form differ to some degree from AGD’s reading of them. For this reason we have opted to translate AGD’s German citations rather than quote from Susan Spitzer’s (very readable) English version: Alain Badiou Five Lessons on Wagner, trans. Susan Spitzer, London, New York 2010. | 4 Alain Badiou, “Rhapsody for the Theatre,” op. cit., p. 227. | 5  Badiou, Cinq leçons sur le ‘cas’ Wagner, op. cit., p. 186. | 6 Ibid., p. 185. | 7 Ibid. | 8 Ibid. | 9   Ibid., p. 190. | 10  Ibid., p. 180. | 11 Ibid., p. 191. | 12  Ibid. | 13 Ibid., p. 194. | 14 Ibid., p. 180. | 15 Ibid. | 16  Translated from Alain Badiou, Images du temps présent, séminaire 2001–2004, Paris 2014, p. 256. | 17  Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” trans. E. Jephcott and H. Eiland, in Selected Writings, vol. 4, Cambridge MA, London 2006, p. 391. | 18  Translated from Federica Mazzocchi, Le regie teatrali di Luchino Visconti, Rome 2010, p. 59. Brecht’s artistic interest in boxing is well known; Eisenstein staged a boxing match in a Moscow theatre. | 19  Translated from Christoph Menke, “Das Spiel des Theaters und die Veränderung der Welt,” manuscript 2016, p. 12. | 20  Translated from Alain Badiou, À la recherche du réel perdu, Paris 2015, p. 58. | 21 Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street, trans. E. Jephcott, in: One-Way Street and Other Writings, NLB 1979, p. 95.

  • Theater
  • Zeitgenössische Kunst
  • Zeremonie
  • Anarchie
  • Alain Badiou
  • Theaterwissenschaft

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Alexander García Düttmann

Alexander García Düttmann

ist Philosoph und Übersetzer zahlreicher philosophischer Werke. Er lehrt am Institut für Kunstgeschichte und Ästhetik der Universität der Künste in Berlin.

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