The Santorini Experiment: How Philosophy Ended Its Ancient Quarrel with Theatre

Article excerpt

Question: why would ten actors from half a dozen different countries, five professors of philosophy from the United States, Canada, Italy, and South Africa, the director of Switzerland's leading research institute on neuroinformatics, and a professor of theatre at Columbia University 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 last two-and-a-half thousand years.

It was in the fifth century BCE that Plato declared menacingly that there is an old quarrel between philosophy and poetry. Unlike philosophers, who wanted the truth to emerge from rational argument, poets, actors, and orators, he alleged, used their talents to inspire or bamboozle their audiences for their own satisfaction, without regard for the truth. Consequently they, and 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 (Obituary, Stella Adler), and Oxford University's professor of logic, Michael Dummett, suggested much the same goal for his teaching: "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" (Pyke). 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 Salome M. Krell and her father, Professor David Farrell Krell, former chair of the philosophy faculty at DePaul University in Chicago, decided in 2009 to bring both sides together for a week of intensive study on the island of Santorini, they were flying not only in the face of history, but also of epistemology, the nature of knowledge. "I grew up among philosophers," Salome 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 and experienced then and what I do in the theatre now."

The inspiration for the Santorini Voice Symposium came from a theatre workshop on voice that both the Krells attended in 2008 (Salome as a participant and her father as an audience member). To Professor Krell, an authority on, and prolific translator of, European philosophy, including philosophy of voice, it was obvious that the physical nature of the voice training overlapped with texts on language by the German existentialist Martin Heidegger, and those on the body by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. To investigate the connection, he recruited a cross-section of philosophers, while his daughter brought in a cast of actors and voice teachers from Europe, Australia, as well as the United States. "I don't know what's going to happen" David Krell admitted shortly before the participants began to assemble. "Clearly there is a history of suspicion or incomprehension, that's Plato's legacy. But I'm sure we'll make some connections; these are all exceptional people." He paused, as though considering the chances of a successful outcome. "I keep telling everyone, it's just going to be a beach party with kindred spirits."

His effort to downplay expectations was understandable. And the extent of the gap to be bridged became physically apparent once the participants were assembled. What sort of connections could be expected between Corrado Fortuna, a dark, brooding, thirty-one-year-old Italian film actor with two movies in the 2009 Venice Film Festival, and Professor Walter Brogan, who at sixty-four was the white-haired doyen of the philosophy department at Villanova University and a renowned authority on Heidegger? …