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Theatrum Philosophicum: A Platonic Turn in Theatre Scholarship

From: Forum Modernes Theater
Volume 25, Number 2, 2010
pp. 59-64 | 10.1353/fmt.2010.0019

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Freddie Rokem’s Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance and Martin Puchner’s The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy mark two major additions to the library of philosophy and performance. A shared impulse animates these books, which both start from a reconsideration of Plato’s relationship to the theatre. The books differ in emphasis and tone, but these are overtly complementary projects; on their back covers, each book leads with a laudatory review by the other’s author. Philosophers and Thespians is concerned with what Rokem calls the “discursive strategies” of theatre and philosophy. Based first on close readings of four key “encounters” between representatives of these disciplines, the second part of Rokem’s book trains its focus on the historical dimension of such encounters as the Second World War approached, especially in the life and thought of Walter Benjamin. Puchner’s project is somewhat narrower in its initial approach, but considerably broader in its conclusions. With primary analysis rooted in both Classical and Continental philosophy, The Drama of Ideas seems to inaugurate a larger project of envisioning a “dramatic Platonism” with far-reaching implications for philosophy, theatre, and academia itself.

Taken together, these two works signal an important inflection point on the expanding field of theatre research that engages seriously with the philosophical discourse, and both will be essential reading for those who populate the working groups and symposia in this area of the discipline. The radical gesture in these arguments – implicit in Rokem’s approach, but explicit in Puchner’s writing – is the vision of theatre itself as a project of thought. The tendency to divide “theatre” from “theory” in bookstores, popular culture, and academic course design overlooks an ancient link, explored by both these authors, that is both conceptual and etymological: thea [sight] is the Greek root shared by both theatron and theorein. This link suggests something more significant than merely two neighbouring disciplines that shared a birthplace at the Acropolis of Athens. Puchner notes early in his book that thea is the root used in Plato’s description of “the drama of sight” in the parable of the cave, and he reads the use of this morpheme as “superimposing seeing and contemplation,” with the profound result that “theatre and theory [. . .] form a single activity”. Rokem treats the same idea in a more historically specific manner, stating that the theatre/theory relation shows that “philosophizing as a discursive practice developed and flourished in the wake of attending performances and having made a journey to attend them”. This difference is emblematic of the two approaches here. Claims stated in conceptual terms in The Drama of Ideas are often concretely staged in the historical encounters that form the basis of Philosophers and Thespians. Puchner’s powerful and wide-ranging argument for a philosophy more alert to its Platonic foundation and its dramatic expression seems to dovetail, in its own Socratic dialogue, with Rokem’s patient, scholarly analysis of individual cases of those who embodied that particular ethos.

Rokem is enamoured of spatial metaphors in the articulation of his project. He describes the terrain between philosophers and thespians as a largely unmapped “border landscape,” a site of struggles in which “each partner in the dialogical encounter desires to take over the other’s practices”. This mise en scène frames his project as a fundamentally dramatic event, dealing as it does with an exchange of practices that one can imagine in a workshop or studio setting. He also returns repeatedly to the figure of the crossroads, arising both from Oedipus (who features heavily in the first chapter) and from the concept of the journey (which is a central and defining metaphor of the whole project) as a “scripted embodiment”. In one of the valuable passages where Rokem reveals his work to be highly personal, he finds a phrase used by his mother throughout his childhood in the writings of Walter Benjamin from 1936: “Wenn jemand eine Reise tut, dann kann er was erzählen”. This linkage of journey, contemplation, and narrative emerges as a core thread of Rokem’s work, leading backward to his Performing History (2000) and, perhaps, forward to a future work about exile, which...

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