- Rhapsody for the Theatre by Alain Badiou
In this collection of essays and an interview, effectively translated by Bruno Bosteels, the renowned French philosopher, novelist, and playwright Alain Badiou stresses that theatre is “the figurative reknotting of politics” (13). Theatre and politics both occur at public gatherings “with the intent of a spectacle”; actors and politicians are “physically present” in locations reserved for the “express purpose of the gathered public’s consideration”; and in politics and theatre, a “referent” exists through which “the spectacle can be said to be the representation” (6). Badiou justifies theatre’s cohabitation with the political when he asks: “What does theatre talk about if not the state of the State, the state of society, the state of revolution, the state of consciousness relative to the State, to society, to the revolution, to politics?” (36). This last remark situates Badiou within the French philosophical-leftist traditions of Althusser, where theatre works for or against the “state ideological apparatus”; Foucault, where theatre resists or defends state “biopower” that subjugates bodies; and Derrida, where the performance of différance challenges the status quo through ephemerality, alterity, and saturation of presence and nonpresence.
Throughout this book and in his plays Badiou’s interests in theatre and politics are informed by Brecht’s dialectic, Genet’s activism, Sartre’s existentialism, Mallarmé’s anti-theatricality, Pirandello’s metatheatricalism, Beckett’s dramaturgy, Molière’s farces, and the influence of Badiou’s colleague, director and former head of Comédie-Française, Antoine Vitez. Politically and philosophically, Badiou is a committed Marxist informed primarily by Lacan and Althusser, as well as Plato and Heidegger. His philosophy stands in opposition to postmodernists Deleuze and Lyotard, whose apolitical emphasis on simulacra over essence is contrary to Badiou’s conception of multiple truths embedded in what he calls the “event.” For Badiou, theatre is essentially discordance, since it begins “when ‘two’ characters do not agree”; when theatre inscribes “discord,” or disagreement, there are “only two major discords: that of politics and that of the sexes, whose scene is love,” leaving only two subjects for theatre: “love and politics” (51).
A qualified Platonist, Badiou maintains that theatre and art can illustrate truth, not as mimesis (Plato’s nemesis), but as the concretization of ideas and ontology because tragedy “asks of us to think where we stand, in historical time, with respect to being,” and that it “demands that we take a stand with respect to the history of truth” (85). For Badiou, we are concerned philosophically with a unity of viewpoints (what he categorizes in other works as four philosophical rubrics: art, love, politics, and science), rather than a unity grounded in the Platonic identity of a stable and changeless essence; subjectivity is not an entirety situated in an identity of immutable sameness (foundationalism), but rather a Gestalt emerging from a progeny of transversal vectors and vantage points. Truth, for him, can exist experientially and in potentiality. With this in mind, he divides theatre along two lines in juxtaposition and in conflict: one by Racine, the playwright concerned with the blunt real in language and desire (truth as is); and one by Corneille’s quest for discourse and truth as a becoming, where the potential for change (even amid skepticism) belies Badiou’s Left-leaning Marxist activism. “All theatre is a theatre of Ideas” (37), he contends, noting that subjectivity is in “torment of the Idea, the becoming eclipsed of the real, the ungraspable horror of power: in all this there is a whirling that a balanced language captures, returns and indefinitely rebounds into the hall of mirrors of an essential deception” (40). He also divides theatre into good and bad, the latter resulting from the Church Mass, “which gives up on the ethics of play insofar as it distributes substances. It pretends that the imitation of the imitation was only the redoubling of imitation, which supposes that there is something to imitate” (64; emphasis in original). Good theatre for Badiou is an “inauguration of meaning” (ibid.)—meaning as it becomes in the theatrical...