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Aesthetic Experience In The Theatre 101: Why have Art? What is Theatre's Place?


From its earliest beginnings in Greek Tragedy through its history to the modern day, drama has exerted a fascination for philosophical aesthetics. There have been times when drama has responded to this critique and times when it has blithely followed its own course. This series of articles aims to follow some of the continuities and the evolutions in drama -to give a selected overview of the interest that drama has held for aesthetics whilst examining the idea of an aesthetic experience in the theatre.

1. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Why have Art? What is Theatre's Place?

2. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: An Inevitable Tragedy, Part 1

3. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: An Inevitable Tragedy, Part 2

4. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Theatre of Cruelty

5. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Theatre of the Absurd

6. Aesthetic Experience in the Theatre 101: Silence in the Theatre

Why have Art? What is Theatre's Place?

"There is creation in the very act of seeing" (Goethe)

Nela Antonovic in performance

One of the more interesting questions aesthetics can pose – and perhaps its most basic – is to ask: why have any art at all? If we have a perfectly good bowl of fruit, or, for example, a person immediately in front of us, what purpose is served in trying to recreate these things on canvas, in marble, or in any other medium? Equally, but slightly less obviously, how we live our lives defines who we are, each life an unfolding ‘story’ in perpetual motion. What need do we have for stories of other people, those involved in other events, those retold in poetry, drama, novels, or film?

Taking this question further, how can a depiction of an object be an improvement on the object itself? How can the recounting of second or third-hand events be more pertinent or enthralling than the events we experience first-hand? It is not obvious how one might prove art as necessary, and yet many of us feel that it is much more than just entertainment.

Art is not a skill to promote human survival and yet it would appear to predate many of those skills; the cave paintings at Chauvet are more than 30,000 years old, those at Blombos may be much older. Both caves substantially predate the cultivation of crops, the domestication of cattle, and indeed the construction of human habitation by roughly 20,000 years. Furthermore, we may speculate that survival for hunter-gatherers was arduous, and that time spent on other activities was an expenditure of a precious resource.

Cave painting of Lions at Chauvet

Some researchers have gone some way to show that the aesthetic experience does have an evolutionary benefit in furthering and enhancing adaptive organisational changes specifical to the mind and brain (Tooby and Cosmides, 2001, pgs. 6-27). However, this theory deals more with what the authors call ‘invited attention’ which appears to be a passive process. Yet the aesthetic experience seems to have as much if not more to do with what Goethe called the productive imagination: it is not just about what is given to the recipient but how it is taken in by that recipient. Therefore, one can suggest that there is some other imperative that lies behind the creation of art and its appreciation. What is being suggested is that this need is a striving to marry the outer sense with the inner sense and grasp (however illusorily) the thing itself. Just as important, if contradictory, is an awareness of how we ‘make’ that thing in our minds - especially as we witness the equally man-made drama in the theatre.

It is the contention of this article that a 'clue' to this is to be found in the word aesthetics itself. Diané Collinson in Aesthetic Experience writes:

"For the Greeks at the time of Aristotle (384-322 BC) the word was 'aesthesis'. It referred to both sensation and perception and meant, in general, 'perception by means of the senses'. At that time it had no special application to the perception of works of art and beauty" (Collinson, 1992, p. 112).

The moment of apprehension, of that sensation and perception being taken into mind, assumed into consciousness (precisely because it underlies the greater part of everyday experience) is arguably the 'event' that determines the aesthetic experience. However, for everyday experience, that apprehension is simple apprehension: the virtually autonomic formation of concepts provoked by a sensory stimulation. The aesthetic experience however is founded in the process of drawing attention to the act of mental apprehension and giving it the strength of concentration.

In Dante...Bruno…Vico...Joyce Samuel Beckett, speaking of Joyce's Work in Progress (later known as Finnegans Wake), says "form is content, content is form...His writing is not about something, it is that something itself” (Beckett, 1929 p. 10). The artwork becomes more than an inadvertent object; rather, it becomes an object of our attention that makes the mind aware of its own act of apprehension through a reflexive concentration on that very act.

It must be acknowledged that in older societies, inspiration for artwork was often thought to be divinely inspired:

"I can still speak truth / With the clear ring the gods inspire" (Aeschylus, 1956, pgs. 112-13).

However inspired, it is still a 'naturally occurring' sensible object being taken into mind and intellectually represented. Bence Nanay writes:

“Frank Sibley famously said that ‘broadly speaking, aesthetics deals with a kind of perception.’”

He continues by saying that “aesthetics deals with various kinds of experience that philosophy of perception can help us better understand” (Nanay, 2016, p. 9).

Greek Chorus

Earlier, we described a 'perfectly good' bowl of fruit or a person immediately before us, and yet the phrase 'perfectly good' might be said to obscure the possibility of having unmediated access to those objects through our perceptive grasp of external stimuli. This article is not the place to rehash the many arguments concerning the problem of perception (i.e. realism versus idealism). Nonetheless, because the object we are talking about is the artwork, we must accept that it places an interpretative obligation on the audience, as well as demands on its productive imagination. For those who are able to accept that proposition, the question may be posed: is the aesthetic experience a happy struggle to overcome the obstacles to unmediated immediacy, to overcome the estrangement of the 'outside' world and to bring it 'within'?

The great theatre director Peter Brook once wrote:

"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space while someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged" (Brook, 1968, p. 9).

Here is theatre at its most basic and it is here that we may discover the aesthetic experience within theatre in its most fundamental form. At this point, there is a simple event and that simple event is being witnessed. One could say there is no tale yet being told, no morality explored, no character being revealed, no tragedy, no comedy. Yet one could also say the event is the beginning of every story, all morality is latent, every character is present, waiting, lurking - the event is the sum of all tragedy and comedy. However, above that, it is the engagement of one person with another and it is the moment when the watcher begins to pay full attention to what his senses are experiencing. We are in the present and the presented moment.

When Peter Brook refers to an empty space as a bare stage, the modern mind does not see a Greek theatre such as that at Segesta in Sicily, almost overwhelmed by the vast landscape surrounding it. Nor does it envisage the open courtyard design of an Elizabethan theatre. The modern mind will very likely see an entirely enclosed space and, if they are aware of Peter Brook's productions, a space enclosed by bare, unornamented flats.

The impetus toward the aesthetic experience, which we claim began as an acute attention to the process of experience itself, now becomes the exclusion of the world in which it came from; attention is focused solely on the object by excluding all others. The 'object' being the drama here is explored in an utterly contained theatre: the theatre should have no exterior and the scenery flats should be its utter boundary; beyond is blackness, nothingness.

To a very limited extent, we can perhaps find the origin of this concentration by exclusion in the sixteenth-century invention of 'Aristotle's' three unities: a single action in a single place in a single day. But, as with Brook and Beckett, modern drama may have no action in no place outside time:

HAMM: What time is it?

CLOV: The same as usual

HAMM: [Gesture toward window right.] Have you looked?

CLOV: Yes.

HAMM: Well?

CLOV: Zero.

…CLOV: There's nowhere else…There's no more nature.

HAMM: No more nature! You exaggerate.

CLOV: In the vicinity.

…HAMM :Nothing on the horizon?

CLOV: [Lowering the telescope, turning to HAMM, exasperated] What in God's name could there be on the horizon?" (Endgame, Beckett, 1958, p.94-97 & p107)

There is nothing temporal or spatial here beyond the confines of the bare space in which almost nothing happens. But this is neither reductionist nor does it diminish the power of the drama. Indeed, we are arguing that it intensifies it. It is not reductionist because it is the whole of everything – potentially, everything is there - if there is nothing outside the stage. And it intensifies the drama because out of this concentration of attention, with hardly any superfluous distraction, the imagination of the watchers, the audience, must engage and contribute: they are not passive recipients but productive, creative participants.

The 'Bare Space'

This liberation and provocation of the imagination is an essential requirement of the theatre as a space and is best enabled by refusing to take on the vital role imagination plays. Transforming a play into a film is only successful when the imagination is not blunted by the camera, when the camera does not ‘imagine’ for us. As a specific example, one might suggest the moment in King Lear when Edgar leads his father, the blind Earl of Gloucester, to an imaginary cliff where the latter wishes to commit suicide:

"How fearful

And dizzy 'tis to cast one's eyes so low!

The crows and choughs that wing the midway air

Show scarce so gross as beetles" (Shakespeare, Act IV, scene vi, pgs.11-14).

The 'bare stage' refuses to show the absence of the cliff and, because it is a stage, it also gives the audience the ability to share Gloucester's imaginary vision of it.

This is a slightly paradoxical answer to the question posed: that the aesthetic experience, specifically in theatre, provides an acute focused attention on the apprehension of the artwork which, equally, gives free rein to a productive, constitutive imagination. There is a narrowing of attention and an opening of the mind. However, what better impulsion could there be to create and experience art? The creative force creates the work of art which in turn engenders an experiential intensity, a focus on the interiorising of the object, leading to a creative mental representation, as well as a strongly creative imagining.


Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2001). Does beauty build adapted minds? Toward an evolutionary theory of aesthetics, fiction, and the arts. SubStance.

Collinson, D. (1992) Aesthetic Experience. In O. Hanfling (Ed.), Philosophical Aesthetics. Blackwell.

Beckett, S. (1929) Dante...Bruno. Vico...Joyce. Our Exagmination Round his Factification for

Incamination of Work in Progress. Faber and Faber.

Aeschylus (1956). Agamemnon. The Oresteian Trilogy. Penguin Books.

Nanay, B. (2016) Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception. OUP.

Brook, P. (1968).The Empty Space. Simon and Schuster.

Beckett, S. (1958) Endgame. Samuel Beckett : The Complete Dramatic Works. Faber and Faber.

Shakespeare, W. (1972). King Lear. The Arden Shakespeare. Methuen

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Doğukan Ejder
Doğukan Ejder
Mar 08, 2022

Wonderfull way of expression of Theatre's Place in many perspectives.

Really educative and interesting article!


Cesca Rampley
Cesca Rampley
Mar 07, 2022

Very interesting analysis on aesthetics in art, looking forward to seeing how it unfolds throughout the series

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Oliver Nicholson

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