Political organizations and commedia dell'arte
Organization Studies; Berlin; 1995; Czarniawska-Joerges, Barbara; Jacobsson, Bengt

Volume: 16
Issue: 3
Start Page: 375
ISSN: 01708406
Subject Terms: Studies
Public administration
Organizational behavior
Classification Codes: 9550: Public sector organizations
9190: US
9130: Experimental/theoretical treatment
2500: Organizational behavior
Geographic Names: US
The dramatistic metaphor of commedia dell'arte is employed to interpret developments in a set of interlocking public administrative organizations in Sweden. The symbolic acting, the public performances, and the ambiguous connection between ideas and realities of various sorts that are evident all made the theater metaphor appear relevant to an analysis of politics in society at large and in organizations within it. Of the different forms of theater, commedia dell'arte is that which seems to render itself best to the exploration and interpretation of contemporary organizations within the public sector, imprinted as they are with the stamp of modern democratic politics, which bespeaks force but is highly contradictory.

Full Text:
Copyright Walter De Gruyter & Company 1995


Organization studies treat two areas, at least, as kinds of ugly ducklings. One area is that of organizations of public administration, a terrain where one would seemingly best not tread. Much like parvenus who wish to forget their origins, organization theorists boast of their industrial ancestors and yet silently gloss over the fact that most sociologically oriented organization theory originally stemmed from public administration studies (Waldo 1961) and, what is even more interesting, that it continues to be largely derived from such sources (for examples, see March and Olsen 1976; Meyer et al. 1977; DiMaggio. 1983). Our paper is an attempt to redesign this unbalance, and we hope that it will be joined by an increasing number of such endeavours.

Another ugly duckling, related to the first, is politics. In apologetic organization theory, politics is an ugly word, irrational intrusions into goal-oriented rational action, best forgotten inspite of the fact that it persists in practice. Whereas such a feat of forgetfulness can readily be achieved in business studies, in public administration studies it requires a true rope-balancing act. After all, politics is a legitimate element in such organizations. Critical organization theory, on the other hand, is not of much help either because it aims at revealing the hidden power structures, and not at analyzing the legitimate ones. As a result, political science claims politics as its exclusive domain.

This peculiar division of labour is just as pronounced in the field, where officials and executives ('our guys', that is) tolerate politicians as a necessary evil, raising their brows again and again over politicians' incompetence, over their irrational, and basically political, behaviour. Negative conceptions of how the politicians act are also amplified in the mass media.

Two of the most typical criticisms directed against politicians in democratic states are that they 'say one thing and do another' and that they 'only talk but never act'. Implicit in both criticisms is the notion that a politician's role is 'to act'. This virtually unquestioned assumption can be attributed to a modern myth, one that gives great prominence to action. The distinction between talking and acting, however, is one that tends to break down on closer analysis. For one thing, to talk is to act, as illustrated by one of the most obvious examples, that of performative speech acts (Austin 1962). A speech filled with symbols can achieve concrete results just as physical actions can. For another thing, if we interpret the criticisms just referred to in their literal sense, as a demand for physical action, then nothing would seem more absurd. Imagine politicians sweeping one's street every morning or, God forbid, building one's house! It is quite obvious indeed that a politician's major task is to talk. As Bryder (1989: 1) states: 'The political life consists mostly of talk'.

The fact, however, that the criticisms of politicians referred to here are imprecisely formulated does not necessarily imply that the basic content they convey is without substance. The criticisms can be interpreted and reformulated in the following way: that politicians adapt their speeches to different contexts (committing hypocrisy in this way) and that they fail, in relevant contexts, to say what should be said (their not seeing to it, for example, that the promises they made to their electorate are executed). Thus formulated, such criticisms are more convincing, but a voice of protest can still be raised: Isn't it the politician's task to reconcile contradictory demands with the help of diplomacy? Isn't it so that democratic politicians are expected to separate word from action while they take the time that is needed to consult the public? Isn't the 'word to action' connection typical, in fact, of all totalitarian regimes?

As an aid to grasp the paradox of political action and the ambiguous perception of it, we employ here a theatre metaphor. The use of such a metaphor has a very long history in the social sciences. Indeed, public performances, symbolic acting, and the ambiguous connection between ideas and various realities, all make the theatre metaphor highly interesting for an analysis of present-day politics. 'Politics as theatre' was described and analyzed by the Ancient Greeks, and more recently by Edelman (1964, 1988), Anton (1967), Merelman (1969), Petersson (1987) and many others. Musil, in his Man Without Qualities, went even further, suggesting the opposite relation: that theatre is a clumsy imitator of politics. Here is the scene from that book in which Ulrich meets with the Imperial Authority, as represented by Count Stallburg:

'The fundamental theatrical instinct for masquerade and transformation, which is one of the pleasures of life, here offered itself to him without the faintest tang, probably without even any notion of the theatrical; and it was so strong that the middle-class custom of building theatres and turning acting into an art to be hired by the hour, when compared with this unconscious, permanent art of acting one's self, struck him as something entirely unnatural, late, and divided against itself.' (1930/1988: 95)

The ambiguity here remains: 'theatre' can denote something noble and impressive, as well as something false or not quite serious. An ambiguous phenomenon requires an ambiguous metaphor. In the present paper we attempt to clarify this metaphor without depriving it of its ambiguity. We avail ourselves of well-known uses of the theatre metaphor in the humanities and the social sciences, applying it to field studies we have carried out (Jacobsson 1989; Czarniawska-Joerges 1992).

Use of the Theatre Metaphor in the Humanities and Social Sciences

Our use here of the metaphor of commedia dell'arte can be largely traced to Kenneth Burke's dramatism, that is to his method of inquiry consisting of treating 'language and thought primarily as modes of action' (Burke 1945/1969: xxii). Our reference to Burke may provoke uneasy reactions among his devoted readers, who may claim that Burke's theory of the relationship between language and action has little or nothing to do with theatre, and that the theory is dramatistic rather than dramaturgical. However, by pointing out that it is Michael Overington who can be seen as responsible both for indicating Burke's influence on the social sciences (Overington 1977a, 1977b) and for introducing, together with Iain Mangham (Mangham and Overington 1987), the theatre metaphor to organization studies, we hope to convince the reader that the two uses of the term 'theatre' that were referred to above are not, in fact, contradictory.

Lymann and Scott (1975) trace the use of the theatre metaphor in the social sciences back to Freud, Mead and Goffman. Both Freud and Mead were fascinated by the idea of the self as composed of several 'roles', first rehearsed in 'the theatre of the mind' and later performed in the 'theatre of life'. Goffman (1959) de-psychologized the concept by contrasting various aspects of social life ('frontstage', 'backstage'). The ensuing idea of 'impression management' left a strong imprint on the social sciences, perhaps best exemplified in the management context by the works collected and edited by Giacalone and Rosenfeld (1991), which represent the continuation of a social psychological tradition initiated by Tedeschi (see, e.g. Tedeschi et al. 1971).

However, most such uses of the theatrical metaphor assume a basic notion of 'authenticity' or of a 'true-self' concealed in all 'impression management' attempts. Although the studies included in Giacalone and Rosenfeld (1991) do not convey a tone of moralistic indignation, they do express the basic assumption of a rupture between 'reality' and 'impression' (see e.g. Larwood 1991). Such an assumption is not exceptional in the social sciences. As Davies and Harre (1991) point out, the concept of 'role' emphasizes the static, formal and ritualistic aspects of social life. Although it would be wrong to attribute this interpretation of the term to Goffman (his theory being too rich and too ambiguous for anyone to give it an unequivocal interpretation), it is worth pointing out that such uses of the theatre metaphor do not tally with the concept of identity seen as a modern institution, a concept central to the ideas presented here (see also Czarniawska-Joerges 1994). Our identity concept is one that comes close to Burke's idea of people being symbol-makers, symbol-users, and symbol-misusers. Drama, in Burke's eyes, was a genre best suited to exploring the relationship between language and action, a relationship he saw as constituting social life.

This does not mean, however, that the dramatistic method excludes the theatre metaphor, or vice versa. Geertz's use of the theatre metaphor (1980), involves a dynamic and symbolist interpretation of drama in the spirit of Burke. Goffman himself was inspired by Burke's dramatism and endeavoured, especially in his later works, to recover the balance between the stability of 'roles' and the uncertain dynamics of an unfolding narrative (Goffman 1981; Davies and Harre 1991). In the context of public administration studies, the recent interpretation of Antigone by Frank Marini (1992) points in the same direction. In the present context, there is at least one aspect of the theatre metaphor, considered in a non-Burkean sense, which we would like to preserve, namely public visibility. This is connected with the specific character of public administration as found in Sweden, where all proceedings are open to public inspection. Our use of the theatre metaphor has broader implications than this, however. In Sweden, politicians and public-sector executives, sometimes down to the lowest-level official, are constantly exposed to attention in the media. Although contacts of this sort with the public are more selectively regulated in the case of private companies, they too want ever more--albeit controlled--visibility. Also, the mass media increasingly consider companies as a legitimate hunting ground. All this contributes to the closeness of contacts with the public.

Commedia Dell'Arte in the Context of Modernity

Commedia dell'arte is the name given to a type of theatre which was almost dead before it earned its name. The first known actors' contract was signed by an Italian group in the year 1545. However, it was mainly in France that Italian comedians were famous, until la comedie italienne was forbidden there in 1697 after it had come dangerously close to real-life politics. Commedia dell'arte performances had ended there by 1762, but the idea lived on. It was explored and renewed by, among others, E.T.A. Hoffmann and George Sand, and in the Soviet theatre. The reasons for its long-lasting power of attraction are basically those which led to our choosing it as a metaphor here.

The first of the reasons just alluded to is the entanglement of the problems of representation and identity. Commedia dell'arte is an apt metaphor for politics because it was a theatre using masks. The actors represented something other than themselves. This is true for all theatre, of course, but modern theatre tries to make the audience forget this fact. Masks do not permit such forgetfulness. However, whereas the masks as used in the Greek theatre, the Korean NOe theatre, in Balinese dances and even in early commedia dell'arte, symbolize something super-human--much as magic or religion--in contrast, masks as used in the later commedia dell'arte were a professional prop which, although employed by the actors during a performance, were nevertheless an artefact, something made by humans (Taviani and Schino 1982). Herein lies an interesting insight to be gained via the metaphor of commedia dell'arte as opposed to other analyses of social life as theatre.

As already suggested, the most typical versions of the theatre metaphor and of the impression-management concept usually assume--rather unreflectively--an essentialist notion of identity. It is taken for granted that there is an identity to be found in individuals themselves, whether in their genotype or in their 'soul'; an identity which becomes suppressed and distorted by a variety of social roles the individual must play. A quest for authenticity, an important part of identity as a modern project (Giddens 1991) thus means finding one's true 'I' and exhibiting it. Impression management is a fact of life, but an ethically dubious one; the constant performance of politicians makes the public uneasy.

This is where the history of commedia dell'arte comes to our assistance in enabling us to grasp the significance of the phenomenon of political representation. Conceptions of the relationships between the actor and the mask have changed over time; indeed, they changed with the outset of modernity (Giddens 1990, in his chronology, placed the latter in the 17th century or thereabouts).

The old pictorial representation of this relationship involved the actor watching the mask while the mask was watching the actor (usually, it was the same face--sometimes with a difference in age). The identity, it seems, was created in the dialogue between the two (Taviani and Schino 1982). In later representations of this sort, the actor was portrayed as watching the audience, holding a mask in one hand, without paying attention to it. The mask no longer resembled the actor's face; it could even depict a person of the opposite sex. It had become a symbol of professionality--of a profession aimed at re-presenting, at expressing the thoughts and priorities of others. Drawing an analogy between this and contemporary professional politicians is hard to resist. What the latter show us in their public performances is not their personality, but their professionality.

Personality, too, has a theatrical meaning. Having an identity in the modern sense means playing a part in a public performance. This part, however, does not consist of exhibiting 'the true self', but of presenting a performance suited to the institutional requirements of what a 'true self' entails. Vytautas Kavolis (quoted by R.H. Brown 1989) says that the modern conception of identity involves three elements: an impression of a general coherence between the individual's actions and the expressions they take; a memory (held by the individual and the other) of a continuity in his or her life story; and finally a consciously (although not manipulatively) created impression of commitment to the way one's 'I' is managed and understood.

Some aspects of this are conveyed non-verbally, i.e. by body-management. However, the major impact is created not by action but by a reflective narrative (Giddens 1991), one which continually gets corrected, rejected and accepted in conversations with other people (Davies and Harre 1991). Although the individual may act inconsistently and irrationally, this is not regarded as constituting a problem. Individual identity, a typical institution of 'high modernity', as Giddens calls it, represents the ability to account for one's actions in terms which will be accepted by the audience, which in turn requires that the impression the audience gets be one of coherence, continuity and commitment. In other words, the ultimate illusion that is required is that the actor presenting a chosen mask has to assure the audience that there is a proper identity present behind the mask. In this context, 'impression management' has as its ultimate goal the creation of an impression that nothing is managed, while at the same time allowing the public a glimpse at the perfection of management. The picture of the actor and the mask not being one and the same is paradoxical and highly complex.

'It is precisely this chronic and integral dualism, that replaced the harmonious conversation between the actor and the mask constructed by a poet, which is the source of tension that fills the portraits of the comedians dell'arte, as if in this act of diversification from the actor, from the poles of the two faces, were born both force and contradiction.' (Taviani and Schino 1982: 14)

These authors conclude that such tension is the secret of modern acting. Is it too far-fetched to claim that a similar ambiguity is the major force in today's politics?

Another reason underlying our choice of metaphor, therefore, was this very ambiguity in the impression given to the public, both by commedia dell'arte and by politics. A reverence of almost divine dimensions for actions collides in both with the impression of exquisite organizational skill, and a feeling of being deceived competes with a respect for the professionality that makes such deceit possible.

Commedia dell'arte was a form of theatre which, like politics, was both forceful and contradictory. Populist in character, it was considered inferior to 'elegant' theatre on the one side of the ideological divide, while being idealized on the other. In the 1920s, the well-known Soviet Arbat theatre in Moscow became fascinated by commedia dell'arte as a contrast to bourgeois theatre, and by its capacity of standing for 'a profound and immediate affinity between the audience and the actors' (Taviani and Schino 1982: 75). To Soviet directors, commedia dell'arte came to represent an out-of-the-ordinary sort of theatre. It was a Utopia in which the actors, in the eyes of the infatuated audience, appeared as people from their own class and group, sharing their living conditions and origins, and performing for the benefit of them--their spectators. In fact, those supporting the actors--both financially and spiritually--were aristocrats. The actors themselves had a tendency to identify with the bourgeoisie, although their way of life excluded them from that circle. As Taviani expressed it:

'Families of comedians are caught in a state of chronic hypocrisy. They lack the prerequisites for living according to the principles in which they have placed their faith, but no more do they believe in the value of the life they are leading.' (Taviani and Schino 1982: 416)

The most interesting trait of commedia dell'arte, however, was improvisation, and this is the trait which most visibly distinguishes it from other types of theatre. This does not imply that the actors went on stage unprepared, acting, as it were, spontaneously or haphazardly. By 'improvisation' is meant the absence of a written script (even though the leaders of some groups occasionally took notes and, in the course of time--parallel to the demise of form--more and more written scenarios and cues appeared). First and foremost, it meant achieving the effect of improvisation, that is to say an impression of spontaneity and uniqueness, an effect which is said to have cost hours and hours of preparation. This is one of the main reasons why it was, and still is, so difficult to analyze commedia dell'arte. Some claim that it was fragmentary and chaotic in nature and that thus it was only entertaining to an undemanding audience, whereas others look upon the theatre as being like an orchestra playing different tunes which, when complementary, can create a stunningly coherent impression.

Commedia dell'arte came to be called a theatre of action by one of its more well-known actors and theoreticians. Therein lies yet another paradox. Flaminio Scala (which was this man's name) wished to emphasize the fact that there was no text which formed the foundation on which the plays were built. As a matter of fact, however, there was one, the oral text produced during the actual performance. The actors thus created the script during the play. This created the main illusion--the illusion that what counted was only the action--whereas that very illusion was one that was created by talk. Although the text changed from one performance to another, the theme was the same. By being translated by a given actor, it was transformed into action.

Action theatre, however, means more than this. Whereas in English theatre the drama was built around personalities, in commedia dell'arte the characters were subordinate to the plot, as is also the case in democratic politics. The comedians also had a kind of secret force embedded in their body language, a force which constituted the key to their success--producing the impression of energy radiating from the scene. In politics this is sometimes called 'charisma'. Since the actors represented actions and not characters, their power of persuasion depended upon their skill in non-verbal communication. Taviani and Schino did not believe that this was a matter of charisma, nor that it was a natural gift, but rather they suspected that the heart of the matter lay in rigorous practice and training, according to hidden rules.

There are many other parallels which could be drawn, but perhaps it will suffice to mention only one of these:

'The story of commedia dell'arte is perhaps nothing but a story of a myth and nothing more. Or else much more: a story about an idea which, through its dramatic power of enchantment, covers other stories, other presences...Interpreting commedia dell'arte does not imply diminishing its value...On the contrary, it is a manner of seizing that part of its character which is not very explicit but all the more significant.' (Taviani and Schino 1982: 295, 395)

In order to bring the reader closer to this misunderstood genre, and at the same time provide certain insight into the nature of modern politics as displayed both in and through organizations, we decided to bring the two together. As we learned after having written this paper, the metaphor here is one that was used earlier by Iain Mangham (1986, 1987) to describe leadership within a company. Since it has been repeatedly pointed out that the leaders of a company tend to exhibit a great deal of political behaviour, Mangham's use of this metaphor strengthens rather than challenges our case.

What we propose to do in this paper is to present an analysis of the performances given by many state and municipal politicians and officials that we studied in several different projects, using to this end what we know of commedia dell'arte. Portrayed here is decision-making as played out on the scene of negotiations conducted between the central government and the local government of a large city (Jacobsson 2989) as reconstructed in the tradition of commedia.

A Dramatistic Analysis

Commedia dell'arte, like politics in organizational life, loses much of its influence when immobilized on paper: the two-dimensionality of the text is not able to render its complexity properly. Our rendition of this lively drama recalls in particular commedia dell'arte as it is occasionally presented in Italy nowadays, rather than its likening as one of our reviewers suggested, to a sitcom comedy, in which realism is an important trait (Fiske 1987; Kellner 1992).

We also hasten to add that, although we believe in the salutary powers of gentle irony, moralistic ridicule is not our goal. We perceive irony to be the most satisfactory mode of reflection over the complexities of contemporary social life. Here we follow R.H. Brown's cue according to which irony is a particularly appropriate form of public discourse since it 'constitutes itself on the awareness of the impossibility of literally "telling it like it is"' (Brown 1987: 171).

This does not mean, however, that our above account is fictitious. On the contrary, we took great care to render correctly all the facts and events. We are aiming at something that Brown in his earlier writings called 'symbolic realism' (Brown 1977)--an account from the field which aspires to the status of knowledge, not by being a mechanistic imitation of reality but by being a convincing, intriguing and useful interpretation of it.

The metaphor of commedia dell'arte aids us in this endeavour by providing an interpretive scheme in which the symbols can be embedded. Below is a list of paradoxes inherent in both commedia and in political organizations.(List omitted) They are schematized with the help of Kenneth Burke's 'dramatistic' model (Burke 1945). His model is called a pentad since it contains five elements: agent (actor), purpose, scene (stage-setting), agency (medium of action) and act (action). The two columns present the requirements placed on each of these; the distinction between the left column and the right is taken up below. However contradictory these requirements might be, it is essential that they be fulfilled in one and the same performance.

Looking for a term that could aptly characterize this combination of opposite traits, of role (profession) and identity (personality), we found MacIntyre's notion of character very appropriate. In fact, MacIntyre introduces his discussion of modern characters by alluding to a dramatic tradition 'which possesses a set of stock characters immediately recognisable to the audience' and who 'define the possibilities of plot and action' (MacIntyre 1990: 27). As examples, he refers to Japanese Noh plays and English medieval morality plays. This makes it obvious that it is only by chance that he fails to mention commedia here. What makes the characters that are involved special is that they fuse together a social role and a personality--the left and the right column above.

'There are...then many cases where there is a certain distance between role and individual and where consequently a variety of degrees of doubt, compromise, interpretation or cynicism may mediate the relationship of individual to role. With what I have called characters it is quite otherwise; and the difference arises from the fact that the requirements of a character are imposed from the outside from the way in which others regard and use characters to understand and evaluate themselves.' (MacIntyre 1990: 29)

The Politician is an excellent example of a character. Although dentists, for example, can make jokes about teeth at a family dinner, in the worst case sinning against good taste, politicians cannot ridicule their electors even when they are woken up in the middle of the night. Social roles are defined for both by the demands of the institutions of which they are a part and which may or may not specify certain personality requirements for the individuals willing to undertake such roles. For the Politician, however, this alone does not suffice. The role and the personality of the Politician must be fused together; any discrepancy between the two draws forth indignation, despite the fact that the fusion, as already indicated, is perceived as paradoxical. This points to the special significance of characters:

'A character is an object of regard by the members of culture generally or by some significant segment of them. He furnishes them with a cultural and moral ideal. Hence the demand is that in this type of case, role and personality be fused. Social type and psychological type are required to coincide. The character morally legitimizes a mode of social existence.' (MacIntyre 1990: 29)

Each culture, MacIntyre continues, has its own specific stock of characters. Modern culture, he claims, came up with three such characters: the Rich Aesthete, the Manager and the Therapist. We agree with this entirely, but would add that each culture likewise inherits, or possibly chooses from past repertoires, certain characters that did not originate within the culture, but nevertheless fit in with it very well. The Politician, a clearly pre-modern character, is one such example. The modern version of this character, however, requires that the traits of the three central characters mentioned above become united in the performance the Politician presents. As MacIntyre suggests, these three characters trade in moral fictions: those of utility, effectiveness and human rights. The Politician trades in all of them, contradictory as they may be.

The similarity between the two kinds of performances referred to, between the two kinds of theatre, could lead to a historically inspired question: Is politics, as we know it, doomed to vanish in contemporary organizations just as commedia dell'arte did and as the lack of attention that organization theory pays to it seems to suggest? We do not consider this to be the case. Commedia dell'arte would have survived, had it been born at the time when television was known.

The Postmodern Spectacle

As already indicated, the theatre metaphor is well known in political analysis. One could claim that democratic politics has always, ever since the Republic of Athens, relied upon dramatic effects. What is new is that we are now looking at the massive production of special effects, and that now the leading actors never stay on stage long enough for us to start believing in the seriousness of things. Anderson claims that we are witnessing

'an increasing theatricality of politics, in which events are scripted and stage-managed for mass consumption and in which individuals and groups struggle for starring roles (or at least bit parts in the dramas of life). This theatricality is a natural--and inevitable--feature of our time.' (1990: 5)

Such an increase in theatricality is the result of today's expansion of mass media, an expansion as yet unparalleled in human history.

Theatricality is not only spreading, but is also becoming much more visible--through the existence of media that not only display on-going events but also encourage the rendering of those events that are most visually interesting or attractive. Politics thus becomes a series of spectacles (Edelman 1988). This also implies that what cannot be dramatized cannot become politics. This latter principle could provide insight into those situations in which dubious actions by politicians are revealed to a stunned audience, and the politicians involved seem unable to understand why they are being criticized in the first place, reasoning that they did not intend to keep their actions secret--but that there was simply nothing worth showing to others.

Theatricality and dramatization are important elements in political work. Students of politics, on the other hand, have often neglected them entirely, focusing their attention instead on more aggregate aspects of political life, and on questions of how values and preferences are transformed and allocated in society. Too little attention has been given to the integrative aspects of politics, and to how values and preferences are thus created and modified (March and Olsen 1989).

We argue that dramatization in politics plays an important role in preference formation within society. The theatre metaphor, therefore, can be useful for the insight it provides into how preferences are created. Theatricality should not be viewed simply as a channel for indignation, an emotion which has become so extremely common (MacIntyre 1990). The unmasking which the theatre metaphor provides, not only leads to moral activity, but also represents a sense-making operation that helps us to understand the world in which we live and which we create. A dedication to the rituals and sanctity of democratic governance does not preclude the use of a theatre metaphor for interpreting modern politics. The characters in our play are comical, yet this is not because they play badly; they are comic characters partly by virtue of their seriousness. Commedia dell'arte thrives on paradoxes.

Most people react with a feeling of uneasiness, nevertheless, when politics is referred to as a kind of theatre, since they interpret the metaphor as meaning that it is 'make-believe' and 'not real'. It is not this aspect of politics which makes it dramatistic, however. Rather, it is the tendency of politics to dramatize certain selected problems in order to gain the attention of the public. The number of issues the spectators are able to spot and take seriously is limited, independent of their degree of sincere interest. The issues that become the topic of discovery and discussion are those presented in a dramatically appealing fashion.

'Dramatistic' is not the same as 'make-believe'. 'Politics is the theatre of reality', says Anderson (1990: 122). When drama is improvised on the political stage, there are people who succeed, suffer, fail and die. Politics does not simulate reality, it creates it.

Executives in organizations of public administration cannot afford to ignore politics, however much they may wish to do so; they have to deal with politicians and politics daily, whether they want to or not. Many of them appear, despite this seemingly demonstrative aversion to politics, to excel in this precarious balance of talk and action, spontaneity and skill, and of routine and improvization which is so typical of politicians. A collection of management studies dealing with many kinds of organizations and concerned with impression management also confirms this observation (Giacalone and Rosenfeld 1991). Let us hope that the example of practitioners will encourage more and more organization researchers to follow suit and to attempt to fathom the mysteries of this distasteful but persistent phenomenon, politics in and between organizations.


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Firm Principles

A Play in Three Acts

Dramatis Personae:

Columbine: Minister of Industry and Energy; a servant of her Country, as represented by its Government; she is attractive and much courted.

Brighella: First Servant of the Ministry; Columbine's assistant; he is indefatigable when it comes to duping and deceiving, and is shrewd and cynical.

Capitano Energetico: Managing Director of a large company; he is vain and often falls into fantasies of heroic exploits and measureless glory; he is eager to solemnly praise the lady of his heart's desire, represented in the play, of course, by Columbine.

Pantaloon: Director of the Industrial Association; 'the leading old man', the incarnation of the experienced but slightly ageing merchant; he often acts as adviser to those in power.

Doctor Graziano: an adviser to Columbine, accustomed to standing behind the teacher's desk and inclined to give talks lasting ad infinitum.

Doctor Oggettivo; another adviser to Columbine; although less academic, he takes himself very seriously; he talks much and readily, but seldom for the enjoyment of listeners.

Pedrolino: a journalist; a servant in white dress (as a character, Pedrolino is the original of the French Pierrot).

Naturale: an amoroso, belongs to the environmentalist group, opposed to all that might pollute even a square kilometre of the Country.

Capitano Synergetico: Managing Director of another large company; in the play he is a rival of Energetico's; like all those of his rank, he is elegantly dressed.

First Servant of the City: adviser to the Big City Council, on his way to becoming adviser to the Country; on his way also to becoming First Servant of the Country; all in all, he is a bit odd.


(The initial instruction given by the play's director--who is usually its leading actor--to the others.)

The Country is said to be in a state of economic crisis. Companies are not in a position to sell sufficiently on foreign markets. Purchases of oil from abroad are far too costly. Some politicians want to reduce the Country's oil consumption and put commerce back on the right track. The companies want to sell. Everyone wants to improve the state of the Environment. All the action takes place within the space of a few blocks located somewhere in the City.

First Act

(Scene One: Brighella's Office)

Capitano Energetico comes in from the street, wearing a dazzling dark suit and carrying his company's accounts under his arm. He is received by Brighella, and tells Brighella of the recent years of great success and high profits, with new products that already exist and new markets opening up in the U.S. of A, in Eastern Europe, and wherever the demand for energy exists.

After twice repeating his glowing prognosis regarding his company's profits, Energetico shifts into a lamentation about the unconquerable Columbine. It turns out that Energetico is in need of financial and other assistance: how can Eastern Europe buy this Country's technical products without the Country's providing them foreign aid money to let them pay for the products? Columbine, the Minister, alas, has been unwilling to listen to him.

Brighella declares, as First Servant of the Ministry, that there is a way out of said difficulties, a definite solution to the problems. Columbine is not so impossible to appease, after all, but doing so takes a thorough argumentation. The accounts and prognoses presented by Capitano Energetico are hardly what it takes to bring Columbine any great joy, but if these were to be embellished by promises of a better Environment, Columbine would surely interpret the matter differently. Brighella then performs a lazzo, one containing a famous sentence: 'Lies, omelettes and meatballs should be big, or not at all'.(1)

But how is Columbine to be conquered? Energetico asks. How can he gain access to her purse and her good heart? Energetico complains too of his senior colleague Pantaloon's lack of will to help. Pantaloon's wrath is always aroused at the sheer mention of Columbine's name. Advice from him is thus of no great value.

Brighella tells Energetico that Columbine is certain to help him if only he can return her favours in some way. The Capitano should take care to appear a broad-minded man, deeply concerned about what is best for the Country. Use your foot to knock on a woman's door, advises Brighella, and let your hands be full of presents. Time is scarce, however. Let us call on Columbine on the spot, he suggests.

Listening to the conversation are several of Energetico's servants. These good men spend their time nodding energetically, while performing what seem to be complex operations on their pocket-calculators.

(Scene Two: Columbine's Office)

Columbine is pacing to and fro. At each turn she whirls a broken wooden sword. A leather purse with bank notes protruding from it are attached to her belt. What course of action should be taken in the best interests of the Country, she asks. How are we to increase exports, create more work and find cheaper sources of energy? Capitano Energetico is coming to visit me, she states. What shall I tell him?

Doctor Graziano, carrying a heavy book, one that only accentuates his fame as a great scholar, immediately engages in a lecture on the splendid qualities of the undisturbed market. He quotes rigorously from an assortment of standard works on economics. All those present in the room fall into a profound trance. Hardly anyone responds to his concluding piece of advice, that Energetico should not be received at all.

Doctor Oggettivo, known as one who every seventh year comes up with a reform-and-rationalisation programme, also makes his presence felt. He declares that Columbine, being a servant, should not receive the Capitano before her Master, the Government, has produced a document formulating the general objectives and has drawn up the rules for the relationships servants should have with people from outside.

Brighella, then, addresses the meeting. He indicates that the wisdom of the honourable doctors is highly impressive but that, in this particular case, one could come up with a yet wiser plan of action. A little bonae voluntatis wouldn't hurt. Brighella agrees with the two doctors in principle, but feels that in this particular case it would not be wrong to listen to Energetico in order to be able to use him for just purposes. Energetico is an honest fellow who can offer ways of improving the state of the Environment--even in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states--which would also bring money and employment to the country. Brighella has himself been in contact with the places where production would be located, and the people there have high expectations regarding Columbine. After concluding his speech, Brighella performs a lazzo praising those bonds of Hymen that have always joined the State and industry together.

Columbine looks upon the doctors and Brighella with that mixture of cunning and naivete characterizing the Minister's way of being. She starts reciting excerpts from the Government's policy programme, and says then that Energetico is an able and handsome man, but is nevertheless a sworn enemy of the house. Yet Brighella has spoken wisely, she declares. A little bonae voluntatis wouldn't hurt, so let's hear what Energetico has to say.

With that, she orders Brighella to invite the representatives of the City Government, in order to inform them of the Minister's thought. Brighella bows, stating that Columbine's will is the will of the people and hence its humble servant's law.

Second Act

(Scene One: Columbine's Office)

Enter Capitano Energetico. Columbine asks the reasons for his visit. Energetico tells her what favourable prospects for the future there would be, first of all for the Environment and secondly for his company, if only his company could obtain the same sort of aid as received, quite wrongly of course, by his competitors in other countries.

Columbine turns to the City Government representative, asking why the City has done nothing as yet to improve the Environment. Would not Energetico's products be interesting to the City, particularly now, when her purse incidentally happens to be open?

The man, thus addressed, stutters abashed and promises to consult his colleagues on how to handle the matter in the best possible way. He is then escorted out by Brighella. In the office, Energetico and Columbine perform a dance. It is not always clear who is leading. The partners hold each other fast, but at the same time keep their distance. Nevertheless, Energetico manages to get ahold of Columbine's purse. The dance stops short. Energetico makes a bow and walks toward the door. At the exit he stops to exchange a few words with Brighella.

(Scene Two: A Street in the City)

Naturale is taking a walk with Columbine, asking her about the measures to be taken to prevent pollution of the air, the ground, and the food. More is called for, he asserts, than just beautiful words. There is no time to be lost in obtaining results. Columbine recites excerpts from the Government's programme and from the objectives sketched by Doctor Oggettivo. We all love the Environment, and we shall see to it that the techniques that are best suited are employed. Naturale can trust Columbine to fight for her principles.

(Scene Three: The Office of the First Servant of the City)

At one end of the room, the First Servant of the City is sitting in a leather armchair with a Time-Manager in his hands, wondering when the decision to buy Energetico's products and services was actually made. Sitting at the other end of the room, sunken in another leather armchair, is Pedrolino, asking himself how that all came about. What happened during the meeting between Columbine and Energetico?

In response to the question, the Servant of the City leans back to engage in a lengthy monologue. The City had certain objectives in mind. Several companies were invited to participate in a competition, a race. They were summoned to present their alternative solutions. The best of these, from the point of view of price and of the Environment, was then chosen. Before bothering the City politicians with the necessity of making a decision, all the alternatives had to be thoroughly analyzed. Everything followed normal procedure.

Pedrolino takes notes and then sings a lazzo: a song about Truth going to a masquerade.

(Scene Four: Columbine's Office)

Columbine is pacing the floor again. Upset and angry, she asks Brighella how anyone could write anything as untruthful as the claim that she had favoured Energetico. All our principles prove, she exclaims, that we are not on his side. It is enough to read what is written in black on white.

Columbine begins to dictate a letter saying that she firmly denies having helped Energetico in any way in selling his products and his services to the City.

Brighella nods his head in assent and informs Columbine about the arrival of another suitor, Capitano Synergetico, who would not mind receiving some help. When Slyness writes to me, says Brighella, he deigns to call himself my brother, but such brothers should be kept on a short leash. He is only after your money, Brighella declares that if Synergetico wants to sell his goods he may as well contact the City himself.

Synergetico enters the room, dressed in a dark suit, carrying the company accounts under his arm. He tells Columbine and Brighella the story of the great successes and profits of the past year. He too reports to them of new products that already exist, and of new markets opening up in the U.S. of A, in Eastern Europe and wherever there is a need of energy. Synergetico repeats his company's profit prognoses twice.

Columbine declares that there are certain principles to be followed, one of which is to let markets and companies take care of themselves. If, despite all this, the Government were to get involved, this would need to be done according to strict rules and regulations. A tete-a-tete agreement with one specific company is out of the question. That would be against all rules.

At this point, Doctor Graziano and Doctor Oggettivo, who are standing in the background, clap their hands and nod their heads in approval. Doctor Graziano embarks on a short lecture on the importance of letting Markets run themselves without the interference of States that seem, nevertheless, to be unable to keep their hands to themselves. Capitano Synergetico, who does not find the lecture very interesting, leaves the premises.

Third Act

(Scene One: A TV Talk-Show)

The participants are standing around a bar. Doctor Graziano is questioned by Pedrolino regarding the new policy of the State. The learned man claims that everyone has understood by now what politicians can and cannot do, and what they ought and ought not to be doing. We have to look out into the World and become like the others, Graziano states, starting on what bodes to be a lengthy monologue. Luckily for the audience, he suddenly stumbles and drops his books on the floor. Pedrolino takes this opportunity to turn toward the magnificent Pantaloon with a question concerning the views of trade and industry concerning the policies of the new Government.

Pantaloon maintains that experience and wisdom derived from sources close to him will prove Columbine's Government to be in the right, provided they profess themselves to be adherents of the principles of a market economy. Nothing good has ever come out of politicians' meddling in the affairs of companies. The agreement with Capitano Energetico must be understood, he asserts, in the light of the specific circumstances that determined this particular case.

Columbine takes the floor and asks permission to reveal the secrets behind a successful policy. Those who come to her for help are many, and she is there to listen to the people. At the same time it is comfortable for her to be able to lean upon firm principles. The Government has learned not to get involved in the running of companies, since this always ends badly. This has been a hard lesson to learn, and Doctor Graziano's wisdom has been of great help. Since the principles guiding the Country can also serve as a sound example for those countries that have not yet travelled as far as we have on the road to the future, she declares, a considerate gesture would be to send Graziano on a visit to those who are presently building market economies from scratch. The Country, and its Government, are only too happy to share their principles with the needy.

(Scene Two: At the Exit of the TV Building)

Brighella and Capitano Synergetico are engaged in a conversation. Brighella confides in Synergetico the wisdom of believing that hope should always be kept alive. He might try himself, she suggests, to arrange another meeting between Synergetico and Columbine. Naturale, who is passing by, joins in with the promise to assist Synergetico's cause to the best of his abilities, if in turn Synergetico will make a vow to be truthful to the Environment. Brighella promises to call Pedrolino and get the ball rolling. The concluding lazzo expresses the observation that honesty is the best policy if it is fed in small spoonfuls.

1. Quoted by Oreglia (1964: 75).

Barbara Czarniawska-Joerges, Department of Business Administration, Lund University, Sweden

Bengt Jacobsson, Department of Business Administration, Lund University, Sweden

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.