- Theatrical Performances and the Works Performed
James Hamilton’s The Art of Theater is an outstanding contribution to aesthetics that fills an important gap, since treatments of theater have been much less frequent than those of other art forms.1 Moreover, the book’s appearance requires aestheticians of many stripes to engage with questions about theater because it raises issues of ontology, interpretation, and appreciation that are relevant to our understanding of works in all art forms.
Hamilton offers a spirited and convincing defense of the claim that theatrical performance is an art form eventuating in performances that are artworks in their own right. Against the type-token model widely accepted in aesthetics, which suggests that the typical theatrical performance is a token of a play-type initiated either by the writing of a text or by an originary performance, Hamilton advocates the ingredients model. According to this model, every theatrical performance is composed of a variety of ingredients, which may or may not include a relation to some script, literary text, or earlier performance. Since a theatrical performance may be a one-off event with no particular relation to any earlier text or performance, Hamilton observes, it is not necessary that a performance be of some other work. Moreover, according to the ingredients model no theatrical performance is ever a performance of some other work. Even if it does draw on or incorporate elements of some text or earlier performance, it may do so quite loosely; and in any case, the relation to some preexisting entity is merely one ingredient among others. Since the nature of a theatrical performance is always vastly underdetermined by appeal to a text or originary performance on which it draws, the unique ingredients introduced by a particular company are always of tremendous aesthetic significance. For this reason, Hamilton suggests, it would be both unduly trivializing and misleading to subordinate the performance to some other artwork by saying that the performance is of that other work. He thus advances what I will term the complete autonomy thesis, according to which no theatrical performance is a performance of some other work. As Hamilton acknowledges, it is a consequence of his [End Page 37] view that “there simply is no theatrical mode of presentation of works of dramatic literature: as works of dramatic literature they are only texts to be read.”2
I agree with many of Hamilton’s central claims. Hamilton’s discussion demonstrates convincingly that theatrical performance is an art form in its own right, not simply a quasi-artistic activity that is derivative from some other art form like dramatic literature. For this reason, theoretical analysis of the practices of appreciation and interpretation that are proper to theatrical performance is long overdue. I also agree that in typical cases of professional or serious amateur performance, the performers introduce elements that are highly aesthetically significant, and their performances should be thought of as artworks in their own right. Moreover, Hamilton is surely right to point out that a theatrical performance may be independent of any previously existing artwork, or may bear such a loose relation to another work (such as a dramatic literary text) that to say it is a performance of that work would be quite implausible.
I do not think, however, that Hamilton succeeds in making the case for the complete autonomy thesis, or the view that no performance is a performance of any other work. I will argue that this thesis should be rejected. Likewise, I deny Hamilton’s claim that works of dramatic literature lack a “theatrical mode of presentation.” I will suggest that the aesthetic appreciation of both theatrical performances and works of dramatic literature is best facilitated by acknowledging that the former are sometimes performances of the latter. Ultimately, though, I do not think this is devastating to Hamilton’s overall project: he does not need to defend the complete autonomy thesis, or its correlate about dramatic literature, in order to make his case for theatrical performance as a highly significant art form in its own right.
The Complete Autonomy Thesis
Hamilton offers three primary reasons for denying that a theatrical performance is ever of some...