Althusser on Theatre Author(s): Mohammad Kowsar Source: Theatre Journal, Vol. 35, No. 4, Ideology & Theatre (Dec., 1983), pp. 461-474 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3207329 Accessed: 02/07/2009 06:38 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=jhup. Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with the scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected]. The Johns Hopkins University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Theatre Journal. http://www.jstor.org

Althusser on Theatre

Embed Size (px)

Citation preview

Page 1: Althusser on Theatre

Althusser on TheatreAuthor(s): Mohammad KowsarSource: Theatre Journal, Vol. 35, No. 4, Ideology & Theatre (Dec., 1983), pp. 461-474Published by: The Johns Hopkins University PressStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3207329Accessed: 02/07/2009 06:38

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available athttp://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp. JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unlessyou have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and youmay use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use.

Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained athttp://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=jhup.

Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printedpage of such transmission.

JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with thescholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform thatpromotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact [email protected].

The Johns Hopkins University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access toTheatre Journal.


Page 2: Althusser on Theatre

Althusser on Theatre Mohammad Kowsar

The student of political philosophy who reads Louis Althusser's For Marx with the intention of gaining insight into Marxist thought as it pertains to epistemological disquisitions is liable to be initially perplexed by a chapter entitled "Piccolo Teatro' Bertolazzi and Brecht. Notes on a Materialist Theatre.'2 Althusser had originally prepared this essay (hereafter PT) in response to a cultural event (the presentation of Giorgio Strehler's production of Carlo Bertolazzi's El Nost Milan at Theatre des Nations in July, 1962).2 Attentive inspection of the essay shows that its place in the book is quite secure, an indication that the search for a materialist theatre is in no way at odds with the theoretical and political topics examined throughout the volume. The premises discussed by Althusser constitute a rare example of Marxist criticism practiced upon a theatrical performance by a major philosopher. A formal simplicity governs the design of the essay: it opens with a brief introduction, followed in ordered sequence by plot synopsis (of the play as staged), extended discussion of Strehler's achievements as interpreter of the text, and a culminating argument in support of Bertold Brecht's pivotal role in Marxist theatre practice. Beneath the classically inductive method of persuasion employed by Althusser there is hidden a highly complex point of view, so rich and detailed in the sum of its original observations, that it becomes the objective of my treatise to expose those features, even as I introduce an aesthetically visionary piece of theatre criticism.

Mohammad Kowsar, formerly Assistant Professor at Tehran University, currently teaches drama at City College of San Francisco. His reviews have appeared in Theatre and TJ.

1 Louis Althusser, Pour Marx (Paris: Maspero, 1965). Appearing in English as For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Pantheon, 1969), pp. 129-151.

2 See Carlo Bertolazzi, El Nost Milan e altre commedie, ed. Folco Portinari (Torino: Einaudi, 1971). Stre- hler had prepared the original version of El Nost Milan for the Piccolo Teatro of Milan in 1956. By elimi- nating the setting of Bertolazzi's second act (the scene of the lottery game), Strehler had compressed the four-act play into three acts. The revival of El Nost Milan in 1961-1962, like the original production was played in the Bergamesque dialect, the language of Bertolazzi's own text.


Page 3: Althusser on Theatre

462 / TI, December 1983

It would be misleading from the outset to present Althusser's essay as an "exemplary" Marxist review, only because the basic tenets held by this philosopher have occasioned great controversy among traditional Marxists. The putative Althusserian heresy centers on his theory which assumes the Marxist oeuvre to be a progressive preparation for the late Mature Works (written after 1857) where Marx dissociates himself most completely from Hegel: to understand Marx is to follow in his footsteps and to describe, think out and determine the transition process from Hegelian influences to full-fledged materialism-acknowledging that the end point is the inevitable result of the break from the earlier assumptions, as is the starting point pregnant with the possibilities of the final maturation. Critics claim that reading Althusser is to experience a mad pursuit so vigilant that he seems to suggest that even Marx's Capital is in danger of being appropriated by bourgeois sensibility as a form of ideological fetishism. Whether such criticism is valid or not, there can be no doubt that Althusser rigorously questions all those areas (including the Mature Works) where ideological aberration may be manifest. The chief merit of the Piccolo Teatro essay is in its demonstrative aspect: philosophical suppositions are tested against a concrete occurrence, which in this case happens to be a cultural event. In studying the significance of Strehler's production (the cultural occasion in question), the viability of Althusser's brand of Marxism is put to practical test.

In his introductory paragraph Althusser calls Strehler's production "extraordinary," because it avoids "tired, anachronistic entertainment" in favor of confronting its audiences (many of whom attended despite the discouraging reviews of the Parisian critics who failed to understand the significance of the artistic event) with "the heart" of the problems apparent in modern dramaturgy (PT, p. 131). Althusser is not yet ready to enter a polemical argument, nor is he willing to define his terms. But we might want to remember that from an orthodox Marxist point of view a theatrical event becomes "extraordinary" only in context of specific historical developments in the life of culture converging to allow it to enjoy a privileged status. By the same token, the act of dealing with the "heart" of a problem entails the artistic practi- tioner's profound knowledge of his moment in history, an understanding of the unresolved social and cultural contradictions that provide the backdrop for which the artistic creation itself helps to serve as antidote and also a presentation of a theoretical frame of reference (albeit tentative and subject to change) for future practice. Finally the traditionalist would abjure entertainment in favor of a theatrical presentation that can speak to the chief critical issues of an epoch; Althusser's initial silence is to be interpreted as a refusal to voice his opinions from such a platform.

Instead Althusser chooses to present a leisurely paced summary of the events of the play as he has witnessed them in Strehler's production. Althusser's description is a testament to an alert viewing practice as he vividly re-stages for us what he observes and experiences as spectator. Little digressions, interpretive in nature, qualify the narration. The first act "set in the Milan Tivoli . . . a cheap, poverty- stricken fun-fair in the thick fog of an evening" is "an Italy unlike the Italy of our myths" (PT, p. 131). Various characters identified as "unemployed, artisans, semi- beggars, girls on the look-out, old men and women on the watch for the odd half- penny . . . are a sub-proletariat passing the time as best they can . . . waiting for

Page 4: Althusser on Theatre


something of some sort to happen in their lives, in which nothing happens. They wait" (PT, pp. 131-132). Time in which nothing happens, the squandered life of the disinherited is what Althusser observes throughout the major portion of the first act. But at the very end of the first act a sudden dramatic intrigue is introduced, "a 'story' is sketched out, the image of a destiny" (PT, p. 132). This is the tale of Nina, her love for a doomed circus performer, the carnal desire retained for her by the neigh- borhood bully, Togasso, and the apprehension caused in an old father, Peppone, who suspects, in all of this, a compromise of honor.

The situation is ripe for tragedy, but as Althusser notes, the second act refuses to develop the intrigue introduced so belatedly in the first act. Instead a soup kitchen is presented peopled with the "same poverty and unemployment, the flotsam of the past, the tragedies and comedies of the present: small craftsmen, beggars, a cabman .... a few workers who are building a factory, in sharp contrast with their lumpen- proletarian surroundings.. ." (PT, p. 132). Again the static nature of the proceedings is emphasized: "Yes, the day of the second act is indeed the truth of the night of the first: these people have no more history in their lives than they had in their dreams .... they eat and wait. A life in which nothing happens" (PT, p. 132). Althusser pin- points the social and political movement in Italian life: this is the Italy of the 1890s: two decades have passed since the reunification of the Risorgimento and the House of Savoy rules, as does the Pope in Rome-but the ideals of a unified nation have not been translated into a just and equitable existence for the majority of the people.

Nina's story does not make a reappearance until the end of the second act. In the meantime the circus-performer has died and Nina finds herself acceding to the demands of Togasso. Devastated by Togasso's hold over his daughter, Peppone gets involved in a drunken brawl and kills the man responsible for his daughter's degradation. The third act takes place in the women's night shelter. As various anonymous women make ready to leave during the early morning hours, Nina is discovered sleeping in a corner. This is where Peppone finds her as he tries to explain that "he killed for her sake, for her honor . . ." (PT, p. 133). However Nina can no longer accept the outdated myths by which her father's life is governed. Even though she knows very well that Peppone will spend his last years in prison, it is with unsentimental fortitude that she admits to the merit of Togasso's argument. She will become a prostitute herself, but at least "she will be on the other side, on the side of freedom and truth" (PT p. 133).

Having concluded with an account of the events as he has observed them in the production, Althusser suggests that the simplicity of the plot harbors an intricacy which can too easily elude the unwary spectator. Subject to misjudgment are the majority of the French critics who consider the play a "melodrame miserabiliste" (PT, p. 133). At this point Althusser opens a discussion on two fronts: he illuminates the significant themes and interests of Strehler's production while he conducts polemics against critics guilty of oversight. The original mistake is to judge the play, and specifically its production, as a species of melodrama and not to recognize that Strehler's interpretation is guided by the overriding objective to criticize the melodramatic vision of the world. The character who most obviously conforms to melodramatic exigencies is Nina's father. Encouraging his daughter to live in the

Page 5: Althusser on Theatre

464 / TI, December 1983

imaginary world of romantic illusions, Peppone clings to outdated notions of family honor and petty bourgeois decency. He kills Togasso, a futile act, to keep Nina "free from all contact with the world he has hidden from her . . ." (PT, p. 133). But in the long run, through concrete suffering, Nina realizes "that her safety lies in her own hands and that she can only reach the other world by selling the only goods at her disposal: her young body" (PT, p. 134). Consequently two modes of being clash with each other, and eventually the melodramatic point of view is superseded by a harsh, realistic outlook.

Before we complete the tracing of Althusser's synopsis in the first part of his essay, we should note that his differentiation between melodrama and a critique of melodrama (a distinction which in itself does not constitute a discourse typical only of Marxist inquiry) will show a kind of critical methodology which, in its elaboration, is quite distinct from the traditional line of Marxist interrogation. Issuing from a criticism of melodrama, for example, the standard Marxist investigation of the El Nost Milan production would deal with the following problems: the contradiction between myth and reality; the questionable validity of time that has lost its historical significance; and the suspect quality of space popu- lated merely by miserable tramps and social outcasts. The standard view would hold that an historically progressive vision cannot allow for sentimentality where the lumpen-proletariat (a class that is non-productive by definition) is concerned. A militant persuasion that things are not immutable would crown the argument; including the assertion that positive belief in change is the original ideological stance which ignites revolutionary consciousness. From this same perspective a dramatic performance succeeds in presenting a critique of melodrama if it can tangibly deal with the above issues and guarantee that the destiny of humanity is not ruled by chance (as in melodrama) but by the social will.

Different queries and solutions to the problems indexed above occupy Althusser's attention however. He addresses himself instead to the problem of knowledge and of what constitutes true consciousness. Of profound interest to him is the theoretical notion of time assumed by most speculators (including the majority of Marxist analysts) to be linear, continuous and homogeneous. In contrast to this view Althusser argues for a complex, irregularly punctuated notion of duration, even as he casts suspicion upon the idea of a "centered" space, erroneously believed to reveal its internal structure when cut by a section. Specific research of interdependent ideational categories-ideology, absence, superstructure, totality, dialectical and undialectical time (far from exhausting the terminologies, I am mentioning only those which are most immediately relevant to our study) - though organically linked to Marxist interests, establishes a constellation of "Althusserian" themes which are part and parcel of his overall demonstrative and critical method. In Althusser's design art and art criticism (aspects of ideological activity) function as necessary "systems of representations" in context of the relative autonomy of ideology itself.3

3 See "Marxism and Humanism" in For Marx, p. 232.

Page 6: Althusser on Theatre


Althusser does not tire of affirming that "ideology is not an aberration or a contin- gent excrescence of History: it is a structure essential to the historical life of societies. Further, only the existence and the recognition of its necessity enable us to act on ideology and transform ideology into an instrument of deliberate action on history."4 Having tentatively established proof of efficacy reserved for critical endeavor (as extension of ideological practice) in the first place, we must hasten to reiterate that Althusser's analysis of Strehler's production purports to negate abstraction by virtue of entering a dialogue with critics who have overlooked (if not misunderstood) the import of the theatrical event. In this case misinterpretation occurs, as we have previously noted, when the presentation is judged to be melodramatic, a mistake directly conditioned by a very specific failure: the inability to appreciate how the events of the play are organized around a very unique and "strange 'temporal' rhythm" (PT, p. 134). Althusser proceeds to take apart the construction of the per- formance by exposing the double time standard operating in the Bertolazzi play which Strehler manipulates astutely in his production. The forty odd characters in the play exist in a slow-moving time continuum which is in stark contrast to the turbulent, accelerated time in which the three characters (Nina, Peppone, Togasso) reside. The play's three acts are similar and repetitive in construction, displaying the same "internal dissociation" which is the function of the temporal division in each act, the "slowly-passing, empty time and a lightning-short, full time . . ." (PT, p. 134). From this it follows that the events of the play do not follow an evolutionary process, but exist as independent, episodic, self-contained occurrences. The spatial division in each act also conforms to the time separation. Althusser notes that "there is no explicit relationship between these two times or between these two spaces" (PT, p. 134). The internal dissociation guaranteeing diverse, unrelated spatio-temporal existences is the major index to an "absence of relations" (PT, p. 135). Defining the formal grid which holds the play together in terms of time and space disjunctions and asymmetrical coexistence serves as the kernel of Althusser's aesthetic argument, his major insight. He will inquire "how can there coexist two forms of temporality, apparently foreign to one another and yet united by a lived relationship?" (PT, p. 135). The answer which he offers immediately, that "the true relationship is consti- tuted precisely by the absence of relations" (PT, p. 135), must itself be examined with respect to Althusser's own private vocabulary. In 1962 the notion of "absence" had not yet found its precise formulation in the Althusserian canon. In fact its appear- ance in the Piccolo Teatro essay was a prelude to an extended and coherent definition appearing in the 1965 lectures presented at Ecole Normale Superieure.5 If we were to simplify a difficult term, absence for Althusser would be a vision of a "lack" which loses its ontological status, only to reappear as an epistemological agent. Rejecting the premise that absence can be perceived as a reflection upon the non-presence of an object (or problem) which constitutes a momentary or extended distraction on

4 Ibid. 5 Lectures that formed the basis for Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar's Lire le capital (Paris: Maspero,

1968). Appearing in English as Reading Capital, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Pantheon, 1970).

Page 7: Althusser on Theatre

466 / TJ, December 1983

the part of a viewing subject, Althusser argues that there is a necessary symbiotic relationship between the visible and the invisible inherent to the structure of phenomena, so that, theoretically, "the invisible of a visible field is not generally anything whatever outside and foreign to the visible defined by that field."6 As a result absence is no longer a lack of perception on the part of a beholder observing an object but the internal lacuna of the object itself if the object were to scan itself, judging what it is by what it is not. What then constitutes a "lack" is a structural link between emptiness and fullness which defines the object as a "relationship" when submitted to theoretical analysis. This is why "oversight is an oversight that concerns vision: non-vision is therefore inside vision, it is a form of vision and hence has a necessary relationship with vision."7 Once absence is internalized, it becomes imperative for the theoretician to adopt "vision" itself as an epistemological negotiator in the field of theoretical practice.

There is, then, in Strehler's production a dramatization of an absence of relations between the world of the characters in the melodrama and the world of the commoners. Yet a latent relationship is at work here which cannot be made visible or demonstrated outside of the spatio-temporal structure of each independent mode of existence. It would be tempting to resolve diversity by considering one world the immanent domain of the other. But this is precisely what Althusser avoids. There is, he claims, the empty, silent and immobile time which should be identified initially: this is the "chronicle of wretched existence .... a time in which the past is fixed in repetition . . . and the future is hardly groped for . . . (PT, p. 135). It is decisively this immobile and dead time which imposes the condition of life spent in misery. The three acts illustrate the state of progressive inertia: the moderate level of animation displayed by the characters when initially discovered at the fun-fair, grinds down to the sedate meanderings in the soup kitchen in the second act, which in turn gives way to outright stasis in the third, where even "the old women blend into the walls" (PT, p. 135). Before observing how Althusser treats the function of time in the life of the other group (Nina et al.), we must examine the a priori assumption to which he adheres that time is a complex durational principle quite different in structure from the balanced divisions one associates with clocktime. Time is, metaphorically speaking, a trajection which proceeds by fits and starts, is unevenly punctuated, and ultimately follows a non-linear and discontinuous path in effecting transition and transformation. A subjectivist position is not being expounded by such a view however. If we were to speak of time as a measure of diverse and multilinear, accelerated or slackened, duration, we can do so only in terms of social activity. And social activity is determined and defined ultimately in accordance with forces and relations of production. Althusser opposes both the proponents of idealism and Marxists who are inadvertently tied to the same Hegelian ballast of historical development. To recognize that the famous dialectics of the Idea supports and is, in turn, buttressed by the notion of continuous and homogeneous

6 See "From 'Capital' to Marx's Philosophy', in Reading Capital, p. 26. 7 Ibid., p. 21.

Page 8: Althusser on Theatre


time is also to comprehend that the rejection of idealism necessitates the renegotia- tion of time in its very structure. This is the foremost lesson which many Marxists imprisoned in their derivative historicist outlook must learn:

It is not enough, therefore, to say, as modern historians do, that there are different periodizations for different times, that each time has its own rhythms, some short, some long; we must also think these differences in rhythm and punctuation in their foundation, in the type of articulation, displacement and torsion which harmonizes these different times with one another. To go even further, I should say that we cannot restrict ourselves to reflecting the existence of visible and measurable times in this way; we must, of absolute necessity, pose the question of the mode of existence of invisible times, of the invisible rhythms and punctuations concealed beneath the surface of each visible time.8

Althusser appreciates the manifestations of time in Strehler's production which appear to him appropriately complex and multi-layered. Accordingly, the itinerary of invisible time, which is conditioned by its state of ostensible absence, should not be equalled with the slow-moving chronicle of everyday existence of the common folk, no more than it should be associated with the accelerated time of Nina's experi- ences; it is rather the two structures in opposition which predicates the presence of invisible time. However the full implication of invisible time does not emerge before the true limits of the time of melodrama can be established. This "articulated time," seemingly "moved from within by an irresistible force," appears at the outset as "the dialectical time par excellence" (PT, p. 137). It only has to manifest itself, and the alternative chronicle of miserable existence is pushed out of existence. Moreover it harbors enough generative energy to give the impression that its movement is determined solely by inner contradictions. But the eclipsing power of this time is altogether deceptive. Althusser will direct our attention to the fact that this com- pelling time actually comprises the smallest fraction of the entire proceedings. And even though it tends to dominate whenever it is manifest, its own rootless dynamism helps to efface what hegemony it hopes to achieve. The highly charged time of melodrama cancels itself through the extremity of its own false tension, the conse- quence of which is a paradoxical temporality where invisible time predominates. But to clarify that invisible time is none other than the time of opposition (or the under- lying temporal structure which differentiates between true and false dialectical operations), we are obliged to backtrack on our exposition and consider Althusser's views on the spatial design of Strehler's production. Homologous with the temporal structure, seemingly, there is a complex spatial organization in the production which displays its contradictory facets parallel to shifts and transformations in time. The most striking evidence of the fusion of spatio-temporal elements can be observed in the setting and the stage activities of the second act (depicting life in the soup kitchen). Althusser describes in great detail Strehler's theatrical setting and how the director injects significance into it: a cavernous space overwhelms and dwarfs the characters who appear on the stage; the presence of a huge, looming, dilapidated back-wall, connecting to a high ceiling, reinforces the image of austerity; long, heavy benches and tables running parallel to the footlights, including scenic elements

8 See 'The Errors of Classical Economics," in Reading Capital, pp. 100-101.

Page 9: Althusser on Theatre

468 / TJ, December 1983

positioned at right angles, help to make of this a forbidding space; an imposing grill partition separates the kitchen from the restaurant proper, and finally large block letters inscribed on the wall remind the poor folk of the harsh establishment regula- tions. An altogether gray atmosphere which Althusser interprets to be a perfect metaphor: "In the second act it is overwhelmingly obvious that the empty, closed cube of this cheap restaurant is an image of time in these men's situation" (PT, p. 136). In this milieu, Strehler scatters the characters far apart from one another and positions them behind enormous tables and benches. Distance is augmented by the unfocused conversations among the derelicts. The eating is slow, deliberate and ritual-like. Althusser concludes: "I can think of no comparable representation in spatial structure, in the distribution of men and places, of the deep relations between men and the time they live" (PT, p. 137).

Having demonstrated that the setting of the second act is "a direct perception of this time" (PT, p. 136) in which the poor folk reside, Althusser continues to chart melodrama's failure to wipe clean and supplant the "structure" of everyday life's "spatial representation" (PT, p. 137). In fact the more insistent the violence of the melodrama, the greater the resulting suspicion that its existence is actually out-of- place. In the wake of any real presence (indicating an absence from the site), melodrama will witness its own spurious dialectic and false claim to consciousness. For what is melodrama but the handmaiden of mystification, whereby bourgeois morality elevates dream images of vice and virtue to represent human destiny, without recourse to any principle of root determination. But Althusser is not satisfied merely to judge the inefficacy of melodrama (as any Marxist could) but to demonstrate its anti-dialectical nature in the spatio-temporal scheme of everyday existence. He notices that the dialectic of melodrama in Strehler's production is (very appropriately) "acted marginally, so to speak, in the wings, somewhere in one corner of the stage and at the ends of the acts . .." (PT, p. 138). And it is here, on the fringes of the acts, where the dialectic "always appears after everyone has departed" (PT, p. 138) that melodrama explodes. Spatially backed into the corners, bereft of any central authority, melodrama erupts as if in a vacuum. Ultimately melodrama fails to make an impact because its sound and fury cannot be translated into concrete activity; its inner dynamism is an image of a false dialectical consciousness. For all practical purposes it is absent. And yet its place in the total scheme is necessary, its absence enjoying a mandatory ontological status. It can be said that it is through this absence of a connection between everyday existence and melodramatic consciousness that Nina rejects the old myths and steps into a qualitatively different universe. When the tumult at the extremities of the stage dies, life goes on, but Nina has repudiated her father's consciousness. By rejecting "honor in poverty," only Nina among the nameless multitude and certainly over and above Peppone, is metamorphosed. She undergoes radical change, which is not to maintain that hers is an absolute transformation. After all she only removes herself from the society of mendicants to join the world of prostitution; she is still a victim. However she will now have a corporeal knowledge of her own condition as her very body is turned into a field of monetary transaction. Nevertheless for Nina moments of full revelation are systematically delayed, even as intimations of consciousness and suggestions of half-truths appear on her horizon. On the part of Strehler this method

Page 10: Althusser on Theatre


of postponement is intentional. Althusser quotes from the director's Programme Notes: "El Nost Milan is a drama sotto voce, a drama continually referred back, reconsidered, a drama which is focused from time to time only to be deferred once again . . " (PT, p. 141, n. 5). This strategy of delaying consciousness by demonstrat- ing delayed consciousness (which is none other than the postponement of immediate interpretation in favor of the examination of the "latent structure" of an experience) is effectuated through the critical categories of visible absence (or invisible presence) and invisible time (or dialectical time). Melodrama is dislocated so that pathos (heretofore mistakenly endowed with centerstage significance) may be critically scrutinized on the fringe where it belongs; Nina undergoes a necessary trans- formation, but the full comprehension she might have is interfered with so that the problem of "understanding" itself can be examined.

Althusser's appreciation of Strehler's tendency to turn theatre practice into an epistemological inquest is not surprising: the French philosopher employs analogical methods in his own practice of political philosophy. A theatrical performance, as a species of artistic activity (relegated to the field of ideology in Marxist thought- hence, the superstructure) cannot presume to effect absolute change. But superstruc- tural activity, including theatrical practice and political philosophy, can very well demonstrate the conditions of change and act as vanguard in the instigation of ef- forts toward transformation. Althusser consistently argues for a greater deter- minative role of the superstructure in the organizing principle between it and the structure or base (forces and relations of production). Nor is it a question of the con- tradictions in the composition of a specific superstructural phenomena being in a homological relationship with the inner contradictions of the structure. In fact almost always it is not so: simple binary divisions above and below the structure- superstructure axis provide for elegant schemas, but can hardly gauge the complex and often paradoxical manner in which dialectical materialism functions. Althusser endorses a simultaneity of standpoints with respect to hierarchical organization of phenomena, specifically within each individual superstructural body, structural body, and more precisely in the structure-superstructure relationship, so that privileged positions, if any, are transitory, subject to change of emphasis and shift of vision. In such a total organization the base (structure) can no longer claim cen- trality, although a potentially central role is foreseen and, in fact, reserved for it. Althusser paraphrases Engels when he asserts that "the economy is determinant, but in the last instance," and he concludes thus: "From the first moment to the last, the lonely hour of the 'last instance' never comes."9 Its present absence from the center (a condition of dislocation) and the covenant of a future presence at the center (in- definitely delayed) is the organic reality of the structure. Critical practice (such as Althusser's essay on Strehler's production) and all theoretical research, including those which emanate initially from an ideological platform exist in an anterior rela- tionship to this postponed future moment.

9 See "Contradiction and Overdetermination," in For Marx, pp. 112-113.

Page 11: Althusser on Theatre

470 / TI, December 1983

The dialectical method which admits a complex relationship between structure and superstructure can, by analogy, provide critical umbrage for a modern per- formance theory. Scanning the state of theatre aesthetics in 1962, Althusser notes that the quintessential practitioner of theatre happens to be Bertold Brecht, whose plays and theories conform to the exigencies of "a latent asymmetrical-critical structure, the dialectic-in-the-wings structure found in Bertolazzi's play," and whose works are "marked by an internal dissociation, an unresolved alterity" (PT, p. 142). Further it seems, human actions in Brecht's plays unwind on divergent planes, obeying laws derived from a disseminated temporality. Not unlike Bertolazzi, Brecht presents protagonists who assume that their individual actions are harmonious with the shape of time itself; these subjects come to believe that time of any consequence is the time of their own lived experiences. This is the very essence of self-deception. Equally false is the notion of an objective material duration (the idea that would posit the dominance of history over all human actions) which is anchored to the logic of chronicity itself. For Althusser Brecht's real achievement is the juxtaposition of these divergent orders of temporality. Mother Courage is an excellent example of a play in which "forms of temporality that do not achieve any mutual integration" (PT, p. 142), are placed in opposition. Venality is so deeply embedded in Anna Fierling (Mother Courage) that motherhood, friendship, marriage and war constitute moments of auxiliary interest to the private history of trade and commerce, which consumes her temporal existence. Brecht's setting is historical (the events of the play take place during the Thirty Years War), but even a cursory reading of the text can reveal that the author is not interested in a guided historical tour of the war torn years in Europe, that is, the chronology of important dates, events, victories and defeats. Brecht's historical moments are selective, typical, compressed, and real in the sense that all historicity is grounded in politics, religion, popular myths and the class struggle. Such is the internal dissociation in Mother Courage that neither the subjec- tive time of Anna Fierling, nor the selective time of history, can claim synchrony and parity with dialectical time. It would be wrong merely to suggest that Brecht "distances" us from Fierling and our psychological identification with her by making her anti-heroic, greedy and uncaring. He does much more; he undercuts, subverts, dislocates and defers subjective time in which she is so solipsistically imprisoned- the inside from which she cannot see the outside; he chases away Fierling's spurious consciousness into the wings so that we are left only with the imprint of her stupidity and greed gaping at us from stage-center. Parallel to this Brecht frustrates our desire to witness a logical historical development where names, dates and events fuse into a harmonious whole, as measured by regulated crescendoes, climaxes and resolutions. Dialectical time is none other than the consequent temporality of consciousness without illusions when an Anna Fierling's false consciousness is set against or positioned asymmetrically to selective history. The opposition of two disparate temporalities is congruent with "Marx's fundamental principle that it is impossible for any form of ideological consciousness to contain in itself, through its own internal dialectic, an escape from itself .... for consciousness does not accede to the real through its own internal development, but by the radical discovery of what is other than itself' (PT, p. 143).

Page 12: Althusser on Theatre


/:I l/

Brecht, Paul Dessau, and Helene Weigel in a Berliner Ensemble rehearsal of Mother Courage

Page 13: Althusser on Theatre

472 / TI, December 1983

Arriving at a critical knowledge of experience is tantamount to liberating dialec- tical consciousness. In many instances it appears that contradictions at the level of the superstructure can occasion fruitful research and analysis precisely where ana- logical contradictions have not yet surfaced in the temporal development of the struc- ture. Oftentimes superficially similar contradictions appear above and below the line, dividing the structure from the superstructure which in-depth study will show to be vastly different; conversely ostensible dissimilarities might reveal in the long run to be of one kind. In all of this it is important to remember that the forces we rally to our aid in localizing a contradiction and subsequently uprooting it, need not find their initial impetus and foremost articulation at the level of forces and relations of production. This allows for the relative autonomy of ideological research which, only in the last instances and final analysis, must be answerable to the structure. But as Althusser has indicated, the "last instance," in the interest of ongoing research, is systematically deferred. What this means is that in the "total" structure-superstruc- ture relationship (not overlooking the laws of unequal development of experiences at all levels, time-lags, shifting hierarchies, etc.) the central authority of the structure is postponed-which is not to say negated; it is delayed, but not cancelled. As a result the totality of the dialectical movement would possess an absent center by virtue of a decentered construction.

Now Althusser believes that a Brecht play, when considered aesthetically, is in- formed by a true dialectical consciousness, not by dint of any outright political message it might convey, but in terms of its decentered architectonic arrangement. Althusser notes: "In this sense these plays are decentered precisely because they can have no centre .... in these plays the centre is always to one side . . . the centre is always deferred, always in the beyond, in the movement going beyond illusion towards the real" (PT, p. 145). Despite the fact that Brecht's "alienation" effect does interfere with the progress of a play's action-blocking the resolution of the fable and thwarting audience identification with the stage characters-its primary func- tion is none of the above, but to insure the integrity of a decentered totality. This technique which guarantees the movement towards the real, is no external imposition upon the Brechtian plays; rather it is lodged in the basic construction of each text.

The principle of opposition evoked throughout Althusser's essay is also germane to his final argument when he considers the role of the audiences. Again the circum- stances of limited consciousness are to be found in each of the disparate parties that make up the audience-performance relationship. In much the same way that the theatrical presentation cannot harbor within itself both its own contradictory elements and a final resolution, the spectators cannot be expected to act as the sole guarantors of unalloyed cognizance. In fact the entire notion that supports a totally aware and knowledgeable spectator, sitting in judgment of a play in which contradic- tions are still active, is no longer tenable. A critical spectator is also an inquirer who participates, with the actors, director and playwright, in the common condition of partial consciousness. This is why Althusser asserts that "the play itself is the specta- tor's consciousness" (PT, p. 150); spectator and performance share by analogy the same limited knowledge that is straining to materialize into dialectical consciousness.

Page 14: Althusser on Theatre


Audiences respond critically when confronted with plays that exhibit a decentered construction, and in this context the alienation effect mirrors the gap between the spectator's actual information (which is partial) and the partial knowledge of the text or performance. Even though Althusser believes that the entire spectator-per- formance experience has yet to be subjected to any rigorous formulation in terms of psychological categories such as repression, sublimation, projection, etc., he is adamant in his opinion that the alienation effect as practiced by Brecht is not the psychological watchdog of identification, but a critical-ideological agent that invites the spectators to recognize the gaps in their own consciousness as reflected in the text and performance. From the clash of two illusory consciousnesses (spectator versus performance), critically oriented toward replenishing what each lacks by their own absences reflected in the fullness of the other, a new ideological condition is born- whereby artistic activity justifies itself by participating in epistemological inquiry, and vice versa. Althusser reveres Bertolazzi, Brecht and Strehler because he sees in each of them the trace of an ongoing struggle where the artist is forever being dis- lodged by the arch-critical spectator in a contest of equal forces. That they can mediate so triumphantly between opposite characteristics within themselves makes them unique subjects of attention in conformity with principles derived from Marxist aesthetics.

What I will be adding at this point must be taken as a postscript to a frankly partisan review of Althusser's ideas on the theatre. Suffice it to say that the Piccolo Teatro essay was written in 1962, antedating many of the seminal structuralist, post- structuralist and deconstructionist articles of the Tel Quel group and the Critique scholars. If after two decades some of the language and many of the terminologies should appear familiar, especially to students of modem French literary criticism, it is no doubt because Althusser was present at the inception and even anticipated the development and widespread usage of contemporary critical idiom. Although he kept his comments on Carlo Bertolazzi to a minimum, preferring to analyze Strehler's production rather than the script, Althusser's grasp of the play itself was such as to prompt Folco Portinari, editor of the Bertolazzi collection, to write in 1971: "It is suf- ficiently paradoxical that the only integral critical study of Bertolazzi-particularly with respect to El Nost Milan -should be the work of a French philosopher, one more indication that the prophets are absent from the fatherland."7? Althusser's views on Brecht helped the urgently needed emancipation of French scholarship from a too academic and overly humanistic treatment of the Brechtian plays by opening a genuine Marxist dialogue with a theory and practice of drama that never pretended to be anything but political."1 Finally, by focusing on Giorgio Strehler, in whose

10 In "Realismo e realta," foreword to El Nost Milan e altre commedie, (p. xvi, n. 2). 11 The exception to the rule, of course, was Roland Barthes who had championed the political Brecht

as early as the mid-fifties and whose brief, but incisive, articles on the German playwright are still highly relevant. Four essays on Brecht, written between 1954 (the year of the first Berliner Ensemble visit to Paris) and 1960 can be found in Barthes' Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972).

Page 15: Althusser on Theatre

474 / TI, December 1983

artistic practice aspects of his own aesthetic principles were reflected and could be demonstrated, Althusser had intuitively and appropriately singled out perhaps the most vital European director of theatre of the 1960-1980 decades. Even as Althusser was preparing his Piccolo Teatro manuscript, Strehler was rehearsing Vita di Galileo12 in Milan, destined to be a definitive Brechtian production, a further proof of how prophetically and coherently the French philosopher was exercising his as- sociative faculties in the theatre.

12 Strehler's own rigorous reading of Brecht is well documented in Bernard Dort's "Lecture de Galilee- Etude comparee de trois etats d'un texte dramatique de Brecht," in les Voies de la creation thetrale III, ed. Denis Bablet and Jean Jacquot (Paris: C.N.R.S., 1972).

The Theatre Research Data Center

The American Society for Theatre Research and Brooklyn College's Department of Theatre are collaborating at the College's Theatre Research Data Center in the develop- ment of a computerized data bank of theatre research resources. From this bank the Center will publish annually the Society's new bibliography and will subsequently pro- vide online research services to theatre scholars and artists. The National Endowment for the Humanities and Brooklyn College are supporting the project with start-up funds and services amounting to more than $400,000. Sixty theatre scholars have begun the process of analyzing and recording the contents of over 250 European and North Ameri- can periodicals published during 1982. Coverage of Asian materials by Asian and American scholars is being arranged. The initial coverage of books and periodicals will be extended to catalogs of performance records and of graphic documents (designs, tech- nical plots). The first ASTR International Bibliography of Theatre 1982 is expected to be published in 1984. Inquiries and expressions of interest in participating in the project may be directed to the Theatre Research Data Center, Brooklyn College, Brooklyn, NY 11210.