- In Praise of Theatre by Alain Badiou and Nicolas Truong
In the summer of 2012 at Avignon Festival, Alain Badiou engaged Nicolas Truong in a public dialogue on the state of theatre. Badiou began with a story of his 14-year-old thespian self portraying Scapin in the style of French actor Daniel Sorano in his high school’s production of Scapin the Schemer. Contained within this anecdote was a tension that has run throughout Badiou’s career as both a giant of philosophy and a budding playwright: his teenage attempt to gather his “lanky frame” into the mold of Sorano’s “bounding and radiance” (2) is repeated in a different way throughout his learned commentary on philosophy and the theatre—collected in the slim though engaging In Praise of Theatre, a development of his conversation with Truong—as an uneasy meeting of the conceptual and the gestural, and between two related but ultimately different passions.
A dialogue in five sections, the book strikes at the historical origin of the testy marriage, described as “an old couple which is able to overcome the system of its countless quarrels” (24), between theatre and its intellectual cousin. According to Badiou, philosophy and theatre share the same fundamental question—“how to speak to people in such a way that they think their lives otherwise than they normally do?” (27)—but differ in the means and style of transmission, either in the face to face didactic encounter or in a distanced representation before a general audience. It is clear in his responses to Truong’s questions about the possibility of a “philosophical theatre,” however, that Badiou is not interested in such a merger: citing Diderot and Brecht, he says that “one must recognize . . . that when a philosopher proposes a theory of the theatre, he is pursuing philosophical ends and not theatrical ones” (39). And so the philosopher and his interlocutor leave the realm of philosophy proper behind in order to delve more deeply into the subjective transformations offered by the theatre tout court.
First, however, Badiou is asked to take account of contemporary theatre in light of various strains of “anti-theatricalism” on both the Right and the Left. The energy of his critique is not against the “conservative and/or consumerist routine,” where theatre is either “the pious visitation of a cultural treasure” or otherwise “must carve out a place for itself in the entertainment industry” (9), but rather in his appraisal of the “leftist” threat characterized by a performance theory influenced by Antonin Artaud (and filtered through the work of J. L. Austin, Erving Goffman, and Judith Butler) where a hackneyed avant-garde meets the music video and flash mob. For Badiou, “the idea of an immediate abolition of all forms of theatrical representation”—a “theatre without theatre”—cannot orient the future(s) of the art, since it is a negation “doctrinally reduced to itself, never on its own bring[ing] about affirmation” (18–19).
Badiou is never so lively as when he critiques the critical attempt to undo the passivity of the spectator (and with it, supposedly, the society of the spectacle writ large): this “severe injunction” is actually “the height of passivity,” and in any case the subjective effects of theatre already run deeper than any effort to extort audience participation (32). His emphasis is on the way in which theatre literally takes place, so that the problem is not “of a particular technique, but rather of knowing if the theatre is present, if the event of thought takes place theatrically” (35; emphasis added). This possibility extends beyond Badiou’s thoughts on the theatre as such to the place of contemporary art in general, for he has remarked elsewhere on the way in which “the happening” depends on “the new things, the new bodies” to “displace the place,” to make the institutional place of art irrelevant (The Age of the Poets , 76). One wishes, perhaps, that he had examined and expanded on this formulation here.
Much of Badiou’s analysis seems to be geared toward reining in the reductions...