- The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy
To reconcile the ancient dispute between poetry and philosophy is an ambitious charge. Socrates brings up signs of “this old opposition” in book 10 of Plato’s Republic, so even for Plato the dispute was already long-standing. Nonetheless, scholars continue to exhume it, most recently in Max Statkiewicz’s Rhapsody of Philosophy: Dialogues with Plato in Contemporary Thought (2009) and Freddie Rokem’s Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance (2010). In The Drama of Ideas, Martin Puchner returns to the dispute by reassessing Plato’s far-reaching influence not only on philosophy, but on modern drama. This influence, Puchner emphasizes, “has been obscured by the distorted image of Plato as the enemy of drama and theater and, more generally, by the lack of interest in the conjunction of drama and philosophy on the part of both theater scholars and philosophers” (41). [End Page 300]
Puchner begins by blurring the line between Plato the philosopher and Plato the creative dramatist who articulated his philosophy in a dramatic format. Noting Diogenes Laertius’s apocryphal account of Plato burning his play on the steps of the Theatre of Dionysus, Puchner revisits the philosopher’s dramatic mode of writing. He points out that Plato the philosopher, who had the audacity to write about banning theatre from the city of Callipolis in the Republic, was the same writer who embraced the dramatic mode of the Socratic dialogue and pursued one of the “most unusual careers in drama” (4). Puchner also reminds us that the Socrates character in Plato’s dialogues is much better known than the historic Socrates who lived from 469–399 bce. Having established these paradoxes, Puchner argues that, in the dialogues of Plato and Xenophon, the fictional character of Socrates materializes the ideas to which he gives voice. Ultimately, Puchner’s aim is to demonstrate the oscillation between materiality and the philosophic ideal in modern drama and literature.
Puchner offers two distinct ways of revisioning Plato’s understanding of drama, the first half of the book framing the debate between drama and philosophy from the perspective of drama, the second half framing it from that of philosophy. In effect, Puchner suggests that “philosophical drama” and “dramatic philosophy” are simply different frameworks for understanding the relationship between matter and form (35). In chapter 1, for example, he introduces “dramatic Platonism” as a genre that oscillates between comedy and tragedy, materialism and metaphysics. He argues that dramatic Platonism allowed Plato to continually negotiate between “matter” (the dramatic embodiment of an idea in a character) and “form” (the distancing devices by which the drama’s ideas are revealed to the audience). Revisiting the purpose of character, action, and audience in Plato’s dramaturgy, Puchner even distills a poetics from Plato’s Socratic dialogues that rivals Aristotle’s better-known formulation.
The next chapter includes a fascinating survey of the “Socrates Play,” defined as the “thoughts and actions” of Socrates in dramatic form. Puchner shows us that the “lost-in-the-clouds” Socrates of Aristophanes was only the beginning of a long succession of staged Socrates types. Drawing on plays from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, Puchner recovers a vast spectrum of Socrates characters that range from tragic protagonist to comic stage philosopher. In chapter 3, dramatic Platonism is used as a lens through which to reconsider modern drama. Puchner’s argument here is that, since modern drama can be said to be non-Aristotelian, it can be “understood more specifically as Platonic” (73). The “Platonic impulses,” or “idiom,” that Puchner locates in the works of Kaiser, Strindberg, Wilde, Shaw, Pirandello, Brecht, and Stoppard manifest the “intellectual aspirations” of modern drama (75). Puchner’s project is, by his own admission, anachronistic, but his defense is that “an anachronism . . . can shed new light on a familiar topic” (30). Indeed, it does so in a refreshing way by reminding the reader that, like Plato, modern drama can be best understood as an “unsettling combination of idealist aspiration and material practice” (74).