The idea for this special issue of the Journal of Aesthetic Education had its origins in the December 2007 event “The Art of Performance: Symposium in Honor of Jim Hamilton,” organized by Sandra Lapointe and Marcelo Sabatés and hosted by the Department of Philosophy at Kansas State University with the kind support of President Jon Wefald and the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The symposium was designed to celebrate the 2007 publication of Jim Hamilton’s The Art of Theater by Blackwell, as well as his many years of leading experimental theater programs for Kansas youth. Noël Carroll, David Davies, Aaron Meskin, and I were critics in an author-meets-critics session on The Art of Theater at the symposium, while Paul Thom was a critic for a session on the book at the 2007 Annual Meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics.
The Art of Theater bears the stamp of Hamilton’s dual roles as a philosopher and an avid participant in contemporary theater practice. It is a philosophically sophisticated and richly informed treatment of the theoretical issues surrounding the practice of theater. It contributes greatly to filling what was a rather glaring hole in the philosophical literature: whereas music has received quite extensive treatment in recent decades, only a few philosophers have ventured into the complex territory of theater.
Hamilton holds that theater is an independent form of art: theatrical performances are artworks in their own right, not subsidiary to or derivative of works in any other form (particularly literature). The process by which a theatrical performance is constructed, he suggests, involves such an extensive array of decisions by the performing company—including decisions about whether and how to make use of any preexisting text in the performance—that no text or literary work can be thought of as “the work” that is performed. Instead, the company’s activities generate the only work [End Page 1] at issue: namely, the performance itself. When a performance seems to bear a special relation to some repeatable entity, such as Hamlet, we should understand this as a relation the performance bears not to some literary text but to a tradition of other performances that have been collected under the Hamlet rubric. Accordingly, basic understanding of a theatrical performance does not require prior acquaintance with a text or literary work; spectators can have basic understanding of a performance as long as their responses demonstrate that they have followed what is happening as the performance itself unfolds. Spectators lacking extensive acquaintance with recent text-based theatrical practices, then, need not be stigmatized as lacking the resources to appreciate works of theater.
In this issue Hamilton’s précis of the book is followed by the contributions of five critics who challenge the book’s central theses. The critics ask, Does Hamilton provide sufficient reason to reject the claim that at least some performances are of literary works, and can a satisfactory ontology of theater be developed if this claim is rejected? Even if theatrical performances are not of some text-based literary work, could they be of some other work, perhaps a work of theater that is generated through the performance practices of a company? Should spectators who follow what is happening moment-to-moment in a given performance, but fail to recognize that the performance parodies or satirizes some literary work, be said to have even basic understanding of what they have seen?
Hamilton’s extensive replies to the critics will, I think, serve as a valuable supplement to the book, clarifying some of its central arguments and, in some instances, supplying new arguments for its theses. In particular, he points out that he did not intend for the book to provide a definitive argument for the thesis that theatrical performances are never performances of some other work; instead, he takes this thesis to emerge from a careful examination of theatrical practice. The aim of the book is to explore the implications of the thesis and to show how identification and appreciation of theatrical performances are possible if it is true. In this spirit, many of his claims should be given an...