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75th Anniversary: Publications

To Play's the Thing
by David Van Dyke '83

In June 1784, when he was only in his twenties, Johann Wolfgang Schiller was both a fugitive and a celebrity. He had recently deserted the army of his native duchy, thereby ending a sure career as an officer, and then fled to a neighboring German state to escape military justice. At the same time, the phenomenal success in 1782 of his first play had made him so famous that he was invited to speak two years later before a scholarly society in Mannheim on how the theater influences human identity. Schiller would continue to study this question, and in his own lifetime he became a prominent playwright and producer whose influence over Western theater continues today. Consequently, his Mannheim speech, which was later published as “The Stage Considered as a Moral Institution,” is a natural starting point for any discussion about the relationship between the theater and the Geist.[i] After discussing Stage as Moral Institution, I will present the main points of Schiller’s later thinking and discuss how it leads to surprisingly contemporary insights for the theater student and practitioner.

At the very end of his speech, Schiller claimed that the theater’s purpose is no less than to teach us how “to be human.” Despite coming from a very pious family with strong military ties, Schiller believed that neither the church nor the state could beget true humanity. Instead, he argued, the stage is, “more than any other public institution, a school of practical wisdom, a guide to our daily lives, an infallible key to the most secret accesses of the human soul.”[ii] By watching great characters (either historical or fictional) face moral challenges and personal adversity, the audience receives examples of right thinking and true morals that they can imitate.[iii] In other words, Schiller sees the theater as normative since it presents norms or ideals to which we should aspire.

This approach to the theater is not purely intellectual. Rather, as Schiller told his listeners, “…the stage brings before us a rich array of human woes. It artfully involves us in the troubles of others, and rewards us for this momentary pain with tears of delight and a splendid increase in our courage and experience.” Ultimately, if the theater works all of its intended effects, Schiller swoons, “the clouds of barbarism and gloomy superstition disperse; night yields to triumphant light.”

This view of theater might seem desirable to those who know the list in Hebrews 11 of Old Testament patriarchs who are named as examples of faith, or with the apostolic exhortation, “Whatsoever things are true, ... think on these things” (Phil. 4:8). However, there are three distinct faults with a normative model of the theater. First, the theater that proposes to depict examples of morality will eventually devolve into moralism and melodrama. Too often the literary or dramatic quality of such a play is (falsely) equated with the passionate response (“momentary pain” and “tears of delight,” as Schiller put it) that it produces in the audience. What is worse, in such plays good and evil are oversimplified, the characters and their actions are shallow, and the “moral lessons” they convey are ineffectual because they are unrelated to the audience’s real milieu.[iv]

Second, a logical problem appears in this kind of theater when one considers its intended audience. The complex poetry Schiller and his contemporaries used was obviously directed toward a well-educated audience. Further, to feel “pain and delight” at the deeds of dramatic characters, such an audience must have the capacity for empathy with another person’s suffering. Finally, each audience member must be able to transfer the lessons presented on the stage into his own life. In sum, then, the audience that Schiller had in mind was made up of literate adults with a capacity for emotional understanding, moral judgment, and self-reflection. In other words, they already possessed the very qualities that a normative theater was supposed to produce in them! In philosophy, “begging the question” means trying to prove a point by using the conclusion as a supporting thesis, and, at least in this regard, Schiller’s argument begs the question.

Finally, besides this logical problem and the artistic difficulty mentioned earlier, “Stage as Moral Institution” conspicuously lacks one piece of information that is needed to understand how the theater influences human identity: a definition of human identity and its healthy development. In his speech, Schiller merely claims that the audience will imitate examples of morality that they see on stage, but this assumption defies the facts of human nature, and it ignores a host of factors that make it hard to identify with fictional characters. For all of these reasons, “Stage as Moral Institution” does not explain how the theater relates to human identity.

Perhaps one can overlook the weaknesses in “Moral Institution” when one realizes it was the product of a young idealist. Fortunately for the world of theater, in little more than a decade Schiller grew into an internationally famous historian, professor, and dramatist. Likewise, his understanding of the Geist and its relationship to the arts became more complex and mature, and his later conclusions were published in 1795 as “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man.” In this daunting philosophical work Schiller describes the workings of the mind, precisely the information that was missing from “Moral Institution.” I will briefly present that model, then explore a curious paradox at the heart of the “Letters.” Unlike the logical error in “Moral Institution,” this paradox makes Schiller’s argument all the more applicable to today’s theater student, as I hope to show.

The model of the mind Schiller offers in “Letters” is inherently dramatic. In brief, human life is characterized by the collision of two different mental forces, the sensual drive and the “drive to form.”[v] The sensual drive craves satisfaction of its appetites; therefore, this dynamic drive merges with the world outside of itself to consume whatever it needs. The drive to form, on the other hand, is static and seeks the order of pure abstraction. Consequently, it draws boundaries between itself and whatever is disharmonious. Each of these two drives seeks its own satisfaction, but they are natural opposites. The conflict that results from this opposition defines human experience. Schiller adds, however, that neither drive can ever fully dominate the mind nor be defeated by the other because the absence of either rationality or sensuality defies the definition of humanity (14th letter). Indeed, both drives are necessary for human life.

But the mere presence of these two contrasting drives is not evidence of humanity. Rather, a third drive, the “drive to play,” engages and harmonizes the other two without negating either. When activated in play, the base interior human conflict is transformed into something productive and civilized. However, Schiller stressed that play is not merely a beneficial addition to the mind; it is absolutely essential to human identity: Man plays only when he is man in the fullest sense of the word, and he is only fully human when he plays. (15th Letter; emphasis in the original).

Exactly what Schiller meant by “play” has provoked critical debate for centuries, a debate that is far beyond the scope of this essay. But what is important here is his explanation of where play happens, or where it is experienced. He states that play refers to “that which is neither subjectively nor objectively contingent, and yet compels neither outwardly nor inwardly” (15th Letter). In contrast to the drive to form and the sensual drive, the drive to play depends neither on what is inside of us nor on what is outside of us. This statement is a paradox: it defies logical conditions, yet it must be true nonetheless. Logic requires that we are either “driven from” the inside or are “drawn towards” something outside.

Therefore, how could any experience or any part of human identity be neither inside of us nor outside of us? Nonetheless, Schiller claims that play, the sine qua non of human identity, is neither subjective nor objective.

Lest one think Schiller was being purposely obtuse here or simply phrased himself poorly, a similar paradox appears in his description of mental development. He explains carefully that the mind develops in distinct stages (specifically, the sensual drive develops before the drive to form) and that these two drives can be experienced separately from each other. Thus, we either sense ourselves as connected to the outside world when obeying the impulses of the sensual drive, or as distinct from the world when abstract reason dominates. This formulation seems obvious to the casual observer, [vi] but within his argument there appears this surprising footnote:

I must mention that these two periods must be separated from one another in concept, but in experience they are more or less mixed. Further, one must not think that there ever was a time when man is only in this physical state and a time when he has fully separated himself from it. (25th Letter)

In other words, Schiller admits in this footnote that the distinction between these two drives and their separate development aids his philosophical argument, but that this distinction does not reflect how humans really feel. As a result, human experience is best described as a mixture of being connected to and separate from the world. This paradoxical conclusion is identical to Schiller’s description of the “location” of play, and its repetition indicates how important paradox is to Schiller’s view of human identity.

While this footnote obviously reaches a different conclusion than Schiller’s foregoing philosophical argument, it does not negate that argument but rather complements it, in my view. That is possible because the footnote is the result not of a philosophical examination but of a psychological one.

Although Schiller used the tools of philosophy to craft his philosophical argument, he also admitted earlier that “man is neither exclusively matter nor is he exclusively spirit” (15th Letter). It follows, then, that a complete study of human identity must account for both abstract thought and human emotional experience. Such an examination requires using the (non-philosophical) skills of empathy and imagination, and Schiller was a master of those skills, as his dramas clearly show. Thus, I read this paradoxical footnote as the natural psychological conclusion to his preceding philosophical discussion.

Accepting the paradox inherent in human identity is key to understanding the relationship between the theater and human identity. Fortunately for Christians, paradoxes are easy to accept. In fact, basic Christian doctrines such as that of the Holy Trinity or the teaching that Christ has two natures in one person are paradoxical. Any Christian knows that these doctrines defy human logic but confesses that they are true nonetheless.

But if human identity is paradoxical, how can the theater influence it? If it can, how can we observe or understand that process? Answers to these questions are hard to find in the Letters, but they are found in the writings of a twentieth-century British psychoanalyst, D. W. Winnicott, whose theory of the mind and theory of play are based on the same paradox as Schiller’s. Winnicott describes identity formation in undeniably theatrical terms, and he describes the theater (and all cultural activity) in terms of human development. This congruence is what makes it possible for the theater to affect human identity so easily and so deeply.

To understand Winnicott’s views on the arts, I must first briefly introduce his hypothesis of human development. In his view, every newborn believes that it controls the universe. Its crying repeatedly causes warmth, food, dryness, and comfort to appear, thus confirming its fantasy that the outside world is commanded by its thoughts.[vii] However, at some point the outside world does not respond promptly or perfectly. According to the theory, this realization begins the baby’s “transition” away from the fantasy of omnipotence and towards life in the real world (with the rest of us!).

During this transition, the child chooses a special object (a teddy bear, blanket, or the like), a “transitional object,” that is experienced by the baby both as part of the real world (because it is tangible, visible, and manipulable) and as an extension of the baby’s internal world of thought and feeling at the same time. By playing with this transitional object, a physical repository of his intangible fantasies, the baby learns to associate its own feelings and ideas with the outside world it is entering.

In fact, says Winnicott, “on the basis of playing is built the whole of man’s experiential existence.”[viii] In other words, we do not know the world around us because we are told what it is and what it means, but because we experience it through play. Winnicott’s description of where play happens echoes Schiller’s: “Play is in fact neither a matter of inner psychic reality nor a matter of external reality” (96; emphasis original). Also, just as Schiller said that “man is only human when he plays,” so Winnicott insisted on the fundamental importance of play in human life:

It is in playing and only in playing that the individual ... is able to be creative and to use the whole personality, and it is only in being creative that the individual discovers the self. (54)

Since play appears developmentally before humans learn to speak, it is hardto define. Even though play was the focus of his professional study, Winnicott does not really define as much as describe it and its effects. For play to begin, the baby must be in an atmosphere of trust and safety (56); only then does the baby relax, detach from its surroundings, and eventually end up “lost in play” (13). In the broadest sense, play is an “intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute.” That is, inner and outer realities are not mixed in play; rather, they are “separate yet interrelated” (2). Play is naturally exciting and enjoyable, even though it often includes suspense or even a moderate degree of anxiety. While play is creative and spontaneous, it is also tenuous because it is “on the ... line between the subjective” and the objective (50).

Because play takes place in the real world and is subject to the laws of time and space, the child learns about cause-and-effect, anticipation of future success, and the frustration of failure. But because play also emerges directly from fantasy, the baby is always in control of events and its environment, so the game can be repeated and always be the same, and the baby always gets what it wants. Through play we learn to be powerful and to be weak; we learn to cope with decay and relish eternity. In other words, play allows us to experience the paradox inherent in human identity without threat to any part of it, and any such experience is naturally invigorating and pleasurable.

Winnicott’s view of play is intuitively correct, but, more importantly for this discussion, it also describes what happens in the theater. Actors and the audience enter into a special, temporary relationship of trust. During the performance, the people, sounds and events on the stage are obviously physically real, and yet the audience temporarily and willingly grants them the fantasy meaning they claim. Everyone involved accepts this paradox, and all participants are “lost” in intense (though fragile) concentration.

This similarity between the theater and human development is no coincidence. Indeed, Winnicott places shared cultural activity such as the theater on one end of a continuum of mental development opposite the infant’s transitional play. Between these two ends of the spectrum appears another crucial developmental step: shortly after the emergence of play, the growing baby invites someone to play with him, that is, to temporarily inhabit his “transitional space.” By serving as an extension of his fantasy life and being also fully, really, physically present, she reflects back its joy in playing and acknowledges the interior fantasies of the child in this shared space, thereby confirming the child’s emerging sense of reality. Gradually she also introduces her own fantasies into their play for the baby to share.

Nothing could be more important to the development of human identity than shared play, and nothing could be more theatrical. In other words, the theater resembles our most fundamental developmental activity, and because the theater is playful, we enter into it willingly and gladly. Honest self-examination confirms what modern psychology tells us, namely, that human identity is semper formandus, always being formed. Consequently, as Winnicott pointed out, “no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality” (13), and we all crave relief from this strain through various forms of play. At different developmental stages we gain such relief through activities like peek-a-boo, teasing, daydreaming, intense reading, or infatuation, but the theater is unique amongst all the various transformations of play for many reasons.

Only the theater can give specific name, voice, shape, depth, and a narrative context to our ideas and feelings by virtue of its artistic, linguistic and intellectual complexity. Further, more than any other art form, the theater permits us to share our earliest, most private ideas and feelings in an atmosphere of safety and trust; indeed, Winnicott’s clinical practice showed that when play is shared, its benefits are multiplied, not diluted. Because the theater is so concrete and yet so ephemeral, it confirms our reality by reflecting our paradoxicality back to us. The simultaneous sensations of control and vulnerability in both actors and audience teach us to tolerate the irresolvable paradox at the core of human identity, and the effects of a great drama on performers and patrons lead us to agree with Friedrich Nietzsche when he said, “Maturity means having found again the seriousness one had as a child: in play.”[ix]

In the theater and through the rules of fantasy, the constituent pieces of our humanity are “played with,” mixed, and rearranged. We can assess afresh and from a distance the building blocks of our (shared and individual) identity, judge their difference and similarity, and observe their interference and harmony while they are manipulated. We can even imagine and design a new identity, then explore it in a new world.

But at the same time the theater, like all play, is as real as we are, and the greatness of any play (like the ones Schiller wrote) is measured by the way it affects our lives in real time and space. Neither play nor the theater teaches morality directly, just as they do not teach feelings, language, or any other part of what makes us human, because both play and the theater are formative, not normative. Rather, those things are learned elsewhere and then brought into the theater as tools of play. Still, by entering this experimental space with our whole humanity, we learn which values are mutable and which are lasting, and which actions are harmful or helpful, and we learn the complex dimensionality of human identity. And those experiential lessons, which the theater provides with keen specificity and intensity, are at the root of moral thought and behavior.


[i] Like Angst or Weltanschauung, Geist translates poorly into English. It means “mind,” “spirit” or “psyche,” or a combination of all three. Thus, it means something like “human identity,” whose relationship with theater is the subject of this volume; also, it seems best to use this German term when discussing Schiller.

[ii] All quotations from Moral Institution here are from The Schiller
, trans. John Sigerson and John Chambless.

[iii] Conversely, characters’ moral faults and poor choices are negative examples to be avoided.

[iv] Those who expect explicit moral lessons from the theater can be frustrated by absurdist drama, as I learned at college when I directed a play that critiques modern American society. In the play, a woman and her husband threaten to pack her aging, feeble mother into a box and ship her away so they won’t have to care for her anymore. After the production, a classmate asked me how I could possibly direct a play at a Christian college “that was about cruelty to old people.” Because she presumed that the author’s meaning would be at the surface of the play’s plot and language, she did not see the ironic way the author exposed the cold, ridiculous emptiness of those who dispose of the weak or unwanted.

[v] Schiller’s use of the word “drive” is not identical to the way Sigmund Freud used it over a century later.

[vi] Obviously infancy (when life is occupied only with being fed and comforted) precedes adulthood (when morality and altruism rein in compulsions). Also, it would seem self-evident that someone who is acting out of passion is by definition not acting reasonably, and vice versa.

[vii] Anyone who has ever cared for a newborn has probably said the same thing at one point!

[viii] D.W. Winnicott, Playing and Reality (New York: Basic Books, 1971) 64.

[ix] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, §94.


More about the author

Learn more about David's memories of Calvin theatre and what he's up to now in his alumni profile.