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  • Theatre and Citizenship: The History of a Practice
  • Robert Davis
Theatre And Citizenship: The History of a Practice. By David Wiles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011; pp. 268.

Identifying a crisis of public engagement in the contemporary political landscape, David Wiles looks to history for examples of theatrical practices that address the public sphere. Acknowledging that “citizenship” is a fluid, ever-changing concept, Wiles does not provide a hard definition of the term; rather, he organizes the volume by exploring tensions between models of citizenship that favor individual rights and identities versus those that favor communal obligations. The case studies, laid out in a more or less chronological fashion, encompass more than 2,000 years, ranging from classical Athens to the contemporary world. Despite its wide historical range, this volume provides a rich analysis of plays and contexts that illustrate how audiences can use the social practice of theatregoing as a springboard to radically reconceive political identities.

After an introductory first chapter that lays out his argument, Wiles focuses the book’s second chapter, “Athens,” on that ancient city, where both theatre and democracy emerged as institutions around 534 bce. Drawing on theorists ranging from Jürgen Habermas to Kwame Anthony Appiah, the chapter owes a primary debt to Hannah Arendt, whose analysis of classical Athens is apparent throughout the volume. For her, as Wiles points out, Athenian democracy was literally performative: Athenians maintained their democratic freedoms by continually participating in the “public realm,” acting in the assembly as if on a kind of stage. Following Arendt, Wiles finds common ground between citizens participating in the assembly and those attending the theatre. Accordingly, he views choral dancing in the theatre as akin to democratic participation, considering the relationship between the principal actor and the chorus as an ongoing dialogue between the individual and the city. Of particular interest is how Wiles invokes—but goes beyond—the boilerplate Plato (anti-theatre) versus Aristotle (pro-theatre) arguments by reading their theatrical opinions in the context of their political philosophy. Known for his work on ancient performance, Wiles lends his vast knowledge of Athenian culture and political thought to examine how the dramatic festivals have provided subsequent generations with inspiration in shaping ideals of citizenship and political order.

The third chapter, “Florence, Rome and Machiavelli,” looks at the Roman Republic through one of the most important, and most maligned, thinkers in Western political philosophy, Niccolò Machiavelli. An officer and diplomat in the short-lived Florentine Republic (1498–1512), Machiavelli was tortured and exiled by the Medici when they retook the city in 1512. The chapter considers Machiavelli’s The Prince, but pays closer attention to other texts, including his pro-Republican Discourses on Livy and his well-received comedy Mandragola (The Mandrake). The picture of Machiavelli that emerges is of a scholar, historian, translator, and dramatist who crafted a model of pro-communitarian citizenship in opposition to such mainstream Renaissance realities as Ciceronian humanism, popular Christian piety, and princely rule. Exiled from the political life that he so longed for, Machiavelli serves as an example of an extraordinary individual who used comedy to forge a surrogate republic with his audience.

Chapter 4, “Coventry to London,” runs at a breakneck pace from the Middle Ages to late-seventeenth-century England, covering pageant plays, Elizabethan theatre, the Interregnum, and John Milton. Beginning with a brief discussion of Augustine, Wiles considers the Coventry Weavers Fellowship, whose pageant play for the Corpus Christi cycles brought together communities nested within the city. Tracing a social shift in Elizabethan England, where individuality is emergent and finally dominant, Wiles briefly establishes his theme of community [End Page 459] versus individual, offering a fuller analysis of it in the following sections, which focus on intellectual and social conflicts in the late eighteenth century.

The next two chapters, on the French Enlightenment and Revolution, respectively, focus on the book’s central question: Are communities composed of individuals briefly united to action, or are humans inherently social? “Geneva: Rousseau versus Voltaire” (chapter 5) analyzes the life, works, and rivalries of these two esteemed philosophers and dramatists of the late eighteenth century. As Wiles points out, both Voltaire and Rousseau valued citizenship...


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