A Play About Wittgenstein

21 February 2011


William Lyons wrote a comment to my post The Ludwig Wittgenstein Reading Club regarding the production of his play about Wittgenstein. I invited him to write about this in more detail. What follows is from Mr. Lyons.

Perhaps a bit of background may help. I’ve been a student or teacher of philosophy for most of my life (I’m now officially in retirement since 2004, according to current EU rules) but, in my later years, I became interested in theatre. In particular I’ve become involved with what I call “theatre of thought” — the attempt by me to write plays that are more thoughtful and challenging than the usual fare. In particular I’ve engaged with such topics as intellectual courage and cowardice, honour and treachery, integrity and the lack of it. The scenery in which I’ve sought to dramatize these concerns has been the lives of some famous philosophers.

The play, “The Crooked Roads” (the title is part of a famous quote from Blake, a poet much admired by Wittgenstein), is centred on the life of the Austrian-British philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and is about the traumatic and alienating effects of the life of and with a genius. It was completed at the end of 2004 and won the START Chapbooks drama competition, run annually in conjunction with the Clonmel Literary Festival, in Ireland, 2005. The chief adjudicator in this “open entry and blind adjudication” competition was the scholar of contemporary Irish theatre (particularly of the work of Brian Friel), Dr Patrick Burke. In his report he said that “The characters are well drawn within a delicate and keenly crafted plot that both satisfies and informs the audience. Lyons has succeeded in giving us a tight lens through which to examine his subject”. Among the places that we applied to for a grant to support a professional production of the play was the APA (American Philosophical Association). The APA were both very generous and very encouraging. The chief adjudicator of the APA review process involved took the trouble to write to me personally saying that “it [the play] was terrifically interesting and beautifully done…I much look forward to seeing it on stage…So many, indeed virtually all details throughout struck me as just right in tone and spirit… Almost forgot: absolutely brilliant closing line of Ottoline’s: ‘What about them?’”

As Wittgenstein is the most famous philosopher of the twentieth century, every indentured academic in philosophy or student majoring in philosophy will come across the work of Wittgenstein. I became very interested in his work, in particular in what is often described as the radical changing of his views about language and meaning from his earlier “Tractatus period” to his later “Investigations period”. But at the same time I became fascinated by his life and read as much as I could about his life and background. In particular I was struck by the intensity and seriousness of his intellectual and moral integrity which in turn, however, led so often to angry and disappointed feelings towards those around him whom, he felt, often did not merely not live up to these same high ideals but did not even seek to embrace them. I also became very interested in what seemed to me to be his traumatic experiences during WW1 (with the background of the ordeals of his brothers in that same war). In a sense, before WW1 he was a young, very clever and very ambitious bourgeois Austrian intellectual, perhaps thinking of a career in academia. After WW1 he seemed to want to divest himself of all this –- of his nationality and family, his wealth and academic ambitions — and to live an austere hidden life. But, of course, his intellectual brilliance and high ideals made sure that he was a failure at the “humble tasks” that he chose to do, such as school teaching, and drew him back to philosophy. Then there is the tension in Wittgenstein between wanting to avoid academic posturing and his desire to stop his “students” from plagiarising or misusing his work, a tension between intellectual pride and personal humility. So the play seeks to bring out all the ten sions with Wittgenstein and between Wittgenstein and others. It is a picture of a troubled but brilliant soul.

The director of “Wittgenstein (The Crooked Roads)” is Nick Blackburn, who is a recent graduate in English (PhD, with an emphasis on drama) from Wittgenstein’s old college, Trinity College, Cambridge. He is also a graduate of the Young Vic “Genesis” Directors’ Programme and has worked with the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio at Cambridge, with the ENO (English National Opera) in London and with the Wooster Group in New York. My understanding is that, in bringing this Wittgenstein drama to the modern stage, he has been working with the young Austrian award-winning film director, Christoph Rainer, so that there will be “filmed elements”. I don’t know the details as, in this post-modern age, “the text” becomes the property of the director and cast, and the author is kept firmly at arm’s length!

Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London, is probably the equivalent of Off-Broadway or even Off-Off-Broadway but is a theatre noted for putting on new and innovative drama. It also includes a cinema and art galleries, and so is a centre for the arts in west London.

A second “theatre of thought” play of mine, “The Fir Tree and the Ivy”, is about “trahison des clercs” played out against the background of the rise of National Socialism and the complex relationship between the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, and his one-time student and later famous political thinker, Hannah Arendt. It was completed in 2005 and won the prestigious Eamon Keane Full Length Play Competition in 2006, part of the annual Listowel Writers’ Week, in Ireland. The chief adjudicator in this “open entry and blind adjudication” competition was Ben Barnes, Artistic Director at the Abbey Theatre 2000-2005.

A third “theatre of thought” play, “Nimbus Clouds”, the earliest, is a comedic “Greek” play that includes a Greek chorus who sing and dance their lines. The play is based very loosely on Aristophanes’ “Clouds”. The characters are borrowed from that play as also is a little of the structure, but the text itself, now a serio-comic drama about the fragility of morality and the hazards of education, is completely new. Centrally, for Aristophanes’ caricature of Socrates as a buffoon, there is substituted the wise and ironic Socrates of Plato’s dialogues. This play won a minor award in an international dialogue competition that included a rehearsed reading of a segment by actors of the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden in Stockholm. It was also given a full rehearsed-and-acted reading, sponsored by the Society of Irish Playwrights at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin, directed by Colette O’Connor with actors from the Abbey Theatre. It has since been developed into a full-length play.

I hope the above makes a little clearer the sort of drama I am interested in and the sort of play “Wittgenstein (The Crooked Roads)” is.

With my best wishes to all at “The Ludwig Wittgenstein Reading Club”,

William Lyons

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