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  • On the Necessity of Theater
  • Noël Carroll

Despite the fact that theater was the first art form to be examined in depth by Western philosophers, it has not received a great deal of attention by contemporary philosophers of art. Essays on literature, music, and cinema are more likely to appear in journals such as the British Journal of Aesthetics and The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism than are articles on theater. But with the publication of Paul Woodruff's The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched, James Hamilton's The Art of Theater and the recent anthology Staging Philosophy, edited by David Zucker Saltz and David Krassner, the tide seems to be turning. Philosophers are interested in theater again. Perhaps some lovers of theater may regard this as bad news, recalling what Plato, Augustine, and Rousseau attempted to do to theater. But contemporary philosophers of theater belong more to the school of Aristotle than to that of Plato.

Of these recent contributions to the philosophy of theater, Paul Woodruff's book is the one that most resembles Aristotle's Poetics, especially in terms of its analyses of plotting, characterization, conflict, choice, and mimesis. This is maybe no surprise, since Paul Woodruff is not only a professor of philosophy, but also a professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin. [End Page 435]

One thing that is immediately striking about The Necessity of Theater is the elegance of its intellectual design. Woodruff begins with the hypothesis that theater is the art by which human beings make or find human action worth watching in measure time and place. That is, theater is art of being watched and watching. This distinction between being watched and watching, then, provides Woodruff with the means to, on the one hand, examine the elements that go into making theater, and, on the other hand, the elements that go into watching or appreciating theater.

Creating theater involves making something worth watching—something that will hold the audience's attention. What sorts of things command our attention? Human action, notably as it is organized in terms of a plot which Woodruff, like Aristotle, emphasizes must be of a magnitude sufficient to be cognitively manageable. Since actions require choices, Woodruff follows his analysis of plot, naturally enough, with a discussion of the choices that give rise to those actions for much the same reason that Aristotle includes dialogue as one of the components of tragedy.

In order to be worth watching, Woodruff recommends that these choices be free and coherent. Since choices derive—or are thought to derive—from character, theater, in order to hold our attention, needs characters. These characters must be agents and, in addition, they must be capable of engaging our emotions, not just pity and fear, but the gamut of emotions, although the most important of these, on Woodruff's view, would appear to be the elicitation of care on the part of the audience on behalf of the characters on stage. Woodruff contends that care for a character is engendered by giving the character a past as well as hopes for the future (an aim, a project, a problem) and by making that person a center of love (that is, someone who loves and/or is loved by or who cares and is cared for by other people).

Theater primarily makes us interested in watching people by encouraging us to respond to characters emotionally. It is able to do this because it traffics in mimesis. Woodruff understand mimesis as a matter of a mimetic object, a theater piece, bringing to the fore certain effects of the object of which it is a representation. With respect to a theater piece, the relevant effects are emotional effects. Because mimesis is selective, it may be able to achieve those effects more intensely than its off-stage model can; the selectivity of the theater piece both places greater emphasis on the emotion-provoking features of situations while also blocking out otherwise [End Page 436] interfering detail. However, theater does require the complicity of the audience who must fill-in the model imaginatively.

The introduction of the role of the audience's...


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pp. 435-441
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