Contemporary Democratic Politics: A Theatre



The English word ‘theater’ is rooted through the Latin ‘theātrum’ in the Greek word ‘théātron’, which is on its turn derived from the Greek verb ‘theásthai‘, meaning ‘watch’ or ‘look at’.1 And indeed already in antique Greek and Roman times did people watch and look at dramatic plays or other spectacles in a theatre. Since those times no essential things have changed. Because in contemporary days still dramatic representations are being watched there.2 Three words (given by the dictionary) bubble to the surface here. These regard the nouns ‘play’ and ‘representation’, and the adjective ‘dramatic’. Since these three regard the focus of attention in a theatre it might be rewarding to have a closer look at them.

Let us start with the word ‘play’, which is rooted in the Old-English ‘pletha’.3 It seems etymologically to be a rather isolated word that up till now has hardly been related to other words.4 In this isolation it is carrying several meanings. Sifting out the older meanings among these by dispensing the more recent ones, the roots of this word may be laid bare as deeply as possible. Now the oldest recorded meaning (c. 700) considers ‘play’ as being a game.5 Around the same time (c. 725) ‘play’ is used to indicate a brisk or free movement or action.6 And (relatively) a little later (c.893) ‘play’ is recorded as referring back to a dramatic or theatrical performance.7 Later meanings have most likely sprouted from the aforementioned ones. So in its depth does ‘play’ refer to a game where free movement or action is involved.

The second word that bubbled to the surface regards the word ‘representation’. This word stems from the Latin word ‘repraesent(āt)iō’, which is compounded of ‘re’ and ‘praesent(āt)iō’.8 Now ‘praesentiō’ is again a compound word, consisting of ‘prae’ and ‘sentiō’.9 With ‘prae’ meaning ‘in front of’ or ‘before’10 and with ‘sentiō’ pertaining to sense perception,11 does ‘praesentiō’ denote ‘before the senses’. And with ‘re’ carrying meanings like ‘back’ and ‘again’ may ‘repraesent(āt)iō’ be taken to mean ‘again before the senses’. Thus it may be concluded that in a representation something is perceived, which has already been perceived before.

So what about the adjective ‘dramatic’? This adjective is of course rooted in the noun ‘drama’. And this word can be traced back into antique Greek language, where the word ‘drama’ carried meanings like ‘deed’ and ‘action’.12 In this we may see how these original meanings have been preserved in the contemporary use of the word ‘drama’. For dramatic plays, or simply ‘drama’s’, are performed by actors and are divided into different acts. And with ‘act’ having the very same root as ‘action’,13 it is clear that the notion of action is still lively present in our contemporary understanding of drama. That this is so does however not make ‘act’ and ‘drama’ equivalent terms. A drama may be considered to be the whole of a multiplicity of acts. The drama is the whole, containing all its particular acts.

Now the question rises how the above meanings may be fitted into what happens in a theatre. In a theatre one watches a play, a representation, a drama. One watches a drama so one watches acts taking place. What kind of acts? Acts that have been seen already. One watches representational acts in a theatre. That these acts are representational means that they are not original acts themselves. They are representations and not presentations. They may appear to be original, but in reality they are not.14 This means that such acts are unrestricted by reality. For appearances are obviously not restricted by what is real. And in that sense these acts are free acts, and as such thus playful acts.

But the participants of the entire game that is being played at a theatre concern not only the actors. The spectators play along too. For if the latter see on stage what has been seen already originally also, then they should be able to clearly discern between the reality of the original acts and the appearance of the representational acts. And if they would let this discrimination prevail, then the theatrical game would be over. For no act would then be of interest to the spectator. Saying; ‘nothing on stage is real’, the drama would make no sense to him. He would regard it as nonsense. Thus the spectators pretend as if the drama they are watching is real, even though in the background they know very well that it is mere appearance. And in their pretending they play along with the game that takes place in the theatre.

Contemporary Democratic Politics

So what does the above sketch of what is happening at a theatre have to do with contemporary democratic politics? For the title of this contemplation clearly implies such a relation. When the concepts that were treated in the previous paragraph are indicated in contemporary democratic politics may this relation be made clear. For this it will be helpful to first have a brief look at what happens in contemporary democratic systems. ‘Democracy’ comes from the Greek word ‘dēmokratíā’, which is compounded of the words ‘demos’ (people), and ‘kratíā’ (rule).15 So in a democracy the people inhabiting a certain district (for ‘demos’ meant in older Greek times simply ‘district’ or ‘land’) are the rulers. In contemporary democracies this rule of the people is shaped into a system where politicians are elected by these people to represent them.16 And here we already touch upon the first concept which is also found in a theatre, namely; ‘representation’. In contemporary democratic systems do politicians represent. When a politician has won an election he will enter the political stage like an actor entering the stage in a theatre. And where the theatrical actor in general represents a person, there does the political actor represent a group of people. Phrasing his lines does the theatrical actor represent the voice of a certain person, and phrasing his lines does the political actor represent the voice of a certain group. Appearing both to be what they are not, it is befitting to say that they both make their appearance on the stage, be it a theatrical stage or a political stage.

Now it may be said that political representation does not only take place in a democracy. For communist leaders may also be considered to be representatives. They may not represent the voice of a group of people, as is the case in a contemporary democracy, however they do represent an ideal. Communist leaders represent the ideal of the communistic society. This makes them clearly distinctive from for instance simple power-hungry dictators who represent no group and no ideal whatsoever. Still is (contemporary) communism with its representative leaders not as much a theatre as is (contemporary) democracy. For what contemporary communism among other things distinguishes from contemporary democracy is that it doesn’t truly have spectators. Especially since the mass media has made its entrance have the political stages of democracies been centre’s of attention. This in contrary to communistic states where censorship has kept the curtains of the stage closed during most of the acts. Democratic politicians however are being watched intensively, and being very aware of this fact they try to play their role as convincingly as possible.

Contemporary democratic politicians try to play their role as convincingly as possible. They play. This means that they act on the political stage in an unbound way. In this they are very similar to the theatrical actor. Such an actor plays a role on stage, but he is not bound by his acts because he is not the true person which he represents. He may play the role of Romeo, stabbing Paris and taking in poison, however he is not bound by these acts. He will not truly have killed another, and he will not die by taking in the poison. For these acts were mere play. Similarly is the contemporary democratic politician not bound by his acts. He represents a group, but in playing this role of representative he is not personally receiving the same benefits or harms as do the people who gave him their vote. If a majority wants stricter police control in their neighborhoods, and the political representative acts this wish out on the political stage, then it will be the regarded majority that may find itself being preventively body-searched on the street, and not the political actor.

That the contemporary democratic politician is an actor should also be clear. After all is politics all about acting. Legislative acts have their root at the political stage.17 At the beginning of his period of rule does the elected politician enter the political stage. There he plays his role by acting out the acts that make him a representative of the voice of the majority that voted for him. Now when one looks back at his period of rule, numerous acts can be discerned. And it can be said that the whole of these acts constitute a political drama. Just as the whole of theatrical acts constitute a theatrical drama. A democratic period of governance is a political drama. And the spectators will determine whether a sequential will come after new elections.

Now about the spectators in the theatre it was said that they participate in the game that is taking place there. In the back of their consciousness they are very well aware that they are watching appearances and not reality. However they deliberately keep this awareness at the background to keep the game going. If they would stop giving meaning and importance to what is happening on the stage, then the game would end. But they deliberately came to the theatre to be fooled in such a way. They paid to get fooled and they want worth for their money. Thus they simply keep pretending as if the appearances on stage are real. And again we see this reflected in contemporary democratic politics. People in general are very well able to see that politicians are often putting up a show in debate. However just like the theatrical spectator invests money in being fooled, so does the political spectator also invest in being fooled, namely with his vote. He gave away his vote, and now he wants the politician to pay him back with a good and representative performance on the political stage. In this he is not different from the theatrical spectator.

So. Politicians are acting. The voters know very well that politicians are acting. And the politicians know very well that the voters know very well that they are acting. But by consent of all participants does the play continue. Contemporary democratic politics: A theatre.

  1. John Ayto, Word Origins, The Hidden Histories of English Words from A to Z, A & C Black, London, 2005, p. 503.
  2. Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), Oxford University Press, 2009, under ‘theatre, theater, n.’, 1a and 2a.
  3. Ibidem, under ‘play, n.’.
  4. Word Origins, p. 381.
  5. Oxford English Dictionary, under ‘play, n.’, 8. a.
  6. Ibidem, †1a.
  7. Ibidem, 14a.
  8. Word Origins, p. 421, under ‘represent’.
  9. Oxford Latin Dictionary, Oxford University Press, London, 1968, p. 1440.
  10. Ibidem, p. 1420.
  11. Ibidem, p. 1736, 1737.
  12. Word Origins, p. 176.
  13. Ibidem, p. 6.
  14. See: ‘Reduction (and Pseudo-Reduction)’, Index: 201004221, under ‘Reality and Appearance’.
  15. Word Origins, p. 157.
  16. Mark Bevir (editor), Encyclopedia of Governance, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks / London / New Delhi, 2007, p. 207 ff.
  17. Oxford English Dictionary, under ‘act, n.’, 5.
  • ‘Reduction (and Pseudo-Reduction)’, Index: 201004221.
  • John Ayto, Word Origins, The Hidden Histories of English Words from A to Z, A & C Black, London, 2005.
  • Mark Bevir (editor), Encyclopedia of Governance, SAGE Publications, Thousand Oaks / London / New Delhi, 2007.
  • Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition on CD-ROM (v. 4.0), Oxford University Press, 2009.
  • Oxford Latin Dictionary, Oxford University Press, London, 1968.