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Reviewed by:
  • A Politics of the Scene, and: The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched
  • Freddie Rokem (bio)
A Politics of the Scene. By Paul A. Kottman. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008; 272 pp. $60.00 cloth.
The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched. By Paul Woodruff. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008; 272 pp. $27.95 cloth, $17.95 paper.

Well, if they won't give us tea, let us at least philosophize a little.

— Vershinin in Chekhov'sThree Sisters

The interactions between theatre, performance, and philosophy have a long and complex history, generally depicted as a narrative of rejection and distrust from the side of philosophy towards everything "theatrical" (see Barish 1981). The relations between the discursive practices of philosophy and performance have recently come into a sharper and more balanced focus through the work of philosophers (to mention only a few, in alphabetical order) such as Badiou, Deleuze, Nancy, and Rancière as well as the work presented from the perspective of theatre/performance in the writings of Herb Blau and the Krasner and Saltz edited collection Staging Philosophy( 2006). These publications, and many more (including my own), have examined the many forms of interaction between the discursive practices of philosophy and those of theatre/performance, probing the ways philosophy "performs" and "how" and "what" the theatre "thinks."

A central question in this context is what kind of theoretical thinking the experience of watching theatre and live performance triggers. Is there anything unique in the ways in which we react to theatrical practices that other forms of artistic expression do not activate (at least not to the same extent)? And how have such reflections become integrated within more comprehensive philosophical systems of thought? In the two books reviewed here the actual experience of the theatre—and one must add, also the reading of certain key dramatic texts—serve as the point of departure for a series of reflections and discussions gradually leading to more comprehensive philosophical issues. The trajectory leading from experiencing theatre and performance to the practice of philosophy has its roots in the Classical period. The discussions on Eros reproduced in Plato's Symposium, where Agathon's victory in the tragedy competition at the Lenaean festival in 416 BCE is celebrated, is one of the most prominent examples. A performance or a festival is a major path leading to philosophical thinking.

However, reading Woodruff 's The Necessity of Theaterwith these issues and expectations in mind I was disappointed. This book is basically a very traditional "defense" or "apologia" of the [End Page 224]theatre, making sweeping claims (in the "Epilogue") like "Plato had reasons to believe that the theater would cause a healthy society to turn sick, and he has not been alone" (230). However, this is not the unambiguous position presented by Plato/Socrates in The Symposiumor The Republic. Woodruff makes every possible effort to convince us that the theatre can be relevant, that it answers to our deepest needs and desires, and can also be deeply transformative for the participants as well as the spectators, creating a profound sense of community including both sides of the proscenium. And therefore he concludes: "We need to defend theater against the idea that it is irrelevant, that it is an elitist and dying art, kept alive only by a few cranks in a culture attuned only to film and television" (231).

What this book tells us—sometimes even preaches—is that theatre can be relevant, exciting, different and even life-changing for individuals who are mainly watching film and television but also for those who prefer sports and even sex shows. It is, as the book's subtitle tells us, in all of these cases a question of "watching and being watched." But after making this claim over and over again, the book just feels clichéd and boring, repeating over and over again why characters like Hamlet and Antigone are still worthy of our attention. I found it difficult to cast myself in the role of "reader" for this book.

So, if this was not a book for me, Kottman's A Politics of...


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