QUESTION: Why would 10 actors from half a dozen different countries, 6 professors of philosophy from the United States, the director of Switzerland’s leading research institute on neuroinformatics and a professor of Columbia University’s school of theatre studies meet on the rim of a slumbering volcano in the Aegean Sea?
ANSWER: to challenge one of the basic precepts dominating Western philosophy for the past two-and-a-half thousand years.
In the fifth century B.C., Plato declared menacingly, “There is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry.” Unlike philosophers who wanted the truth to emerge from rational argument, Plato alleged that poets, actors and orators used their talents to inspire or bamboozle their audiences for their own satisfaction without regard for the truth. Consequently they—indeed, artists of all kinds—were to be banned from Plato’s ideal republic. Ever since the founder of Western philosophical thought pronounced his fatwa, the divide has remained unbridged.
Both sides aim to discover truths about the human condition, to consider how desirable ends like freedom can flourish, and to grapple with the deceptive differences between thought, speech and the reality of the outside world. “The theatre is the place where people come to see the truth about life and the social situation,” Marlon Brando’s drama coach, Stella Adler, used to insist—and Oxford University’s professor of logic Michael Dummett suggested much the same goal for his teaching: that “philosophy attempts not to discover new truths about the world, but to gain a clear view of what we already know and believe about it.” But while one side relies on reason and logic, the other prizes emotion and art, and neither accepts the value of the other’s methods.
Consequently, when the actress Salomé Krell and her father David Farrell Krell, who is chair of the philosophy faculty at DePaul University in Chicago, decided to bring both sides together for a week of intensive study in July 2009 on the island of Santorini, they were flying not only in the face of history but of epistemology—the nature of knowledge.
“I grew up among philosophers,” Salomé Krell explained. “They came to stay with us. Jacques Derrida was a family friend. It seemed weird to me that there should be no connection between what I learned then and what I do in the theatre now.”
The inspiration came from a theatre workshop on the voice that both the Krells attended. To David Krell, an authority on and prolific translator of European philosophy, it was obvious that the physical nature of the voice training would overlap with texts on language by the German existentialist Martin Heidegger and on the body by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. To investigate the connection, he recruited a cross-section of American philosophers, while his daughter brought in a cast of actors and voice teachers from Europe as well as the U.S.
The location itself added to the existentialist or, for the theatricals, the Prospero-like nature of the meeting. Consisting of little more than half of the rim of a volcano pushing out of the Aegean sea, Santorini appears too precarious to be quite real, but it is considered the most plausible site for the legendary civilization of Atlantis that was abruptly engulfed by the sea. In about 1650 B.C., a series of massive eruptions vaporized the island. Layers of creamy ash and black and red melted rock rising hundreds of feet up from the sea testify to the violence of the eruption. Since then periodic convulsions have shaken the island. It made an apt setting for what lay ahead. The ancient quarrel might continue to simmer quietly—or it might suddenly erupt. No one could be sure.
What made the Santorini experiment unique was its goal of finding common ground in the methods of working. Attempts at bridge-building have been made before. Generations of philosophers have used Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy to examine the nature of thinking. Theatres have repeatedly staged versions of the Socratic dialogues, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, with its well-known line “Hell is other people,” was existentialism as drama. But these events were concerned with the finished product—they rendered theatre philosophical, or philosophy a subject of drama. Whether the theatre had anything to teach philosophy, and vice versa, about its way of exploring the nature of reality was another matter.
Two apparently insuperable obstacles had to be overcome. The first was to find a way of fitting the direct emotional response that is the theatre’s lifeblood into philosophy’s rigorous methodology. The latter requires an idea about to be examined rationally not only in relation to the text in which it appears but in relation to previous commentaries on the text, and to other works by the same author. The variety of elucidations is as valuable as the final synthesis. Forensic intelligence is prized, but not the philosopher’s tendency to weeping or laughter.
The second obstacle was to find a proper place for logic in the theatre’s transformation of words into a physical performance that will move, inspire or entertain an audience. “Essentially the actor acts a fiction, a dream,” Lee Strasberg, proponent of the Method school of acting, once said. “In life, the stimuli to which we respond are always real, [while] the actor must constantly respond to stimuli that are imaginary.” The primary means has been to tap into the actor’s emotional resources through imagination. It was not a method likely to commend itself to rationalists: “We do reality,” one of the Santorini philosophers remarked, only half-jokingly. “We leave imagination to Disney.”
Presiding over the confrontation was Kristin Linklater, professor of theatre at Columbia University. Before she had even arrived in Santorini, her work was the subject of anxious discussion. Based on a lifelong interest in the physical consequences of the impulse to speak, the Linklater training explores the locks that inhibit the body’s response to thought and feeling. To the philosophers’ alarm, it was rumoured that once these locks were opened cathartic tears might be the result.
“Oh, nonsense, none of us knows the outcome,” Linklater said briskly when questioned. “We’re involved in an experiment without an hypothesis. It’s the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, the purest kind of philosophy.”
The problem was neatly summed up by Kevan Martin, co-director of the Institute of Neuroinformatics in Zurich. Given the simultaneous surge of discoveries in neuroscience and of increased computing power, this is a golden age for neuroinformatics, but one of its unexpected outcomes is the realization that the brain’s operation cannot be understood in isolation from the body. “In the 50 years we’ve spent trying to build intelligence,” Martin declared, “we have found that embodiment is of fundamental importance. The brain is grounded in the body. The learning,” Martin pointed out, “is in the doing, not in the thinking.”
A way of relating doing to thinking emerged when Linklater moved the group into preparation for the moment when they would deliver the texts they had brought with them. Each pair of participants had to declaim a poem or tell the story of their journey to Santorini, but with the spoken words replaced by a breathed out “fff.” The room rustled with sighs, exhalations and sussurations as airport anxieties were described and sonnets were breathed out. The theatrical purpose is, in Linklater’s words, “to de-wire the brain in order to let the emotion through,” but this work, too, turned out to have a philosophical application.
“The breath intervenes before you conceptualize, before you see the image,” one of the philosophers exclaimed in astonishment. “That exercise is truly extraordinary. It teaches you to have a thought you don’t own, it pushes you away from the subjective.”
Appropriately, the final words came from a philosopher, Dr. Kevin Miles: “I believe in freedom for, not just freedom from. Freedom is for a purpose; it has to occur by making a connection to other people.”
At sunset, the reddening rays bounce across the sea that fills Santorini’s crater and strike the great, burnt walls of the caldera. The falls of melted rock become molten again, and the layers of compacted ash glow once more. Every evening that moment of theatre gives birth again to the legend of the lost world of Atlantis beneath the waves. Yet the man who first recounted the legend was no one other than Plato, philosophy’s founder. If ever there were a place where the ancient quarrel might be resolved, it would have to be here.
Andro Linklater is the author of Measuring America, The Fabric of America and An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson. He is Kristin Linklater’s brother. This article is an excerpt from a longer essay inspired by the Santorini Voice Symposium.