Performing the Historical Past: History - Poetry - Philosophy
by Freddie Rokem

In chapter nine of the Poetics Aristotle provides a point of departure for an analysis of the relations between the discursive practices of poetry, history, and philosophy, which are still the three main areas of study and research in most of today’s university faculties of the humanities and the arts. Aristotle claimed that,

………./t/he distinction between historian and poet /…/ consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import (spoudaioteron) than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars1.

According to this scheme, poetry, including theatre and performance, are situated ‘between’ history and philosophy, and because of their universal nature they are a ‘better thing’ or ‘something to be taken more seriously’ than history.

One of Aristotle’s crucial points is that each of these three individual discursive practices – philosophy, poetry and history – is based on a specific mode of representation (basically included in the notion of mimesis, i.e. imitation or representation). While Plato had established a vertical ontological model, with the work of art situated on the lowest possible step on the ladder of ‘being’ – considered to be a copy of a copy, even more distant from the pure, metaphysical forms than the individual objects – Aristotle claimed that poetry occupies an intermediary position, strategically and horizontally situated between two other distinct discursive, representational practices (history and philosophy), and because of its more universal character, poetry is closer to philosophy than to history. Aristotle’s basic model depicting the relations between the three representational practices can be examined from several perspectives.


…..1. The Ontological Perspective

Aristotle’s typology implies that poetry and the other arts are simultaneously both singular/particular and universal. This simultaneous mixture of the particular and the universal suggests that the aesthetic object is constituted through an ontological instability, being both particular and universal at the same time. This ontological instability would obviously have been unacceptable within Plato’s metaphysical framework, where, since the aesthetic object is a copy of a copy, it has been assigned the most inferior position possible ontologically and can therefore not be universal in any sense. The combination of the proximity of poetry to philosophy and the ensuing ontological instability of the work of art, which Aristotle’s model implies, are crucial for the understanding artistic practices within a broader social and political field.


…..2. The Temporal Level

Poetry, Aristotle argued, is situated somewhere between the discursive practice representing specific events in the past, through which our sense of history is generated, and what might be in the future, as an always and as yet unrealized utopian (and universal) potentiality. This means that the work of art, and in particular the theatre, is situated between the past and the future, representing a ‘now,’ which in its fluidity reflects the ontological instability of the aesthetic object as well as the ephemerality the theatre. Plato had obviously taken a completely different position – in particular in The Republic – portraying a utopian polis where the poets would no longer be necessary and would be censored or exiled, while for Aristotle, poetry is a representational practice that in contrast to Plato’s position, is actually pointing towards some form of utopia.


…..3. The Ethical Dimension

Whereas the arts are for Plato also in breach of the moral principles cultivated by the ideal state, Aristotle’s mapping of history, poetry and philosophy and the relations between them implies that poetry is ‘the golden mean’ between the discursive practices of history and philosophy in a similar fashion to the typologies of extremes, defining the ethically desirable mediating position in Aristotle’s theory of ethics. Poetry can be seen as the golden mean situated between history and philosophy – closer to philosophy, but without specifying how close – just as the ethical action is situated between two extreme forms of behaviour (with ‘courage’ as the golden mean between ‘cowardice’ and ‘rashness’), drawing attention to the inherent ethical dimensions of artistic practices.


…..4. The work of art within the Public Sphere

The most radical consequence of Aristotle’s scheme is that it situates the aesthetic object within a multi-dimensional, comprehensive network of representational practices, including the mechanisms activating the interactions between these practices, on the basis of which the public sphere is constituted. Besides the diverse forms of aesthetic representations, such a public sphere is constituted by political or parliamentary forms of representation, legal procedures for representation, political demonstrations and protest movements, the representational practices of media and social networks, as well as economic and religious systems of representation. These representational systems/mechanisms are in turn supported by a broad range of discursive practices dealing with sovereignty, religion, justice, religion, war and peace, as well as gender, ethnicity, race, education, and so on. The fundamental ontological instability of the work of art gives it a unique position within the public sphere, of which Plato was obviously also aware. While Aristotle considered this instability and the potential of the arts to interfere in and even subvert the other representational practices within the public sphere a creative resource, for Plato it constituted a threat.

Aristotle’s implicit critique of Plato’s position in The Republic, restricting the freedom of expression of the arts in the ideal polis, still challenges us to reconsider the crucial role of artistic creativity and the aesthetic experience for understanding the world we live in. The arts enable us to consider basic ontological issues, in particular in trying to grasp the ontological instability of the work of art and the subversive potentials this instability gives rise to. The arts also challenge us to explore epistemological issues and to question how we know certain things and how we can arrive at this knowledge at any given moment within the temporal scheme. Finally, the arts ask us to consider the ethical dimensions of this understanding and our emotional response to these insights. These issues also harbour important pedagogical dimensions, enabling us to examine how the arts have been studied, researched, and practiced within academic contexts, but also for the broader understanding and appreciation of artistic practices within the larger public, social sphere, assisting us to define moral actions and even to pass moral judgements.


Witnessing for the Witness

The poet Paul Celan who survived the Second World War in Europe, after having fled from a Rumanian labour camp, wrote in his poem Achenglorie that ‘no-one can bear witness for the witnesses’ (Niemand zeugt für den Zeugen), meaning that the experience itself cannot be passed over to anyone else and it cannot be appropriated for any other event, no matter how threatening or complex. Each historical event is unique. It is a particular occurrence or chain of actions and reactions. The arts have, however, already transgressed Celan’s imperative and will continue to bear witness, also after all the direct witnesses are dead, extending the chain of witnessing, bridging the inevitable gaps between the generations. Therefore, regardless of our ideological convictions or political opinions, we have to be very cautious when discussing and evaluating the ways in which works of art incorporate historical events, hopefully enabling us to gain a more profound understanding of these events at any given moment in the constantly evolving present.

We are frequently exposed to situations where, in particular, politicians handle these issues somewhat recklessly, lacking the kind of responsibility that is necessary in order to receive the ethical ‘permission’ to break Celan’s imperative. The arts also raise the issue of what the historical past means for us today, like Brecht does when he decides that Mother Courage and her Children – which takes place during the Thirty-Year-War, in the first half of the 17th century – will be the first production he will direct in Berlin after 16 years of exile — more than three hundred years after the war he portrays on the stage.

My basic claim is that the endeavour to ‘perform history’ within aesthetic contexts (as opposed to the polemical/political ones, as well as different forms of re-enactments of historical events) is constituted by a complex double perspective. On the one hand, such aesthetic representations present a lived immediacy of the historical event, an immersion into that historical reality, including the limited understanding (or denial) of what is happening as the events unfold according to their sometimes perverse logic; while at the same time, these aesthetic representations also include some form of more general retrospective understanding of their consequences for us in the present, in particular regarding the ethical (though not moralistic) dimensions of these events. Aesthetic representations of the past are constituted by carefully balancing the limited or limiting understanding a person living at a specific moment has, incapable of grasping the whole event of which he or she is a part, with some form of retrospective understanding that these historical events may have for us at any given point in time.

A work of art ‘performing history’ demonstrates how to construct and retain the balance between the lived moment and the retrospective understanding. Political polemics mobilizing the past however often lack an understanding of the complexities for those who lived in a certain moment to grasp larger and more comprehensive patterns. What I term the political, polemical version — ‘teaching’ lessons from history, rather than trying to understand the past — is based on the assumptions that those who lived at the time these events took place should have known better. Historical ‘re-enactments,’ on the other hand are as a rule, based on the fantasy of a total immersion in the past, where there is no room whatsoever for retrospection within the ‘event’ itself, as a rule passing on this responsibility to the spectators. Re-enactments of artistic events in the past, like the Globe Theater in London, or of performance art, like Marina Abramović’s New York exhibitions at the Guggenheim (Seven Easy Pieces, in 2004) and at the MoMa (The Artist is Present, in 2010) re-enact aesthetic contexts which make room for complex modes of reflexivity that must also be taken into consideration. There are many (even more traditional) dramas where history is performed which contain plays-within-the-play, creating such a self-reflexive dimension.

The dialectics between the partial understanding of the events as they unfold and a more synoptic, retrospective understanding is a crucial component of how art ‘performs’ history. One of the main reasons why this dialectic is both complex and challenging is that there is, of course, no guarantee that our retrospective perspective really provides a full understanding of the past because one of the things we have learned about such retrospective understandings is that they also change through time. One of the functions of artistic representations of the past is indeed to constantly question the validity of such retrospective understandings, because the past also ‘changes’ by being reconsidered.

In order to ‘perform history’ – and I am primarily interested in how this can be done on a theatrical stage – it is necessary to confront the paradoxical tensions of the immediacy of the events themselves (as Mother Courage hears the drums and the shot killing her son), which the dramatist/director has to organize according to some narrative principle, while at the same time presenting a more general understanding of why such a particular moment is worthy of our attention; why we somehow always wait too long to take action, which Mother Courage obviously did.

What can we gain by engaging in a certain moment from the historical past? Do we really believe such moments can ‘teach’ us anything crucial about human nature or human fate? Will it prevent us from repeating the catastrophes of the past? These are not easy questions to answer, because at the same time as an answer confronts complex ideological and moral issues, there is always a margin of uncertainty as to whether we have really understood the full consequences of a certain event in the historical past. Finally, the only thing we can learn from history is probably that it is impossible to learn from history. And in spite of this we will most likely go on insisting, breaking Celan’s imperative that ‘no-one can bear witness for the witnesses’. The theatre can and will – but only if it confronts the question why it is important to bear witness for the witnesses.

Cover image Rossella Biscotti, Le teste in oggetto, 2009, Nomas Fondation, Roma



Selected passages from an essay that will be published in David Dean, Yana Meerzon, Kathryn Prince (eds), History, Memory, Performance, (Palgrave/Macmillan, expected publication date November 2014). This book “is an interdisciplinary collection of essays exploring performances of the past in a wide range of trans-national and historical contexts ranging from seventeenth century New France and nineteenth-century Russia to modern Australia, Brazil, Britain, Canada, Lebanon, Russia, and the United States. Contributions from theatre scholars and public historians address issues of shared interest to the disciplines of theatre studies and theatre history, performance studies, history, and public history, coalescing around the concept of memory, both collective and individual.  Wide-ranging and theoretically engaged, History, Memory, Performance is especially timely given the historical turn in theatre studies and the performative turn in historical studies.”) from the editors’ introduction)


Freddie Rokem is the Emanuel Herzikowitz Professor for 19th and 20th Century Art at Tel Aviv University where he teaches in the Department of Theatre. Among his many publications are Jews and the Making of Modern German Theatre (2010, co-edited with Jeanette Malkin); Strindberg’s Secret Codes (2004), Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance (2010) and the prize-winning Performing History: Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theatre (2000). The editor of Theatre Research International from 2006-2009, he is now one of the editors of the new series Performance Philosophy (Palgrave Macmillan). He has been a visiting Professor at universities in the United States, Germany, Sweden and Finland, and is also a translator and a dramaturg. Freddie Rokem, Filosofi e uomini di scene. Pensare la performance, a dura di Annalisa Sacchi, Mimesis, Milano 2013.