- Introduction:On Playing Roles and Acting Exemplary
It is not a semantic accident that four key notions of social ethics are also key concepts of theater. These are the concepts of character, playing a part/role, performance, and acting. Of course, one could object that there is a touch of pun in this claim: A character in a drama is not quite the same as good or bad character in a virtue ethics; acting in theater is mere play-acting, whereas acting in social and personal life is serious business. But the distinction between play and serious business does not mean that the former is any less important than the latter. In Homo Ludens, his magisterial study of the play-element in culture, Johan Huizinga remarks: “Play is a thing by itself. The play-concept as such is of a higher order than is seriousness. For, seriousness seeks to exclude play, whereas play can very well include seriousness.”1 “The wise and learned,” said Fu Yi (first century c.e.) in the preface to his famous tract On Dance, “should know how to balance playfulness and seriousness.”2 The Shakespearean fool often gives us the most serious insights not only into the plot and characters of the drama but into our own lives. “Chunyu Kun’s sardonic laughter steered King Wei of Qi to a new course of action. Jester Meng’s song of irony earned the firewood carrier his just reward. Jester Zhan’s jocular reenactment of the attendant’s discomfort [in front of the king] helped cut those men’s long shift by half. These performances have real worthy impact too!”3 To find out who is really the murderer of his father, Hamlet needed to watch the reactions of the prime suspects to a dramatic “enactment” of a similar fictional murder, because how we react to theater often ‘betrays’ what sort of persons we are in real life.
A conscientious person of firm wisdom (sthita-prajña), whether in the Bhagavadgītā or in the Analects, performs actions not out of personal need, desire, or interest but in order to set an example to the community around him or her. This is not showing off: An element of demonstration or showing others and becoming conscious of being watched by others is central thus to both dramatic and socially exemplary action.
In classical Chinese, Indian, and Greek cultures, theater (including music and dance) has been used from time immemorial as a spontaneous method of public aesthetic education. And it is increasingly clear, for contemporary television- and entertainment-addicted globalized youth as well as ancient secular humanity that, as Wittgenstein remarked, “Ethics and Aesthetics are one.”4 A film and a life can have a “good run” in the same ethico-aesthetic sense in which a team can have good “innings” in cricket. Instead of focusing, therefore, on the distinction between pretending to do something and seriously doing it, between performing on stage and performing in real life, which would be invoked to distinguish play-acting from [End Page 1] acting-in-real-life, if we focus on “watching a play and being watched by spectators,” with the very idea of performing up to a public standard of excellence, theater and life seem to come much closer together. A detailed working out of this idea is found in Paul Woodruff’s pathbreaking book Necessity of Theater,5 which was a major inspiration behind the idea of this special issue of Philosophy East and West on theater.
In both ancient Greek and ancient Indian aesthetics, drama — and recreation in general — has been theorized as creative imitation (mimesis) of life. Following the Confucian ethical emphasis on ritual propriety, relational co-becoming of humans, and co-creative virtuosity in social performances, what we may find in Chinese, Indian, and Greek philosophies of life-as-theater is the converse: Moral life may flourish by imitating good theatrical art. Exemplary character-building may consist in creative role-playing in the drama we call life.
In certain pockets of comparative cross-cultural phenomenology, the dialogic self or the first-person I has been recast as the “you” of you. In an analogous...