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Reviewed by:
  • Performance and Cognition: Theatre Studies and the Cognitive Turn
  • Yanna Popova
Bruce McConachie and F. Elizabeth Hart, eds. Performance and Cognition: Theatre Studies and the Cognitive Turn. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. Pp. xi + 236. $120.00 (Hb).

This collection represents a welcome addition to a fast-growing body of work that draws on empirical and theoretical research from the cognitive sciences in order to provide a scientifically informed framework for discussing what has traditionally been assumed to be the sole domain of the humanities. The fruits of this interaction can already be savoured in multidisciplinary endeavours such as cognitive poetics, neuroaesthetics, and cognitive musicology, to mention a few. McConachie and Hart propose a similar reshaping of the dominant critical paradigm in theatre and performance studies. Their clearly articulated aim is to challenge some of the key assumptions and orientations in theatre and performance research, which they find in many ways inadequate to address the concerns of the field. Cognitive approaches, they suggest, may provide a firmer empirical basis and greater explanatory power. From the perspective of the cognitive sciences, the efforts of this volume could hardly be timelier. Just as theoretical models of aspects of mind – such as emotion, agency, empathy, embodiment, and cultural situatedness – are of considerable interest to theatre studies, so too can the cognitive sciences benefit from a conversation with theatre scholars, performers, and spectators. Indeed, one of the strongest points of this collection is that it provides a clear bridge for cognitive scientists and theatre and performance theorists to visit each other's territories.

The collection is divided into four sections, each devoted to a specific aspect of theatre and performance studies. The three essays in Section [End Page 424] One address theoretical issues of performance and staging, paying careful attention to their cultural–historical contingencies. In their distinct ways, the chapters by Hart and McConachie both see the "embodied realism" of Lakoff and Johnson as setting the theoretical grounds for a cognitive approach to theatre and performance. This point is persuasive, as embodiment is not simply another discursive theory of meaning but an approach to formulating naturalistic explanations of mind, body, consciousness, thought, and language – all crucial elements of the theatrical spectacle. Since Lakoff and Johnson's work is cited throughout the collection, it is disappointing that some of their well-established terms, such as "image schema" and "primary metaphor," do not find a place in the book's glossary.

Hart's model for theatrical embodiment goes even further than Lakoff and Johnson and importantly includes the insights of phenomenology. Although Hart's examples are largely limited to the linguistic aspects of embodiment, she makes the important point that purely semiotic interpretive practices fail adequately to explain the totality of the theatrical experience. Indeed, in theatrical performance, the verbal and the non-verbal often work jointly to great effect. It has been argued previously (see Freeman or Popova) that drama usually relies on a strong iconic relation between verbal expression and non-verbal action so that various aspects of a play (its settings, props, language, characters, movement, and so on) are structured by the same cognitive schemata.

Even in contexts far removed from our own, the process of evaluating theatrical reception is served better by embodied realism than by psycho-analysis. This is McConachie's claim, which he defends in the chapter he writes using the example of the historically specific "wench acts" of the 1840s and 1850s. Tobin Nellhaus addresses "performance strategies" – a totality of techniques and practices that includes "performance space and time, dramatic action, scenery, sound, characterization, acting, and audience response" (77) – and argues that these arise from knowledge not necessarily acquired directly from experience but often reflective of "discursive practices." As an example, Nellhaus cites the understanding of agency in eighteenth-century sentimental theatre, which he claims marked the beginnings of psychologically real characters with complex inner lives. Accordingly, agency – a discursively generated notion – established a strategy for theatrical performance, which in turn determined theatrical reception.

The two chapters in Section Two of the collection (by Lisa Zunshine and Naomi Rokotnitz) represent the field of cognitive poetics and pertain to issues of interpretation of dramatic texts; Section...


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pp. 424-426
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