Knowledge of Surroundings in Theatrical Modernity. Milieu – Umwelt – Environment / Hauptmann – Appia – Kiesler

The project, located at the intersections of theater, literature, and media studies, ties in with the recent refocusing of historical environmental discourses in order to provide a new perspective on ‘theatrical modernity,’ situated between naturalism and historical avant-gardes, and to reexamine its afterlife. Specifically, the aim is to locate selected stage and theater forms at the turn of the century and the early 20th century in the context of milieu, Umwelt, and environment. These concepts constitute three distinct “epistemologies of surrounding” (“Epistemologien des Umgebens,” Florian Sprenger), deriving from distinct discursive traditions in the life sciences, which vary in their evaluation of moments of openness and centering as well as autonomy and heteronomy in the relations of the ‘surrounded’ to the ‘surrounding.’ The aim of the project is to link them with scenic works by Gerhart Hauptmann (Milieu), Adolphe Appia (Umwelt), and Frederick Kiesler (Environment) accordingly. Another aim is to examine the extent to which the different concepts of surrounding have been applied to political contexts, oscillating between social democracy/socialism, programs centering the Volksgemeinschaft, and early forms of neoliberalism. In this way, finally, a new perspective on the possibilities of political appropriation and/or resistance of the historical avant-gardes is developed, that is, a perspective that takes into account their partial solidarity with totalitarian regimes, as well as their possible proximity to neoliberal discourses on (self‑)regulation.

Focusing on plays such as Vor Sonnenaufgang (1889) and Vor Sonnenuntergang (1932), the project examines the extent to which Hauptmann’s naturalistic theater aesthetic is intertwined with theories of milieu typical of the time in a way that does not necessarily confine it to the criteria of the image and the visual plane as is still claimed today within the framework of a model of progress that views naturalism as having been overcome by supposedly more ‘progressive’ aesthetics. It is precisely the discourses of contagion it exposes, however, as well as its pronounced “solarity” (Juliane Vogel) that mark naturalism as a specific attempt to scenically grasp relational bodily networks, that are ‘inter-spatial’ in the full sense of the milieu concept.
The “espaces rhythmiques” of scenographer and theater reformer Adolphe Appia, who worked in Hellerau, by contrast, will be focused on in their particular proximity to contemporary Umwelt discourses. The point of departure is the astonishing proximity, addressed only by the most recent Appia research (for example, by Jörn Etzold), maintained by Appia’s explicitly post-Kantian understanding of space with the concept of Umwelt that was introduced into biology by Jakob von Uexküll in Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere (1909).
Lastly, the stage designs and the “Endless Theatre” of Frederick Kiesler will be examined to determine the extent to which they manifest an early way of thinking about control systems and feedbacks, pointing towards today’s smart environments and anticipating the “endless” character of the Internet. Specifically, Kiesler’s reflections on the “technological environment” and its “biotechnical” interactions with human beings, as well as his utopia of theater as a “universal communication machine” that “does not illustrate life, but shapes it” (Kiesler), will be revisited.

Feodor Lynen Return Fellowship of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation 2021
Head researcher(s): Sebastian Kirsch


23 Apr 2021 · 4.00 pm

Sebastian Kirsch: “Where the sun does not come, there the doctor comes”: Naturalism as Scenic Ecology


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