The Un-reality of Psychological Realism
Last week I saw a production of Über Leben at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. As I’ve already written, the DT is the go-to venue for elegant psychological realism crafted by fine actors. In this play, the director had decided to stage the first hour-long act with all of the characters onstage. I was struck, observing this menagerie of human behaviour, by just how artificial the effect was. Like ADHD kids, the actors played with necklaces, scratched little areas of wall, trembled, shivered, gazed at their feet, tapped their fingers, brushed their clothing, picked their facial hair, gazed into the distance, and rarely looked at one another - a hyper-active score of behavioural tics which, especially in the minimal abstract setting of the design, felt like gazing at performing monkeys in a zoo: Trained to imitate the outward behaviour and appearance of their human audience, but grossly out of proportion and totally artificial.
So much energy was exerted on depicting the emotional and psychological track running through the characters head that this approach became suddenly revealed to me as totally fake and dishonest. I’m writing about Thomas Ostermeier, a German theatre director who runs the Schaubühne, and this production made his thoughts on ‘psychological realism’ as the enemy of theatre particularly resonant for me.
Ostermeier imagine’s the author’s starting point in terms of beginning with the changes that occur in a character - ‘each character starts at a certain point in the play and ends up at a completely different point, that’s what I should experience in the theatre’. Thus he conceptualises his role as analogous to that of the author - to make this experience accessible for an audience through performance. He believes that the route to this experience for an audience gets lost in the psychological theatre, where actors ‘are constantly moved by psychology, they tremble and suffer, cry eccentrically and excessively - these are the cliches of psychology, cliches of theatre’. The audience’s experience of the journey of the characters can only occur ‘if the way the character thinks, feels and is remains open’. So, Ostermeier writes:
“I say to the actor, ‘you think, please, about yellow frogs, and not about having to manufacture an emotional condition.” (Thomas Ostermeier, quoted in Geburg Treusch-Dieter, ‘Formal Das Alltägliche Betonen’, Der Freitag, 31 Oct 2003)
In this regard Ostermeier finds an unlikely ally in the pop-culture philosopher Slavoj Zizek, marinated in Freud and Hegel. In the usual way in which everything you’re reading or watching starts to find curious relationships with what you’re writing, I got to a paragraph last night of his book First as Tragedy, Then as Farce where Zizek reminds us that the first lesson of psychoanalysis is that ‘the “richness of inner life” is fundamentally fake: it is a screen, a false distance, whose function is, as it were, to save my appearance, to render palpable (accessible to my imaginary narcissism) my true social-symbolic identity’. Zizek criticises the ‘humanizing’ approach of much literature and culture especially when it comes to characterising those who have carried out despicable actions (i.e looking for the thing that ‘explains’ them - he had a bad mother…etc.). Such ‘humanizing’ allows us to elevate our oh-so-clever selves to a position of understanding what motivates others, instead of understanding the fact that ‘stories we tell ourselves about ourselves serve to obfuscate the true ethical dimension of our acts’. (Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 2009, p. 40.)
Conceiving of the approach of the psychologically realistic theatre as focusing on ‘the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves’ at the expense of the ‘acts’ that characters perform is a helpful way of thinking about how performance that aims at such ‘realism’ often smacks of artificiality. It is also a helpful way of conceiving of Brecht’s distance between the actor and the character, and his strategy of highlighting the material actions of characters as opposed to showcasing the nuance and multi-dimensionality of psychological acting. Fascinatingly, in another echo, Zizek points us towards a contemporary German playwright, Elfriede Jelinek, who conceives of the failure of psychological realism in the same way:
‘Characters on stage should be flat, like clothes in a fashion show: what you get should be no more than what you see. Psychological realism is repulsive, because it allows us to escape unpalatable reality by taking shelter in the ‘luxuriousness’ of personality, losing ourselves in the depth of individual character. The writer’s task is to block this manoeuvre, to chase us off to a point from which we can view the horror with a dispassionate eye.’ (Elfriede Jelinek, quoted in Nicholas Spice, “Up from the Cellar,” London Review of Books, June 5 2008 p. 6.)
Actors in Ostermeier’s theatre never get lost in ‘the depth of individual character’. The distance between the actor and the character; the ‘dispassionate eye’ of the director who doesn’t care if his actors think about ‘yellow frogs’ instead of generating emotion whilst performing; the difference from the psychological theatre whose ultimate objective is fusion of actor and role [but whose process makes the fatal error that the ‘story we tell about ourselves’ is the truth, and so becomes fake - isn’t it pure folly, an act of hubris, to imagine that we understand and can explain away people’s actions by telling the story of their “motivation”?]; all these can sometimes make Ostermeier’s work ‘flat’ - when the actors aren’t good enough.
However, when it works, when playful performers fill his form, his behavioural score, [and after all, aren’t we always performing, playing a game of extraordinary complexity whose rules we can barely scratch the surface of] his approach can result in work of startling clarity and, ironically, more ‘reality’, more ‘truth’ than even the most exquisite cliches of psychological realism. At its best, it makes you think, instead of congratulating yourself for mastering a rather shallow understanding who we are.