Time structures in the theater
How Long Is the Present?

„Macbeth” by W. Shakespeare, director: Karin Henkel, Münchner Kammerspiele
„Macbeth” by W. Shakespeare, director: Karin Henkel, Münchner Kammerspiele | Photo (detail): © Julian Röder

In the theatre, attention is formed, focused and temporally extended under special conditions. Staged time structures ensure undivided attention, commitment and participation. Of the peculiar experience of the present on stage.

In the fifth act of the eponymous tragedy, Shakespeare’s Macbeth finds himself in a hopeless situation. He prepares for his last stand: ‘Come, come what may, / Time and hour runs through the roughest day’. His last consolation is the numbing of his emotions by conformity to the mechanical measures of a homogeneous, empty time. The regular striking of the hour of the mechanical clock and the ticking away of the seconds, however, differs fundamentally from the time of humane experience. Although the minutes and hours tick incessantly through our lives, they can never reduce our lives to units of the mechanical clock. The time of human experience does not run chronologically but is rather bundled and condensed into non-chronological presents that totally absorb our attention. The decisive question is therefore how long are these presents that are not clocked by the clock, and who or what sets the measure of their duration?

Empty and filled time

If we imagine time as a river or an arrow moving smoothly and irreversibly in one direction, the present then reduces itself to a dimensionless now-point, which is nothing but the sudden change of the future into the past. This now-point of the present is pure transition, and it is as such that Baudelaire describes it: fleeting, random, passing. Nothing sticks to it, nothing can be built on it. The sensory equipment of human beings is not made for this abstract time. Human beings cannot live in the now-point; they therefore stretch it out through retrospective remembrance and anticipatory apprehension so as to make room for experience, story-telling, memory and expectation, thought and existence.

The opposite pole of the abstract, measurable flow of time is the archaic experience of action-time. In the intuition of this time, time is always already filled and draws its rhythm from human activities. Our presents are largely structured as a series of action sequences: the time it takes to shower, to drink our morning coffee, to take the bus, to sit through a meeting, have a conversation, play a game of cards. Thus we too pass in time from one present to the next. Since most of these actions are repetitions of routines with fixed sequences, this kind of time generates only new variations of things already known and therefore predictable.

The lived present

The longing for the present as a unique, intensely experienced time stands in contrast to these patterns of recurrence. When Tolstoy was once dusting his room, he made an astonishing discovery. After he had been dusting for a while, he suddenly no longer knew whether he had dusted a certain part of the room or not. He could no longer remember the just accomplished work. When I no longer have a memory of a just lived-through present, then it has been wiped away as if it had never been. For Tolstoy, the not consciously lived life was equivalent to life not lived. Virginia Woolf came to a similar conclusion, distinguishing between moments of being and moments of non-being. Most of our lives, she noted, passes in a time that is lost motion and the associated state of non-being. In contrast to this, the precious moments of the lived present set themselves off all the more luminously, and yet they remain ‘embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool’.

Like Tolstoy, Woolf was concerned with this cotton wool of the lost, not lived present. The day is made up of nothing but presents that are filled by action-time, but this does not yield a fulfilled present. On the contrary, the patchwork of these presents seems downright to exclude the emphatic present. In 1916 the Russian art theorist Viktor Sklovskij, who studied the negative influence of automatisation on perception, wrote something similar. De-automatisation – that is, artistically induced alienation effects – can re-stimulate attention and the complication of form can prolong it. Precisely this is the purpose of art: to produce a fulfilled present and give it a scale.

The theatre as shaped present and enhancement of attention

There are presents into which we enter not by action but rather by the interruption of action. The theatre is the site of a different temporality, a hetero-chronotope. While outside, time continues to flow steadily, inside we enter another world with a beginning, middle and end. This triad is the alpha and omega of the artistic shaping, expansion and closure of time. The most important signal for this cut out timeframe used to be the curtain, which opened and closed the stage; today it is the announcement to switch off the mobile phone.

The theatre-goer’s ticket has bought him a seat, but what he must really pay is priceless: his attention. Theatre rests upon a pact that ensures undivided attention, commitment and participation. This is a precarious relationship: distraction, inattention and fatigue can at any time expel us from the present of the theatre.

Attention begins, as philosophers know, with astonishment, questions, taking notice. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said of himself: ‘Where others move on, I remain standing’. By staying, looking and reflecting, everyone can at any time enter into a new present, even if few do so. The most important power of art is to stimulate attention, but attention must also be given back to it. A visitor to a museum spends an average of 17 seconds before a picture, which is why he is equipped with an audio guide: to prolong the present of the contemplated picture. Running away from images, sounds, words and information – in a word, channel surfing – has become a mass movement in the age of sensory overload. The motto of the internet is not ‘Where others move on, I remain standing’, but

In the theatre, attention is formed, focused and temporally extended under special conditions. Unlike in film, in the theatre a common present shared by actors and audience must first be produced. But above all on the stage, the experience of time can be directly presented, modelled and addressed – through forms of deceleration and acceleration, purposeful condensation and emptying, bonding and perplexity. The attention that is required here is not possible without active participation. And the reward is worth the effort, for the presents that are produced and experienced in this way break through the cotton wool in which we are so deeply embedded.