Edmund Husserl’s place in theatre and performance studies has shifted since phenomenology first made inroads in the field. Early phenomenological scholarship asked what Husserl’s approach to conscious experience could reveal about theatre. Some supposed that through the phenomenological reduction—the procedure Husserl devised to unlock a realm of pure consciousness—live performance could be seized from the flux of perception and rigorously described, rather than flattened into a piece of culture to be read. Once installed in the critical repertoire of theatre studies, however, phenomenological approaches to performance gradually distanced themselves from Husserl. Martin Heidegger’s pivot to the question of being and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s focus upon embodied perception helped frame foundational concepts in the field, while Husserl’s reduction drifted to the margins. In a sense, this trend recapitulated the history of continental philosophy. Phenomenologists of performance moved beyond Husserl’s terminology and transcendental aims just as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty had done in the mid-twentieth century.
But just as Husserl’s legacy informed the work of even those thinkers who largely left his methods behind, his phenomenology, in recent decades, has continued to percolate in some areas of performance theory. One such area concerns theatricality, a term that in common parlance might denote exaggerated or preening style, but that in scholarship has lately come to signify theatre’s audience-oriented posture. Theatricality has assumed a wide range of meanings even in its more considered applications (Davis and Postlewait 1–4, 16–34). One cogent theory of theatricality by Josette Féral draws on Husserlian thought. Féral argues that spectators can inscribe this quality upon objects by exercising a kind of active gaze, instigating theatricality by “instituting a Husserlian qualitative modification” (97–8). Though she does not elaborate, Féral’s citation of Husserl suggests that a similarity links her understanding of theatricality to Husserl’s core technique of phenomenological reduction, also known as bracketing or epoché
. For Husserl, phenomenological research begins with a calibrated modification of the way one posits the world to exist. Without denying the existence of the world, the phenomenologist willfully converts positing in the mode of belief into bracketed, or parenthesized positing (Husserl, Ideas
65). Both this subjective
mental action and the “active gaze” to which Féral ascribes theatricality are brought about with complete freedom on the part of the subject.
A more sustained examination of Husserl’s significance to the field of theatre studies appeared in Julia Walker’s essay on the text/performance split and twentieth-century philosophy. Walker identifies a common theme in twentieth-century poetics and philosophy: a controversy over whether meaning is something fundamentally restricted to text—a position that typifies both poetic theory associated with New Criticism and the analytic or Anglo-American tradition in philosophy—or whether it is irreducibly constituted in the body owing to the conscious mind’s links to the body’s sensorium and capacity for expression. Walker aligns Husserl with those who embrace “experiential knowledge,” both in the realm of poetics and philosophy (26). Like the actor who incorporates a text to express the central meaning in a theatrical performance, the Husserlian knowing subject exists “inside the object of its investigation” (32).
Considered alongside other work that identifies sympathies between Husserlian phenomenology and enduring concerns of Western theatre theory and practice—the dividing line between staged and non-staged states of affairs, the body’s capacity of expression, the outlook of spectators—it is now possible to speak of a new moment in phenomenological writing about theatre. Theatre scholars formerly adopted Husserl’s reduction as a critical framework that could reveal new insights into the nature of the performance event and its reception. But more recent studies like Féral’s and Walker’s have pointed out correspondences that suggest something quite different: theatre practice and Husserlian phenomenology set up the relationship between the mind and the world in similar ways.
The basis for a historical understanding of these “theatrical” tendencies in Husserl’s thinking, I would like to argue, can be found in Husserl’s own thoughts about the art of the stage. In extensive notes written between 1905 and 1918, Husserl examined theatre itself. These writings were not intended for publication and show Husserl’s thinking in process, but they nonetheless contain both an early and unstudied corpus of phenomenological writing about theatre and a foundational study of the consciousness of theatrical appearances. What makes theatre a special case for Husserl is that it challenges the distinction between form and medium in mimetic art. He is concerned foremost with theatre because of its unique capacity to base fictional images in the medium of the things the images themselves represent.
Indeed, the fact that theatre may be seen as, in Bert O. States’s terms, “a kind of language whose words consist to an unusual degree of things that are what they seem to be,” is critical to Husserl’s understanding of the stage (Great Reckonings
20). Assessing Husserl’s views of theatre requires taking note of the particular problems that led him to engage with the art. Rather than elaborating a theory of drama within a project dedicated to imitative or fine arts, Husserl examines the nature of image consciousness, a mode of awareness that he contrasts with both ordinary perception and
with pure—or inwardly generated—fantasies. Theatre produces image consciousness, for Husserl, because it offers an image of something not actually present. But theatre also carves out a special place within that category of consciousness. Theatre’s unique tendency to appropriate the forms, materials, and perceptual content of ordinarily perceived objects reveals, more so than painting or sculpture, facets of image consciousness that are elsewhere obscured. Stage consciousness factors out certain media-specific image qualities, revealing aspects of the distinction between image consciousness and ordinary perception in a sharper way that would, say, meditations on the difference between the experience of a real and painted lake.
For Husserl, theatre’s salient properties are its dynamic, human scale spatiality, the identity between its materials and the things they represent (chairs on stage represent chairs) and the conspicuously non-depictive nature of theatrical representation. This essay outlines Husserl’s cursory phenomenology of theatre with a view toward the way the specificity of theatre informed his evolving theory of imaging in general. As I will hope to demonstrate, it is precisely because Husserl employs theatre as a limit case for what he calls perceptual fantasy—the sort of imaginative play that images like those on stage engender—that his discussions of theatre remains an important part of the canon of phenomenological writing about theatre. In the course of exploring the boundaries that separate—but also fail to separate—stage consciousness from the experience of ordinary things, Husserl acknowledges that theatre engenders a promiscuous sort of imaginative play not restricted to aesthetic stages. This suggests both that Husserl’s thinking on theatre helped inaugurate a central theme in phenomenological criticism—one concerned with the extra-discursive elements of theatrical representation—and supports the contention that theatrical thinking was fundamental to Husserl’s elaboration of the epoché.
The consciousness of theatre spectators occupies a specific place in Husserl’s broad taxonomy of experience. Husserl in the first place distinguishes presentation (gegenwärtigung
), which designates consciousness of perception, from re-presentation (vergegenwärtigung
), which encompasses memory, expectation, imagination (phantasy), and image consciousness.1
This last category includes aesthetic experiences of a mimetic and predominantly visual kind such as painting, sculpture, photography, and theatre, but also applies to duplicative images such as waxen figures and mirror images. In keeping with his desire to subject consciousness to logical thinking, Husserl attempts to discern certain attributes that pertain to these various modes of consciousness. Perception stands as a default or background mode; it persists and looms behind other modes and bears several essential markers. Ordinary perceptual consciousness finds its objects to be present “in
), factually existing or actual, and, when not actively in doubt, in a mode of belief (Husserl, Phantasy
88, 109, 214, 601).
Husserl believes that the essential features of perceptual consciousness are necessary, but not sufficient or exclusive to it. Both remembered and expected objects, for example, appear actual and are invested with belief, though not presently. Pure fantasy on the other hand, however lively, is consciousness of objects that are neither present, nor actual, nor believed in; fantasy objects are given “as if” actual (Husserl, Phantasy
345). Nonetheless, Husserl in many places considers memory, expectation, and fantasy together under a single heading distinct from “image consciousness.” All are considered reproductive, or inwardly generated, re-presentation; they have no immediate perceptual ground and are thought up with the aid of reproduced impressions (Husserl, Phantasy
But this does not mean that fantasy is walled off from image consciousness. Husserl both distinguishes between fantasy on the one hand and memory and expectation on the other, and associates fantasy with the way we experience representational images. In a 1918 text, Husserl claims that memory amounts to a form of reproduction that is given “as it were,” as opposed to fantasy, which is given “as if” (Husserl, Phantasy
606). Memory is constituted as a “quasi-actual,” “unmodified reproduction” unlike fantasy, which is given as non-actual. The “as-if” of fantasy, furthermore, prevails also in our experience of art including theatrical performance. Husserl distinguishes between “reproduced fantasy,” which is purely imagined, and “perceptual fantasy,” which is prompted by the perception of art’s physical stratum. Pure fantasy thus is classed as a “reproductive re-presentation,” while the imaginative processes that produce it are also apparently available for image consciousness (Husserl, Phantasy
In contrast with memory, expectation, and pure fantasy, image consciousness has a basis in something actually perceived, like a photograph or stage image. Such objects provoke “perceptual re-presentation,” or “pictorial exhibiting” because they have an actual, in-person, perceptual ground (Husserl, Phantasy
565). Images of this sort instigate a sort of conscious experience unto themselves. Husserl explains image consciousness as the interaction of three sorts of objects: a physical image
, a representing image object
, and a represented image subject
. Physical images are real things with material existence in the world. They are made up of canvas, paper, stone, pigment, bodies, etc., but support appearances different from themselves (Husserl, Phantasy
xlv, 20, 49, 118, 646). In these physical substrates, image objects are seen. These ideal, non-actual “figments” or “semblances” are neither actual in the manner of artistic materials like paint, nor in the manner of whatever image subject to which they might refer. Yet image objects are the only things that are genuinely present in image consciousness. Husserl explains that in the example of an engraving, the image object prevails in the mode of image consciousness because it “uses up” the “apprehension contents” supplied by the paper and lines belonging to the physical object
xlv–xlvii, 49). Image objects, finally, point toward an image subject that is meant only and does not really appear. Image subjects in Husserl’s view may be real entities, such as the subjects of portraits, or they may refer to things in an “illusory world” like those generated by purely fictional plays (Husserl, Phantasy
617). We will see that the nature of what theatre in particular presents as its subjects evidently led Husserl to revise his opinion of the representational structure of image consciousness in general.
As this schema suggests, image consciousness embraces, and in fact arises from the multiple conflicts that these three sorts of objects produce (Husserl, Phantasy xlvii–xlviii). A “little figure in bronze” presents the figure of a non-present human being, but the conspicuous color and texture of sculptural media conflict with the image object it supports. Tension also arises between the distinct space in which an image object is ensconced and the space of the abiding perceived reality around it. Photographs, for example, generate “a conflict of the image space with actual space” outside their border (Husserl, Phantasy 581). A third sort of conflict appears: variances between image objects and the real subjects to which they refer. These conflicts are not clashes between completely opposed perceptions—as in the case of a mirage —where the conflict must be settled on one side or another. “Conflict belongs to the essence of a perceptual image” (Husserl, Phantasy 588). Such images do not need to overthrow the perceived reality around them, but merely contest ordinary perception so long as the viewer holds the image object in view.
While this tripartite scheme prevails in much of Husserl’s thinking about images, his views on the last sort of conflict—those arising between image objects and the actual things to which they refer—evolved over the course of time. He at first ascribed a depictive function to all fine arts; all art images referred toward non-present but actual things. By 1918 he had reversed this view. As we will see, this revision in his theory of imaging may have arisen specifically from Husserl’s investigations into theatre.
THE FIRST PHENOMENOLOGY OF THEATRE
Husserl did not address theatre systematically as part of a work of dramatic theory or a treatise on fine arts. He considered it sporadically in the course of research into categories of re-presentation, especially image consciousness. Theatre helped him think through the ways that memory, expectation, and fantasy—both pure and rooted in perceptible images—come about. While this approach has deprived us of a holistic early phenomenology of theatre, it allows us both to discern what Husserl believed set theatre apart from other variants of image consciousness, and to elicit some of the broader implications that the case of theatre posed for his thought. Theatre comes to bear in Husserl’s thinking mainly around two issues. First, how is our
consciousness of the physical image as an objective existing thing essentially distinct from our apprehension of the image object that it supports? Second, what essentially is the relationship between these two interrelated and simultaneous sorts of appearance?
Husserl’s use of theatrical examples in these investigations suggests that he ascribes three distinct features to the stage that are absent or less evident in other arts: theatre space bears a high degree of resemblance to and contiguity with space ordinarily perceived; theatre synthesizes different sorts of perception into a unified manifold in a more expansive way than other arts; theatre, finally, is overtly non-depictive—it does not necessarily refer to anything outside of itself. Thus because it more closely resembles the ordinary perception of things in the world, theatre serves as a limit case, an instance in which only essential points of conflict separate image consciousness from everyday experience.
Husserl contends that our experience of artistic images subsists in intuitions that “quarrel” with reality in numerous ways, but that do not cause us to fall into illusion (Phantasy 582). The primary sort of discord is spatial. Image space “somewhere borders on the real space,” and the “unseen parts” of image space conflict “with parts of the space of actual experience” (Husserl, Phantasy 610–11). Discussing the limits of “image intuition” in 1912, Husserl examines a series of objects that assume progressively more congruity with ordinarily perceived space. Photographs bear spatiality that is “approximate, imperfect,” and plainly anomalous with respect to “ocular-motor unity” and dynamic orientation that we experience in ordinary spatial consciousness (Husserl, Phantasy 581). Photographic image space and actual space therefore vie openly with each other; “the one ousts the other from intuition” (Husserl, Phantasy 581). Sculptures present a more faithful facsimile of ordinary space, but not without prompting their own acute conflicts. Husserl notes that a white plaster bust impedes his ability to see the “image head” without effort. “I cannot hold on to the space as actually seen and color [the bust] differently” (Husserl, Phantasy 582). The scale of even uncannily mimetic sculptures can also engender further potential spatial incongruities (Husserl, Phantasy 582).
Theatre, however, achieves a closer analogy between aesthetic and ordinary spaces: “The space of the stage, with its sets, and so on, analogizes actual space ...” (Husserl, Phantasy
584). The effect of this uniquely natural spatiality is felt not only in a close resemblance between the spaces proper to theatre’s physical images and image objects, but also in the harmony between these spaces and the actually perceived space beyond the theatrical frame. Theatre is unique also in that it deploys an “enveloping pictoriality,” a field that surrounds individual performers and objects, sustaining the credibility of the representation (Husserl, Phantasy
585). While theatre space’s boundaries, unlike those of painting or photography, are not sharply delineated by virtue of the medium itself, they nonetheless have an indistinct outer limit. Theatre is “not a panorama picture;” its border
is partly articulated by theatre architecture (Husserl, Phantasy
585). Husserl refers once to the “nexus of further experiential realities,”—that is, the reality that stage cons...