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  • Metatheater and Modernity: Baroque and Neobaroque by Mary Ann Frese Witt
  • Bradley Stephenson
Metatheater and Modernity: Baroque and Neobaroque. By Mary Ann Frese Witt . Madison, Wisconsin : Fairleigh Dickinson University Press , 2012 . Cloth $70.00 , eBook $69.99 . 191 pages.

With Metatheater and Modernity, Mary Ann Frese Witt enriches the growing field of metatheatrical scholarship by arguing for a more performative and functional analysis of metatheater. Witt notes that “rather than mimetically representing the ‘real’ world, metatheater calls into question accepted notions of that reality, stressing instead the world’s theatricality” (14). This emphasis on theatricality, Witt observes, is expressed most clearly in the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, the baroque and neobaroque eras, which are undoubtedly the two hotbeds of metatheatrical activity in western theatre. Her provocative goal for the book, and her divergence from the current field of scholarship, is “to stop asking the question of what metatheater . . . is and ask rather what it does” (9). Each densely packed chapter engages in this critical exploration, analyzing plays from these time periods and probing questions about how metatheater functions that support Witt’s potent argument for the performative nature of metatheatrical texts.

Chapter one is a complex exploration of the colliding theatrical worlds of Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre in relation to Jean Rotrou’s play Le véritable Saint Genest (1645), itself based on Lope De Vega’s Lo fingido verdadero (1608), roughly translated as “Acting is Believing.” Within this tangled web of theatricalism and adaptation, Witt provocatively asks, “is it possible to emerge from playacting into [End Page 96] reality?” (47). Genet, Rotrou, Sartre, and other authors practice “an art in which fiction refers to a reality that is just as fictional” (38). By unpacking these texts and contexts, Witt skillfully exposes the complex and highly relevant relationships between metatheater and politics, as well as the blending of illusion and reality common to both theatre and life. Such connections can be significant to artists with any concern for social justice or how theatre functions in society.

Next, Witt argues that the celebration of theatrical illusion in human life is both fundamental to metaplays and performative in nature. The second chapter rigorously analyzes Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion comique (1635–36) and Tony Kushner’s adaptation, The Illusion (1988). Witt argues that Corneille’s play is the first instance of “a play within the play within the play,” while Kushner’s version flaunts the very act of adaptation as a postmodern pastiche or “metatranslation” (62, 68). Corneille’s play is an example of the French genre la comédie des comédiens or “the play about players” which had the goal “to defend and praise the merits of theatre itself,” a performative thread that Witt nimbly ties to all metatheater throughout the book (53).

Chapter three investigates the delight and magic that undergird theatrical creation. Witt compares a play fragment written by Italian artist Bernini to Luigi Pirandello’s theatre-in-theatre trilogy, Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), Each in His Own Way (1924), and Tonight We Improvise (1929), significantly arguing that “the mirroring accomplished by metatheater itself functions as a simulacrum in that it undercuts the illusion that the drama played on stage is a representation of real life” (104). Though her comparative analysis is quite dense, Witt makes the heartfelt claim that Pirandellian theatre of the twentieth century repurposes the baroque principle that theatre creates through “magic.” In such claims, one can almost sense the delight Witt must have felt as a young woman experiencing the magic of theatre for the first time.

Witt posits, and few would refute, that Hamlet “is the ur-text of metatheater in the baroque era” (117). In chapter four, she thoroughly supports this claim through a metatheatrical analysis of Hamlet, the neobaroque “meta-Hamlets,” and their metatheatrical underpinnings, including Pirandello’s Enrico IV, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1963) and Dogg’s Hamlet (1979), Stoppard’s 2004 adaptation called Pirandello’s Henry IV, and other film and stage versions of Shakespeare’s play. Though the connection of Hamlet to metatheater has been widely discussed by scholars since Lionel Abel coined the term “metatheater...


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