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  • Works, Pieces, and Objects Performed
  • Paul Thom (bio)


James Hamilton has written a book on the philosophy of theater that is admirable for its analytic clarity and for the wide knowledge of theatrical practice that it brings to bear on philosophical questions. The book’s main thesis is that theatrical performances are not presentations or executions or completions of texts, but the meaning of this thesis is not completely clear. Hamilton sometimes expresses the thesis specifically in relation to literary texts:

what is of interest in this book is the fact that the history I have been tracing—including the history of these debates—has revealed theatrical performance to be a form of art in its own right, independent of literature. And it is the meaning and truth of that discovery that is the central, indeed the only, concern in this book.1 . . . Theatrical performance is a practice independent of literature.2

This is the thesis in its weak form. Sometimes, however, he voices it in a strong form, relating to a class of artworks wider than literary texts: “A performance is . . . never a performance of some other work.”3

Hamilton’s thesis, in either its weak or its strong form, might be understood as a claim about theatrical performance as such, or it might be understood as a generalization about individual theatrical performances. To take it the first way would be to take it intensionally, as a claim about the nature of theatrical performance—a statement about what the very notion of theatrical performance implies and what it excludes. To take it the second way would be to take it extensionally, as a claim about each and every theatrical performance. Thus, the weak thesis—the thesis relating to literary texts—might be understood (intensionally) as stating that theatrical performance as such is an art form that is independent of literary texts. Or it [End Page 67] might be understood (extensionally) as stating that no individual theatrical performance qua artwork depends on a literary text. Similarly, the strong thesis—the thesis relating to artworks in general—might be understood (intensionally) as stating that theatrical performance as such is an art form independent of all artworks that are not theatrical performances. Or it might be understood (extensionally) as stating that no individual theatrical performance qua artwork depends on any artwork that is not itself a theatrical performance.

In this article I outline a framework within which I argue that Hamilton’s thesis in either its weak or its strong form should be accepted as an intensional claim about either moral or ontological independence, but it should be rejected as an extensional claim. Then I will discuss a line of reasoning Hamilton uses in support of his thesis, and I will argue that it is invalid.

A Framework

Spectators at a performance are often able to distinguish, at least to some extent, between the performance and what is performed. This must be the case if spectators are ever to be in a position to comment, for example, on whether a particular routine, which is part of what has been performed, is the same routine as was performed on another occasion—or to comment on how well or badly the routine is being executed. The concept of “what is performed” is therefore an important one for the philosophy of the performing arts.

It appears that Hamilton is using this concept when he talks about “the performed object.”4 He doesn’t give us an analysis of what exactly a performed object is, but it appears to be more general than what Paul Woodruff means by a “theater piece.” Woodruff defines a theater piece as a kind of theatrical event that may be repeated.5 (I take it that the definition doesn’t imply that all theater pieces are capable, practically speaking, of being repeated—for that would be false—but merely means that the notion of a theatrical event leaves open the possibility of repetition.) A theater piece is, presumably, a performed object, but a performed object need not be a theater piece if theater is defined (following Woodruff) in terms of human action that is worth watching. Some performances—many musical...


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pp. 67-79
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