Excerpts from Søren Kierkegaard’s Repetition

On the nature of farce.


in Archive


They show farces in the Königstädter Theatre. The people who gather
there are thus naturally very diverse. He who would study the pathology
of laughter in a variety of estates and temperaments, ought not to lose
the opportunity offered by the performance of a farce. The shouts and
shrill laughter from the gallery and the second balcony are something
completely different from the applause of a sophisticated and critical
audience. It is a constant accompaniment without which farce could not
be performed. Farce is associated, for the most part, with the baser
aspects of life and thus those in the gallery and the second balcony
recognize themselves immediately. Their noise and shouts of “bravo” are
not judgments of the esthetic approval of individual actors, but purely
lyrical outbursts of their own wellbeing. They are not even conscious
of themselves as an audience, but would like to be down with the actors
on the street or wherever the scene happens to take place. Since,
however, the theatrical distance makes this impossible, they conduct
themselves like children who are allowed to watch a commotion in the
street only through the window. The orchestra and the first balcony[1] also shake with laughter, even if it is of an essentially different sort from the Cimbrian-Teutonic[2]
screeching emanating from the cheaper seats. There is an infinitely
nuanced variety of laughter even here and in a completely different
sense than one would have with the performance of a first-class comedy.
Whether one considers it a perfection or an imperfection, this is how
it is. Every ordinary esthetic category fails when it comes to farce,
which is in no way able to bring about a uniform mood on the part of
the more sophisticated public, because with farce, the effect depends
largely upon the observer’s own energetic contribution. The
individuality of the observer asserts itself here in an entirely
different sense and is thus in its enjoyment emancipated from all
esthetic obligations such as to be moved emotionally, to laugh, to
admire, etc., in the traditional manner. To watch a farce is, for the
sophisticated, like playing the lottery only without the unpleasantness
of winning money. Such uncertainty does not serve the ordinary
theatre-going public. They like, therefore, to denigrate farce or look
down on it contemptuously, which is the worse for them. A real
theatre-going public generally has a certain narrow-minded seriousness.
They want, or in any case imagine they want, to be educated and
ennobled by the theatre. They want to have had, or at least to imagine
they have had a rare artistic pleasure. They want, as soon as they have
read the poster, to be able to know in advance, how the evening will
go. Such prescience is impossible with farce because the same farce can
leave two very different impressions and what is strange is that it can
be least effective when it is best performed. One cannot therefore
trust the reviews of friends and neighbors and the newspapers
concerning whether it was entertaining. That determination can be made
only by the individual. No critic has yet been able to prescribe an
etiquette for a sophisticated theatre-going public, that watches a
farce. No bon ton[3]
can be established in this way. The otherwise so reassuring mutual
respect between the theatre and the public is suspended. A farce can
put one in the most unpredictable mood. One can thus never know with
certainty whether while in the theatre, he behaved as a respectable
member of society who has laughed and cried in the right places. One
cannot, as a conscientious spectator admire the finely developed
characters that are necessary in a drama because the characters in a
farce are all abstract generalizations. The situation, the action, the
lines — everything is an abstract generalization. One can thus just as
easily become sad as doubled over with laughter.

No effect of a farce is brought about through irony, but through naïveté. The spectator must therefore become involved as an individual with the spectacle. The naïveté of farce is so illusory that it is impossible for the sophisticated to relate to it naïvely. But it is precisely the relating of the spectator to farce from which much of the amusement comes and he must be willing to dare to risk this, though he will seek vainly to the right and to the left and in the newspapers for a guarantee that he has actually been amused. For a sophisticated person, on the other hand, who is still unembarrassed enough to dare to be amused all by himself, who has enough self confidence to know, without seeking advice from anyone else, whether he has been amused, farce will perhaps have a very special meaning in that now with the spaciousness of abstraction and now with the presentation of a tangible actuality, it will affect his mood differently. He will, of course refrain from bringing a fixed and definite mood with him so that everything affects him in relation to that mood. He will have perfected his mood in that he will be able to keep himself in a condition where no particular mood is present, but where all moods are possible.

The farces performed in the Königstädter Theatre are, to my mind, absolutely first class. My opinion is, of course, completely my own. I would not impose it on anyone else and decline any pressure to change it. In order for farce to be performed with complete success, the cast must have a particular composition. There should be two, maximum three seriously talented, or more accurately, creative geniuses. They must be the children of high spirits, intoxicated with laughter, humor’s dancers, who even if at other times, even the moment before, are just like everyone else, immediately upon hearing the stage manager’s bell are transformed, and like the noble Arabian horse, begin to snort and groan, while their nostrils expand witnessing to the exertions of the spirit in them that wants to come out and tumble about wildly. They are not so much reflective artists who have studied laughter, as they are lyricists who plunge themselves into the abyss of laughter and then let its volcanic might cast them onto the stage. They have not therefore so much calculated what they are going to be as they have allowed the moment and the natural power of laughter take care of everything. They have the courage to do what the individual ventures to do only when he is alone, what the insane do in the presence of everyone, what the genius knows how to do, with the authority of genius, certain of laughter. They know that their exuberance has no bounds, that there is in them an inexhaustible source of the comical which at each moment almost surprises themselves. They know that they are able to sustain the laughter for the whole evening, without any more effort than I exert in putting this down on paper.

When a theatre known for farces has two such geniuses, that is enough, three is the absolute maximum, more weakens the effect, just as a person dies of hypertension. The other actors do not have to be talents, it is better if they’re not. They don’t even have to be attractive. It’s best if they are a completely contingent seeming collection on the order of the group that, according to a drawing by Chodowiecki,[4] founded Rome. They can even have physical defects, in fact such defects can be a good thing. The fact that one of the actors might be bowlegged, or knock-kneed, overly tall, or unnaturally short — all such defects can be of use in farce. The effects they produce can be incalculable. The accidental is the closest thing to the ideal. It has been said that one can divide humanity into officers, serving girls and chimney sweeps. This remark is, I believe, not merely witty, but also profound. One would have to be a great speculative talent to come up with a better division. When categories do not ideally exhaust their objects, then the contingent is in all respects preferable because it gets the imagination going. A more or less correct classification while not entirely satisfactory to the understanding, is nothing to the imagination and is therefore rejected even if it is useful in everyday contexts as a result partly of the fact that people just are not very smart and partly because they do not have much imagination. In the theatre, a character must be presented either as the absolutely perfect incarnation of some ideal, or as completely contingent. Serious theatres should deliver the first type. Too often, however, it is considered enough if an actor is a good-looking fellow, well built, with a face appropriate to the theatre and a good voice. This rarely satisfies me because his performance eo ipso awakens the critic in me and as soon as this is aroused it becomes difficult to determine what is required to be a human being, and equally difficult to fulfill the requirement. One would have to agree with me on this point when one remembers that Socrates, who despite being very knowledgeable about human nature and having a great deal of self knowledge, did not know with certainty whether he was “a more complex creature and more puffed up with pride than Typhon, or a simpler, gentler being whom heaven ha[d] blessed with a quite un-Typhonic nature.”[5] In farce, on the other hand, the subordinate characters function very well in this sort of abstract category: Person in general, and achieve this through being some contingent concretion. Thus one comes no farther than to actuality. One should not come any farther. The spectator is comically reconciled to the sight of this contingency laying claim to do ideality, which it does by appearing in the artificial world which is the theatrical stage. If there is to be an exception in one of the subordinate characters, then it must be the female love interest. She must of course in no way be an artist, be one must make sure, however, in selecting her that she is attractive, that her whole appearance, her movements on the stage, are warm and salutary, that she is pleasant to look at, pleasant, so to speak, to have around.

The composition of the actors at the Königstädter Theater is more or less what I would wish. If I were to make an objective, it would be in relation to the subordinate actors, because I have no problem whatever with Beckmann[6] and Grobecker.[7] Beckmann is clearly a comic genius who loses himself lyrically in the comical, not through character development, but through ebullience. He is not great in terms of what is commensurable with art, but admirable in terms of what is incommensurable — the individual and unique. He requires no support from the other actors, and none from the scenery or music. Precisely because he is in the right mood, he brings with him everything that is required. He paints himself into the scene independently of any scenographer, even while he gives himself over to an ecstasy of abandon. What Baggesen says about Sara Nichols, that she comes charging into a scene bringing a whole rural area with her on her heels is true of B. as well, except that he walks into a scene. With a serious theatre, one rarely sees an actor who can actually walk or stand well. I have seen only one. But what B. is able to do, I have never seen before. He does not just walk, he comes walking. To come walking is something completely different, and with this ingenious action he sets the whole scene. He does not just represent an itinerant apprentice lad, he can walk into a scene as this character in such a way that one experiences everything. One glimpses the smiling village from the dust of the country road, hears the sounds of its peaceful activity, sees the footpath that runs down along the pond and how it swings off by the blacksmith’s shop, when one sees B. come walking with a little bundle on his back, his staff in his hand, carefree and indefatigable. He can come walking into a scene followed by invisible street urchins. Even Dr. Ryge in King Solomon and Jørgen the Hatter cannot produce such an effect.[8] Yes, Mr. B. is a real economy for a theatre because if one has him, there is no need either for the urchins, or for that matter, any props. This itinerant apprentice is, however, not a developed character, it is too thrown together in what are in truth its masterful contours. It is an incognito in which the lunatic demon of the comical lives and from which it leaps forth transporting everything into licentiousness. In this respect, B.’s dancing is incomparable. He has sung his couplet and now begins to dance. What B. dares here is backbreaking because he does not presumably venture to affect the audience in the strictest sense through his graceful movements. He is well beyond this. The lunatic laughter that is in him cannot be contained in either physical form or spoken lines. Only, a Münchhausen-like,[9] grabing oneself by the neck and repeatedly transcending oneself in a crazy, riotous sort of leapfrog captures this spirit.  An individual can, as I said, recognize what relief lies in this, but to be able to do this on stage, that takes a genius. That requires the authority of genius, otherwise it will be the utterly loathsome.

Every burlesque comic ought to have a voice that is instantly recognizable from the wings so that he can thus prepare the way for himself. B. has an excellent voice, which is not, of course, identical here with good vocal chords. Grobecker’s voice is harsher, but one word from him on the stage has the same effect as three blows on a trumpet in Dyrhavesbakken.[10] It makes one receptive to the humorous. In this respect I would say that Gr. has an advantage over B. There is in B. a fundamental wildness, an unruly intelligence through which he achieves a kind of lunacy. Gr., on the other hand, climbs at times through the soulful and sentimental to lunacy. I remember having seen him once in a farce represent an estate manager, who, because of his devotion to the noble family he served and because of his belief that the purpose of festive occasions was to beautify the lives of this family, thinks only of having the rural pleasures in readiness for the family’s ceremonious arrival. Everything is ready. Gr. chose to represent the god Mercury. He did not alter his overseer’s costume at all. He simply put wings on his feet and a helmet on his head. He affects a picturesque pose, standing on one leg, and prepares to give his speech. Gr. is not so great a lyrical talent as B., but he is on the same lyrical good terms with laughter. He has a certain inclination to correctness, and in this respect often performs masterfully, especially in the dryly comical. He is not a leavening agent for the entire farce in the sense that B. is. He is a genius though, and genius for farce.

One enters Königstädter Theatre. One takes his seat in the first balcony, because the crowd will be relatively small and when one watches a farce, one needs to be comfortable and not in the least disturbed by the importance of art, that leads people to allow themselves to be packed into a theatre in order to see a piece as if their eternal salvation depended on it. The air in the theatre is also quite fresh, free of contamination from the sweat of artistic connoisseurs, or the exhalations of art lovers. One can be fairly certain of securing a box all to oneself in the first balcony. If this does not happen, then may I suggest to the reader, in order that he can gain some useful knowledge from what I write here, box nr. five or six to the left. There is a nook in the back where there is a single seat that is incomparably comfortable. One sits alone in his box. The theatre is empty. The orchestra plays an overture. The music rings throughout the hall, somewhat unheimlich[11] given the place is so empty. One has not come to the theatre as a tourist, not as an esthete or critic, but if possible as nothing whatever, and one is as satisfied with the fact that he is a comfortably seated as if he were in his own livingroom. The orchestra is finished. The curtain has already begun to rise just slightly. Then the other orchestra begins, the one that does not follow the conductor’s baton, but follows an inner instinct, this other orchestra, the natural sounds from the gallery which has already sensed B. in the wings. I generally sat far back in the box and thus could not see either the second balcony or the gallery which cast a shadow over my head like that of a huge hat. What had an even more fantastical effect was that while this noise penetrated everything, everywhere I looked, the place appeared to be largely empty. The huge space of the theatre thus became for me transformed into a belly like that of the whale in which Jonah sat. The noise from the gallery was like the rumblings of the whale’s viscera. From the moment the gallery begins to stir, no other music is needed because B animates it and it B.

My unforgettable nursemaid, you fugitive nymph who lived in the stream that ran past my father’s farm and who always played along with me even though it was simply for your own pleasure! You, my faithful comforter, you who with the passing of the years preserved your innocent purity, who never aged, even while I became old, you quite nymph in whom I repeatedly sought refuge, so tired of people, so tired of myself, that I needed an eternity to rest, so sad that I needed an eternity to forget, you never denied me, what human beings wanted to deny me by making eternity just as busy and even more terrible than time. I would lie next to you then and lose myself in the immense space of the sky above me and in your peaceful murmuring! You, my happier self, you fleeting life that lives in the stream that runs next to my father’s farm, where I lie stretched out as if I were a walking stick someone had lain on the ground, but I am saved and liberated in the melancholy murmuring! — thus I lay in my box, tossed away like the clothes of a bather, stretched out beside the stream of shouting and laughter and general abandon, that continuously rushed past me. I could see nothing apart from the space of the theatre, hear nothing but its sounds. Only now and then would I get up to watch Beckmann, laugh until I was so tired and satisfied that I would sink back down again by the side of the rushing river.

1 The orchestra and the first balcony: These were the most expensive seats and would generally have been occupied by a more cultured audience than one would find in the cheaper seats.

2 Cimbrian-Teutonic:  Celtic or Germanic peoples, in this context, crude and “uncivilized.”

3 bon ton:  Good tone.

4 Chodowiecki:  Daniel Chodowiecki produced engravings as illustrations for a satirical version of Virgil’s Aeneid that Kierkegaard owned. One depicted the founding of Rome.

5 Socrates . . . Typhon:  In Plato’s Phaedrus 229e – 230a, Socrates wonders (perhaps ironically) whether he is a human being (with a more or less stable essence) or instead a changeable  sea monster like Typhon. In his long reflections on the theater, Constantine-Kierkegaard clearly tilts toward the idea that persons are inwardly variable, changeable, and uncanny. The wording here is from The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Including the Letters, eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Bollingen Series LXXI, Princeton University Press, 1961).

6 Beckman: Friederich Beckman (1803-1866) was one of the leading actors in the Königsberg Theatre in the early 1840s (from SKS K4, p. 50).

7 Grobecker: Phillipe Grobecker (1815-1883), was another leading actor at the Konigstädter in the early 1840s (from SKS K4, p. 50-51).

8 Even Dr. Ryge . . . an effect:   Contantine alludes to two actors well-known at the time, and Heiberg’s vaudville, King Solomon.

9 Münchhausen-like:  The fable had it that when Baron von Münchhausen fell in a bog, he rescued himself by hauling himself up by grabbing his coat collar.

10 Dyrhavesbakken:  A popular amusement park just outside Copenhagen.

11 unheimlich:  Eerily.


M.G. Piety is an associate professor of philosophy at Drexel University. She has published articles on philosophical topics in various books and in journals such as The History of European Ideas and The Journal of Business Ethics as well as in publications such as The Times Literary Supplement. She can be reached at mgpiety@drexel.edu.