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  • The Art of Theater—A Précis
  • James R. Hamilton (bio)

In The Art of Theater I propose and explain a claim that many theater people hold true in some form but, so far as I can tell, have defended in a manner that has had almost no success outside discussions among themselves.1 The claim proposed is that, in an unqualified way, theater is a form of art. By that I mean theatrical performances are what are created in the practice of theater and that theatrical performances are works of art because they can be picked out and appreciated in the same ways we appreciate other kinds of artworks.2

The agenda I set for the book is to state and explain what that claim comes to—exactly and in detail. Accordingly, most of the book consists of explanations of what else must be true if the claim is true, together with arguments defending the truth of those entailments. Some of the material consists of clarifying what the claim does not entail, and some passages contain arguments to show that alternative claims have problems that this one does not. Of these, I have allowed the explanation and clarification materials to carry the burden. Many philosophers and literary theorists are likely to find the claim incomprehensible because they have inherited, rather than critically accepted, a conception of theater as centrally dependent on literary texts.3 Philosophers, literary theorists, and theater theorists are better served by the explanations and clarifications I offer, however, because they show the claim can withstand the immediate objections or worries likely to arise.

The direct argumentation I offer for the claim is historical. Indeed, I begin the book by tracing how theater has been conceived and practiced in the European theatrical tradition since the 1850s. I start there and then for several reasons. First, it is the beginning of a period of great achievement in theater, when literary artists began again to write for theater. Second, the same period also gave rise to a now dominant conception of theater: namely, [End Page 4] the idea that theatrical performances, or at least the most often performed, are events that are dependant primarily if not exclusively on literary texts. Finally, the 1850s were also the beginning of a period in which theater people were both doing and thinking about theater in ways that resisted that very same dominant conception. The conclusion I come to in tracing this history is that—without always intending to and sometimes by intending the opposite—theater’s theoretical practitioners have put us in a position to see the truth of the claim that theatrical performance itself is an independent form of art. Assured we can see that truth in the actual historical practices of theater, even in its most self-consciously text-oriented period, I then proceed to explain and clarify the claim.

To begin with, the enormous success of the conjunction of literature and theater in late European theater practice means that any view of the art status of theatrical performances must explain the relation between a performance and a literary text, at least when a literary text is used in the performance. This is the first bit of explanation I undertake. A number of models of this relationship have been proposed, and I survey three of the primary ones. First, the “literary” model holds that performances illustrate or, at best, interpret the text and exist as a means to present the content—or the interpreted content—of the text in a performance mode. Second, the “two-text” model holds that the content of the literary text must be translated, adapted, transformed, reconstructed, or otherwise “reinscribed” in the language of theater. A third model, popular in analytic aesthetics, attempts to piggyback an account of theatrical works, texts, and theatrical performances on the well-developed ontology of musical works, scores, and musical performance.4 This third model might provide the right ontology of theatrical performances. Before we try to determine what kinds of things or events make our experience of theater what it is, however, first we should seek the best explanation of that experience. And that is the task I undertake in...


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pp. 4-14
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