restricted access The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy (review)
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Reviewed by
Martin Puchner. The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xii + 254. $29.95 (Hb).

Plato the philosopher, meet Plato the dramatist. The philosopher's name has come to mean idealism, asceticism, and conservatism: stern dogmas, rigidly held. But the dramatist that this same Plato had been since his [End Page 257] youth persisted when the young man turned from tragedy to philosophy, embedding those severe tenets of Platonism in a new literary form that blends dramatic genres; and this dialogue form subverts Platonic dogmatism. If Plato's metaphysics leads the mind away from human bodily contingency, his form of writing leads that same mind back into particularities. The Forms may reside in Plato's heaven, but the dialogues draw their readers back down to earth. Indeed, modern thinkers who understand their project as the overturning of Platonism are late arrivals to that task; as Martin Puchner notes in The Drama of Ideas, "[I]t was Plato's dramaturgy that effectively 'overturned' Platonism" (171).

Some scholars read Plato as Puchner does, emphasizing Plato's mode of writing if not to the exclusion of doctrine then at least so that drama undermines or qualifies doctrine. In my opinion, the more closely you look at this approach, the more problematic it becomes. Besides negating almost the entire tradition of Platonism, this interpretation abandons too many unforgettable, bold, uniquely Platonic proposals about reality and human nature, offering little in exchange but truisms about the human need for stable moral discourse.

The Drama of Ideas does not dwell on Plato himself. Four of its five meaty chapters take the first chapter's conception of Plato the dramatist and trace his modern influence. In Puchner's view, Plato the dramatist generated a subterranean tradition that has run along beneath the philosophical tradition for five-hundred years. Interestingly, though Puchner does not underscore this point, the underground stream of Platonic writing begins simultaneously with the above-ground river's reappearance in the modern west. Marsilio Ficino, who translated Plato into Latin in the fifteenth century, also inaugurated the genre of the Socrates play, with which the legacy of dramatic Platonism begins.

Puchner identifies four phases or strands in the submerged tradition, beginning (chapter two) with the Socrates play that put Plato's characters on the modern stage, followed (chapter three) by the modern drama of ideas, the theatre of Strindberg and Kaiser, Wilde and Shaw, and varieties of meta-theatre produced by Pirandello, Brecht, and Stoppard. Then come two philosophical traditions in which Puchner espies a slyer theatricality. Chapter four brings Continental thinkers together under the rubric "Dramatic Philosophy," from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche through Sartre and Camus to Kenneth Burke and Gilles Deleuze. Those philosophers are followed by another set: Iris Murdoch, Martha Nussbaum, and Alain Badiou, the "new Platonists" of chapter five.

It is not hard to see Socrates plays as Platonic. Puchner tells a fascinating story about the authors who dramatized the trial and death of Socrates or the Symposium's dinner party. But he turns from these clear Platonic inheritances to figures in theatre and philosophy whose names are widely [End Page 258] known, but not as Platonists. Some of these inheritances are more plausible than others. As Puchner notes, Walter Benjamin had already connected Brecht with Plato (106); and perhaps Wilde, Pirandello, and Stoppard do show the influence of the new possibilities that Plato discovered in mimicking conversations. Even so, locating these playwrights in a history of dramatic Platonism depends on Puchner's having described that Platonism correctly in the first place. This is the book's weak point, because it relies on a contentious and extreme reading of Plato. Puchner's Plato "is not an idealist but rather a dramatist" (8), and the Socrates in his dialogues "not the historical Socrates but a fictional character" (45). The Platonism in modern thought is not "traditional Platonism" (74, 171). If Plato the dramatist proves to be, as I think he is, impossible to square with the author who spells out arguments for specific doctrines, then dramatists like Pirandello are misinformed about Plato rather than informed by him. It might still be...