Theatre and its Discontents

Tony, Fisher (2020) Theatre and its Discontents. In: Play and Democracy, Philosophical Perspectives. Routledge, London, pp. 13-32. ISBN 9780-36764127-6


In 1973, the Trilateral Commission asked whether democracies were becoming ‘ungovernable’. Warning of the ‘rise of anomic democracy’, it identified threats that we are more than familiar with today, as we confront – once again – the ‘crisis’ of democracy: ‘the disintegration of civil order, the breakdown of social discipline, the debility of leaders, and the alienation of citizens’. In this chapter I revisit this ‘problem’ of anomie, locating it at the very heart of democracy and the historical problem of its governance. In the Laws, Plato had already used the disparaging term ‘theatrocracy’, which drew on the analogy of the theatre and its audience, to describe the unruly nature of democratic forms of life. Just as the theatre audience is an ill-disciplined rabble so, he argued, the members of a democratic society are prone to various disorders. Thus the pathologies of the democratic polis qualify it for one of Plato’s ‘diseased cities’, where popular discontentment collapses democracy into something far worse: tyranny. I pursue this ‘theatrocratic’ problem as a means of understanding democracy’s central dynamic, particularly visible in an age of popular discontentment, namely its constitutive proneness to displeasure, incivility and antagonism.
The first part of the chapter re-examines the legacy of theatrocratic discourse by reframing it in relation to the discourse on play. I argue that for theatrocratic discourses ‘play’ – often understood as ‘idleness’ – constitutes the core problematic of democratic or ‘common’ forms of life, and that for Plato, and for many commentators who later followed him, democracy must be viewed as ‘dangerous play’. I show how the modern State sought to neutralise the ‘theatrocratic’ threat associated with democracy’s dangerous play by means of ‘education’, converting incivility into civility; disorder into orderly conduct; idleness and illegality into productive labour. The second part of the chapter, focusses more closely on this educational solution, arguing that it leads to a further paradox and one with which we still contend today. This paradox becomes particularly acute in Schiller’s notion of the ‘aesthetic education of man’ and in his tract on theatre as a tool for (deontic) instruction. While Schiller sees ‘play’ as central to human emancipation, in advocating theatre as a tool of moral instruction, designed to reconcile the demos to the State, aesthetic education reverts to a discourse of two humanities – one civil, the other barbaric. Nonetheless, I argue Schiller’s insight that ‘man’ is ‘only wholly Man when he is playing’ remains useful to understanding the theatrocratic ‘crisis’ afflicting contemporary democracies with the rise of populism across Europe and beyond. Thus in the final part of the chapter, I turn to consider how we might understand democracy through the figure of theatrocracy today. Following the political theorist, Chantal Mouffe, I argue that the solution to the crisis of democracy is not less but more democracy. I suggest that what this involves is the need to reconstruct democratic engagement around two senses of the term ‘play’. First, that play is indeed correctly understood as a ‘subversive’ force – a productive ‘incivility’ – and that an ‘aesthetic education’ today requires ‘playful resistance’ to the total mobilisation of the social by capitalism; second, that democratic politics must be reconfigured around the notion of a radical ‘politics of rehearsal’ – where play signifies, not something subservient to an instrumental goal, but the opening of an autonomous space, emancipated from productive labour, in which new ‘identities’ can be created.


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