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  • Basic Theatrical Understanding: Considerations for James Hamilton
  • Noël Carroll (bio)

The publication of The Art of Theater by James Hamilton is a seminal event in the philosophy of theater.1 As the first book-length study of theater in the analytic tradition of philosophy, it will be a touchstone for many years of future discussion and debate. Anyone interested in the philosophy of theater will need to address Professor Hamilton’s accomplishment.

The leading idea in The Art of Theater is that theatrical performance is an independent art form. That is, theatrical performance, as such, is not, as Aristotle suggested by his demotion of spectacle, a mere adjunct to literature, or essentially a medium for illustrating dramatic and comedic texts. Theatrical performance itself is an art in its own right. This view of theater art has been increasingly apparent in the practices of modern theater in the West, but these practices—as exemplified by Gordon Craig, Vsevolod Meyerhold, Jacques Copeau, Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowski, and, more recently, Robert Wilson—merely revealed what has always been the case: that theater is at root a performing art.

Although for centuries theater in the West had been conceptualized as a text-based art, Hamilton maintains that this tradition is local. Theatrical performances in other cultures need not be the enactment of antecedently written-out texts. Furthermore, even within Western culture, most of us see and discuss plays without ever reading the texts upon which they are based. Hamilton takes these facts to support his view that theatrical performance is an autonomous art form. Among other things, this means that the critical model that presumes that the success of a theatrical performance must be assessed against the effectiveness of its implementation of the pertinent preexisting literary text is a misguided one. Although a preexisting literary text may be an ingredient in the production of a theatrical performance, fidelity to the aforesaid text is not mandated by the art of theater. [End Page 15]

Insofar as theatrical performance is an art in its own right, it may—and quite clearly, as in the cases of the Performance Group, Kraken, Mabou Mines, etc., often does—adapt written texts for its own purposes. Moreover, refashioning the text, where there is one, is not simply an avant-garde practice; most productions edit the text for their own purposes. Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, which omitted no word from the accepted version of the text, was the exception to the rule. Thus, what Hamilton calls the ingredients model of the relation of texts to theatrical performances has the advantage on its side of better corresponding to actual practices, as compared to the notion that a theatrical performance is to be understood as a matter of bringing a literary text to life.

Of course, one apparent advantage that the text-implementation model of theatrical performance might seem to possess is that it appears to have a way ready-to-hand for identifying theatrical performances. Gielgud’s performance, Olivier’s performance, and Burton’s performance are, ex hypothesi, all performances of Hamlet because they are all performances of Shakespeare’s text to which they all roughly comply. If, following Hamilton, we sever the relationship to the play-text, how can we account for the way in which we identify theatrical performances?2 That is, independently of reference to texts, how do we identify a theatrical performance as another instance of Hamlet?

In order to solve this problem, Hamilton introduces the idea of “a basic understanding” of a theatrical performance. The basic understanding of a theatrical performance is, on Hamilton’s account, said to involve no more than comprehending on a moment-to-moment basis the ongoing bits of dialogue and stage action as they evolve, as well as understanding the transitions from one scene to another while also responding physically in a suitable manner to the evolving story (for example, laughing where laughter is appropriate) or emoting responsively to what is happening onstage. So, one has a basic understanding of a scene if, when the Musketeer says “On guard,” the spectator takes this to be an invitation to a duel; and when a rival character draws his sword, the...


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