“Where the influence of civil laws ends that of the stage begins. Where venality and corruption blind and bias justice and judgment, and intimidation perverts its ends, the stage seizes the sword and scales and pronounces a terrible verdict on vice. The fields of fancy and of history are open to the stage; great criminals of the past live over again in the drama, and thus benefit an indignant posterity. They pass before us as empty shadows of their age, and we heap curses on their memory while we enjoy on the stage the very horror of their crimes. When morality is no more taught, religion no longer received, or laws exist, Medea would still terrify us with her infanticide. The sight of Lady Macbeth, while it makes us shudder, will also make us rejoice in a good conscience, when we see her, the sleep-walker, washing her hands and seeking to destroy the awful smell of murder. Sight is always more powerful to man than description; hence the stage acts more powerfully than morality or law.”
— Friedrich Schiller, The Stage as Moral Institution
The popularity and role of the theater in previous centuries is something that’s difficult for modern readers to fathom, as the institution is no longer for us what it once was, and the experiences of theater-goers 300 years ago is not one most of us have any contemporary reference point to analogize to. What was even preformed on the stage in the 18th century, what was popular? Readers are generally even less familiar with the theater of the 18th century than they are with its sometimes obscure novels. Though performances of Shakespeare are commonplace, what of other noteworthy plays from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries? The English stage of the 18th century featured plays like Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, Addison’s Cato, and John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, but how many of us have ever heard of those? This is a world entirely alien to the modern reader, who will listen incredulously to tales of the time, of actors and musicians being physically disciplined by their masters for mistakes, of actresses being abducted off stage by their admirers, of on-stage murders and explosive riots over increased ticket prices.
The theater was not only a source of entertainment, but also one of radical political education. Actors were held in low esteem by society, at the very bottom of its hierarchy, in the same rank as servants and slaves. Off the stage the actor or actress was damned, quite literally, as was the case of Adrienne Lecouvreur, a popular actress Voltaire famously eulogized after she was denied a Christian burial due to her infamous occupation. On the stage, however, the actor performed for the Public, and it is perhaps only in the theater where there was a real sense that direct communication with this entity was possible. Novel reading was private, and functioned on an individual level, as conversation between reader and writer. Of course these individuals were members of the Public, of Society, but because novels only spoke to one person at a time, the communication between the novelist and the Public was of a much more indirect variety than it was perceived to be on the stage.
When we are anonymous, in a large group of people, and something exciting is going on, we can sometimes observe, under the right circumstances, a kind of hive intelligence at work, a reinforcement of our responses by the other participants that generates behavior that the individual, by themselves, would likely not engage in were it not for the crowd dynamic at work. Stand-up comedians are one of the many beneficiaries of this phenomena, as their crowds induce themselves to laugh perhaps more than the jokes warrant. When Darth Vader appears on screen in the latest in the never-ending Star Wars series, the members of the audience cheer and applaud, and it takes a special (if queer) energy to arouse that kind of reaction in a group of adult men and women. We have all experienced this at some time or another, when we slip into the crowd and wrap ourselves in its collective disguise and mimic and prime the reactions of the others who’ve joined us, whether it be at a comedy club or a mass protest.
The theater, during the early Modern era, was a cage constructed to contain the Public. It was a conjuring ground where the creature was summoned and only within the confines of the performance was it given free rein to vent its terrible power. Audiences in the major theaters of London, Drury Lane and Convent Garden, frequently broke out into riots over the content of plays and the interior of Drury Lane required regular renovations due to the damage generated by worked up audiences. Needless to say, though movie theaters today may somewhat approximate the experience, they do not come close to replicating its intensity and unpredictability, where audience members sat on stage and plays and music provided a night of entertainment and social catharsis for sometimes unstable crowds.
This creature, as I have previously discussed, was not just a byproduct or accident of other effects, but the deliberate creation of the early Modern period. It was nurtured and incubated and the theater was engineered to allow it to discover and express its power and capabilities. The temptation of the stage, then, naturally became irresistible to poets and actors alike, as there they could treat directly with the creature called Society. For some this was a source of vanity. Unhappy being themselves, some actors were eager to escape their sense of social insignificance, by pretending to be others and appearing in a favorable light directly before Society in its most concentrated form. In their real lives, where society surrounds us only a dissipated and uncertain force, their condition was one of anonymity and misery. On the stage this class of actor hoped to show society that they have been placed where they are by mistake, as if to demonstrate for Society what a hero they would make had they been given the opportunity.
This attitude, I believe, is nicely illustrated by Moritz in the following passage of his novel Anton Reiser, which chronicles the attempts of a nervous and socially insecure young student to become an actor on the revolutionary stage of the late 18th century theater:
“To attain fame and applause had always been [Reiser’s] supreme desire; — but the applause was not to be too remote — he wanted to have it immediately, and, in keeping with the natural inclination to sloth, would have liked to reap without sowing. — And thus, of course, it was the theatre that appealed most strongly to his ambition. — Nowhere else could he expect such immediate applause as here. — When he saw Brockmann or Reinike walking along the street, he always regarded them with a kind of awe, and what could he desire more strongly than to exist in other people’s heads, as these actors existed in his head. — To pass in turn through all the devastating emotions of fury, revenge, magnanimity, as these people did before a larger number of people than are ever normally assembled, and to communicate with the spectator’s ever nerve, as it were — this struck him as the liveliest way of affecting other people that could be found anywhere in the world.”
There was another, perhaps more powerful attraction that the theater offered to the playwright or actor however, that of political education. It was this possibility, of using the stage to educate Society in a direct manner, that most interested philosophers and intellectuals like Schiller in the theater, not necessarily as an avenue to fame, but more importantly as a political and moral institution. If here Society was called forth by esoteric aesthetic ritual, as a creature and force, was that not an opportunity to also educate the beast? to teach it the values worked out in our philosophies so that, in its dissipated everyday state, it functions in a way that is more just or humane or enlightened? Whether or not the theater is really capable of making this transaction of values into Society possible Goethe himself was skeptical. At the end of his Meister Wilhelm gives up his own theatrical mission in favor of social responsibility and a focus, not on Society in the broadest sense, but on society as a limited community of individuals striving quietly for shared goals. Still though, that the theater tempted more than one playwright with the promise of educating the Public cannot be denied.
Yesterday an article appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in which I was quoted. Written by Rosie Gray it chronicles her attempts to map the Neoreactionary movement following the recent revelation (or rumor) that Dark Enlightenment blogger Mencius Moldbug is in direct communication with the White House. Gray’s investigation has an air of noirish parody to it. She is lead through a maze of obscure and inaccessible personalities who defy her attempts to repurpose them as characters within her own investigative journalistic narrative. Her efforts to trap these personalities within her own story of inquiry and exposure defines modern journalism as a genre, it is a narrative playbook popularized by books and movies like All the President’s Men and other similar conspiratorial yarns of political corruption and evil. Bannon, the President’s top political strategist, is to be exposed, and in so doing Gray means to implicate Trump directly in his associations with ‘extreme’ political commentators and theorists. “Follow the influence,” a voice whispers internally.
The narrative structure Gray attempts to construct around the subjects of her article is, unfortunately, one the network she means to penetrate has been designed to exploit. The story-creating process the journalist uses to construct truth is subverted and turned against the attacker, whose own attempt to develop a narrative becomes the foundation of a more effective counter-narrative spun by the same group that was to be exposed. Typically the journalist who employs this investigative narratization proceeds up the ladder as it were, attacking the less defended, but less knowledgeable members at the bottom in order to implicate those higher up in the chain, nearer to the source of power, until, finally, even the President himself is exposed to scrutiny over what has been going on at the levels below him. These lower ranking members of the conspiracy are generally lawyers, political fundraisers, party insiders and consultants, and using them, it is usually possible to weave a narrative thread of corruption through the entire structure. Gray, for all her pluck, finds herself though dealing not with Washington insiders, but with fascist bodybuilders and anime monarchists, so there is no plausible narrative that can be constructed other than one which unintentionally makes its author appear foolish.
I spoke to Gray, after she followed me on Twitter, and though she was perfectly civil, that she was more interested in closing the loop of her own predetermined story than understanding what she was reporting on was clear. The dialogue on her end was sparse, she encouraged me to continue talking, but her responses were mostly monosyllabic and unengaging. Make no mistake, I do not wish to be overly harsh, as I do believe she deserves credit for her content and her pluck, and she seemed to me a nice enough person. I only wish to draw attention to this new dynamic, and how, when the Altright is treated this way, it confounds attempts to force it into conventional patterns of inquiry and investigative narrative.
Though the Altright is viewed primarily as a political movement, a concrete ideology organizing an array of extreme political positions on the issues of our time, I believe that understanding it is a cultural phenomena, rather than a purely political one, can be an equally valuable way of conceptualizing it. It is here that the journos stumble, as this goes directly to what newspapers and magazines have struggled to grasp in the 21st century: the role of social media in the future of mass communication.
We lack a direct reference point today for understanding the power and allure of the theater of the 18th century, but I believe social media to be a fair approximation. Here the raucous energy of the theater is recreated before our eyes. Enterprising personalities adopt complex characters to win fame and earn a living. Moralists gather to instruct the digital Public in the appropriate use of its power. Reputations are ruined. Participants go mad. Controversies abound. It is not in the theater today you’ll find the 21st century Public, but in comment sections and Twitter threads where they collectively play out the drama of modern life and laugh and cry together to the point of hysteria. As the generation of Goethe and Mortiz flocked to the theater to parade themselves before the public, anons on Twitter today set themselves as tragic heroes of the great war of content and culture. These same people too know how the Public likes to jeer and riot, and are keen to exploit the ways in which their audience has been primed to react to controversial postures.
The actor on the social media stage confronts the Public in the internet age in a more immediate way than is possible with any other form of existing media. Not just the public either, as an audience of individuals, but the Public, as an emergent entity, one captured within the encrypted walls that programmers construct around this new digital space. It is not difficult then to comprehend the dilemma of the journalist, who finds that the public they have access to is being gradually superseded and subsumed by a powerful new expression of social consciousness happening online. They no longer write the narrative, but perform a script written in tweets and blogposts. They no longer expose the shadow of corruption, but are entangled as characters in an absurd drama they are unable to comprehend or describe. As to the question of whether or not it is possible to tame this new public, I share Goethe’s skepticism, but that it is an entertainment not to be missed cannot be denied by any man or woman of taste.