- Replies to Criticisms
I am grateful to Noël Carroll, David Davies, Sherri Irvin, Aaron Meskin, and Paul Thom for stimulating discussions of The Art of Theater over the past year, culminating in these carefully crafted critical comments on various aspects of the book.1 I especially appreciate the efforts of Sherri Irvin, who edited this special issue and without whose encouragement, enthusiasm, and careful editing this would not have happened.
Whenever the central proposals made in The Art of Theater were made by theater people during the past hundred years, they were greeted with a kind of baffled outrage by many traditionalist literature scholars who had taken it as an obvious fact that theatrical performances are nothing more than illustrations or interpretations of works of dramatic literature, at best requiring artistry for performance but not issuing in independent works of art. Quite a few contemporary literature and theater scholars have seen errors in the traditionalist view and proposed that theatrical performances are capable of even great artistry and, perhaps, of being works of art in their own right. It must be said, however, that they will not find my defense of that position congenial. Indeed, it will seem worse still from their point of view because my defense of the position does not require semiotic analysis, let alone any sort of poststructuralist thinking about theatrical performances that depends on seeing performance as a novel kind of text—a “theater text.” This will disappoint because, unlike many contemporary literary theorists (and even some theater theorists), I do not think of theatrical performances as something to be read and, further, as something that falls within the purview of literary scholarship after all. Performances are actions and are to be understood in the ways we understand all other actions.
I knew the central proposals in The Art of Theater would seem a little strange to philosophers. Some of the strangeness that they have felt about the view—if not the baffled outrage felt by literary theorists—can be mitigated, I believe, by considering three facts that served as motivations for making the proposal. I encountered these facts while teaching experimental theater techniques in a workshop format. Only gradually did I come to realize they are facts about any theatrical performance—its presentation, its [End Page 80] preparation, and its reception. It was only after I realized how general these facts are that I began to wonder why the view they seem to suggest is not more widely held, or even discussed, among philosophers working on the performing arts. My book was designed to get that discussion going. And, to judge by the quality of the discussion in this volume, it has succeeded admirably in meeting that goal. I think the book is also largely correct, however, so it is worth beginning at the beginning, with the basic facts I encountered in teaching experimental theater.
First, it is undeniable that what typical spectators for any theatrical performance grasp is delivered to them entirely during the time of the performance itself. The typical spectator—which excludes academics and professional critics—is usually unfamiliar with what she is about to see and hear, in content if not in kind. Nevertheless, most spectators are successful in tracking most theatrical performances, even some in wildly unfamiliar styles and traditions. This is an important fact. Its importance lies in the implication that spectators do not need to recognize anything beyond what they see in the performance to regard the event as something they can assess aesthetically and artistically.
Second, rehearsal processes for theatrical performances involve a lot of experimentation that focuses on how to make features of actors’ bodies and voices render clearly what the audience is supposed to see and hear and on how to make the sights and sounds generated by the ensemble, the set, the lighting, and so on focus audience attention in the places that will best enable them to understand what the company is presenting. This too is an important fact, for it highlights what any spectator has to know something about in order to make cogent artistic assessments of the event she has witnessed.
Finally, consider the following case...