I want to try and answer the question ‘Was bringt die Klassik auf die Bühne’ by talking about a theatrical experience I had last year with an unapologetically contemporary staging of a classical play. From April 7-10, 2005, in the Theatre for the New City, in the East Village in Lower Manhattan, the newly-formed Eyeball Planet Company staged the American première of a little known play by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, called Narcisse, ou l’amant de lui-même (Narcissus, or the self-admirer). The production was directed by Anne Deneys-Tunney, Professor of French Literature at New York University and the idea for the production came about by chance during some conversations that Anne and I were having about our plans for a one-day symposium at the Maison Française of New York University to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, the famous Second Discourse.
What is the connection between narcissism and inequality? For Rousseau, the great sea change in the history of inequality is the institution of private property, where someone said ‘”this is mine” and found people simple enough to believe him’. Yet, even prior to the establishment of private property, when human beings first gathered together, socialized and looked at one another – Rousseau imagines this taking place around a tree in a purported state of nature, and the notion of the look, the narcissistic regard, is essential - there was engendered a desire for distinction, to be distinct and different from the others. It is with this desire for distinction that the healthy amour de soi or self-love that defines human beings in a natural state begins to be transformed into a narcissistic amour propre or pride. For Rousseau, the origin of narcissism consists in this desire for social distinction, from a sense of one’s own importance. Thus, inequality and narcissism derive from the same source.
This is the kernel of the drama that is played out in Narcisse. I don’t know how many people know of or have read Rousseau’s plays, as they are fairly obscure. There are seven in all, in various stages of completion or incompletion. Narcisse was the only play to be performed publicly. This was in 1752, where it lasted for just one performance by Les comédiens du Roi on December 18th. Narcisse found its way to the stage because of the considerable success of Le devin du village, Rousseau’s pastoral opera, which was performed before the French King, Queen and court at Fontainebleau in October 1752. Louis XV was so impressed by Le devin du village that he requested to have an audience with Rousseau, but the latter was so neurotically plagued by a weak bladder that he was terrified that he would wet himself during the audience and therefore he declined, complaining of his ‘infirmités’.
Narcisse was described by Rousseau’s sometime friend Grimm as ‘une mauvaise comédie’, and although one might expect more loyalty from a friend, he is not incorrect in his judgement. The play is in the style of Marivaux, who read, commented and even made some changes to the text. Sadly, Narcisse is not of the quality of Marivaux, which is perhaps explained by the fact that Rousseau claimed to have written the play when he was just 18 years old. Although this is not untrue, it is certainly not the whole truth, and it is clear that Rousseau periodically and significantly redrafted the play between his youth and the time of the only performance, when Rousseau was about 40 years old. Indeed, he admits this in his Confessions, writing that, ‘…when I stated in the preface to that play that I had written it at eighteen I lied to the extent of some years’. Nonetheless, it is probable that Narcisse was Rousseau’s first extended piece of literary composition.
The action of Narcisse is very simple: it is about a man who falls in love with a painting of himself dressed as a woman. The drama begins with Narcisse’s sister, Lucinda, devising a plan to trick the incurably vain protagonist, who is engaged to be married to Angelica.2 It is a test of his love, which backfires horribly as Narcisse falls completely in love with his own feminized portrait, his objectified self-image. There is much playful, if predictable, dramatic irony, where Narcisse sends off his man, Frontin, in search all over Paris for his new beloved, who is in fact himself.
Lucinda: Frontin, where is your master?
Frontin: Gone in search of himself.
Lucinda: In search of himself?
Frontin: Ay, to be married to himself.
Eventually Narcisse realizes his mistake and the error of his ways, is scolded by his father, and decides to marry Angelica after all. There is also a second love story in Narcisse, which is curiously unresolved and unsatisfactorily presented in the play, between Lucinda and Leander, which is intended to mirror the main dramatic relationship. So, the play is a little lesson in the failings of narcissism that ends with the moral, ‘when we truly love another, we cease to be fond of ourselves’. As such, it is a derivative, slight and nicely inconsequential piece, just the sort of thing that Rousseau thought might gain him some sort of a literary reputation when he moved to Paris in 1742, in his thirtieth year.
However, matters become more complex and compelling when the play is linked to the long, important and fascinating Preface that Rousseau wrote to accompany its publication in 1752. In his Confessions, Rousseau declares that the Preface is ‘one of my best pieces of writing’. The play thus gets situated in between the arguments of Rousseau’s First and Second Discourses, in 1750 and 1755. Allow me to rehearse the philosophical arguments here by recounting a famous anecdote, that of Rousseau’s moment of ‘illumination’. In 1749, when Rousseau was thirty-seven years old, he went to see his friend and fellow Encyclopaedist Diderot, who at that time was imprisoned at Vincennes, outside Paris, for expressing opinions contrary to religion and the state. Short of money, Rousseau used to walk the 5 miles to the prison and to entertain himself on the journey he would read a journal or newspaper. On one occasion, he was reading Mercure de France, when he came across a subject proposed by the Academy of Dijon for an essay competition. The subject was: ‘Has the progress in the arts and sciences done more to corrupt or to purify morals?’ In a sudden flash, akin to the vision of Paul on the road to Damascus, Rousseau realised that progress in the arts and sciences had, in fact, corrupted morals. In a letter to Malesherbes from 1762, Rousseau writes of this experience, with a characteristic absence of emotional understatement,
"If ever anything resembled a sudden inspiration, it is what that advertisement stimulated in me: all at once I felt my mind dazzled by a thousand lights, a crown of splendid ideas presented themselves to me with such force and in such confusion, that I was thrown into a state of indescribable bewilderment. I felt my head seized by a dizziness that resembled intoxication. A violent palpitation constricted me and made my chest heave. Unable to breathe and walk at the same time, I sank down under one of the trees in the avenue and passed the next half hour in such agitation that when I got up I found that the front of my jacket was wet with tears, although I had no memory of shedding any. Ah, Monsieur, if ever I had been able to write down what I saw and felt as I sat under that tree, with what clarity would I have exposed the contradictions of our social system, with what force would I have demonstrated all the abuses of our institutions, with what simplicity would I have demonstrated that man is naturally good, and has only become bad because of those institutions."
The central belief of what we all too glibly call the Enlightenment that derives from Bacon and which is absolutely decisive for figures like Voltaire and Diderot is the belief in progress. That is to say, the development of science, technology, art and culture has led to the amelioration of humanity, or, in Kant’s definition, Enlightenment is freedom from man’s self-incurred tutelage. For Rousseau, on the contrary, rational and scientific progress is moral and political regress. Civilization is decline. The so-called progress in the arts and sciences has made humanity worse, less human, more depraved, selfish and greedy. What we see in Rousseau is an early version of 19th Century theories of history, in particular that of Marx and Engels in The German Ideology and the opening pages of The Communist Manifesto, where the seeming progress of humanity has led to progressive alienation from our true condition, what the young Marx called ‘species-being’; or Nietzschean genealogy, where the history of morality is the crushing of the active forces of life-affirmation by the cringing ressentiment of Judeo-Christian morality. For Rousseau, human history, society and so-called civilization have all conspired to the degradation of the human condition: man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains.
However, if this is Rousseau’s position, then isn’t it utterly hypocritical of him to publish and indeed permit the performance of a play like Narcisse, not to mention his more or less successful experiments with opera, ballet, music and poetry? Betraying early signs of the paranoia that would painfully suffocate him in solitude in later life seeing spies at every turn, Rousseau spends much of the Preface responding polemically to this objection. Firstly, he rather implausibly claims that Narcisse is a work of youth and he has subsequently changed his mind. Secondly, and more compellingly, Rousseau argues that given that Parisian society is so utterly and irredeemably corrupt with regard to morals (les moeurs), it is better to divert them with such trifles as the theatre, as this might prevent them from engaging in more harmful, wicked activities like violence and warfare. Rousseau writes, with caustic irony,
"My advice is therefore – and I have said this more than once – to leave alone and even to support the academies, the colleges, the universities, the libraries and the theatres, and all the other amusements which are capable of producing some diversion from the wickedness of men and which might prevent them from filling their idleness with more dangerous things. For in a country where there are no decent men and good morals, then it is better to live with mere rascals than violent ruffians."
From this perspective, the failure of Narcisse to extend beyond its opening performance offers Rousseau a rather perverse vindication of his views. He writes, with some delight,
"My play had the fate that it merited and which I foresaw. But because of the tedium that I felt in watching it I left the performance much more content with myself than if it had been a success."
Thus, the manifest failure of Narcisse is transformed into success and its mediocre tediousness is an inverted triumph for Rousseau’s assault on culture.
On this question of tedium, Anne decided to perform the play with the entirety of the Preface, read by Anne and myself in a mixture of French and English. It was set to music by Michael Schumacher in a very simple but powerful way and accompanied by some simple, slow movements from actors in the near-dark stage. I am delighted to report that the sheer length and enforced tedium of the performance of the Preface - it lasted for about 30 minutes - made many people in the audience very uncomfortable and many bottoms wriggled nervously in seats. Such is perhaps the Rousseauesque twist on the Entfremdung effect.
If we place Narcisse in the context of Rousseau’s arguments in the Preface and Discourses, then the question of narcissism takes on a rather different, deeper aspect. If narcissism is the experiential effect of inequality - or rather its lived affect - then the very idea of theatre is thereby condemned. This becomes clear if Narcisse is linked to Rousseau’s critique of theatre in the 1758 Letter to D’Alembert on Theatre, where he denounces the latter’s proposal for a theatre in Geneva. Rousseau makes two main accusations against theatre. Firstly – and this is, to my mind, a pretty silly idea - theatre is morally and socially dangerous because it reverses the purportedly natural relation between the sexes, permitting women to take power over men through the play of theatrical representation. Theatre - and Rousseau is thinking of the playful comic ironies of Molière – reverses the hierarchy of the sexes and is essentially effeminizing. Seen in this light, the travesty of Narcisse, where the male protagonist falls in love with his own cross-dressed feminized image, enacts the entire sexual threat of theatre. Secondly, Rousseau’s critique of theatre is a critique of representation. Here Rousseau restates Plato’s critique of the tragic poets in the Republic where theatre is excluded from the well-ordered polis because it is the mimesis or imitation of a mere appearance rather than an attention to the true form of things which should be the concern of the philosopher. The critique of theatre as feminization and representation runs together with his proposal to oppose theatre with civic spectacles, an idea that had a direct influence on Robespierre’s fêtes nationales civiques in the years after the French Revolution. What is essential to such spectacles is that they are not representations but the presence to itself of the people coming together outdoors in daylight and not dallying in the darkness of the theatre, whose very architecture is reminiscent of Plato’s cave. Rousseau writes,
"Plant a stake crowned with flowers in the middle of a square, gather the people together there, and you will have a festival. Do better yet; let the spectators become an entertainment to themselves; make them actors themselves; do it so that each see and loves himself in the others so that all will be better united."
In the civic spectacle, the people do not passively regard a theatrical object of representation, but themselves become the self-present subject of their own drama, the actors of their own sovereignty. This idea obviously has enormous political significance and it is clear that behind the condemnation of theatre stands a radical critique of a decadent political system. The core of Rousseau’s The Social Contract is a defense of the idea of popular sovereignty, namely that the only way of ensuring the legitimacy of society, and balancing the seemingly opposed claims of freedom and equality, is to root sovereignty in the will of the people, not in some external authority, such as a monarch or a hereditary aristocracy. The people should be the actors in the theatre of the state. If one bears this in mind, then the festival becomes the lived manifestation of popular sovereignty, of the people’s individual and collective autonomy. The civic festival is the acting out of the general will in pure presence without the mediation of representation. As such, Rousseau’s idea of the civic festival perhaps corresponds to Schiller’s conception of the aesthetic revolution that must accompany any political revolution, a vision which finds its most dramatic and aphoristic expression, as Jacques Rancière shows, in the sensual political organicism of the Oldest System-Programme of German Idealism and its call for a ‘new mythology’. By contrast, the theatre is a veritable temple to Narcissus, a cavernous hall of mirrors that reflects nothing more than the desire for distinction and the hypocrisy of amour propre. The theatre is a place where actors are not subjects, but objectify themselves in their desire to see and be seen. Theatre is the very crucible of narcissism and inequality.
All of which means that the status of Rousseau’s theatre is peculiar, perhaps without precedent, though with many subsequent imitators: it is theatre against theatre; it is theatre against the very idea of theatricality. What is theatre? It is narcissism. What is theatre for? It allows human beings to experience their cave-like captivity in the order of representation and objectification and to become alienated from their free subjectivity, both individual and communal. What, then, might be the purpose of Rousseau’s theatre? It is nothing less than a means for diagnosing and criticizing the essential narcissism of Eighteenth Century life and subverting its social drama of inequality.
Theatre is narcissism. What’s more, insofar as theatre does not arise ex nihilo from some societal vacuum, society is narcissism. Even worse, for me at least, insofar as it feeds and feeds upon one’s intellectual amour propre, philosophy is narcissism. Rousseau makes the case crystal clear in the 1752 Preface,
"The taste for philosophy weakens all the bonds of benevolence and mutual regard that attach men to society. In fact, this is the greatest of the evils that philosophy engenders. The delights of study render any other attachment rather insipid. What’s more, by dint of observing and reflecting on humanity, the philosopher learns to appreciate them according to their true value; and it is difficult to have affection for something that one despises. Soon, all the interest that so-called virtuous men share with their fellows is reunited in the person of the philosopher: his contempt for others is transformed into arrogance; his pride increases in direct proportion to his indifference for the rest of the universe. Words like family and country become for him completely meaningless; he is neither a parent, nor a citizen, nor a man, he is a philosopher."
To come back to the question of what brings classics to the stage, our conviction was that if narcissism, pride, and the desire for distinction were powerful features of life in the Eighteenth Century, then this is all the more true at the beginning of the terrified Twenty-First Century, in a world that has become a vast and spectacular hall of mirrors and where the only reality is that offered by Reality T.V. Unhindered by any egalitarian political vision, our great metropolitan cities have become cathedrals for the celebration of inequality. The polemical force of the New York production of Narcisse was, therefore, to undermine its audience, to use and abuse the techniques of theatrical representation in order to raise the issues of narcissism, inequality and theatre itself. Of course, this is a laughably naïve ambition which was doomed to fail. Nonetheless, naïveté is hugely important in my view and what brings classics to the stage has to be their enduring social truth, the fact that these works make a claim on us, that they continue to speak to who and where we are and allow us to imagine how we might transform who and where we are.
The New York production was resolutely contemporary. It seems to me that the way in which we bring classics to the stage is by denying and dismantling their classicism and affirming their contemporaneity. Anne tried to achieve this effect in a number of ways. Through the use of Stephen Tunney’s disjunctively accessible music, through Nikos Floros’s outrageously elaborate costumes, but most of all through Anne’s technique of what she calls ‘automatic acting’. This is the idea that the actors should have absolutely no intentionality as they perform. They become like dolls, machines or dancing puppets trapped within a set of movements and routines. Anne tried to get the actors to learn a technique of dissociation, where their bodily movement was disconnected from their words, and where words and movement were pulling in opposite directions. As well as being comic, this dissociation produced the feeling of insincerity, which was essential to the theatrical effect Anne was trying to produce. What is essential is that this is a theatre in which no one believes, not the actors, not the audience, and not, of course, Rousseau himself. It is with this question of belief that I’d like to raise a final question: should we believe in theatre? Should we, really? And if so, how should we believe and what should we believe? You are sophisticated people and I will leave these questions for you to decide, but without some sort of response to these questions, we might begin to wonder what we are doing here playing in the dark.
1 This is the text of a talk prepared as part of a series of events to mark the bicentenary of Schiller’s death entitled Spieltrieb.Was bringt die Klassik auf die Bühne? (Playdrive. What Brings the Classics to the Stage?), held in Weimar in November 2005. It was originally published in German as ‘Theater ist Narzissmus. Über Jean-Jacques Rousseaus Drama “Narziss”’, Theater der Zeit, October 2005, Heft nr.10, pp.40-43.