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Philosophy and theatre

By uclzean, on 4 June 2014

Friedrich Nietzche

Friedrich Nietzsche

Forty minutes into Tom Stern’s (UCL Philosophy) UCL Festival of the Arts lecture he had the audience humming a drone-like melody and clapping their hands in time. A 12-strong tragic chorus concealed their faces with masks and turned to the stage as two volunteers recited the opening lines of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex.

CREON: Before you came, my lord, to steer our ship of state, Laius ruled this land.

OEDIPUS: I have heard that, but I never saw the man.

CREON: Laius was killed. And now the god is clear: those murderers, he tells us, must be punished, whoever they may be.

OEDIPUS: And where are they? In what country? Where am I to find a trace of this ancient crime? It will be hard to track.

The audience continued to hum and clap but the hedonism was soon interrupted due to a complaint from a conference in the room below. A pity as it interrupted the near completion of the Apollonian unity Nietzsche had envisioned these events to be about. We had, at least, tasted what it would have been like to be at a religious worship of Dionysus that took place in amphitheatres over festival periods in Ancient Greece.

Stern is fresh from the publication of his book entitled Philosophy and Theatre which investigates how the two relate. He began by providing background into the history of both. This inevitably led to Ancient Greece, the birthplace of western philosophy and western theatre. ‘The tradition begins here. Both are Greek words. Philosophy means the love of wisdom  and theatron means a place for viewing’.

The first and only written source that documents Socrates’s existence during his life is from a play by Aristophanes which mocked the philosopher as a tricksy charlatan who corrupted the youth. The impression the play had on society at the time may have led to his execution. Indeed, he was condemned for corrupting the youth and not believing in the Gods of the city. Plato later wrote that poets and playwrights would be banished from the perfect city. It was Aristotle’s response to this, Poetics, that was used as a ‘manual by medieval playwrights to write plays’. We, therefore, would not have theatre as we know it today without the influence of philosophy.

Stern used Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy to explain how the art of deception – the theatre – can represent truth. The Greek tragedy, in its traditional form, embraced deception and illusion. The plays would take place in the middle of the day, in the open air in front of 10,000-15,000 spectators. The audience would drink and chew on ivy leaf that induced a hallucinogenic state. This would put the audience into an Apollonian state, which Stern explained was ‘the kind of dreaming where you know you’re dreaming and you want to continue’. The dream – deceptive in itself –  was Dionysian because you lose a sense of self. If this occurs, especially within a crowd, you achieve unity.

‘Nietzsche’s truth was that we are unified and bound together in suffering and pain’. It is with the distraction of the play or the story that a deeper truth is achieved, ‘if it was only unity you’d collapse’. For Nietzsche this profundity occurred at the opera.

This was an insightful talk and full of energy. Stern even managed to pull off the much feared audience participation and I left hoping my next event Music Revolution! Mozart. Rossini. Whatever next? would achieve the kind of truth and unity Nietzsche saw in opera and the Greeks in tragedy.

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