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

By Linklater, Andro | American Theatre, January 2010 | Go to article overview

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


Linklater, Andro, American Theatre


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.

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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 Salome 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," 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 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.

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