ABSTRACT: Something extraordinary has happened to metaphysics. At the very moment when philosophy is focusing its efforts at bringing metaphysics to an ‘end,’ metaphysics finds itself flourishing in the theatre, which speaks of itself as ‘metaphysics-in-action’ and publishes treatises carrying such titles as The Act of Being: Toward a Theory of Acting. The irony of the situation appears to have been lost on postmodern philosophers. What this paper sets out to do is explore the potential consequences of the metaphysical weight that has been acquired by the theatre for the practice of philosophy. It argues that the theatrical performance is in fact an ‘enactment’ of the performance of being and that, as such, it is possible to extend our understanding of this performance from the theatrical stage to the ‘theatre of the world.’ Finally, in doing so, we can establish the context for a metaphysics that does not privilege presence.
The world of the stage, of roles, masks, parts to play has been one of the most enduring ways of speaking about life and the world we live in. In fact, until four hundred years ago, the theatrum mundi metaphor was the dominant image in Western thinking. God was conceived on the analogy of a playwright who had created the script of the play that was being performed on the stage called the world. “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players …”
No sooner had Shakespeare penned these lines than the theatre metaphor was emptied of its metaphysical charge. In very short order, it found itself functioning under the aegis of a new and more powerful image of the world: “the book of the world.” It was Galileo and Descartes who gave this metaphor its currency, which was to have far reaching consequences for the history of metaphysical thinking in the West.
To engage the world as a stage is to find oneself articulating what is at bottom an inherently unstable view of the world. As anyone who is familiar with the theatre knows, if it takes a performance to bring a world to presence, then the intelligibility or meaning of what transpires cannot be guaranteed in advance. And, if God is conceived of in terms of being a playwright, then he faces the predicament that every playwright finds himself in. He is constrained to address the continuing instability that attaches itself to his creation by virtue of the fact that a performance intervenes between himself and what transpires onstage.
All of this changes when we think of the world as a book. We get a God who, in authoring the world, is more to the liking of modern philosophy: that is to say, a God who can guarantee the stability of the world. The intelligibility of what transpires is already present in the book that he has written. It doesn’t take a performance, as is the case with a script, in order to establish its meaning. The performance does nothing more than “play out” what is already present in the text: it re-presents it in perceptual form. This view also changed the West’s notion of the theatre, which now came to signify a replication of the social and psychological conflicts that were present in society. The theatre, and the metaphysics it called forth, had in essence become domesticated. Its performance, like the one in nature which it imitated, was now under control.
Two things have happened that has changed all of this. First, our conception of a book has shifted dramatically. The notion of where and how the meaning of a text arises, not to mention the question of the author itself, have become problematic. The potential consequences of this shift in our application of the book metaphor to the world has received the exclusive attention of the philosophical community where it continues to facilitate the so-called “end of metaphysics.”
What has gone unnoticed, however, is the second thing that has taken place. Theatre has redefined itself in the last hundred years. It has resolutely rejected all the conventions that have sought to control its performance in advance, in effect bypassing the book metaphor. The theatre has once again taken on metaphysical weight. It speaks of itself as “metaphysics-in-action,” declaring its goal to be one of “reconciling us philosophically with Becoming.”(Artaud, 44, 109) What is astonishing is the fact that these words, which come from essays written on the theatre, are fairly typical of the language contained in acting manuals and treatises on the nature of theatre.
It would seem that at the time when metaphysics appears to be coming to an “end” in philosophy, it finds itself flourishing in the theatre. What I want to do in this paper is to explore the potential consequences of this return of metaphysics to the theatre for the practice of philosophy.
Let me begin by briefly discussing the way in which metaphysical questions arise at the heart of what the contemporary theatre calls performance. Over the past hundred years a number of acting methods have arisen, each addressing itself to what has come to be known as “the actor’s problem.” Namely, although it is clear that the performance the actors give onstage is in the nature of an impersonation, nevertheless, in order to succeed in the practice of their craft actors must avoid all pretense. Stanislavski, the father of method acting, insisted that the difference between the new theatre and the one it hoped to replace was “the difference between ‘seeming’ and ‘being’.” (Stanislavski, 91)
To be sure, impersonation as it takes place outside the theatre is a matter of pretending to be what one is not: that is to say, of using one’s body in such a way as to refer the spectator to someone else. In the theatre, however, impersonation is a matter of becoming what one is not. The actor’s body is used as the site of a metamorphosis. In order to accomplish this. the actor engages in a number of preparatory exercises directed at breaking down the body’s tendency to become a referential site during the acting situation. In other words, the goal to be achieved in the theatrical performance is one where the character in the play appears onstage not as someone the actor refers us to, but rather as someone who has come to full-blooded presence in the actor’s body. The primordial function of the theatre performance, then, is to bring this character to presence, using the actor’s body as a threshold.
Here we can see the metaphysical quest that lies behind these acting methods. In living our lives, our bodies function as the threshold across which the someone we call our selves comes to presence in the world. What the actor does in preparing for a role is to reach down within himself and attempt to capture this function “in the act,” so to speak. His objective is to access what a recent treatise on acting theory describes as “the world before it became his world and himself before he became his self.”(Marowitz, 27) The actor is, in effect, attempting to reach that state of affairs where his body can be used as a threshold across which he can bring someone else, the character in the play, to presence on the stage.
The performance that does this “enacts” the performance which is bringing us and the events surrounding us to presence in the world. What takes place in the theatre is an imitation of the “performance of being” which is taking place in nature. The theatre imitates this performance not by referring to it but by doing it—the word “drama” comes from the Greek word dran which signifies “something that is done.” The actor makes contact with the performance which is producing himself and the events he belongs to in the offstage world and, by virtue of his craft, reshapes it into a performance that produces the world onstage.What transpires onstage may indeed resemble what exists offstage: it may even be a replication. But resemblance or replication is not the point of the theatre performance. This could be accomplished any number of other ways: in a painting, for example. The point of the theatre performance is to make characters and events appear in person. The “live” performance of reality is imitated in the “live” performance of theatre. As Aristotle puts it: theatre imitates an action in the form of action and not, as literature does, in the form of narration.