Conference keynote speech

Christopher Balme*



The theme of the symposium, “Does the critic have a body,” poses a question that is so obvious it is seldom asked, and, therefore, all the more pressing in its actuality; because the more interesting and controversial reply would be “no.” As a rule, the theatre critic is a disembodied being, whose legitimation lies in his or her existence via the mediated word. The critic communicates with the non-critics via the printed, or, on occasion, the spoken word, in the case of radio reviews; and the latter are very often not spoken by the author but by professional speakers or actors. Theatre criticism is, in other words, largely a disembodied business, and it is in this state of decorporealised communication that the critic has found his or her place in the institution of theatre, and, more particularly, in the theatrical public sphere.

The critic is, however, a crucial figure in the theatrical public sphere, that wider network of communication that both interrogates and sustains theatre beyond the actual here and now of the theatrical event. Indeed, the critic is the crucial link between the performance event and the wider theatrical public sphere of readers and potential audiences, reporting on the performance not only in terms of its value but also, occasionally, in its actual eventness, when the critic becomes a reporter of things witnessed, an ethnographer of the performance.

Because I am not a theatre critic, I cannot speak with authority on the embodied experience of writing theatre criticism. But, as a theatre scholar, I do engage in performance analysis, which some say is the very core of our discipline; the activity that distinguishes theatre scholars from other disciplines in the humanities. Others might argue that performance analysis is just theatre criticism with footnotes, written under decidedly less stringent temporal constraints.

I wish to discuss the embodied practice of the critic from a particular vantage point, which I will define as an ethical question: how should the critic position him or herself when confronted by highly transgressive performances that clearly demand a response beyond an aesthetic judgement? What is the critical position when confronted with blasphemy or racism or even extreme violence? This is theatre criticism in extremis. Put another way: when or under what conditions should the critic leave the auditorium? I do not mean here the old question of boredom or theatre criticism written without having actually seen the performance. I mean an ethical response to performances that are so shocking and transgressive that they require a reaction that goes beyond normal analytical and judgmental prose. This does not happen very often, especially not in the context of German theatre that I am accustomed to and where the professional theatre critics have extremely high tolerance thresholds to such material. Their tolerance thresholds to performances they deem derivative, on the other hand, are extremely low. The representational mechanisms of theatre mean that, as a semiotic machine, it recycles signs very quickly, so that the transgression of yesterday quickly becomes the derivative norm of the today. To cite one critic from the example I will discuss later: “the spectator today has seen it all: pissing, punching, penetrating, in groups, or with animals, come on” (Christiane Lutz, SZ, 31st of May 2015).

If the spectator has seen it all, the professional theatre critic has seen it at least three times, so that for a performance to arouse any kind of corporeal reaction it must discover some taboo or form of representation that escapes the semiotic machine of doubled signs which renders them thereby potentially harmless.

Examples of Transgressive Performances

In the following I want to discuss three performances and the critical response to them. Each can be considered a “scandal” in its own way, although the category of the “scandalous” is not what concerns me here. I am more interested in the border between aesthetics, ethics and politics, and the part played by professional theatre critics in these controversies. I want to stress this last point because controversies and scandals by definition spill out of the auditorium and enter the wider public sphere where they tend to take on a life of their own. It is the theatre critic, however, who is often the conduit and mediator for the scandal; the critic becomes the line of communication between the hermetic space of the auditorium and the public sphere. Two of these examples are reasonably well known. One, the most recent, is not, but it is arguably the most important for the current question, because it poses most radically the question of the ethical responsibility of the critic. These examples are: Hans Neuenfels’s production of Idomeneo, which was cancelled by the artistic director of the Deutsche Oper, in Berlin, in 2006, because of putative terrorist threats and then rescheduled under political pressure; Romeo Castellucci’s On the Concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God, which caused violent protests in France and Italy; and a recent production at the Residenztheater in Munich, Balkan macht frei, by the Bosnian-Croatian director Oliver Frljić.

Balkan macht frei. Photo Konrad Fersterer.
Balkan macht frei. Photo Konrad Fersterer.

Two of these productions belong to the special category of hyperrealistic performances. What do I mean by hyperrealism? It is a somewhat unstable concept but one that is gaining currency especially in theatre criticism. The term means somewhat different things in different art forms: in the visual arts it is linked to photo realism, in cinema and television to high definition digital media.[1] In the theatre, it is difficult to disambiguate from realism or naturalism. However, if we understand realism as a set of conventionalized aesthetic rules linking representation and the lifeworld of the recipient—in shorthand the willing suspension of disbelief—hyperrealism discards or annuls this contract, destabilizes the conventions so that the spectator is unsure what the aesthetic frame is. It is this process of unsettling the theatrical frame that characterizes the theatrical version of hyperrealism and which poses difficulties for theatre critics and criticism.

Theatre Criticism and the Public Sphere

Today theatrical criticism as practised in newspapers and periodicals is the sphere of professional commentary in mainstream media, which ranges from laconic recommendations to in-depth aesthetic analysis. Although all media provide some form of theatre criticism, newspaper journalism remains the main forum for the theatrical public sphere, even though its relevance may be dwindling in the light of digital media. If theatre criticism’s central function is simply recommendation: to see or not to see, or in Peter Brook’s phrase, “hounding out incompetence” (35), then the arts pages, the feuilleton, oscillate between tipster and professional grump, neither of which resonate much beyond the specialist circle. It is my contention that the theatrical public sphere has become a largely autonomous, even hermetic domain, largely aloof from the public sphere of the wider community and that theatre criticism is complicit in this process of self-isolation.[2]

First Example: Idomeneo

My first example is the scandal that erupted, in September 2006, over the decision of the Deutsche Oper, in Berlin, to ban performances of Mozart’s Idomeneo, in the production by Hans Neuenfels. On 26 September, the artistic director of the Deutsche Oper, Kirsten Harms, called a press conference and announced that she had cancelled the performances. The next day The New York Times carried the following report on the front page:

A leading German opera house has cancelled performances of a Mozart opera because of security fears stirred by a scene that depicts the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad, prompting a storm of protest here about what many see as the surrender of artistic freedom. The Deutsche Oper Berlin said Tuesday that it had pulled “Idomeneo” from its fall schedule after the police warned of an “incalculable risk” to the performers and the audience. The company’s director, Kirsten Harms, said she regretted the decision but felt she had no choice. She said she was told in August that the police had received an anonymous threat, but she acted only after extensive deliberations. (Dempsey and Landler 2006)

The international press picked up the story, and condemnation of the decision and not the offending scene echoed around the globe. The scene itself was shown repeatedly on television news so that anyone who might likely be offended had the opportunity even without going to the theatre.

To understand the implications of the Idomeneo controversy and its self-censorship we have to accept that what goes on in the privacy of a Western theatre or opera house has largely become an entirely private matter. It is an artistic act conducted between two sets of consenting partners–the performers and the spectators–and is therefore seldom of interest to the wider public sphere. Even when presented with nudity, obscenities or verbal abuse, a German subscription season audience has seen and heard much that is transgressive, even illegal in any other public setting. Doors will, on occasion, be slammed, as enraged and offended spectators leave the auditorium, but these are exceptions to a generally accepted state of tolerance. Just as boys will be boys, so too will artists be artists. Within this special institutional framework of constitutionally safeguarded freedom of expression, theatre, or in this case, opera criticism plays a key role.

The Idomeneo scandal of 2006 begins, in fact, three years earlier, when the opera, directed by Hans Neuenfels, premiered at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin in March of that year. The critical reaction after the premiere was very typical of a production by Neuenfels., who has built a career by antagonizing staid opera goers with his bold revisionings of the operatic canon. In his production of Idomeneo, he created an epilogue in which the eponymous title figure places the decapitated heads of the major prophets of world religion—Poseidon, Christ, Buddha and Mohammed—on chairs.

With his alternative ending, Neuenfels created a visual metaphor, a typical example of German director’s theatre, which is predicated on the use of “bold” images or figural interaction, often with no clear intrinsic motivation in the work itself; such metaphors need to be understood rather as directorial and dramaturgical meta-commentaries designed to highlight the contemporary relevance of a classical work. The critical reaction in 2003 illustrates the efficacy of metaphor of this kind in that there is no real consensus about what it meant. Safely located in the hermetic theatrical public sphere of opera, Claus Spahn, opera critic for the weekly Die Zeit, read the image as a commentary on liberation and emancipation of compositional style from the strictures of baroque opera seria into something more authentically Mozartian, which he even glosses in biographical terms. Shortly after the premiere of Idomeneo, Spahn argues, Mozart freed himself from the dependency on the Archbishop of Salzburg and moved to Vienna. Other critics provided different readings, united only in their indifference to the potentially blasphemous content of the image. In a radio review, Dieter David Scholz terms the decapitation scene “blatantly obvious, superimposed theatrical thunder“ (2003). Eleanore Büning in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung read the message of the scene in terms of the “triumph of bourgeois subjectivity over dead gods” (2003).

Although highly disparate, these readings have in common that they are entirely devoid of any sensitivity to the fact that the image of Mohammed’s decapitated head might have religious and political implications outside the mise en scène and the opera house. We are, after all, in the black box of opera, cocooned, as it were, from the materialities and ideological conflicts of the outside world. After the scandal broke in September 2006, Neuenfels himself glossed his metaphor in more explicitly political terms: “The king opposes the dictatorship of the gods and tries in vain to free himself from idols. The new ending can be read as a statement about the Enlightenment’s critique of religious superstition.”

We can conclude that in 2003, two years after 9/11, in the midst of a bloody insurgency in Iraq, where hostages were routinely decapitated, the severed head of Mohammed (among other prophets) on a major public stage in Berlin, the German capital and city with the largest Muslim population in the country, is read by professional critics as a comment on compositional style or as a further example of dramaturgically unsubstantiated director’s theatre. Only when the scandal broke, when the real public sphere of political commentary and debate erupted, did opera critics grudgingly realize the political import of what they had reviewed three years earlier. The whole question of public blasphemy represented by the scene, a criminal offence under German law, is not mentioned, presumably because the theatre or the opera is not really deemed a public space (although legally it is). From the point of view of critics, it is a bourgeois institution protected by the constitution to do largely as it likes and thus tantamount to a private space of autonomous l’art pour l’art experimentation, where professional critics tend to observe each other more than the issues being debated outside in the public sphere.

Mainstream critics and politicians across the board joined forces to ensure that the performances were rescheduled under massive police protection. The only dissenting voices were from Muslim organisations and one lone blogger, theatre critic Matthias Matussek, who maintained at the time a videoblog on the pages of, Germany’s most widely visited online news site. In keeping with his dislike of German Regietheater, he termed Neuenfels’s justification of the decapitation scene a cheap trick: “In this more serious, sometimes murderous world, which has come uncomfortably close to Western hedonistic society, it does make a difference, whether one ridicules the sacred, blasphemes the sublime” (2006).

Second Example: On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God

Romeo Castellucci, On the concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God. Photo: Klaus Lefebvre.
Romeo Castellucci, On the concept of the Face Regarding the Son of God. Photo: Klaus Lefebvre.

In my second example, I want to look at the theatrical public sphere as a realm of extreme affective arousal. The theatre today, at least in its Western manifestations, is largely an autonomous sphere of aesthetic experience, which only on special occasions finds topics of interest to the larger public sphere. The production On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, created by Italian director Romeo Castellucci led to violent protests in France and Italy, which were coordinated by Catholic groups, who were joined on occasions by right-wing and Islamist groups as well. I shall examine the production and the public protests surrounding it in an effort to understand how the theatrical public sphere functions in a mediatized society.

On the evening of 20 October 2011, nine demonstrators stormed the main stage of the Theatre de la Ville in Paris during the opening night of Castellucci’s On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God. They unrolled a banner with the words “Christianophobia—it’s enough!” A scuffle ensued with the stagehands who tried to clear the stage, until, finally, after twenty minutes, the police were called to remove the demonstrators. Before the performance, another group had tried to prevent spectators from entering the theatre by chaining themselves to the doors, throwing tear gas and stink bombs and distributing pamphlets denouncing the “Christianophobic” performance. In the eyes of the protesters, the production was highly blasphemous and represented a clear assault on the central iconographic image of the Christian faith, Christ himself. Fortuitously, digital cameras were on hand in the auditorium to record the protests, footage of which was promptly posted to a website maintained by one of the protest groups.[3]

The storming of the stage on 20 October was only the beginning of what was to become a ten-day campaign of violent demonstrations resulting in two hundred twenty arrests and a large-scale public debate involving artists and theatre critics, as well as leading church figures, some of whom came out publicly in defence of the theatre, the production and, most importantly, the freedom of expression. Fifteen of those arrested were charged under article 431–1 of the French penal code—“hindering the freedom of expression”—which under French law is a criminal offense carrying a maximum sentence of one year’s imprisonment and/or a fifteen thousand euro fine. In conjunction with violence, this charge can carry up to a three-year prison sentence and a forty-five thousand euro fine.

There is no doubt that the storming of the stage, a vociferous protest in the best French tradition, was accompanied by a high degree of affective arousal. Emotions are strongly culturally determined, complex and liable to recombination and mixing. In this performance, both the visual and olfactorial dimensions of bowel movements and fecal material are displayed in hyperrealistic detail; and religious images are, I would argue, intrinsically, hyperrealistic because they require by definition a different frame on the part of the viewer. The representation of the divine figure elicits, from the believer at least, belief, not suspended disbelief.

Not surprisingly, the critical reaction was divided: Michael Billington in The Guardian remained sceptical and was moved to make bad puns:

I found myself mildly bored rather than morally outraged . . . what makes the show seem perverse rather than profound is the sudden leap from mundane medical realism into apocalyptic iconoclasm. . . . Pitched half-way between domestic drama and a piece of pseudo-religious performance art, it ends up falling, literally, between two stools. (2011)

Blogger Matt Trueman was split between admiration for the first half—the scenes between father and son, between “suffering and sacrifice, nappies and loincloths, sanctity and taboo, Sons and Fathers.” However, he dislikes the overly spectacular iconoclastic symbolism of the second part: “This is performance as billboard. It uses shit less for its connotations and whispered implications than its immediate effects; its strength, its stench and its shock. In that, an overall spirit is revealed: On the Concept of the Face . . . sets out to disarm, where it could have served to fortify” (2011).

From an interpretive point of view, Castellucci seems to be less interested in consciously creating potentially blasphemous images and eliciting affects of anger than exploring in extremis the central theological image of ecce homo in its modern sense of beholding human (rather than divine) suffering and the complex mimetic relationships between God, his son and man. Although God created the first man in his own image (Gen. 1.26), the fourth commandment expressly forbids the manufacture of images and likenesses of all things in heaven, on earth or in the water, a directive Christians, especially Catholics, have studiously ignored to great advantage (Exod. 20.4). The history of iconoclasm tells us that religiously motivated image-making continues to incite extreme reactions. Whether we think of the Protestant iconoclasm of the Reformation, which systematically destroyed church art, or the reactions over the Mohammed caricatures where perceived blasphemy resulted in over one hundred twenty deaths, or the recent destruction of idolatrous monuments by ISIS, we can observe that the perception of blasphemy has always been the tinderbox waiting to be ignited.

Third Example: Balkan macht frei

The third and final performance I will discuss is by the Croatian director Oliver Frljić. Born in Bosnia, Frljić is the artistic director of the Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka. His show, entitled Balkan macht frei, was staged at the Marstall theatre, the black box of the Bavarian State Theatre, in Munich this year. The title is itself a provocation with its reference to the slogan above the concentration camps, “Arbeit macht frei.” Originally invited to create a production dealing with refugees from the Balkans who migrate to Germany in large numbers, in the course of rehearsals, Frljić changed the theme to an extended self-exploratory, some would say self-indulgent, essay on his own activity as a theatre director employed by a major German theatre to “represent” the Balkans for a German audience. He understands the term “Balkans” as a variation on Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” an imagined space with a discursive history onto which the West projects a poisonous cocktail of fears, cliches and expectations. Indeed, the programme contains a long quote from Maria Todorova’s book, Imagining the Balkans (1997), which explicitly invokes Said for her category of “balkanism.”

The performance works on several levels, as it oscillates between the director’s translation of putative expectations placed on him, clichés of high German culture, which are eliminated in a kind of Quentin Tarantino massacre, the Holocaust, and, most provocatively of all, a direct accusation directed at the explicitly interpolated “German” audience and a requirement that they position themselves vis-a-vis the death and dying happening in the Mediterranean as migrants drown in their thousands.

If you read the programme, then the performance begins here because it contains a notification that the director Oliver Frjlić has just been murdered. The notice concludes with the sentence: “The Residenztheater has decided to present the production anyway.” Death notices do not usually contain references to an on-going police investigation: “Information received points to the facebook Group ‘Sack Frjlić and Blazević—For the dignity of the Croatian National Theatre Ivan pl. Zajc.’” Suitably confused and even depressed (such things happen in the Balkans, it is a very violent place after all, just think of what happened to Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindić about whom Frjlić also made a production), the spectator is confronted, at first, with an interrogation between Frjlić, played by Franz Pätzold, and three men in suits, who seem be cultural functionaries of some kind.

The interrogation/interview concerns his motives and, above all, the title of the production, Balkan macht frei. They ask the questions that many in the audience, including the theatre critics are probably asking: Who is this young Yugoslav to think he can come to Germany and tell the Germans about war and genocide and use their own slogan? The scene culminates in salary negotiations:

How much do you want to earn? Pause. We need an amount. And how much did Frank Castorf get here? He’s also an artistic director, although in Berlin. He’s much older. . . . What do you think he earned? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? Fifty thousand? Well if we take half of that, only twenty-five thousand Euros. . . . So? Half of what Castorf got? Is that okay? You do not rehearse as long. And you said your performance will only last an hour. Castorf’s productions last five hours.

In a series of surreal scenes that follows, the interrogators are executed by Franz as representatives of German culture. The first part of the performance culminates in an extended monologue, in the style of Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience, in which Franz hurls abuse at the audience. He praises SS generals, pours scorn on the victims of the Berlin Wall, accuses the audience of being racist, self-satisfied, for enjoying the spectacle of refugees of the Civil War in former Yugoslavia.

The first spectators leave the auditorium. But this is only the beginning. Franz/Frjlić is subjected to, as almost all reviews term it, “real water boarding.” He is tied to a chair with a mask over his face and water is poured into his mouth repeatedly. All reviews report at this stage that some spectators begin to protest audibly. Some leave. Finally, one or two intervene physically and tip out the water, thus rendering the torture impossible. The performance continues.

The scene created a genuine conundrum for the critical community, many of whom were in the audience at the premiere and, no doubt, observed each other as well as the action of stage. All reviews reflect on the dilemma presented by the scene. Is it ethically permissible to perform torture on stage and, secondly, watch it? And, thirdly, what should the critic do?

Of the many reviews I have collected, I would like to select one which, perhaps, best encapsulates this critical dilemma. The headline reads: “Almost a Scandal: The Provocative Premier of Oliver Frjlić’s Balkan macht frei.” The review, by Hannes S. Macher, who is not a full-time professional theatre critic, gives an accurate account of the provocative content of the performance until it reaches the torture scene:

Soon the pain threshold for many spectators has been reached: in a hyperrealistic staging a traumatised victim of the Balkans war is tied to a chair by his three theatre torturers and subjected to the most brutal Guantánamo practices. At this point the theatre critic also gasps for air and takes to his heels. The premiere of this Balkan macht frei tears at your nerves to breaking point, it is an un-play that should never have been performed. Especially as four days before the premiere Oliver Frjlić had been found shot dead in Rijeka. This is what the programme claims.

Another critic continues the account of the performance, which the first critic had interrupted by leaving the theatre during the water boarding scene. She reports that the death notice in the programme is a fake. Her critical judgement of the performance: “his crude non-play deals with the annihilation of the self and the artistic prostitution of being able to provoke in Germany for a director’s fee of twenty-five thousand Euros. It is not good theatre but a political position. Yet no one even booed” (2015).

I have seen the production of this “un-” or “non-play” and have examined around two dozen reviews published immediately after the premiere. While most find the confrontational audience abuse scenes mannered, even boring, and the political provocation somewhat laboured, all are in agreement that the torture scene creates a new quality in theatrical representation which requires positioning both on the part of the audience and the critic, who is of course part of the audience. Some find that the hyperrealistic scene transcends the boundaries of theatrical representation and crosses an ethical demarcation line which requires active resistance. As far as I can see, only the first critic quoted here actually physically left the theatre, the others stayed the course to fulfil their professional critical responsibilities.

Another review pointedly refused to illustrate the production with an image of the waterboarding and chose a less confrontational one, in keeping with the practice of not showing images of ISIS executions or the dead Syrian boy washed up on shore in Turkey.

The act of leaving the theatre provides the topic under discussion of the embodied critic with an additional perspective, and one that was probably not envisaged by the curators of the symposium. The topic is very clearly framed by an understanding of the performance event as a special kind of aesthetic experience, one that has been theorised by Erika Fischer-Lichte as a feedback loop. The key move here is to emphasise the eventness of performance and not its character as a discrete work comparable to a book or painting. As the call for papers stresses, this redefinition implies a different responsibility on the part of the theatre critic than say an art critic assessing a painting or sculpture:

If performance is a shared experience, an event which emerges in the “now and here,” then the thoughtful, analytical insight into performance that could be used for further research is the one which describes and analyses this experience from a subjective position. But if this is true for theatre research, is it also true for the spectators’ expectations? Do they also need a competent and informed partner in experiencing theatre rather than an interpreter and judge of a particular theatre piece?

This definition redefines the function of the critic from aesthetic judge to ethnographer or even reporter.

Most of the reviews I studied do, in fact, both: they inform readers of the critic’s subjective experience of a highly confrontational performance and they also pass judgement. Of all the reviews, the two-part example I have just discussed is probably the most consistent in its aesthetic and ethical position, inasmuch as, in this case, the two positions are difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle. The widely shared consensus, that the torture scene transgressed accepted norms of theatrical representation, would seem to define a current red line regarding the semiotic framework of theatre. Or, put another way, when is a sign not a sign but the thing itself? Is the water being poured into the actor’s mouth a sign of water, theatrical representation, or water itself? It is of course both, but the ethical dimension of the scene overweighs its apprehension as pure representation because, at some point in the scene, it begins to have a physical effect on spectators. This is a feedback loop of psychophysical empathy and involuntary affect that directly involves the body as well as the mind. In one performance of Balkan macht frei, a young, right-minded woman took action in the waterboarding torture scene: “now stop!” she called. She, then, marched onto the stage and took from the actor’s hand the bottle from which he was pouring water over the other actor’s face. The spectatorial intervention to actually force the scene to stop is a physical embodiment of a collective desire on the part of the audience. Whether or not these interventions are spontaneous or part of the performance, i.e. staged, is of secondary importance. They give expression to a demand for physical involvement rather than detached apprehension. In this sense, the decision of the critic Hannes S. Macher to leave the performance is the most consequential and consistent position for the critic to take within an ethics of a transformative aesthetic of performance.


Idomeneo. Photo credit: 360-berlin / Claudia Esch-Kenkel.
Idomeneo. Photo credit: 360-berlin / Claudia Esch-Kenkel.

If we review our three examples, we can observe different facets and dimensions of the responsibility of the theatre critic to position him or herself vis-a-vis borderlines of theatrical representation. In the case of Idomeneo, we see a collective abnegation of critical responsibility to engage with the political and religious dimensions of a scene designed to confront spectators with the consequences of religious fanaticism. The inability to read the scene in a contemporary context and recognise its blasphemous potential, and what blasphemy means for the theatre (a form of representation which cannot be contained within a purely aesthetic framework), documents, perhaps, the particular case of the operatic public sphere, but it possibly has wider implications as well.

The second example, Romeo Castellucci’s On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, which provoked genuinely violent responses on the part of French and Italian protesters, documented a marginalisation of the critical function within this wider controversy. In this case, the protesters hijacked the performance and repositioned it within a political public sphere of right-wing extremism, but, nevertheless, one with a solid constituency. The official theatre critical position was clear. It emphasised and reiterated the right of a theatre artist to freedom of expression; it also attempted to explain and interpret the controversial signs, and place them within an aesthetic framework and, thereby, render them less confrontational. But were not the protestors themselves theatre critics too, of a more corporeal kind?

The third example, Balkans macht frei, is by far the most confrontational and provocative in terms of the theatre critic’s own responsibility vis-a-vis a scene that challenges his or her very function. Theatre has always had the potential to transgress its own aesthetic rules, most spectacularly, by presenting pieces of reality as they are. Normally, the strategy is defused by the powerful framework of theatrical representation which renders everything in its spatial and temporal frame a sign of a sign. But, occasionally, the strategy works, the frame slips, and the critic has to find a new role. This consists of shifting of being an interpreter and judge to an ethnographer of his or her own subjective experience. When this happens, the embodied critic emerges from the darkness and, in the final consequence, leaves the auditorium.


[1] For a discussion, see Martin Lister (2009): 138-44.
[2] For a broader discussion, see Christopher Balme (2014).
[3] See The film was uploaded by the nationalist group Renouveau français.

Works Cited

Balme, Christopher. The Theatrical Public Sphere. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014. Print.

Billington, Michael. “On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God—Review.” Guardian. Guardian. 22 Apr. 2011. Web.

Brook, Peter. The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate. New York: Atheneum. 1968. Print.

Büning, Eleanore. “Der Musik auf den Fersen.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Frankfurter Allgemeine. 15 Mar. 2003. Web. <>.

Dempsey, Judy, and Mark Landler. “Opera Cancelled Over a Depiction of Muhamman.” New York Times. New York Times. 27 Sept. 2006. Web.

Lister, Martin. New Media: A Critical Introduction. Abington: Routledge, 2009. Print.

Lutz, Christiane. “Haltung zeigen: Zur Empörung über die Theater-Folter im Marstall.” Süddeutsche Zeitung. 30/31 May 2015.

Matussek, Matthias. “Idomeneo-Debatte: Kunst, Quatsch und das religiöse Gefühl.” Spiegel Online. Spiegel. 30 Sept. 2006. Web. 3 Sept. 2012. <>.

Scholz, Dieter David. N.p.

The Bible. Introd. and notes by Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. Print. Oxford World’s Classics. Authorized King James Vers.

Trueman, Matt. “Review: On the Concept of the Face, SPILL Festival.” N.p., 25 Apr. 2011. Web. <>.


*Christopher Balme, former president of FIRT, holds the chair in theatre studies at the University of Munich. His current research interests focus on the legacy of modernism in the globalization of the arts and theatre and the public sphere.

Copyright © 2015 Christopher Balme
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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In Extremis: Theatre Criticism, Ethics and the Public Sphere

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