For those of us in the “Theatre and Philosophy” seminar, today began with Nietzsche—quite literally. Witness the photographic evidence, courtesy of Jon Sherman, of BoT (Birth of Tragedy) in ABP (Au Bon Pain):
Suddenly we were light years away from Plato—though the figure of Socrates was still with us, waiting in the wings for his grand entrance. To what extent could we read The Birth of Tragedy dramatically (or “dramatistically,” as Kenneth Burke would have it)? Is it the impassioned oration of the man on the street or the man alone on the stage (shades of Sloterdijk)? Is it a grand opera with gods descending creakily from the rafters? Is it a Hegelian / Marxian staging of the history of ideas? Or a performance of the self for an audience of one: that one being none other than Richard Wagner? Or is it not so much theatre per se as a tour—a tour of a landscape of ruins, rendered in a tone that seems almost apocalyptic. The Symposium’s drunken dinner party, comic hiccups and all, could not seem more distant now. Theatre is not entertainment now, or even ideation, but pharmacon, perhaps. We are debating the formation of culture, the building of nation-states; the drumbeat of nationalism and the cannons of the Franco-Prussian War are not too far in the distance. And yet through it all there is something theatrical (or is it performative?) about the work: the spectral figures that haunt this derelict landscape and give body to Nietzsche’s ideas; the rhetorical gestures and poses; the masks that are assumed, peered through, and discarded.
We are veering further from the theatre and ever forward towards philosophy (Badiou lies just over the horizon, for tomorrow morning). But the practitioners among us could take heart: after lunch, the hard facts of the theatre were laid out all before us on a table in the Houghton Library. From Boris Aronson set designs to flyers from the night of the Astor Place riots, the material history of the theatre was dislodged from the drawers and boxes of the Harvard Theatre Collection and given over for our perusal. (Even an Edison Kinetoscope for us cinephiles!) “Theatre and Philosophy” caught up today with the tour given yesterday to “Theatre and Democracy,” and had we world enough and time we might all cram into the Houghton reading room and get to know the artifacts. As it is, most of us will file away our new knowledge of HOLLIS (classic and newfangled) for use in future research expeditions.
(What’s that I hear? What of “Theatre and Democracy”? Dispatches are coming in. It seems there was talk of The Wasps today; Coriolanus is on the docket. There will be more to report, first-hand even, before the week is out.)
Our day concluded perhaps not so far from where it began, in the inescapable shadow of Richard Wagner. Turning our gaze to the opera, David Levin’s address asked us to inquire where the opera might go “after Wagner, after Freud.” For too long, the director’s opera has led to a kind of inverse of innovation, a stale “avant-garde conformism.” Enter the demand for a choreographer’s opera, one that moves beyond any single site of articulation and acknowledges what cannot be known except through the dispersed movements and abstract communications of the body. Shades of Nietzsche yet again, though it is Freud who provided the genesis point: “There is often a passage in even the most thoroughly interpreted dream which has to be left obscure.”
The conversation ran long and went fast. What of new works? (A separate concern from finding new forms of expression within the operatic cannon.) What of the camera and the cinematography of contemporary opera in high-def simulcast and on DVD? What of the body, already a persistent concern across our seminars and talks? (The choreographer’s opera offers a tension between expressive registers manifested within the bodies on stage, a variety of forms within the single dancer’s body.) What of the persistent turn to myth—to Gluck and Orpheus and Eurydice in particular? (Listen, don’t look, says the myth—a dangerous and enticing tension to explore within a work.)
As Martin reminded us in his introduction, Levin asks us to look at “opera through other eyes,” an apt metaphor perhaps for the work of our summer school writ large—to look at theatre through other eyes, philosophy through other eyes. And perhaps each other through other eyes? One conversation at lunch today turned to Facebook and Instagram, the analog fetish in the digital age. Kate Bredeson, our emissary from Portlandia, volunteered as our test subject for digital technologies. Nietzsche said in his 1886 preface to The Birth of Tragedy that he wanted to “look at science in the perspective of the artist.” I’m not sure that this is what he meant. Here’s Kate, instagramed: