- Scrutinizing the Art of Theater
In his 1992 address to the American Society for Aesthetics, Peter Kivy suggested that philosophers of art might do best by giving up on “grand theorizing” (that is, pursuing the definition of art).1 In its place he proposed that they pursue the “careful and imaginative philosophical scrutiny of the individual arts and their individual problems.”2 Of course John Passmore and others had said similar things at earlier points,3 but philosophical aesthetics has, it seems to me, finally and robustly taken the turn toward the philosophies of the arts. Much of the best work in philosophical aesthetics over the last fifteen years or so has pursued the route Kivy suggested. James Hamilton’s The Art of Theater is part of this turn—it is careful and imaginative scrutiny of the art of theater done at the very highest level, and I am delighted to have this opportunity to comment on it.4
In what follows I shall address a number of issues raised by Hamilton’s work: the definition of theatrical enactment; the place of pretending and imagining in theatrical performance; the nature of Hamilton’s “ingredients model” and its relation to more traditional accounts of the work/performance relation; the account of theatrical style on offer; and the question of what we have learned from experimental theater.
But before I move on to address those aspects of the book’s content in detail, let me say something about the pedagogical significance of this work. Although there are a number of legitimate ways to teach introductory courses on aesthetics and the philosophy of art (for example, by following a historical progression or by structuring it around certain key issues), one increasingly attractive option is to teach a course that focuses on those aforementioned individual arts and their individual problems. So, for example, I used to regularly teach graduate seminars in aesthetics to students enrolled [End Page 51] in a fine arts doctoral program. These students studied music, art education, the visual arts, theater, and dance; the seminars were designed to provide them with a broad foundation in philosophical aesthetics. Since they typically had no background in philosophy, I made the effort to assign readings and topics relevant to their own artistic practices and interests. Providing them with contemporary cutting-edge philosophical material on music and the visual arts was not hard. Kivy’s work, as well as that by Jerrold Levinson, Arthur Danto, Richard Wollheim, and others, makes that fairly easy. And intriguingly—since philosophers are commonly said to have ignored the art of dance—there’s even a decent amount of recent philosophical work on that art form by such authors as Graham McFee, Frances Sparshott, and Noël Carroll and Sally Banes.5 But where to turn to for the theater students? I would often read some of Aristotle’s Poetics with them, but I have to admit that the serious students of the theater that I encountered in those seminars typically knew that text much better than I did. (Still, I hope I challenged their breezy assumptions about catharsis!) We would read Hume on tragedy together—fun, but not really so much about the theater—and sometimes a bit of Nietzsche. But there was never much to give them from contemporary philosophers on the subject—a few articles here and there, of course, but nothing that clearly laid out the big and distinctive issues that the art form of theater raises. Nothing, to put the point a bit differently, that would provide any evidence that there really was a lively and extant philosophy of theater out there, as there are lively and extant philosophies of film, music, literature, and photography. In short, for those attracted to the prospect of teaching aesthetics as the philosophies of arts, the dearth of good work on theater by contemporary philosophers has been a significant source of frustration and even a bit of an embarrassment.
The book in question is not the only recent philosophical work on theater. There are fine articles on the topic by David Osipovich, David Saltz, and Paul Woodruff, among others. Hamilton himself has a string of...