Theatre as Provocation

Alain Badiou, Rhapsody for the Theatre

Verso, 160pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781781681251

reviewed by Luke Davies

The central claim of Alain Badiou's 1990 philosophical treatise Rhapsody for the Theatre, reprinted here with additional material, is that 'cultural-political intervention [...] has only one possible destination: the theatre.’ 

That will sound unlikely to anyone familiar with the dreary and anodyne fare of, for example, mainstream contemporary British theatre, which is mostly either lifestyle porn or pseudo-intellectual fodder. But Badiou isn't talking about the orthodoxy, referred to derogatorily in speech-marks as ‘theatre’, and derided as 'an innocent and prosperous ritual.’ He is instead referring to an idealised Theatre, of which there are scant examples. This collection of essays basically unpacks his ideas in relation to this notion. 

How, then, to describe this configuration succinctly? The general characteristic of the Theatre proposed by Badiou is of an art-form that confronts the 'intellectual laziness' that is a chief passion of every 'productivist society.' How so? Badiou steers clear of the trite suggestions that immediately spring to mind - that theatre revolves around conflict and is therefore in a vague way linked to the dialectic, etc.  It is instead the complex form of representation at play in Theatre that Badiou focuses upon, and which prompts him to accredit it with the truth-bearing capabilities that are a hallmark of his philosophy proper.

Badiou writes that Theatre, as opposed to ‘theatre’, 'pronounces itself about itself and about the world.' This doubleness complicates the process of signification - we are aware that what we are seeing is a version of things, mediated at several different stages by author, director, designer, actor and spectator. Reflecting on this complex web of signification, Badiou concludes that the manifest constructed-ness of theatre is key: Theatre 'represents the representation, not the presentation.' 

We can get a clearer idea of what is meant here by considering what it would mean merely for theatre to signify presentation. This, as it happens, is what orthodox ‘theatre’ does: it 'proposes to us a sign-ification of supposed substances' and turns the actor into a signpost 'by which we recognise that something exists.' This kind of ‘theatre’ claims to be presenting things as they are, whereas Theatre as envisioned by Badiou stages the process of things coming into being. It does not say - there is a stable reality out there that we are attempting to convey to you, but says - we are here busy constructing our understanding of the real

This, then, is reflective of Badiou's wider philosophy. In his 2001 text Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, Badiou reflects upon how Lacan challenged 'the idea of a natural or spiritual identity of Man' by demonstrating how the subject is 'a function both of the contingent laws of language and of the always singular history of objects of desire.' Badiou argues that ethics is then something that we can only constitute through language and by confronting the question of our desire - it is something that we have to develop rather than something already existing that we are merely to discern. 

Following on from this, Badiou enables us to steer clear of relativism by giving us a qualified version of Kantian ethics. He argues that we can still develop eternal and universal truths in constituting an ethical framework - but insists that they will always be singular truths within a multiplicity. We can in this way return to the maxim that we should act only according to that which we would will to become a universal law, whilst recognising that these universalities are contingent, never innate, and can only configure within a network - rather than being free-standing and totalising dogmas.

Returning to Rhapsody, it should by now be understandable why it is that Badiou should claim Theatre as the vehicle for 'cultural-political intervention.' The idealised version of Theatre that he presents us with is exemplary as a tool for the realisation of truths within a social context. With Theatre, we are presented with things taken from the world and represented in a multi-layered way, exposing the constructed-ness of any interpretation of the way things are - we, the spectator, then can evaluate or determine the truth-content of what we are seeing, on the basis of whether or not it is deemed to have a universal, though singular appeal.

Badiou writes in Rhapsody: 'theatre is the proof, for any real and present state, of the link between being and truth.' Referring both to itself and to the world, being manifestly a representation of things, and at the same time a fundamentally social activity, it has the potential to exhibit both the way in which truths are made and the way in which we as spectators are able to ascertain truthful insights through language and perception. 

Of course, theatre that - through various means - attempts to conceal its illusory nature by staking claims of veracity and accuracy fails in this completely, as the viewer is presented with an idea of truth as something predetermined that only be reflected. Likewise, art forms (cinema, for example) that 'disperse individuals' are limited in their interventionist capabilities, because they are less apt to encourage the process of establishing universal social truths.

What is instead required is for a group of individuals to sit in a room and bear witness to a represented representation - this being a process that activates spectators, challenges intellectual laziness and encourages them to bring to bear upon any given representation a reckoning that is concerned with its capacity to serve as a basis for discerning the maximally beneficent in a given situation. This process can be endless, but should always be singular, and of course – political. Thus, Badiou writes in a later essay within this collection: 'theatre makes a truth out of the different possible forms of the collective relation to truths.'
Here, we also have a clue as to how it is that Badiou's proposals are distinguished from didacticism. There are further indicators regarding this question elsewhere - as in another of the more recent essays, Badiou reflects on his own work, and specifically the Ahmed Tetralogy. In Ahmed Philosphe, the second of these plays, and one that as the title suggests focuses on the theme of philosophy, we might expect Badiou to platform his own ideas, in a didactic fashion. But no - instead, he explains that 'the explicit philosophy' expounded by Ahmed in the play 'is cheap rubbish.' It is described as a 'linguistic register, one among others.' 

What matters is the attitude that Theatre as a medium can encourage by staging a representation of this kind. Ahmed's cheap philosophy is instructive not because of what it dictates but because of what it provokes: dialectical reasoning is encouraged as a consequence of an formal technique that challenges the spectator to develop a collective-minded response, or a variety of collective-minded responses, to what is being represented: the possibility of the different possible responses, and the various singular truths that a group of spectators watching a show might develop, is the singular 'truth' unique to theatre, and is what makes it such a useful tool for cultural-political intervention. 

The question I would ask is: does the practice proposed in this collection of texts, some of which are printed for the first time in this collection, do justice to the theory?

I'm afraid that I’m doubtful. Badiou has a number of suggestions in the text for how his theories might be developed within a practical framework: he argues that Theatre should be made compulsory, and insists upon the need for intervals. We have also seen from his remarks about the Ahmed Tetralogy how tactics of provocation come into play, to encourage the spectator to develop their own collective relations to what is being represented before them, in terms of its truth content. 

To my mind, suggestions like these seem a little tame for so fiery a philosopher. In the UK, theatre is already virtually compulsory for swathes of reluctant primary and secondary school kids, and the interval remains a fixed feature in most venues. The idea that these things encourage people to engage as spectators seems to me somewhat optimistic. As for the tactics of provocation, and the anti-naturalistic askance-ness, so evocative of Brecht, that characterises Badiou's theatrical output - I am again doubtful of their efficacy. 

Perhaps it is because we are primed to accept theatre as a form of presentation - but who listening to Ahmed's cheap rubbish would have been provoked, and who, during the interval, surrounded by others forced to attend, would set about developing their own collective version of the truth-content of the performance? 

We are not all Badious, and most people, I imagine, would be alternately bored and annoyed, although not enough to actually do anything. My objection is then pragmatic, and is to do with the efficacy, politically speaking, of Badiou's practical suggestions for engaging the spectator.

The thing that baffles me is Badiou's dismissal of didacticism. I can understand where it's coming from. Badiou has no dogma - he wants us to see that his writings about the need to bring to an end to productivist society and its chief accomplice, humanist ethics, serve a collective interest. This is what makes his theory internally consistent - suggesting that his own suggestions are the product of a singular but universal truth. So - not wanting to appear dogmatic - he steers clear of didacticism. He proposes a Theatre in which layers of representation provoke, disparities are exposed, and collective and singular truths might be developed. He is confident that under these conditions spectators will discern precisely the truths that he is himself convinced of - for example, that Ahmed's cod philosophy is a joke, and that the kind of philosophy needed is that which is conducive to action, enabling him to confront the crisis he finds himself in, and which is a version of our own global crisis. So convinced is Badiou of the singular truth he espouses, regarding the collective interests that would be served by radical intervention, that he imagines spectators can be quite gently pushed towards a realisation of this. But I disagree. 

Theatre might clarify - the layers of representation, and the relation these representations bear upon the world, might provoke us to question what is represented, and in turn our own situation. But this, for most, is an intellectual leap. I don't think it's one that others are incapable of, but I think it is one that few would be prepared to make. Badiou's analysis itself makes clear the reason for this: the orthodoxy - art that presents, that encourages us to unthinkingly process, to accept things as they are presented to us and not to think interrogatively in this relation. I simply believe that it will require more than the measures here proposed to convert people away from this manner of consuming culture.

Another point on which I disagree with Badiou concerns his too-easy dismissal of cinema and other art forms. Cinema does, perhaps, disperse individuals - but not always. What about expanded cinema - the experimental fringes, theorised upon by Peter Gidal and others? And what about the internet as an alternative to theatre, with surely far greater potential as a tool for establishing collective will? And besides, who said that dispersing individuals to begin with cannot bring them closer in the end? Isn't that what some books are designed to do, and especially books like this one?

These objections aside, there are lessons of great value here. Forms of ‘theatre’ that claim merely to reflect, that present reality as fixed, rather than staging the process of its creation, are of course an abomination - and we drastically need something with which to oppose this staid and ameliorative art-form. The proposed version of Theatre here is, I think, theoretically sound. The alternative must be something designed to encourage us as spectators to engage from a collective position: it must be something that plays on the clarifying capabilities of an art form that exposes the produced-ness of the version of reality it represents and that encourages us to develop a collective response to it. Theatre should provoke spectators to question the validity of what is represented, and their relation to that representation.  
Though Theatre, as a live art, as a communal act and as a process of representation is (as Badiou rightly points out) perfectly suited for this, for it to become a tool for 'cultural-political intervention' its capabilities need to be utilised in more innovative ways. What Badiou probably misses, safe inside the academy, even now a firmament of radical thought, is how extremely distant these revelations are for most people.

I have two suggestions, if I may be so bold, that I would add on to Badiou’s proposals. The first is that more efficacious forms - like film, like the internet - should not be dismissed, in spite of their limitations. The second is that fear of didacticism, or forcefulness, should be avoided. If Badiou's revolutionary expostulations do indeed represent a singular truth - if they are capable of corresponding with a universal good, and attaining the status of a collective veracity - he needn't fear the perils of didactic art. It’s not dogma if something that can properly form a consensus is said emphatically, and convinces. What's more, I think it's necessary to realise that today only the sheer force of didacticism can shake would-be spectators out of the terrifying state of lethargy that - as Badiou notes - is so tragically widespread.

This is a powerful invective, and a much needed invocation, and of course will be widely ignored. But, in a hopeless gesture of retaliation, ignoring that fact, and treating this text as something that has the power to do what it sets out to do - my humble request is that Badiou the practitioner, not the philosopher, add more weight to his punches. We surely need more than intervals, compulsory attendance and mild intellectual provocation if we're going to instigate the serious change that Badiou has so convincingly called for.