Tragic truth in How to Act

Research commentary

  • Title

My initial research for the play was influenced by Nicholas Ridout’s book Theatre and Ethics and its analysis of “theatre as a practice for ethical experimentation” (Ridout, 2009). The title of the project is directly drawn from Ridout’s discussion at the start of the book of the story of Philoctetes from Sophocles and the central question it poses both for the protagonist and reader of ‘how shall I act?’ (ibid, p. 1).  That this question has an implicitly theatrical, as well as straightforwardly ethical aspect is a relationship that Ridout goes on to explore, and one that became a key foundation in the development of my project.

  • Context: a tragic turn?

Napoleon is alleged to have said to Goethe that the role that fate had in the ancient world becomes the force of politics in the modern world. We don’t therefore require the continued presence of the gods and oracles in order to understand the ineluctable power of fate.

(Critchley, 2011d)

There were an extraordinary number of Greek tragedies of one form or another presented on British stages in the years this research took place. In 2015/6 there were five major new productions of the Oresteia trilogy alone. Robert Icke’s acclaimed contemporary adaptation for the Almeida formed part of a Greek season that included The Bakkhai and Medea as well as an extensive programme of readings and talks that explored Greek tragedy, epic poetry and its contemporary significance. Elsewhere, there were further major productions of Antigone, Medea, as well as new stagings of The Illiad and The Odyssey. There was also a number of new plays and new interpretations of contemporary writing that were greatly influenced by Greek drama; Zinnie Harris’ free adaptation of Oresteia and Ivo Van Hove’s interpretation of A View From the Bridge as a contemporary Greek tragedy being two examples. This range of work suggests a potentially broader concern with the fundamental qualities of Greek tragedy than a mere programming fashion.

There have been various theories put forward as to the reasons for this increased interest in Greek tragedy, including editorial features in The Guardian (22.5.15) and The Observer (4.10.15). The Observer suggests that the strong female roles presented in Greek tragedy offer today’s theatre makers a way of reflecting contemporary gender politics suggesting, ‘for radical feminism, look no further than the ancients’ (Editorial, The Observer, 2015).[1] Matt Trueman draws attention to the parallels that have been made in recent productions with the continuing conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria (What’s On Stage, 15.6.15). Acknowledging these factors, Charlotte Higgins in her Guardian article points towards the key characteristic of Greek tragedy’s re-working of ancient myths in order to examine contemporary issues for its original audience, often of political urgency. As an example, she explains that Eumenides from the Oresteia deals with the origins of the democratic Greek state and legal system that was in crisis at the time of the play’s performance,

So it is that the Oresteia dramatises democracy as it is invented – troublingly.

(Higgins, 2015)

This idea of Greek tragedy staging the debates around a society’s key values is in keeping with Simon Critchley’s contention that these plays were created at a time of difficult societal transition (Critchley, 2019). He suggests that it was a community attempting to understand and assimilate the previous values of a myth-based belief system within a modernised legislative democracy. He suggests we face a similar challenge today in reconciling the power of ancient religious and social beliefs and the extreme force with which they can manifest themselves, with the contemporary values of democracy and law that are presented as the foundational principles of a Western liberal consensus. Greek tragedy offers us the opportunity to explore the originary complexity of these values of democracy and law and their inherent conflict with other, perhaps less rational forces. As the quotation above attributed to Napoleon asserts, we might look to these belief systems and ideologies for the forces beyond our control that act upon us in an equivalent role to that of fate in ancient Greek tragedy. Perhaps it is the re-assertion of these older (myth based) belief systems and the challenge they pose to contemporary ideologies of democracy and rule of law that give Greek tragedy its current relevance. Equally, Greek tragedy provides a comprehensive study of the uncompromising violence that these ideologies can exercise in order to maintain their authority in the face of such challenges, and the repercussions of these forces across generations.

All of which may make it possible to identify a ‘tragic turn’ in contemporary theatre practice, at least in the United Kingdom. One of Rupert Goold’s primary motivations for presenting the Almeida’s Greek season was to ‘to go back to the roots of western drama…to understand why we make plays… or why we put any theatre on for that matter…’ (‘Why Greeks matter’ panel, 2015). For Goold as a new artistic director there was a need to ask fundamental questions of the form of theatre and the possibilities it has to offer. This kind of exploration of the fundamental dynamics of theatricality through Greek tragedy presents the possibility of a shift in the ways that contemporary theatre makers view the perceived problems and potential of their own art form. It is interesting to see these developments in the context of Hans Thies Lehmann’s analysis of ‘post-dramatic’ contemporary theatre practice and the connections he forms between this and tragedy in his subsequent work Tragedy and Dramatic Theatre (2013). Both, he claims, exhibit a preoccupation with the ‘experience’ of theatricality, self-conscious and often keenly ethical in its nature, of which the text or play that becomes the dominant focus on the intervening dramatic era, is only one element of many. Perhaps in its own way, as with post-dramatic practice, this ‘tragic turn’ is allowing theatre makers to move beyond the conventional dramatic matrix of representation ‘unaware’ of its own artifice, and towards an exploration of what the theatrical situation itself can offer contemporary audiences.

The relationship between this ancient form of theatre and the current moment, what theatre has to say about ideology and belief, and the ethical deliberations made possible through a self-conscious theatricality, are at the very heart of How to Act. The process of creation of this piece between 2012 and 2017 coincided with this ‘tragic turn’ in British theatre more generally to the extent that an attempt at producing a contemporary tragedy seemed a less esoteric choice in production than at the project’s outset. In this context the project forms part of a continuing debate around tragedy that has developed over this period and seems set to continue for the foreseeable future.

  • Tragic truth – theoretical background

In Aeschylus’ words, ‘We must suffer into truth’. Tragedy is the undergoing of a suffering that might permit an experience of truth that is neither contemplative (i.e. philosophical) nor deterministic (i.e. scientific), but emerges out of a visceral experience of the conflicts endemic to human action, conflicts we encounter personally and politically on a day-to-day basis.

(Critchley, 2019)

The theoretical background to the play focused on different conceptions of truth and the key role tragedy has played in these philosophical debates. The origins of these debates can be identified within the Platonic interpretation of theatricality as the negative of his conception of an absolute, transcendent truth. A form of theatricality is famously identified as mimetic deception in Plato’s cave analogy (Republic, Ch.VII) and is a problem that needs to be excluded from Plato’s ideal Republic. He opposes this with an absolute conception of truth that transcends time and place; the sun in the analogy, that philosophy enables us to emerge into from the cave.

However, theatricality, and in particular Greek tragedy, has played a crucial role in a tradition of philosophy that can be seen as exploring alternatives to the metaphysical tradition begun by Plato, and that includes Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche and Heidegger. This is the terrain explored in the recent work of Simon Critchley that I will focus on in this essay, and that has been a key underpinning of this practice-research. His analysis of Hegel’s idea of Greek tragedy as the staging of two competing and perhaps unresolvable claims to truth, and the tensions and suffering this conflict creates, became a key dramaturgical dynamic for How to Act. It is in the depiction of this conflict and suffering, Critchley suggests, that another experiential idea of truth is made available in tragic drama. Along with my own research around Heidegger’s notion of truth as aletheia or ‘unconcealing’ through his analysis of Greek tragedy, these philosophical debates around different ideas of truth and the role of suffering in knowledge became the dramaturgical cornerstones of the project as I will discuss.

  • Formal equivalence in How to Act

My approach to writing How To Act involved a process of appropriation of some of the key formal aspects of Greek drama within which to locate equivalent contemporary themes and characters. These formal equivalences were instrumental in the creation of the work, but their origins in Greek tragedy were not intended to be necessarily obvious to the audience. Rather, the hope was that they would enable me to create a work that, although drawing directly on tragic forms, has its own contemporary integrity and significance. Structurally however, there are direct ways in which the form of How To Act is influenced by classical tragedy. The play is for two actors in the manner of Aeschylean tragedy. As with most Greek tragedies, it is made up of a series of four episodes (corresponding to the different exercises of the masterclass), interspersed with four chorus sections, and bookended by a prologue and epilogue. The chorus sections, whilst also played by the two actors, provide an opportunity for comment and reaction to the action of the episodes. There is use of music and dance in these choric sections and an attempt to mimic the direction of travel of the chorus across the stage in the strophe and antistrophe of Greek tragedy in the physical movements of the performers in this contemporary version.

Like Oedipus the King and many other Greek tragedies, How To Act opens with a monologue that deals with the idea of crisis and sickness, here, in the current ‘state’ of theatre. Here we can see the challenge of finding equivalents for elements of Greek tragedy in a contemporary context. One of the distinguishing features of the classical tragic hero is their high status, usually a member of a royal family. This aspect of authority is conventionally seen as crucial to the stakes of the tragic drama, the extent to which the protagonist can be brought low, and the presumed political resonance with its audience (Aristotle, 1968: Ch. 15). I chose not to deal with contemporary politicians or heads of state, instead looking to a different kind of authority in the artistic realm. The state or polis over which the theatre director and protagonist Nicholl presides is that of the specific realm of theatrical production that can be found within a rehearsal room or workshop scenario, where a director can have a high degree of authority over those with whom he or she works. Having a successful theatre director in a masterclass context as the protagonist allowed me to present a world not too distant from the play’s audience, but at the same time depicting a character with enough sense of authority to explore the play’s key issues around power and democracy in a meaningful way.

  • Authority and democracy

How To Act attempts to address questions around authority and democracy by drawing on certain techniques of Greek tragedy in a number of different ways. In the context of the theatre masterclass, the play deals with the authority of the theatre director and the ethical implications of his approach to the creation of material and storytelling. We see Nicholl encourage Promise to share her experiences in order to use them as the basis for the different exercises they undertake. Nicholl’s view is that through his supervision of these exercises, as well as making Promise a better actor, he can enable her to render this experience available to an audience in a form that is universally accessible. He premises this view on the idea that there is a universal truth at the core of any experience that theatre can uncover and present. According to this view, theatre can be seen as a democratisation of experience in which the broadest group of people are given a stake in the experiences of the different individuals portrayed, thereby engendering a sense of shared understanding and community. In commenting on the dinner party exercise from scene two, Nicholl argues,

Nicholl:     The truth of who you were in that moment spoke beyond time and place to all of our feelings about childhood, all of our feelings towards our mothers

Promise:   And these people?

Nicholl:     Of course, the others…

Promise:   Does it matter who they are?

(p. 12)

Nicholl believes that theatrical representation can communicate beyond specific circumstance to a shared sense of identity. He believes that it is the task of theatre, as exemplified in this exercise, to uncover and share these universal ‘truths’ in a way that transcends difference and promotes a community of shared experience. Even at this early stage Promise questions Nicholl about the specific individuals represented by the shoes in the exercise, but not given any clear sense of identity within Nichol’s scheme. She raises the question of whether the representation of specific individuals is sacrificed in the pursuit of universal affect. She develops this challenge to Nicholl’s view in the subsequent chorus in which, through reciting a dense list of factual information about the dinner party guests, she insists on the specificity of their identity and the experience she has been asked to relate. Her monologue is an attempt to counter Nicholl’s universalist interpretation by foregrounding the specific political, economic and personal contexts in which that group of people came together. She states,

Promise:   My name is Timi Freeman and I’m 34 years old. I was born and grew up in Benin City 300km to the east but I’ve lived in Lagos since I moved here to study engineering in 1971. I am a foreman for Idowu Construction, a company that has grown from 28 employees to 312 employees in the last 12 months thanks to the $154.8bn investment…

(p. 13)

Rather than looking beyond specificity to some essential truth underlying her experience as Nicholl suggests, here Promise presents a biography of facts in which understanding of an individual and their situation is gained through being exposed to the unique complexities and detail of their circumstances. Promise is not asking us to empathise with the guests at the dinner party in relating their experiences to our own, but to locate them in a specific time and place as a way of noticing the crucial and irresolvable differences between us rather than the similarities.

Nicholl denies his authority in general terms from the start of the play. In an attempt to diffuse the hierarchical relationships implicit within the term ‘masterclass’, he states,

Nicholl:     And I for one am no-one’s master. 

(p. 2)

Promise later challenges this denial of authority by drawing attention to the fact that Nicholl is authoring and appropriating her story through his interpretation of her experiences,

Nicholl:     I’m sorry. It can be difficult. We’re digging deep and…

Promise:   But we’re not.

Nicholl:     Not…?

Promise:   …‘digging’. ‘Finding the truth’. You’re covering the truth over.

Nicholl:     Ok.

Promise:   I mean these things happened but this isn’t my story.

Nicholl:     I think we’re finding something universal here that…

Promise:   It’s yours.

Nicholl:     …

Ok. That’s fine. Let’s think about that.

(p. 21)

Again, Promise suggests that the truth does not lie in the universal as Nicholl proposes. In fact, she states that it is his search for the universal in the creative interpretations of her experience that ‘covers over’ the truth. It is this ‘universalising’ process that means the experience no longer belongs to her in the form of the story as he is telling it. Even this challenge is absorbed into Nicholl’s methodology within the masterclass as if, by allowing for a different point of view, he is actually reinforcing the authority that he apparently denies.[2]

In his Twelve Theses on Tragedy (Critchley, 2019) Simon Critchley contends that Greek tragedy was a political as well as artistic invention, a self-conscious and sophisticated cultural construct that fulfilled specific needs for its audience. In particular, Critchley foregrounds the ways in which Greek tragedy spoke directly to contemporary debates around ideas of authority and democracy within the state. Critchley proposes that Greek tragedy was the Athenian city-state representing itself, and the key issues it faced, on stage. He argues that this form of theatrical representation of issues of direct political relevance through tragic drama had a profound significance for that culture, including those within it opposed to this approach to politics. This opposition to the political aspect of tragic drama, and the tragic poets generally, came famously from within the nascent discipline of philosophy and, arguably its ‘founding father’, Plato. We have already discussed Plato’s anti-theatricality and his exhortations to turn away from what he saw as delusions ruled by the emotions to his own particular conception of truth. Critchley points out the concerns Plato also has about theatrocratia, an approach to political organization based on theatre, or the ‘sovereignty of the audience’ (Republic: 701a). Plato fears that theatrocracy, and its only slightly more desirable relation democracy, engender a dangerous disregard for the necessary rules of organization and social and emotional boundaries that are needed for the proper functioning of society as he sees it.[3] According to Plato, on the tragic stage passions rage unchecked, authority is challenged and the very notion of a subject able to govern itself and be in control of its place within the world is thrown into question. Plato fears that these behaviours, and what Claude Lefort has described as the ‘dissolution of the markers of certitude’ that tragic drama represents, will inevitably infect society more generally and lead to eventual tyranny (Lefort 1988). Critchley lays out this battleground between Platonic philosophy and tragedy in order to demonstrate that Greek tragic theatre was a democratic expression of the concerns of its audience through the staging of different sets of ideas, usually brought into conflict with one another, that had important societal implications. It is in this sense of Greek tragedy as a powerful and potentially dangerous societal force that Critchley sees it as a political ‘invention’.

If Greek tragedy directly reflected the concerns of the society that made up its audience by staging the ideological conflicts of the time, How To Act attempts a similar operation in a contemporary context. It presents and challenges a politics of authority within its world of the theatre masterclass as a way of exploring the ‘performance’ of democracy and liberal values today more generally. In this way the ‘world’ of the theatre masterclass acts as a kind of microcosm for society as a whole. It is the polis within which this particular story takes place, but allows for the staging of certain political relations that can be extrapolated beyond the immediate context of the play. The political relations that the play depicts challenge the idea of a single truth that can be uncovered and shared with the requisite technical knowledge. In the form of Promise, the play offers the alternative point of view that such an approach does a kind of violence to the irresolvable differences and contradictions of specific experience, and therefore an injustice to those involved in that experience.

These ideas connect with another of Critchley’s contentions, that a key subject of Greek tragedy is not only the tragic hero but the city-state (ibid). He identifies fourth century Athens as a society in transition from one being governed by ancient laws and myth to a society attempting to function within a newly created legal framework to which all citizens had access[4]. Greek tragedy, in Critchley’s view, stages the conflicts between these two nomoi (laws) in the context of a society where the rule of myth has broken down, but the residue of which remains within the new rule of law.[5] This can most clearly be seen in plays like Antigone (Sophocles, 441BCE) in which one set of laws pertaining to family and burial rites are in conflict with the laws of an authoritarian state attempting to project its power and control. In How To Act it was my intention to situate the debates the play throws up in the context of a contemporary society going through its own difficult ideological transitions. I wanted to explore the idea of a society where the liberal consensus around an ethics of race and inequality have proved to be ineffective, and the idea of what constitutes an ethical life for a western liberal has been thrown into question. In this approach I was influenced by Critchley’s remarks about the German political theorist Carl Schmitt (Critchley, 2011c) in relation to Greek tragedy. Schmitt’s anti-liberal views critique post-war ideals such as universal human rights, and the organisations that are supposed to embody these ideals such as the United Nations, as a mask for western capitalist imperialism and a denial of a real politics of change. The performance of these universal values, he argues, deny specific political realities at work in diverse situations and instead allow for the perpetuation of an iniquitous hegemony. I wanted to portray a character who saw himself not only as someone with broadly recognisable liberal beliefs in these kinds of ideals, but actively attempting to do good in his approach to inequality and difference where he found them. I then wanted to introduce another character that would problematise this political world view and throw Nicholl’s stable sense of a liberal self into question. In this way How To Act follows a similar trajectory of self-discovery as Oedipus the King (Sophocles, 429BCE)with the central character of Nicholl self-consciously involved in a quest for knowledge. In Nicholl’s case this is an attempt to understand how to create truthful theatre and vital performance, but also a quest to understand something fundamental about Promise’s character and life in order to translate it into performance. Through this process, he unwittingly discovers a truth about himself that destabilizes his own sense of identity and understanding of the world as he previously saw it. Promise presents a version of events and herself that undermines Nicholl’s artistic, political and personal identity by forcing him to see himself through the radically different set of values that make up her idea of the truth.

Nicholl’s tragic fate in this context is sealed by ideological and historical forces at work beyond his specific individual behaviour and code of ethics either in relation to Promise or his previous encounter with her mother. As Promise points out, the innate inequalities between an older, white, western man and a poor Nigerian woman meant that any ‘normal’ relations were impossible and that any interaction would be dominated by the economic, historical and cultural divisions which governed them. As she states towards the end of the play,

Promise:   So how old were you when you were in the Delta?

Nicholl:     …

Promise:   36? 37?

Nicholl:     Yes…

Promise:   And those girls, my mum, were what 18, 19?

Nicholl:     I’m not…

Promise:   And they wanted money. That was the deal right?

Nicholl:     …

Promise:   How much?

Nicholl:     …

Promise:   How much did you give her?

Nicholl:     I don’t…

Promise:   Because you had money right? You were being paid to be there. By your government? Sponsored by their corporations? I mean compared to them you were rich. Was it covered by the per diem or did you have to dip into your fee?

Nicholl:     …

Promise:   Probably the per diem would have covered it.

(p. 27)

Promise strips away Nicholl’s romantic version of events to reveal the much less attractive material realities that underlie his relations. This is the truth of the situation according to Promise as opposed to Nicholl’s experience of some transcendent moment of human interaction. For Promise there is a whole context of power relations that extend beyond individuals to the broader political and corporate exploitation of Nigeria’s resources by foreign interests. This reminds us of the idea about the continuing power of fate that Napoleon is said to have expressed to Goethe, that ‘the role fate had in the ancient world becomes the force of politics in the modern world’ (Critchley, 2019). Politics, like fate, the quote seems to suggest, represents the systems within which we exist without our choosing, and the forces that exceed and determine human agency. Nicholl’s actions in their broader political context therefore, can be seen as an inevitable playing out on the personal level of these geopolitical forces. He is responsible for his individual actions, but he is also the subject to the inexorable forces of history within which he acts. In this, Nicholl subscribes to F.W.J. Schelling’s definition of the tragic hero, also referenced by Critchley, as a ‘guiltless guilty one’ (Schelling, 1989: 255). For Schelling, tragedy is an art form with the potential to embody the irreconcilable concepts of freedom and fate (or necessity as we will discuss later) through the figure of the tragic hero who voluntarily accepts his punishment despite not having consciously transgressed but seeing the ultimate truth of his actions. This acceptance represents the necessary fulfilment of his fate but also an act of free will, a contradiction that tragedy alone, according to Schelling, is able to contain. For thinkers such as Schelling and Critchley, tragedy reveals a world only partially receptive to human agency and therefore, to a profound degree, unintelligible. Critchley draws on the work of Bernard Williams in his book Shame and Necessity (1993) to suggest that tragedy is potentially relevant to us today because contemporary society finds itself in an ethical situation more in common with the ancient Greeks than at any time since (Circhley, 2011b: 39:30). To paraphrase, Bernard Williams suggests that today’s society is no longer Christian, in the meaningful sense of believing the universe was created for its subjects, but nor is it ‘post-Christian’ in the Hegelian or Marxist, progressivist sense of history ultimately culminating in some sort of redemption. The grand narratives, according to this view, have fallen away and our response should be to let go of the urge to fully make sense of the world. In this light tragedy is highly instructive in its depiction of subjects fundamentally limited in their agency and understanding.

Tragedy presents us with a world in which the subject is ultimately forced to accept the limitations of their claims to autonomy and authenticity. Instead, they are reminded of their innate interdependence and the radical instability of their circumstances through the course of the tragic action, and are often destroyed in the process. Nicholl starts the play with a stable sense of self and a strong claim to authority. He is a kind of hero in his particular field (the master of the masterclass) and claims an almost divine insight into the challenges he sets himself. But by the end of the play he has been shown to be all too human in his sexual relations with Promise’s mother specifically and his understanding of events more generally. Consequently, his sense of identity as an authority with access to a higher truth is radically thrown into question. This unsustainable combination of the divine and human in tragedy is one that Hölderlin identifies as constitutive of the tragic hero as ‘monstrous’, his translation of the key term to deinon in the Choral Ode from Antigone that we will examine later (Heidegger, 2014: p.139). The tragic hero is monstrous in the sense that he is both masterful in his agency and utterly impotent at the same time, full of insight and wisdom and yet fundamentally ignorant. The tragic hero and the contradictions they embody are, in this sense, a problem to be solved (and often a poison to be driven out of the polis) rather than representing a heroic ability to solve problems in the narrative. Nicholl, like Oedipus presents himself as the solver of problems, in this case Promise’s uncertainty over ‘how to act’ and ‘how to be truthful’ (p. 6) as well as offering a cure to theatre’s ills more generally. But it is Nicholl as the embodied contradiction between his good intentions and the consequences of his actions that is exposed as a problem through the course of the play. This exposure culminates with Promise creating the monstrous image of Nicholl in her mother’s dress, his face blacked up with oil and forced to dance in the middle of his own ritualistic circle (p. 29).

  • Peter Brook and The Conference of the Birds

The character of Nicholl and the experiences and views on theatre that I have attributed to him, draw heavily on the work of the British theatre director Peter Brook and in particular his activities as described in John Heilpern’s book The Conference of the Birds, The Story of Peter Brook in Africa (1977). In it, Heilpern tells the story of Brook’s journey from the north of Africa south to Nigeria with his company of actors and musicians and their attempts to create and perform for the communities they meet along the way. They encounter many challenges in communicating with audiences from different cultures and with different languages. They are attempting to put into practice Brook’s philosophy of making theatre that can transcend these differences as he outlined most famously in his book The Empty Space (Brook, 1968). It is Brook’s idea of ‘the deadly theatre’ from that book (ibid: p. 11) that I draw on for Nicholl’s initial monologue and his diagnosis that ‘the theatre is dying’ (p. 2). This is both to situate the opening of the play within the traditional formal and thematic structures of Greek tragedy as mentioned above, but also to identify Nicholl as part of a certain tradition of post-war theatre making that proposes a reforming agenda and a desire to rediscover in theatre an idea of a more authentic communication with its audience[6]. The play, and this brief description, provide only a partial and to some extent simplistic representation of the ideas that Brook and others have explored. However, it is not my intention to satirise or offer a straightforward refutation of these ideas within the play. For the play to be successful in my view, these ideas need to be presented in a credible and persuasive manner. The exercises Nicholl stages with Promise should, where possible, succeed in their attempts to effectively communicate a situation and set of emotions to an audience. For example, the childhood scene with Promise hiding under the dinner table looking at the light shining through her mother’s dress, should genuinely attempt to evoke childhood memories in the audience in the way Nicholl suggests (pp. 10-11). Similarly, the ‘call and response’ exercise with the bucket and the water (pp. 16-17) should effectively tell its emblematic story with only this minimum of props in as emotionally an engaging way as possible. The audience needs to see that Nicholl’s ideas about theatre and the specific techniques he uses are effective in order for there to be genuine conflict between the different ideas of truth the play puts forward.

At the end of The Conference of the Birds the author describes attending a ritualistic dance in a house in a Nigerian village that he experiences as a transcendent moment. He describes the dancers,

Worlds turned on them. The spirits of the forest had shown themselves to us. Human bodies became a vehicle for the spirit. And the spirit spoke. Life of reason. Life of so much hope and love. Never had I seen even a dream like this. Yet I can neither describe nor explain it. That in a room I received a vision of sheer existence. And that God passed before our eyes.

(Heilpern, 1997: p. 297)

It is this experience that provides the conclusion of the quest that Brook’s journey through Africa with his company represents and is the key source for Nicholl’s experiences in Nigeria. Throughout the book Heilpern repeatedly explains that Brook’s company, of which he was a part, were all ‘looking for something’ even if they are unable to always articulate what that ‘something’ might be. Heilpern ultimately realizes that it is a kind of spiritual truth that he is seeking that he thinks, like Brook, exists beyond language and that he finds in the ecstatic dance of the Nigerian women he describes above.

The circle of shoes Nicholl creates during his opening monologue, and that becomes the setting for the various exercises of the masterclass, is another reference to Brook’s The Empty Space and its “bare stage”. It is also this device of the circle of shoes that frames the chorus sections of the play.

  • Chorus

During Nicholl’s introduction he is gathering together the shoes from the audience in a fumbling, comical manner, interrupting and apologising at the same time. As well as introducing a slightly eccentric but likeable character, at pains to undermine his own authority, this action establishes the circle of shoes as a central device and image for the rest of the play and the fictional masterclass it depicts. The shoes demarcate the space in and around which the rest of the action will take place.[7] It is significant that they are taken from the members of the public as I wanted to suggest an onstage audience without actually moving them from their seats. I hoped this audience ‘presence’ on stage would resonate through the different functions that the shoes fulfil, implicating the audience both in the theatre games in which the shoes feature, but also in the circle of watchers around the Nigerian dancer in Nicholl’s story.

The first chorus section of the play immediately follows this introductory monologue and activates the image of the shoes in this way. Although it is only hinted at in this first instance, the shoes in the chorus in part represent the circle of people stood around the dancing Nigerian women that Nicholl saw as such a transcendent performance during his travels, and the story of which he narrates through the subsequent three choruses. In this first chorus we only hear the rhythmic clapping that accompanied this dancing and see Nicholl encourage Promise to join in and copy him in moving around the circle. At this stage the audience can perhaps associate this action with the ‘circles of earth’ Nicholl has described in his monologue, and an attempt to recreate one of them as a condition for further performance. However, from the start there is an indication that the chorus sections exist outside of the rest of the play’s unified sense of time and place. They often begin by interrupting the preceding action and end abruptly with a return to the action in the middle of a scene, but having jumped forward in time. The choruses allow for a different, non-naturalistic mode of expression involving a distinct soundscape and more choreographed, non-naturalistic movements. They also allow for a kind of time travel in the sense that they enable Nicholl to narrate in flashback, but also to re-enact, the experience of watching the dancing in the woods in Nigeria. This might resonate with the positioning of the shoes like the dial of a clock face.

Simon Critchley discusses the idea of tragedy as fundamentally anachronistic in its disruption of the order of historical time in two of his Theses on Tragedy (Critchley, 2011b: 7:00). He suggests that tragedy depicts the ways in which the past interrupts and acts on the present outside of our control. The drama of tragedy is not merely a reflection of the past or representation of the present but a disarticulation of the two in which time is necessarily always ‘out of joint’. An idea of temporal disjunction is one that features significantly in How To Act, both in the manner that Nicholl is relating his Nigeria story in flashback during the choruses, but also because Promise, in the second and third chorus, is referring to a very different timeframe during these same moments.[8] These different timeframes are interspersed with, and run contrary to, one another during the choruses and are accompanied by contrary movements around the circle of shoes in an echo of the ‘dialectical’ movements of the ancient Greek chorus that accompanied the presentation of different aspects of an argument. Crucially, in How To Act we see the past being brought to bear on the present in unexpected ways through Promise making Nicholl aware of the full consequences of his past actions. But Promise also embodies the past in the present. She is herself the result of Nicholl’s past actions and his encounter with her mother at the ‘ritual’ dance in Nigeria. During the course of the play she also plays the part of her mother in a re-enactment of that ritual dance and seduces Nicholl in the same manner, bringing present and past together in a disturbing (and possibly ‘monstrous’) disjunction. This is all done with a determined self-awareness by Promise in the view that this re-enactment, and the exposure of which it is part, is the fulfilment of a prophecy, or chain of destiny, that was set in motion when the original ritual dance took place. Through these actions Promise intends to force Nicholl to confront the monstrousness of his actions and who he is, in an attempt to redress the perceived wrongs of the past.

For Promise the chorus sections provide an opportunity to express information outside of Nicholl’s jurisdiction of the masterclass. In the second chorus, as we have seen, she opposes Nicholl’s universalising philosophy with the specific facts and figures behind the ‘characters’ in the dinner party scene. In the third chorus, as Nicholl reaches the transcendental climax of his story, Promise again focuses on facts and statistics, this time relating to the Niger Delta region and the corruption and pollution endemic to it. This comes directly after Nicholl’s exercise, ‘the story of the water and the land’ (pp. 16-17) in which he works with Promise to create a kind of allegorical mime that attempts to express her attitudes towards her origins in a poetic manner. The chorus therefore can be seen as a reaction to this idea of universal truth and an opportunity to present contextually specific information that she feels is vital to our understanding. She begins,

Promise:   Between 2003 and 2007 Shell alone admitted it had suffered more than 1,000 oil spills due to what it identified as ‘sabotage’. In January 2008, Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency said it had found more than 1,150 oil-spill sites abandoned by various oil companies in the Delta. These oil spills have poisoned the water, destroyed the vegetation and agricultural land, and rendered much of Delta region uninhabitable.

Nicholl:     Here it is. Right in front of us. Everything we’ve been looking for. All the questions we’ve been asking of how to act, how to be, answered. Everything we’ve thought about truth and beauty showing itself to us, so close you could reach out and touch it.

(p. 18)

Instead of the ritualised circle Nicholl refers to in his story, and that he has recreated for the masterclass, Promise uses the stage as a map and a means of representing her factually specific version of the truth. The chorus therefore, and the circle of shoes in which it is played out, creates a space in which these two different versions of Nigeria, and the Delta specifically, can exist.  Nicholl’s transcendent revelation of authentic being in the woods, and Promise’s landscape polluted and destitute, are both conjured into being within the chorus sections and presented in tension with one another.

The final chorus brings together the two elements of Nicholl’s story and Promise’s historical and political specificity, in her version of his transcendent experience of the ritual dance told from her mother’s point of view. This comes as a direct result of the previous exercise in which Nicholl encourages Promise to ‘become’ her mother by putting on her dress as a way of unlocking a more truthful performance. In the chorus Promise uses this as the opportunity to reveal the truth of her relationship with the woman Nicholl danced with and the circumstances of why her mother was present at the dance in the first place.

Promise is dancing in the middle of the circle.

Promise:   To make some extra money, the women from the town would put on shows for the tourists at night in the forest. Most of us were trying to save up to get out of there.

(p. 24)

She describes the dance as taking place in the past whilst re-enacting it in the present, drawing Nicholl towards her, dancing with him sexually and eventually kissing him. This moment embodies a re-enactment of a past liaison as well as a potentially incestuous act in the present. It is enacted at the same time as Promise elucidates the curse that her mother made at that very moment in the past and that Promise’s present actions fulfil.

She starts to kiss him. Increasingly sexual.

Promise:   But at the same time, along with all the laughing and the dancing, we were cursing them. We cursed them standing there watching us. Being interested in us. We cursed them trying to understand our traditions, our culture. We cursed their clapping along, their awkward moves, their clumsy advances. We cursed their coming here and their drilling. We cursed their endless need for this dirty stinking liquid that drove them crazy. We cursed all their cars and their planes and their factories and their plastics and their money and their energy and their growth.

We cursed them so that one day all of this would come back to them. What had happened here. What they’d done to these people. To us.

She draws him down to the floor. She kneels over him, straddling him.

So that they’d finally see. Finally see who we really are. How we matter. Finally see the truth.

(p. 24)

This is an attempt to portray the kind of tragic temporal disjunction discussed earlier where the past acts upon, and becomes unpredictably confused with the present. The curse that Promise’s mother makes is not only about Nicholl but all the circumstances that have led to both he and she being in that situation, forces to a large extent outside of both of their control. Nicholl is Schelling’s ‘guiltless guilty one’, individually guiltless in these historical, geo-political crimes, but guilty of being a product and beneficiary of them and a part of their human consequences. Nicholl went to Africa with the best of intentions to attempt to communicate and share his art. He met and slept with a woman as part of what he describes as a beautiful and life changing experience. None of which necessarily represent crimes or even morally reprehensible behaviour in and of themselves. However, his actions cannot exist outside of their historical and economic context that involves insurmountable inequality and difference. These actions become part of a destiny in tragic terms that bring his past behaviour and present attitudes in the time of the play, into conflict with Promise’s version of events. This conflict depicts these attitudes as repulsive from the point of view of Promise and morally ambiguous to the audience. Nicholl is the recipient of the curse of Promise’s mother, and Promise the means by which it is played out. Ultimately, Nicholl accepts the truth of Promise’s verdict whilst at the same time protesting the truth of his individual innocence.

This kind of moral ambiguity is one that Critchley sees as being at the heart of tragedy’s staging of one claim to justice (dike) in conflict with another (Citchley, 2011b: 19:15). The debate between these two claims is not carried out in a legalistic manner but by means of the depiction of characters living out these issues, usually involving a great deal of suffering. The power of tragedy persists in its ability to portray this kind of moral ambiguity through the lived experiences of its characters and their different claims to truth.

  • Heidegger’s aletheia – ‘unconcealing’ in How to Act

The Platonic conception of a transcendent, universal and stable truth was identified by Heidegger as the founding and defining limits of western metaphysics that he feels have become exhausted in the modern era.[9] He opposes this form of thinking with a critical analysis which draws on the pre-Socratic concept of truth as aletheia or ‘unconcealment’and ideas of a festive mode that draws specifically on Greek tragedy in which this ‘unconcealment’ might take place. In his attempts to overturn the tradition of metaphysics and the assumptions he feels are so dangerous, Heidegger turns to the tragic poets of ancient Greece in order to elaborate what a new kind of thinking might be. For Heidegger, in opposition to Plato’s antitheatricality, there is a vital, non-metaphysical thinking of being and truth that is presented, “in the highest and purest manner in the poetry of Greek tragedy.” (Heidegger, 1953: p. 106).

In fact it is a character from a Greek tragedy, rather than the more expected figures of Plato or Socrates, that Heidegger identifies as ‘the first philosopher’ in his infamous inaugural address as Rector to the University of Freiburg in 1933,

An old story was told among the Greeks that Prometheus had been the first philosopher. Aeschylus had this Prometheus utter a saying that expresses the essence of knowing: “Knowing, however, is far weaker than necessity.” That means that all knowing about things has always already been surrendered to the predominance of destiny and fails before it.

(Heidegger, 1933)

Prometheus speaks this line in Aeschylus’ tragedy as he is chained to a mountain in punishment for giving humans technical knowledge (techne) in defiance of Zeus’ wishes. Most famously Prometheus gives humanity fire, but also, as Prometheus Bound details, all the arts of writing, mathematics, architecture, agriculture and medicine. Prometheus’ statement is about the limits of knowledge in the face of ‘necessity’ or ‘destiny’ as Heidegger explains. His gifts to humanity are great, and crucially in the myth are what set us apart from other beings, but not greater than the forces of destiny, or in a more contemporary interpretation, history. This can be seen as a warning to humanity but also a reflection on Prometheus’ own situation. The statement is made from a position of suffering. Perhaps it is a statement only made possible through the experience of suffering. Heidegger’s definition of a philosopher then, becomes not just about knowing the limits of knowledge itself, but that such knowledge is acquired through a lived experience of suffering rather than the theoretical enquiry practised through the kind of philosophy advocated by Plato. 

The masterclass setting of How To Act is in some ways a self-conscious exhibition of technical knowledge. Nicholl is there, despite his protestations to the contrary, as the master of his particular technical discipline, to impart knowledge to those on stage, in the form of Promise, and the audience who have come to learn. The whole premise of the masterclass therefore, makes the metaphysical presupposition that this kind of knowledge can be instrumentalised and transmitted in this way. What Promise forces Nicholl to confront through her revelations are the clear limits of his technical knowledge, both about the ‘seminal’ moment in his theatre making practice in Nigeria, and his sense of his own identity as an ethically liberal individual. Nicholl’s ‘knowing’ is indeed far weaker than the ‘necessity’ of history of which Promise makes him aware. In the end his technical knowledge is no match for the force of destiny that has brought Promise into the world in these particular circumstances and to the moment of this ultimate confrontation. This contemporary idea of destiny is made up of the sexual, personal, economic and geopolitical relations at work in Nicholl’s encounter with Promise’s mother in Nigeria and their unfolding consequences. By the end of the play the previously stable hierarchies of knowledge have been upset and the role of teacher/director/author and pupil/performer/subject have been reversed in a humiliatingly parodic performance of Nicholl’s technical methodology.

Promise:   So what was it like?

                   What was she like?

Promise quickly walks towards Nicholl and forces the dress over his head and down over his body. Nicholl tries to resist but she slaps him again.

                 Was it like this?

                 Was she like this?

Promise gets water container and pours oil over Nicholl’s head. She smears the oil all over his face.

Promise:   Did she look like this? Pure and beautiful.

Promise leaves Nicholl in the centre and moves to the edge of the circle. She starts to clap out a rhythm for him to dance to.

How did she move?

How did she dance?

Dig deep. Let the memory come back to you.

Try and put yourself in those shoes.

Instead of looking at her from outside, you are her.

The truth of who she was.

Come on. Be her.

Move how she moves.

Think how she thinks.

Feel what she feels.

Tell the truth.

The clapping gets louder.

(p. 29)

As Promise forces Nicholl into the dress that he asked her to bring along as a tool to unlock the ‘truth’ of her experience, Nicholl is literally bound up in the means of his own system of representation. Like Prometheus, he is constrained by the limits of his knowledge in the face of the ‘necessity’ of Promise’s revelations and made to understand a different type of knowledge through suffering. Promise forces Nicholl to ‘become’ her mother by putting him in her dress and blacking up his face with the oil she brought with her. In a parody of his own exercise she asks Nicholl to empathise with her mother by means of this performance thereby drawing attention to the potentially impossible gap such an understanding would have to bridge. This performance emphasises the public dimension of Nicholl’s process of self-discovery and moment of tragic reversal in front of the masterclass audience. This reminds us of a similarly ethical dynamic in tragedies such as Oedipus the King by Sophocles where it seems important that the tragic hero not only has to suffer a new and unbearable self-knowledge but that this new identity is established in the public sphere for all to see.

Heidegger looks to Oedipus the King in a fuller analysis of the thinking expressed through Greek tragedy and what Dennnis Schmidt has described as “…the most profound insights of the early Greek thinkers regarding the simultaneity of unity and contradiction. This double bind of being which repeats the aletheic movement of truth…” (Schmidt, 2001: p. 241) In the character of Oedipus, Heidegger sees the embodiment of these ideas of aletheic concealment and unconcealment, ignorance and knowledge, and the complex relationship between them. Oedipus’ journey within the play is one from ignorance to knowledge but also, because that knowledge is ultimately unbearable, from seeing to blindness and light to darkness. He begins the play by saving the city through his wisdom in solving the riddle of the sphinx (‘in the brilliance of glory’, (Heidegger, 2014: p. 117)), but ends it by blinding himself and removing himself from public sight. Heidegger discusses the play’s treatment of these themes in his Introduction to Metaphysics,

Step by step he must put himself into unconcealment, which in the end he can only endure by putting out his own eyes, i.e. by removing himself from all light, and letting the protective cloak of night fall around him, and, by crying out, as a blind man, for all the doors to be opened so that such a one could be manifest to the people as that which he is.

(ibid: p. 107)

We can see how, for Heidegger, Oedipus simultaneously embodyies these contradictory values of ignorance and knowledge, darkness and light, seeing and blindness within one character’s journey or ‘act’ of being in the world. These contradictory values are all true, in the aletheic sense, of Oedipus’ being – ‘that which he is’ – and demonstrate the ‘simultaneity of unity and contradiction’ that tragedy can portray. Oedipus’s determination to know, signalled by his solving the riddle of the sphinx before the story of the play begins, is one of his defining characteristics and provides the driving force towards his own destruction. For Heidegger, Oedipus is indicative of the destiny of all human beings to be brought into conflict with a world in which they must try to understand their significance and to take their place in the realm of the universal. Heidegger views this drive to know as constitutive of the human condition and of being in the world, “the passion for the unveiling of being, that is, the struggle over being itself”. (ibid: p. 117). This is what Heidegger describes, in a phrase borrowed from Karl Reinhart, as ‘the tragedy of appearance’ (ibid: p. 118). Humanity’s appearance in the world is a tragedy because he is destined to strive to reconcile the singularity of that appearance within an understanding of the universal. Like Prometheus, Oedipus’ knowledge comes through suffering. His previous understanding of himself having been destroyed, it is a knowledge similarly bound up in its own limits. What emerges from this reading is a view of human life that stands in stark contrast with the metaphysical sense of the human being as a stable subject, an agency, standing over and against a world of substances that it seeks to master.

Nicholl can be seen to be ‘drawn into unconcealment’ throughout the play in that he and the audience are made aware of all the contradictions and ethical complexities that he and his views represent as Promise’s revelations are made. He simultaneously embodies both supreme knowledge of his technical discipline and fundamental ignorance of the consequences of his past actions. At the start of the play he is the master of his own world with a strong determination to share his technical knowledge to help others and to ‘cure the sickness’ (p. 3) of his particular domain. In the end however, he cannot reconcile the singularity of who he thinks he is with the realities of the universal context in which he operates. His drive to know the truth and help others do the same is the same striving that drives him to his own unintended self-discovery at the necessary limits of his knowledge. There he experiences the tragedy of who he really is and his ‘appearance in the world’.

  • Heidegger – Nicholl as deinon

Heidegger spends much of his analysis of the Choral Ode (the Ode on Man) from Sophocles’ Antigone (lines 332-375) in exploring the concept of deinon, the term Sophocles uses to describe this fundamental human condition. As so often with Heidegger, he draws our attention to the extreme problems of translation of any ancient Greek term due to the radically different understanding of fundamental concepts we now have. However, it is precisely the recovery of this understanding that Heidegger is urging, and he sees deinon as lying at the heart of a pre-metaphysical concept of being. For his translation he uses the German word unheimlich, which in itself can be difficult to translate into English, but is usually rendered as ‘uncanny’. He uses this term to open up three aspects of the concept of deinon in order to attempt to recover something of its original meaning.  I would like to examine briefly these three elements and their relevance to How To Act.

Firstly, Heidegger refers to the opening three stanzas of the choral ode in which humanity’s achievements in taming nature are listed. He does this to emphasise the sense of humanity’s power in mastering his environment, and developing beyond the limits of nature, implicit in the idea of deinon. For Heidegger, it is important to note that there is a necessary element of violence in this power,

The first strophe and antistrophe name the sea, the earth, the animal as the overwhelming that the violence-doer allows to break into openness in all its excessive violence. (Heidegger, 2014: p. 173)

(Heidegger, 2014: p. 173)

Rather than simply stating that humanity is violent, Heidegger here points to the intrinsic violence bound up in the event of humanity’s being and its relationship with the world. There is a necessary, ‘excessive’ violence in man’s relationship with the world that he is born into and inevitably seeks to master.

We have already discussed the ways in which Nicholl might be seen to be attempting to ‘master his environment’ through the putting into practice of his technical knowledge of the theatre and storytelling more generally. He assumes authority over, and re-interprets, Promise’s experience by means of this technical expertise and by so doing enacts a kind of violence to it, or ‘covering over’ of the truth as Promise puts it. However, this is done with the good intentions of enabling her to communicate her experience in a more effective way and become a better actor. For Nicholl this is an obvious goal for any actor and an assumption on which the whole idea of a masterclass is based. This violence then, can be seen to be bound up in and inherent to in the necessary circumstances in which Nicholl and Promise appear.

For the second aspect of deinon that Heidegger discusses, he makes use of the heim  (home) element of Unheimlich to give a sense of humanity’s inability to feel ‘at home’. Because man is a technical being, Heidegger argues, with the power to master his environment through making things, both physically and in language, he will never feel comfortably at home within it. In this sense he ‘re-makes’ his home (also his sense of self) through his technical abilities therefore exiling himself from his ‘original’ home.

The extent humanity is not at home in its own essence is betrayed by the opinion human beings cherish of themselves as those who have invented and could have invented language and understanding, building and poetry.

(ibid: p. 174)

Our pride in the technical abilities that set us apart (remove us) from our essential sense of self in the world ‘betrays’ how much we cannot feel ‘at home’. This seems to connect directly with Nicholl’s urge to make stories through language and performance in the play. It is this urge which has driven him out of his home to seek and share truth in foreign lands, an act that inevitably means he is both literally ‘not at home’ but also culturally and ethically adrift. It is also his fundamental belief in the power of these stories, and of language and performance generally, to communicate truth that provides the drive towards tragic self-discovery that results in Nicholl being fundamentally undermined and humiliated in his own domain. Heidegger connects this idea of unheimlich to Sophocles’ phrase pantoporos aporos, which he translates,[10]

Everywhere moving forward, underway, lacking experience

having no exit,

he comes to naught.

(ibid: p. 164)

It is the hubris of ‘everywhere moving forward’ that takes Nicholl to Nigeria, a place where he inevitably and crucially ‘lacks experience’ in terms of the ethical complexities of his very presence there. For Heidegger, there is a sense of constant exile in the ‘everywhere moving forward’ (or ‘journeying everywhere’ as it is sometimes translated), but with no hope of resolved arrival other than in death – ‘comes to naught’.

It is this idea of ‘having no exit’ other than in death that Heidegger explores in the next part of his elaboration of the concept of deinon.

The slow pressure that he cannot evade by means of any flight is death,

(ibid: p. 164)

Not only can human beings not escape death, but because of our knowledge (techne), we are unique in being conscious of its inevitability. This makes our existence, according to Heidegger, fundamentally uncanny. The same technical knowledge that gives us the ability to overcome so many challenges of nature, also gives us knowledge of our helplessness (‘lack of resource’ in Heidegger’s translation from Sophocles) in the face of its ultimate challenge. We see here again an idea of knowledge as being bound up with its own limits as well as a sense of tragedy and destiny that knowledge contains. This echoes Heidegger’s earlier comments about death from Being and Time,

Here the entire strangeness of this greatest strangeness is disclosed; not only . . . that as the violent one he drives himself beyond his familiar home, but he becomes the most strange first of all insofar as, on all paths he has no exit, is thrown out of every relation to the familiar, insofar as atē,[11] ruin, unholiness, catastrophe, come over him.

(Heidegger, 1962a: p. 116)

Heidegger here refers to the beginning of the choral ode that names man (deinon) as the ‘strangest of the strange’ (or uncanny as Heidegger later translates it). The ‘tragedy of man’s appearance’ lies not only in the violence of his inevitable striving to exercise his inherent technical powers thereby disallowing any essential experience of the familiar, but also in the destiny that this striving beyond the familiar can only end in death.

Heidegger connects another phrase from Sophocles’ ode, hypsipolis apolis, to this fundamental sense of alienation or uncanniness inherent in the concept of deinon. He translates this phrase as ‘towering high above the place, forfeiting the place’ and uses it to add a political dimension to his definition of the human condition.  For Heidegger the polis is the social space made possible out of the violent appearance of human beings. It is through our technical strivings to overcome nature that this space of human relations is formed. Heidegger tells us that this is the organisation that makes history possible,

Polis means most of all the place, the there, wherein and as which da-sein [being-there] as historical is. The polis is the historical place, the there, in which, out of which and for which history happens.

(Heidegger, 2014: p. 152)

Where humans appear they must exercise their technical ability to know, master and recreate their world. Heidegger identifies the place where these activities happen (take their place) and the relations they involve as the polis. However, it is this same activity that drives us to ‘tower above’ and therefore ‘forfeit the place’. The technical knowledge (techne) that means we create the polis, also exiles us from that sense of place because of its inherent nature. The nature of that knowledge is one of incessant mastery and striving allowing us to ‘rise above’ rather than being in place, destining a ‘forfeiting’ rather than a being ‘at home’. 

If the theatre is the polis in microcosm for the purposes of How To Act, then it can be seen as the place ‘in which, out of which, and for which’ this particular history is allowed to happen. The masterclass can only exist because of a master, someone ‘for which’ this space comes into being but who must inevitably rise above it through the very act of being a master. Nicholl literally creates this space by arranging the shoes to act as the forum in which his knowledge will be played out and also to represent the seminal site from which he draws his authority. Through creating this space he unwittingly allows the history of which he is unaware to emerge, forcing him to forfeit his claim to the same space he has created. That it is the realm of theatricality that allows for this exploration of the contradictions and instabilities of the polis in How To Act, further elaborates the ways in which an aletheic experience of truth might be made available through theatrical means.

Of course, these issues of an individual’s relationship with the polis as manifested by the ancient Greek city-state are a central subject matter for Greek tragedy. Plays such as Oedipus the King depict a striving for knowledge that can only end in forfeit and exile. Oedipus needs to save (again) the polis of Thebes and feels sure he can achieve this through his technical prowess. In gaining the knowledge of his true relationship to this place in order to save it however, he must forfeit his place within it. This is why for Heidegger, Sophocles can be considered a political thinker in that he gives expression to the fundamental nature of the appearance of human beings in the world and how that nature manifests in political life. If we can understand this fundamental nature and the political relationships it necessitates as portrayed in Greek tragedy, Heidegger argues, we can develop a true sense of history in which to contextualise the events and politics of our own times. This was of utmost importance to Heidegger given the earth-shattering events (‘shattering against the limits of nature’ as Heidegger interprets Sophocles’ definition of deinon) of the time of writing.

Meta-theatricality in How to Act

Heidegger sees in Greek tragedy an alternative way of thinking to the assumptions about the human being as a subject with a stable sense of self that he identifies as the cornerstones of Western metaphysics from Plato onwards. Like Plato’s Republic, written as a challenge to this tragic mode of thought, tragic drama attempts to present an understanding of what it is to be human, the implications of striving for knowledge, and how we relate to each other through political organisation. In tragic drama however, Heidegger sees the possibility of returning this understanding to a pre-Socratic concept of deinon that expresses the unresolvable contradiction of human existence in all its strangeness, violent power and uncanny relation to place, self and death. Through this understanding he hopes to develop what he calls elsewhere in his Letter on “Humanism” an ‘original ethics’ (Heidegger, 1949: p. 150) with which to interpret the historical events of his own time.


The meta-theatrical strategy of staging a play that takes as its narrative the time and place of a theatre masterclass in front of a live audience works on a number of levels. The intention is to embody in the form of the play some of the contradictions and interplay of opposing ideas expressed in the Heideggerian thought outlined above. In a resonance of Heidegegger’s alethheia, this is a fictive space that reveals and conceals its truth at the same time, by creating a fiction out of a ‘real’ situation. In this sense, this is meta-theatricality as self-consciousness, drawing attention to the (uncanny) operations always at work in theatre’s inevitable revealing of its own artifice. The hope here is to heighten a sense of self-reflexivity in a spectator who can be drawn into the narrative fiction whilst aware of the critique that this narrative makes of its own form. The play sincerely attempts to dismantle the edifice of post-colonial cultural appropriation in ‘conventional’ western theatre, particularly through the presentation of Promise’s experience and arguments.  But it does so, perhaps inevitably, certainly self-consciously, by speaking that same language of conventional narrative drama, guilty of those same appropriations and conceits to which Promise refers. If the polis in this contemporary tragedy, as mentioned above, is western theatre and the values upon which it is built, then the attempt to ‘rise above’ this place through a technical meta-theatricality, can be seen as a self-conscious attempt to forfeit this place in Heideggerian terms, and in itself a tragic gesture.

In How To Act I have attempted to put into practice some of Heidegger’s ideas about tragedy as well as drawing on Critchley’s overview of some of its key attributes. I have attempted to create a central character that embodies some of Heidegger’s key definitions of the concept of deinon, and to open up a space for a consideration of an ethics that challenges some contemporary artistic and political assumptions. I mentioned earlier the problem of equivalence in this project with reference to the ‘noble’ status of the tragic hero. My response to this challenge in its various manifestations has largely been to create a microcosm in which the key attributes of Greek tragedy could be said to pertain without the broader significance they might have in the original Greek form. The implications of this strategy can be seen in rendering the equivalent of the king figure from Greek tragedy as a theatre director and the subsequent conflation of ideas of power and political authority within a state with notions of authorship and professional authority within an artistic realm. The potentially reductive implications of this strategy can also be seen on a philosophical level in relation to ideas such as the polis. In Oedipus the King for example, the entire city-state of Thebes is in dire existential crisis because of the plague that threatens its people if they do not find its cause. The extremity of this imperative and the implications of success or failure are obviously diminished by finding a contemporary equivalent in the microcosmic world of theatre and the ‘sickness’ of its perceived artistic failings. Perhaps the most crucial omission in this strategy however is the avoidance of the ultimate narrative event and defining limit of tragedy, death. This is an essential ingredient in the dramatic intensity and conceptual profundity of Greek tragedy that I did not feel able to incorporate into my contemporary version. The events towards the end of How to Act are already and intentionally at the limits of plausibility in terms of the narrative frame of the masterclass and what might be possible in that time and place. If Nicholl suffers a kind of death through loss of reputation and shattering of self-understanding, it remains a metaphor. I think it is fair to say that this alters the fundamental nature of what a Greek tragedy attempts to deal with in an attempt to bring it into line with contemporary narrative expectations in this form, or at least my interpretation of them.


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Critchley, Simon (2011a) Tragedy’s Philosophy, Philosophy’s Tragedy, ‘Radboud Reflects’, Radboud Universiteit. Online at:’-philosophy/teksten/lezing-simon/

Critchley, Simon (2011b) ‘Twelve Theses on Tragedy’, European Graduate School. Online at:

Critchley, Simon (2011c) ‘Tyranny and Fear’, European Graduate School. Online at:

Critchley, Simon (2011d) ‘Euro Blind’, The New York Times. Online here.

Heidegger, Martin (1933) The Self Assertion of the German University, Online at

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Heidegger, Martin (1962a) Being and Time, (trans. J. MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson) London: SCM Press.

Heidegger, Martin (1962b [1940]) Plato’s Doctrine of Truth, University of Wisconsin. Online at:

Heideger, Martin (1976 [1949]) ‘Letter on “Humanism”’, Pathmarks, ed. William McNeill, Cambridge University Press.

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[1] This chimes with another of Critchley’s theses – that “tragedy is gender trouble” in its disruption of patriarchal norms (2011b).

[2] I was influenced here by Judith Butler’s interpretation of Walter Benjamin’s ideas of a progressivist view of history that ‘covers over the history of the oppressed’ (Butler, 2011:83) from his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (1999).

[3] It is interesting that it is theatre’s mixing of different artistic disciplines – separate genres of music with sculpture and dancing etc – that Plato extrapolates to a disregard for the idea of discipline per se and a prompt to societal decline. (This is explored in Samuel Weber’s chapter on Theatrocracy in Theatricality as Medium p. 31.) We can connect this to Michael Fried’s famously anti-theatrical ideas around disciplinarity discussed in Art and Objecthood (1967).

[4] Critchley tells us (ibid: 12:25) that there were no lawyers in ancient Athens but that all citizens had the right to sue each other, a right they exercised with some frequency. This is one of the reasons that the skills of sophistry were so important to the Athenians, skills we see enacted at the heart of Greek tragedy.

[5] Critchley cites American Western films (ibid: 12:40) as an example of a more contemporary art form that seeks to negotiate the boundaries within a culture informed by the founding myths of the ‘old west’ and a modern legal state.

[6] As well as the more obvious figures of Brook and Grotowski, we might look at the work of Antonin Artaud, Eugenio Barba, and Bertolt Brecht as very different examples of these reforming agendas.

[7] The setting up of the shoes has direct parallels with Brook’s laying out of the carpet on which his company would perform and that was carried out with ritualistic importance before their African performances.

[8] In Chorus Two Promise is describing the dinner party from her childhood (p. 13) and in Chorus Three she is describing the conditions of the Niger Delta (p. 19).

[9] This is the central thrust of the argument of Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics (1959).

[10] This translation itself ‘does violence’ to the original as many have noted including Stathis Gourgouris in Does Literature Think (p. 138). Heidegger conflates the two concepts of pantoporos aporos (and later hypsypolis apolis) that would have originally been separated by some punctuation, thereby functioning in separate phrases. It obviously serves Heidegger’s argument towards the inherent contradiction and paradox of humanity that these words in Sophocles become singular counterturning phrases rather than separate ideas as they might have originally been intended.

[11] Atē refers to the concept of reckless impulse in the tragic hero towards the course of action that leads to their downfall.