Other Theater Studies – L. S. Vygotsky’s Method 

This article is a part of the room: Pedagogies of Care 

by Vadim Maximov

What is the function of the critic in modern theater? Have the tasks of criticism changed since the beginning of the twentieth century? Since the time of the nineteenth century?

The most profound modern critics believe that criticism expresses spectatorial perception (only more specifically expresses). It seems to me that spectatorial perception and “critical” perception are quite different forms of reflection. A performance is not complete until it has been perceived, felt, and conceptualized. To see the performance and to perceive it is a common task, but it is not yet reflection. Reflection, which emerges after the spectator’s perception, can fulfill different functions.

Professional theater criticism was formed at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “Objective criticism” by Ferdinand Brunetière uses the positivist Theban method. Around the same time, Oscar Wilde formulated the concept of art criticism (criticism as a kind of supreme art form). Félix Fénéon, the founder of Symbolist art criticism, put forward the idea of lapidary criticism. And so on.

But the most important contribution to professional theater criticism was made by Max Hermann, who founded the discipline of “theater criticism”. Theater criticism was for the first time theorized not as a philosophical concept or a theory of the actor, but as a science focused on the theater as the main subject of study. It was the reliance on contemporary theater theory that enabled the formation of true theater criticism.

The Hermann school of theater criticism is based on the following principles: 

Unity of theory, history, and criticism.

The object of study is the theater.

Reconstruction of the performance through the creation of a topographical projection.

The use of other sciences: art history, literary criticism, psychology, archaeology, sociology, art history, etc.

By performing such tasks, criticism not only “formulates” the viewer’s perception, but also recognizes and reconstructs the author’s intention behind the performance.

In the ideal case, criticism defines guidelines, vectors of further development of the theater and thus fulfills the task set by Denis Diderot: “to educate artists and profane people”.

If criticism does not do any of this, it still performs a useful function: it voices banal philistine perception and thereby allows the artist-creator to build upon it.

Contemporary theater criticism has completely lost touch with the Germanic school. First of all, it does not use any theoretical basis. Perhaps it proceeds from an outdated understanding of theater, according to which theater is: A plays B in front of C. By now this model is exhausted. Theater criticism has no other theoretical basis.

In the absence of scientific theater studies, criticism rushes to the other extreme, describing solely the methods of staging, refusing to analyze a performance as a whole — since its author allegedly does not have an objective, but is only making a statement.

So, two extremes. Either the outdated scheme: actor – character – spectator. Or the refusal to value the artistic significance of the performance.

The lack of a theoretical basis is compensated for by the use of random subjective terminology (postdramatism, performativity, visual theater).

A serious critical analysis requires adherence to simple rules:

Critical analysis must be based on a clear aesthetic position. There must be a point of reference, a system of coordinates. If this is not present, the criterion will be “like–dislike”.

The critic identifies facts, techniques, but does not interpret them. The introduction of personal associations into the critical text makes the critic’s psychology, not the performance, the object of attention.

Any formal technique of a performance must be integrated into the overall structure of the performance. Any artistic work is always a structure. The consistency of all the artistic means of the performance must be revealed.

It is not a question of choosing one or another method of analysis, but of using them all. An objective picture can only be obtained through methodological projection, that is, the superimposition of various analytical methods in order to comprehend the artistic phenomenon in a multifaceted way.

One of the fundamental universal methods is Vygotsky’s method, developed based on the law of aesthetic reaction.

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky is the creator of the most authoritative psychological school. Despite his extremely short life he wrote several fundamental works published and appreciated after his death.

One of his main concepts is the theory of aesthetic perception, which uncovered the mechanism of interaction between the viewer and the artwork. Two aspects are important for understanding this theory: 1) the most complete embodiment of the theory of aesthetic perception is the cathartic process illustrated by Vygotsky using the example of tragedy; 2) the original provisions of the theory of aesthetic perception are revealed by Vygotsky in his first work, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, written by a nineteen-year-old scholar. In Shakespeare’s tragedy, Vygotsky analyzes the non-natural acts (unnatural acts) that evoke aesthetic experiences.

It is crucially important that Vygotsky’s first book was written under the impression not of Hamlet translated by Konstantin Romanov (a book available in Vygotsky’s library), but of the performance of Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theatre, staged by Craig, Stanislavsky, and Sulerzhitsky and translated by Andrei Kronenberg. Vygotsky’s primary reading corresponds not to the text as translated by C. R., but to Craig’s interpretation of Hamlet: “It is a most mystical tragedy, where the thread of the beyond is woven into the here and now, where time has formed a gap in eternity, or a tragic mystery, a work unique in the world.” This is, of course, a symbolist interpretation. But it is also an understanding that in a modern Hamlet the structures of tragedy and mystery converge.

The work The Tragedy of Hamlet was written by Vygotsky during his years of study at the Moscow City People’s University named after A. L. Shanyavsky at the Department of History and Philosophy (1914–1917). One professor at this university was Y. I. Aikhenvald, who supervised Vygotsky’s graduation thesis, and a little earlier in 1913 had stirred all of theatrical Moscow with his lecture “Literature and Theater.” The idea of the negation of theater, which became popular, is based on Eichenwald’s idea that the reader himself will be able to perceive the precious essence of theater from the pages of the text, without the help of the stage. The meaning of this negation is dissatisfaction with the present state of the stage and the unrealizability of the new forms proposed by dramaturgy.

Vygotsky rushes to realize Eichenwald’s idea and creates a study that demonstrates not a subjective but a universal perception of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

This idea of a consistent psychological perception of a work and its birth not in the text but in the viewer will be developed by Vygotsky in his Psychology of Art. But it will form only a part of the law of aesthetic reaction. Here is that part in The Psychology of Art: “Only partly we experience in the theater feelings and affects as they are given in the actors, for the most part we experience them not with, but about the feelings of the actors.”

Vygotsky undoubtedly goes further than Eichenwald’s tasks. Everything he describes in tragedy, he designates as a certain first external layer. The finale of The Tragedy of Hamlet according to a draft first published in 2015: “The whole tragedy has passed before us––its words, words, words …”. This was written in 1915 by a nineteen-year-old scholar. In the final version of 1916 it reads, “The account of ‘unnatural’ events, her reading, closes in a circle, returning to the beginning and repeating the tragedy, her ‘words, words, words’, for the whole of her ‘story’, what is in her reading, what is subject to her artistic perception, all of this is her ‘words, words, words’. The rest is silence.” 

We see in the first book a prototype of the main idea of Chapter Eight of The Psychology of Art: the plot of the tragedy brings us back to the beginning, i.e., to the fabula. (In The Psychology of Art: the fabula and the plot move in different directions but converge at the final point.)

In The Psychology of Art, however, the bulk of chapter eight is a polemic with numerous interpreters of Shakespeare, refuting their concepts. All but one of them––Leo Tolstoy. Vygotsky deeply perceived his idea: Hamlet has no character, and derived his own idea: the character of Hamlet is that he has no character.

In The Tragedy of Hamlet there is no departure into literary criticism. Everything is directed to the embodiment on the stage. In the introduction, Vygotsky formulates in particular the tasks of criticism, since critical analysis is part of art history and is inseparable from the theoretical basis. “The critic has the means to make one feel what he feels, to infect with his mood, to ‘stir up the inner word’ of the reader, to show what he hears with his ‘soul ear’”.

This differs significantly from the positivist method of Max Hermann, who proposed adopting the historical principle of objective reconstruction as the basis of the scientific methodology of theater studies. Later, Hermann applied the principles of the historical-cultural method to the critical analysis of contemporary performance.

Vygotsky, for whom psychology became such a basis, emphasized the viewer’s (in Hamlet, the reader’s) perception. It is this innovative approach that will be continued in the twentieth century in the works of structuralists––in the “reading” of the play by the spectator. The spectacle is in the spectator, not on the stage. This school is formulated in its final form in Alain Badiou’s 1998 work: “We should not demand from the critic a fair judgment, we should demand from him an adequate reflection of the views of a random audience.” 

Vygotsky emphasizes several times that he does not have the task in The Tragedy of Hamlet to give an exhaustive analysis. All that is analyzed concerns form. With Vygotsky: “the tragedy itself,” its “words, words, words.” With all the precision, detail, and consistency of the parsing of the structure, the critic’s task looks like this: “This sketch is only the direction of the experience, its tone, only the contours of the shadow cast by the tragedy.” Even in this intonation one can sense the imagery of the 1911 production and Craig’s directorial language.

Tragedy, of course, is not limited to words. Behind the words is action. This implies that the structure identified by Vygotsky (formulated, again, in words) is embodied in the performance.

Craig’s Hamlet was in the repertoire of the MHT until 1914. Vygotsky most likely saw this production, but in any case he had a good idea of the performance: “… the most interesting production of Hamlet by this theater in many respects, but by no means in everything––especially the cuts and the performance of the other roles have to be excluded from this––comes close to those developed here, although the critics (reviews) did not note this character of the production.” Vygotsky has claims to the actual performance, but rejects the coincidence of the overall solution with the picture of the audience’s perception of Hamlet, which builds in his work. The main thing in the tragedy grows beyond the words in the staging and is perceived, according to Vygotsky, through the staging, because through reading – only “words, words, words.”

At the same time, he notes what becomes disastrous in the staging and does not correspond to the objective essence of the tragedy: “… Kachalov’s play (which was all sustained on one note of hopeless sorrow) is amazing, but it is not a complete embodiment of Hamlet and is far from being sustained. It is not the place to talk about it here.” The rest is silence — which Kachalov didn’t attain. 

In the finale of The Tragedy of Hamlet Vygotsky comes to a concrete result, a fundamental psychological conclusion: “Tragedy traps us, like Claudius, in the net of our own conscience, ignites the tragic fire of our ‘I’, and its experience is therefore made for us deeply painful instead of the expected aesthetic ‘pleasure’. This is why we, like Claudius, interrupt the perception of tragedy without enduring its light to the end; this is why all tragedy, like the performance in Hamlet, is cut short before the end––on silence, and is therefore a cut-off, unfinished tragedy. Tragedy must be finished, it must be replenished in itself, in its experience.”

This ingenious formulation of the 20-year-old scientist contains everything that the author will explore for ten years and will embody in 1925 in The Psychology of Art. Here there are not yet the concepts of “form” and “material”, on the interaction of which the law of aesthetic reaction is based. But “the tragic fire of our ego” is the material that, according to Vygotsky’s discovery, is in the consciousness of the viewer. Here Vygotsky speaks modestly of the “experience” of the spectator. In The Psychology of Art, he will speak of catharsis, which is the meaning of tragedy and which results from the mutual annihilation of form (“words, words, words”––all that is named in the 1915 analysis) and the material of “our self.”

In The Psychology of Art, Vygotsky bases his method on a detailed exposition and refutation of two major theories of aesthetic feeling. The first of them he calls “Christiansen’s theory”. According to it, the aesthetic reaction is caused by each element that enters the work and causes the corresponding emotional impressions. The second theory––the “theory of feeling”––offers the opposite scheme. “We bring into the work of art from within ourselves, we imbue it with certain feelings that rise up from the very depths of our being … ”

The vulnerability of both theories is that they explain emotional impressions, but do not explain the actual aesthetic reaction, its specificity. The difference between “artistic feeling”, according to Vygotsky, is that the feelings evoked are resolved. And they are resolved with the help of increased activity of imagination, which leads to the unity of disparate elements. Art evokes “intelligent” emotions that are resolved in the images of fantasy.

The aesthetic reaction always possesses a duality, a simultaneous tendency toward repression and excitement. This universal principle is most fully embodied in tragedy. “Tragedy, which excites in us at once affects of opposite properties, acts apparently according to the beginning of antithesis and sends opposite impulses to opposite groups of muscles. It makes us, as it were, move to the right and to the left at the same time, simultaneously raise and lower a weight … ”

Vygotsky studies, first of all, the structure of an artistic work and in this structure he always discovers a certain contradiction, since the discharge of external energy occurs in two opposite directions. This fundamentally distinguishes the aesthetic reaction from any ordinary emotion. “In every artistic work [we can] distinguish between the emotions evoked by the material and those evoked by the form.” These emotions are directed in opposite directions, but the viewer’s artistic reaction occurs only when these reactions are mutually resolved at one point. Vygotsky calls this “the concluding point.” You could also redefine it as the denouement of the conflict. So, the point of resolution of the emotions of form and the emotions of material coincides surprisingly with the point of mutual resolution of fabula and plot! (Vygotsky compares this point to a short circuit. Indeed, in a sense, after a bright enlightenment––the conflict is resolved––the light goes out.)

“This is the process we would like to call the word catharsis.” Vygotsky demonstrates this process not only through the structure of tragedy, but also through the examples of fable and story.

Thus, catharsis––the artistic transformation of the viewer––occurs as a result of the denouement, i.e. the point of convergence of the sides of the conflict, the plot and the story, the form and the material. This is the theory of catharsis formulated by Vygotsky. If these points do not coincide, the law of aesthetic reaction does not work, and catharsis does not occur.

Of course, when analyzing a cathartic work, it is necessary to determine the conflict, the fabula and the plot as accurately as possible. But it is particularly difficult to identify the various elements that evoke the emotions of the form and to separate them from the elements that evoke the emotions of the material.

It should be borne in mind that Vygotsky uses the concepts of “material” and “content” in almost the same sense in the text of The Psychology of Art. (The manuscript was not edited by the author and not prepared for printing.) However, taking into account the specificity of the law of aesthetic reaction, we are talking about material that is invested not by the author of the work, but by its reader/viewer, and that is determined by the form of the work. That is, the material interacted by the form is much broader than the meaning that the author puts into the work.

The theory of catharsis began to take shape in 1915–16, and was presented in its finalized form by 1925. But in his theater-critical articles of 1922–23, Vygotsky applied his analytical theory of catharsis to the work of the author. Vygotsky applied his analytical approach to a variety of theatrical phenomena of the time. Even earlier, he had written the articles “Theater Notes (Letter from Moscow)” (1917) and “Theater and Revolution” (1918). All of these works embody Vygotsky’s theatrical approach in evaluating specific theatrical works.

As an example, consider Vygotsky’s analysis of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffe in his article “Theater and Revolution” (Poems and Prose on the Russian Revolution [Kiev: Sovremennaya Mysl, 1919]).

The most lively assessment of Mystery-Bouffe, presented in November 7, 1918 at the Musical Comedy Theater (St. Petersburg Conservatory), was given in Andrei Levinson’s review (Life of Art. 1918. November 11). The authoritative theater critic evaluates the performance in the context of generally accepted artistic criteria: he recalls Aristophanes’ folk comedy, ironizes the Futurists’ attempts at world domination, reproaches Mayakovsky’s texts for “finding” lines to “artificial” rhymes, while noting the audience’s misunderstanding and rejection of the new aesthetics. Levinson lists several advantages of the performance, but these are only fragments that do not save the overall situation and do not give artistic integrity. Among the merits in the first place, the subtle critic Levinson puts Mayakovsky’s performance of the role of Man-Past: “Where the author himself pronounced his poems, their texture seemed more imposing, the rhythm conquered the ear. Each short, heavy line awoke a long resonance, like a bullet hitting the wall. And as long as the melodic and powerful voice sounded––the acoustic charm was not wasted. The music of the words poured out, but no feeling was delivered to the hall. Through the mouthpiece of the tragic mask gaped soulful emptiness.”

Levinson, while not accepting the new aesthetics, accurately describes how the formal side does not just come to the fore but becomes the content of the work. We can add that the ideological component (the “unclean” destroy all the realities of the old world) remained in the text in the background, and the first––the poetry of play, verse and stage forms, the tradition of the balagan, parodying the medieval theater.

Mayakovsky’s character Man obviously correlates with the hero of medieval moralities, Every Man (Menschen, first name). But at the same time, he is a new hero of futurism (similar to Zangezi and numerous variations of superman). Mayakovsky’s very fulfillment of this role clearly continues the achievements of the tragedy Vladimir Mayakovsky, only in a different context. Saying the “Sermon on the Mount” (with a content opposite to that of the Bible), Mayakovsky climbed the ladder to the soffit on the left edge of the stage. Holding the top of the ladder with his right hand, he hovered over the auditorium and threw his other hand forward. The physical existence of the character is oriented toward the obviousness of the real process and the refusal to create an image, the refusal to play.

Kazimir Malevich, who designed the performance, set the task of creating a revitalized cubist painting in which the actors became the contrasting elements. This was a clear embodiment of the aesthetics of futurism: the creation of a new reality on stage. However, there were disagreements between the artist and Mayakovsky and Meyerhold, as the authors saturated the play with concrete modern realities.

L. S. Vygotsky gives perhaps the most objective assessment of Mystery-Bouffe. His position is determined not by the tradition of modern criticism, not by the theatrical context, but by the universal laws of the psychology of art and the theory of catharsis. Vygotsky most likely did not see the play in Petrograd, since in 1918 he moved to Kiev and then to Yalta. However, Vygotsky focuses on the laws of the theater and explains the dramaturgy only as a potential performance: “The new theater that will loosen the backstage is what has not been, but what must be, what is going on and will be. And it will not wait for dictatorial plays that dictate how they should be staged.” Vygotsky had also analyzed Hamlet earlier. Everything suggests that he calls for the establishment of the theater of the future, but while addressing the very origins of the psychology of theater.

Vygotsky establishes the relationship between “form” and “content”. He is attracted by Mayakovsky’s attempt to combine mystery and buffoonery, but it is the form in the work that failed: “Everything in the play from mystery––the world social revolution from the beginning to the apotheosis––is unsuccessful, from the mind written à these”. That is, didacticism comes to the surface and destroys the form. However, Vygotsky understands and evaluates the content of the play like no one else. He singles out the Man-Prophet in the plot: “This is the ‘ideal man’ who has come to proclaim the new Sermon on the Mount, the revelation of man … And the man disappears: it seems to everyone that this ‘spirit insane’ has taken possession of him.” If Levinson sees through the tragic mask “soul emptiness”, Vygotsky––“the disappearance of man”, the overcoming of the human. This is a new hero and a new theater.

Vygotsky’s criticism is reduced to the inconsistency of the specific genre and dramaturgical structure of the found material: “In a purely theatrical sense––this play gives a new by its separate sides: the very verse of it, the connection of mystery with the buffa would be extremely significant for the theater, if the mystery was not so weak.” An integral feature of dramatic and non-comical genre Vygotsky calls the presence of “tragic spirit”, that is, the plot must always move away from the intended fabula (in this case, biblical), and in the denouement they must somehow resolve. Vygotsky does not find this in Mystery-Bouffe.

New times require new forms. You cannot pour new wine into old bellows, says Vygotsky. The old tragedy cannot continue. “Each epoch has its own Hamlet.” But a new theatrical form is not enough. The form only guides the spectator in the direction in which he puts his spectatorial material. “The work itself is only a possibility, which the spectator, the reader, realizes by his work.”

A negative example of the correlation between artistic form and the possibility of viewer perception is the First Studio of the Moscow Art Theater: “This is room art in the full sense of the word. It is not without reason that any semblance of theater is destroyed here, and the spectator finds himself in ordinary rooms, where even the scaffolding has been dismantled to destroy the last trace of elevation. The action is played out immediately on the floor. This is also the inner side of this art, called by one critic Tolstovsky”. Of course Vygotsky favors Mayakovsky’s play among all modern plays, but … “Even the staging of Mystery-Bouffe––alas!––yielded nothing.” Vygotsky quotes N. Punin’s review “On V. Mayakovsky’s Mystery-Bouffe” (Art of the Commune. 1918. No. 2), in which it is suggested that the play sets the parameters of the new theater, but Meyerhold and Malevich remain in the spaces of their past theaters, and they neither loosen the backstage nor move the stage into the auditorium.

 Having developed in his early youth a theatrical theory based on the audience’s perception of dramaturgy, Vygotsky pursued further studies of theater in two directions. The first––scientific––led to the formulation of the general law of aesthetic reaction, the essence of which is catharsis. The second––critical––was expressed in the analysis from the standpoint of the theory of modern performances. In this sense, Vygotsky operates on the same principles as Aristotle in his Poetics. And just like Aristotle he does not stop at the theater, moving away from aesthetics to fundamental science. However, creating a new psychology, at the end of his life (in 1932) he writes an article “To the Question of the Psychology of the Actor’s Creativity”, addressing the most essential question of theater––the ways of the actor’s existence on the stage.

First, Vygotsky points out the specificity of the new theater, in which various theatrical systems have been developed and to each of them corresponds its own practical psychology of the actor! “Many of the theatrical figures have created extremely complex systems of acting, where found concrete expression not only purely artistic aspirations of their authors, not only the canons of style, but also systems of practical psychology of acting.”

Developing from the point of view of psychology theory of acting art Diderot, Vygotsky concludes that the form and content of the actor’s feelings differ from life and are not a “biological category”. These special feelings depend on historical and social factors. The actor’s feelings do not depend on nature, but on artistic systems. Consequently, they must be defined according to the laws of art. The actor’s experiences cannot be evaluated in isolation, but only “in connections that unite emotions with more complex psychological systems.”

The role is part of the artistic structure. But another part of the structure is the relationship between actor and role. Just as a performance arises only through spectatorial (cathartic) perception, so also the creation of the artistic form of a performance is inseparable from a special way of creating a role that strictly corresponds to the system of the performance.

Vygotsky did not develop these laws, but at the end of his life he managed to formulate the questions that allow us to evaluate the actor’s creativity.

English translation edited by Ryan Healey