- Philosophers & Thespians: Thinking Performance
In his book Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance, author Freddie Rokem takes a complex, if occasionally meandering, journey through several historical intersections of the titular disciplines. On this journey, Rokem does not attempt to construct a comprehensive understanding of the totality of such intersections, but rather muses on the related and recurring themes that bubble to the surface during the trek. The book is driven by the notion that the respective practices of philosophy and theatre are equal participants in the discursive practice of examining the human condition. As such, Rokem frames each chapter as a [End Page 241] dialogue between the discursive practices of philosophy and performance, broadly defined. Further, he makes clear the scope of his work, stopping at World War II and positioning the book as a prehistory of the relationship between the current debates about the intersections of performativity and philosophy. The final product begins with Plato and concludes with Walter Benjamin, making selective stops along the way, closely examining the numerous and complex artistic and philosophical products of each intersection.
In the first half of the book, Rokem examines two “authored” dialogues between performance and philosophy and two actual dialogues between practitioners of the crafts. He begins with an intertextual reading of Plato’s Symposium and Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus, examining the philosophical ideas of the former and applying them to the latter. Effectively, Rokem sees Oedipus as a philosopher who failed on the journey for identity and self-understanding that is essential to Plato’s Symposium.
From these classical roots, Rokem focuses his next chapter on one of the theatre’s great thinking characters, Hamlet. Here he first reinvestigates the titular character’s function as both performer and philosopher, considering the threads of madness and the metaphysical questions of the afterlife. Next Rokem reads the conversations between Hamlet and his father’s ghost as a utopian discourse, and then connects these philosophies with forward-thinking utopian philosophers and artists yet to come, Hegel, Marx, Müller, and Nietzsche among them.
Rokem’s third investigated dialogue is another significant leap in time and focus, as he moves forward to the written correspondence between Friedrich Nietzsche and August Strindberg in 1889. Reading this correspondence as a “modern ‘drama’ of how two individuals develop their own unique creativity on the brink of and beyond the borderline to insanity” (91), he ties in Hamlet, assigning Hamlet’s performed madness to Strindberg and Ophelia’s actual insanity to Nietzsche. This chapter integrates both philosophical topics and theatrical storytelling to examine the nature of madness as it is appears in the letters as well as in the work of both men. Though the methodology is somewhat scattered and the narrative connection to the previous chapters could be clearer, ultimately Rokem connects some of the conceptual dots between the Greeks, the Elizabethans, and these modern Europeans to move in the direction of a synthesized argument.
The final encounter that Rokem considers is the complex interdisciplinary correspondence between Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin, specifically a dialogue between the two men regarding Franz Kafka’s short story “The Next Village.” Rokem frames the discussion as an intersection of key philosophical issues touched on in previous chapters and follows with a close reading of, among other things, the staging of several of Brecht’s major plays. Again, the selectivity borders on a non sequitur here, but there are nonetheless some consistent threads—madness, journey, and exile—that hold the narrative together. [End Page 242]
In the second half of the book, Rokem moves from a focused consideration of specific encounters between philosophers and performers to what he terms “constellations,” the “multileveled and intertextual juxtapositions of cultural practices and critical discourses” that emerge from these meetings (17). The final chapters investigate the actual attempts of both Brecht and Benjamin to cross the theatre/philosophy border, Brecht by “theatricalizing philosophical thinking” and Benjamin by doing the opposite—“exploring the performative dimensions of philosophical thinking” (9–10).
This section of the book brings in...