Arts & International Affairs: Volume 3, Issue 1, Spring 2018 - Page 30

ARTS & INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS • VOLUME 3, ISSUE 1 • SPRING 2018 HYPOCRITE, ACTOR, POLITICIAN ... OLGA TAXIDOU University of Edinburgh In an astonishingly evocative scene from Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui�his 1941 allegory about the rise of Nazism and in particular its “charismatic,” demagogical leader�Arturo Ui receives lessons in performing political speeches, lessons in “electrocution” as the play calls them, from a has-been actor. This scene can be read as part of a long genealogy of meta-theatricality, where the medium of performance itself is in many ways quoting the longue durée of the anti-theatrical legacy. What is Brecht doing here in injecting this meditation on Nazism with an equally powerful meditation on the impact of theatricality itself? Is he in some way undermining his own play? Is the art of acting itself open to such powers of manipulation and corruption? And if this washed-out actor can give lessons to a would-be dictator, how are we as the spectators of this scene protected from being manipulated by the play itself? Who has the last laugh here? Is there ethically and politically good acting and bad acting? In conflating the roles of the actor and the politician, this scene foregrounds the constitutive relationships between the two. In a sense, this taps into the long-standing interface between the “performative” as a philosophical/critical category and actual performance conventions. Does the style/manner/form of presentation and performance matter as much as the content itself? At the same time, the scene also quotes the equally entangled relationship between theatre and democracy, as Brecht is primarily concerned with the power of theatre to unmask false democracy. Brecht’s own proposal of Epic Theatre does offer some responses to the above questions and purports to expose some of the pretences or failures of democracy itself. What I would like to reflect on for the purposes of this brief excursion is the long tradition that this scene quotes and enacts on the stage. This is a tradition as old as Plato’s fear of theatre and its democratic potential, coined in the brilliant term he uses in Laws, “theatrocracy,” 1 revived in the anti-theatrical tracts of the seventeenth century as evidenced in William Prynne’s magisterial Histriomastix (2017 [1633]): the Player’s Scourge, or Actor’s Tragedy, which at once looks back to Plato and forward to Antonin Artaud (and the Theatre as the Plague), and enacted in the heretical Marxism of Guy Debord’s manifesto The Society of the Spectacle (1995 [1967]). 2 These three diverse but iconic tracts share 1 See Plato (1999:1225–1513). Plato writes: “By compositions of such a kind and discourse to the same effect, they naturally inspired the multitude with a contempt of musical law, and a conceit of their competence as judges. Thus our once silent audiences have found a voice, in the persuasion that they understood what is good and bad in art; the sovereignty of the best, aristocracy, has given way to an evil sovereignty of the audience, a theatrocracy.” (my emphasis) 2 For the ways anti-theatricality is articulated in Renaissance England as part of the puritanical debate see Prynne (2017 [1633]). For insightful reflections on this and on Plato’s theatrocracy see Fisher (2017). 29 doi: 10.18278/aia.3.1.3