Modernist theatre, theatricality and twentieth-century physics
Abrahams, Amos Amadeus
For all of their many differences, Gertrude Stein, Bertolt Brecht, and Samuel Beckett have in common the fact that they have each exerted a significant influence upon the way in which theatre is both conceived of and produced in the twentieth, and now the twenty-first, century. Brecht’s extensively theorised Epic theatre established a new method of acting and relationship with the audience; Beckett’s increasingly minimal stage plays powerfully interrogated and challenged limits of theatricality. The landscape plays of Gertrude Stein, whilst the subject of less critical attention, were no less radical and have similarly instructed the thinking of a number of major contemporary playwrights, producers, and theatre companies. Further to that, however, this thesis argues that an understanding of the notions of theatricality developed by all three of these playwrights must also take into account their engagement with, or connection to, the revolutionary theoretical advances made in physics during the first decades of the twentieth century. There has been, increasingly, a number of insightful investigations into the relationship between twentieth-century physics and prose, and physics and poetry, but so far very few that consider theatre in the same terms. Noting the long and complex relationship that has existed between science and theatre since Plato, this thesis seeks to add to this body of research by showing how the ideas and implications of quantum mechanics provided not just a source of potential themes but also played an important role in determining the manner in which these three writers re-conceptualised theatricality. Whilst leading theoretical physicists often found it expedient to utilise metaphors of the theatre when seeking to explain the ideas and the problems at the heart of their work, these same issues also provided a means of approaching differently the creation of theatre. Central to this argument are the ideas of an epistemological crisis within science and its philosophy, the entailments of embodiment, and the notion of theatre conceived of as a mode of enquiry in its own right. As physicists such as Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger, as well as numerous philosophers of science, grappled with the problems of indeterminacy and measurement that quantum mechanics presented, theatremakers took these same changes within the scientific project as one of the tools by which they could change their own creative medium. Sharing with science a critical interest in the relations between bodies, with existence and presence within both time and space, and with the role of observation, theatre, whilst often positioned as antipodal to physics is, in fact, guided by a number of similar fundamental ideas. As physicists were forced to reassess the basis and the potential of their method, Beckett, Brecht and Stein were able to similarly reformulate the mechanics and assumptions of theatricality. This engagement is traced and evidenced through close examination of their published works as well as their letters and journals. Writing with little to no communication with one another, the three playwrights in question each drew upon significant aspects of science in different ways. Stein, in addition to having a broad awareness of contemporary events, studied under William James, whose ideas were to be claimed as an influence by Bohr; Brecht spoke with scientists working in Copenhagen under Bohr, and also numerous émigré philosophers of science in California; and Beckett spent many years reading, with scepticism, about the development of rationalist thought and science. Grounding the analyses of each of these playwrights’ writings in a theoretical framework that works to set out and examine the basis of the relationship between science and theatre within the long tradition of Western thought, this thesis argues that the issue of representation underpins and connects them both. By bringing together the powerful conceptual metaphors of the Weltbild, or ‘world picture’, and the theatrum mundi, or ‘world theatre’, and addressing their significance within systems of knowledge and expression, it is argued that on a fundamental level understandings of theatricality and of science are dependent upon one another. This idea is explored at the start of the thesis by returning first to Plato and then following a critical line of argument through Nietzsche, particularly his The Birth of Tragedy, to Heidegger and Heisenberg.