Althusser on Theatre

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Althusser on Theatre Author(s): Mohammad Kowsar Source: Theatre Journal, Vol. 35, No. 4, Ideology & Theatre (Dec., 1983), pp. 461-474 Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: Accessed: 02/07/2009 06:38Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the publisher regarding any further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit organization founded in 1995 to build trusted digital archives for scholarship. We work with the scholarly community to preserve their work and the materials they rely upon, and to build a common research platform that promotes the discovery and use of these resources. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

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Althusser on TheatreMohammad Kowsar The student of political philosophy who reads Louis Althusser's For Marx with the intention of gaining insight into Marxist thought as it pertains to epistemological disquisitions is liable to be initially perplexed by a chapter entitled "Piccolo Teatro' Bertolazzi and Brecht. Notes on a Materialist Theatre.'2 Althusser had originally prepared this essay (hereafter PT) in response to a cultural event (the presentation of Giorgio Strehler's production of Carlo Bertolazzi's El Nost Milan at Theatre des Nations in July, 1962).2 Attentive inspection of the essay shows that its place in the book is quite secure, an indication that the search for a materialist theatre is in no way at odds with the theoretical and political topics examined throughout the volume. The premises discussed by Althusser constitute a rare example of Marxist criticism practiced upon a theatrical performance by a major philosopher. A formal simplicity governs the design of the essay: it opens with a brief introduction, followed in ordered sequence by plot synopsis (of the play as staged), extended discussion of Strehler's achievements as interpreter of the text, and a culminating argument in support of Bertold Brecht's pivotal role in Marxist theatre practice. Beneath the classically inductive method of persuasion employed by Althusser there is hidden a highly complex point of view, so rich and detailed in the sum of its original observations, that it becomes the objective of my treatise to expose those features, even as I introduce an aesthetically visionary piece of theatre criticism.

Mohammad Assistant at teaches at drama CityCollege Kowsar, formerly University, currently Professor Tehran His haveappeared Theatre and TJ. in of San Francisco. reviews

1 LouisAlthusser,Pour Marx (Paris:Maspero,1965). Appearingin Englishas ForMarx, trans.Ben Brewster (New York:Pantheon,1969), pp. 129-151. 2 See CarloBertolazzi, Nost Milane altrecommedie, FolcoPortinari El ed. (Torino: Einaudi, 1971).Strehlerhad prepared originalversionof ElNost Milanfor the PiccoloTeatro Milanin 1956. By elimithe of secondact (the sceneof the lotterygame),Strehler compressed had the natingthe settingof Bertolazzi's four-actplay into threeacts. The revivalof El Nost Milanin 1961-1962,like the originalproduction was own text. dialect,the languageof Bertolazzi's playedin the Bergamesque




TI, December1983

It would be misleading from the outset to present Althusser's essay as an Marxist review, only because the basic tenets held by this philosopher "exemplary" have occasioned great controversy among traditional Marxists. The putative Althusserian heresy centers on his theory which assumes the Marxist oeuvre to be a progressive preparation for the late Mature Works (written after 1857) where Marx dissociates himself most completely from Hegel: to understand Marx is to follow in his footsteps and to describe, think out and determine the transition process from Hegelian influences to full-fledged materialism-acknowledging that the end point is the inevitable result of the break from the earlier assumptions, as is the starting point pregnant with the possibilities of the final maturation. Critics claim that reading Althusser is to experience a mad pursuit so vigilant that he seems to suggest that even Marx's Capital is in danger of being appropriated by bourgeois sensibility as a form of ideological fetishism. Whether such criticism is valid or not, there can be no doubt that Althusser rigorously questions all those areas (including the Mature Works) where ideological aberration may be manifest. The chief merit of the Piccolo Teatro essay is in its demonstrative aspect: philosophical suppositions are tested against a concrete occurrence, which in this case happens to be a cultural event. In studying the significance of Strehler'sproduction (the cultural occasion in question), the viability of Althusser's brand of Marxism is put to practical test. In his introductory paragraphAlthusser calls Strehler'sproduction "extraordinary," because it avoids "tired, anachronistic entertainment" in favor of confronting its audiences (many of whom attended despite the discouraging reviews of the Parisian critics who failed to understand the significance of the artistic event) with "the heart" of the problems apparent in modern dramaturgy (PT, p. 131). Althusser is not yet ready to enter a polemical argument, nor is he willing to define his terms. But we might want to remember that from an orthodox Marxist point of view a theatrical event becomes "extraordinary" only in context of specific historical developments in the life of culture converging to allow it to enjoy a privileged status. By the same token, the act of dealing with the "heart"of a problem entails the artistic practitioner's profound knowledge of his moment in history, an understanding of the unresolved social and cultural contradictions that provide the backdrop for which the artistic creation itself helps to serve as antidote and also a presentation of a theoretical frame of reference (albeit tentative and subject to change) for future practice. Finally the traditionalist would abjure entertainment in favor of a theatrical presentation that can speak to the chief critical issues of an epoch; Althusser's initial silence is to be interpreted as a refusal to voice his opinions from such a platform. Instead Althusser chooses to present a leisurely paced summary of the events of the play as he has witnessed them in Strehler's production. Althusser's description is a testament to an alert viewing practice as he vividly re-stages for us what he observes and experiences as spectator. Little digressions, interpretive in nature, qualify the narration. The first act "set in the Milan Tivoli . . . a cheap, povertystricken fun-fair in the thick fog of an evening" is "an Italy unlike the Italy of our myths" (PT, p. 131). Various characters identified as "unemployed, artisans, semibeggars, girls on the look-out, old men and women on the watch for the odd halfpenny . . . are a sub-proletariat passing the time as best they can . . . waiting for




something of some sort to happen in their lives, in which nothing happens. They wait" (PT, pp. 131-132). Time in which nothing happens, the squandered life of the disinherited is what Althusser observes throughout the major portion of the first act. But at the very end of the first act a sudden dramatic intrigue is introduced, "a'story' is sketched out, the image of a destiny" (PT, p. 132). This is the tale of Nina, her love for a doomed circus performer, the carnal desire retained for her by the neighborhood bully, Togasso, and the apprehension caused in an old father, Peppone, who suspects, in all of this, a compromise of honor. The situation is ripe for tragedy, but as Althusser notes, the second act refuses to develop the intrigue introduced so belatedly in the first act. Instead a soup kitchen is presented peopled with the "same poverty and unemployment, the flotsam of the past, the tragedies and comedies of the present: small craftsmen, beggars, a cabman .... a few workers who are building a factory, in sharp contrast with their lumpenproletarian surroundings.. ."(PT, p. 132). Again the static nature of the proceedings is emphasized: "Yes,the day of the second act is indeed the truth of the night of the first: these people have no more history in their lives than they had in their dreams .... they eat and wait. A life in which nothing happens" (PT, p. 132). Althusser pinpoints the social and political movement in Italian life: this is the Italy of the 1890s: two decades have passed since the reunification of the Risorgimento and the House of Savoy rules, as does the Pope in Rome-but the ideals of a unified nation have not been translated into a just and equitable existence for the majority of the people. Nina's story does not make a reappearance until the end of the second act. In the meantime the circus-performer has died and Nina finds herself acceding to the demands of Togasso. Devastated by Togasso's hold over his daughter, Peppone gets involved in a drunken brawl and kills the man responsible for his daughter's degradation. The third act takes place in the women's night shelter. As various anonymous women ma