- Theatre, Communication, Critical Realism
Tobin Nellhaus’s Theatre, Communication, Critical Realism is a thought-provoking addition to the literature on theatre historiography. The central claim is simply stated: changes in a culture’s communication structures cause shifts in theatrical practice. Nellhaus’s approach, though, is far from ordinary; he critiques foundational assumptions of historical theory and offers a new and useful method with which to question agency, structure, and causality. His case for this new perspective is solid, and its applications are well-demonstrated and clearly presented.
Through its careful interlacing of philosophy, theatre history, and communication studies, the book posits a cogent paradigm with which to un-tangle historical thinking. Following the critical realism of Roy Bhaskar, Nellhaus explains and applies a realist model of social ontology. This model contends that three kinds of entities—material objects, intentional agents, and socially constructed discourses—have causal power to effect historical change. Realism in this context refers to the idea that knowledge is socially conditioned, yet maintains an existence separate from individuals’ thoughts. This perspective informs Nellhaus’s historical argument. Deftly sidestepping Ong’s technological determinism, Nellhaus grounds specific communication structures in frameworks of both material and social practices in order to argue that changes in those structures trigger the emergence of new theatrical forms.
The first chapter interrogates ontology, the mode of philosophical thinking that addresses conditions of existence and categories of being. Nellhaus begins with an elegant critique of positivism and social constructionism, pointing out that both rely on similar flawed assumptions. Neither adequately explains causality, either reducing history to simple mechanics or discounting it as mere discourse. Critical realism, by contrast, contends that reality exists independent of perception, but that knowledge of it is a product of socially conditioned activity (24). With this assumption in place, Nellhaus outlines his tripartite ontology and posits three analogous levels of historical questioning: the technical “How?”; the sociological or functional “Why?”; and the hermeneutic/symbolic “What does it mean?” Neatly presented in a chart (46), this model of culture and history ensures that historians account for all causal powers—structures, agents, and discourses—and seek explanations of them on all possible levels. The chapter also examines Peircean semiotics as complementary [End Page 303] to critical realism. Since communication relies primarily on signs, Nellhaus productively leans on Peirce to contextualize communication in its material, symbolic, and embodied aspects.
Chapter 2 digs back into history to analyze two specific events in which communication changed theatrical practice: the emergence of tragedy in ancient Greece, and the performance of the York Cycle dramas in medieval England. Through a critical realist method, the book examines the events’ “conditions of possibility,” focusing on those structural elements that permitted new theatrical (re)presentations. In the case of ancient Greek culture, Nellhaus argues, the transition from oral to manuscript culture made tragedy possible insofar as “writing opened up a conceptual space which theatre then occupied” (66). He hypothesizes that tragedy’s linear narrative structure, lack of archaisms, and basic semiotic system grew out of an increasing use of written communication. Medieval drama was similarly the product of a shift from oral to manuscript culture, but dependence on the Bible encouraged thinking based on similitude. This “figural thinking” (69) emerged with the increased use of writing in exegetical literature, contractual and legal validation, and memory aids. Nellhaus shows how the York Cycle performed similitude through acting technique and use of theatre space. Distinct from ancient tragedy, medieval drama conceived of theatrical performance as a “superior devotional aid” (92), a means of bringing the Bible to life.
Chapter 3 focuses on genre in eighteenth-century drama, using the cognitive concepts of metaphor and image schemas (subconscious models of the world that structure thought) to explain its emergence. Here, Nellhaus pinpoints two developments that made the sentimental strategies of Steele’s The Conscious Lovers possible. Periodicals such as The Tatler and The Spectator used metaphors that encouraged a sense of psychological depth and the disclosure of an “inward self,” while simultaneously creating imagined and intimate communities of readers. Additionally, these periodicals...