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  • Notes Toward a Theory of Spectating1
  • James Hamilton (bio)

Over the past thirty years we have learned a lot about the contents of performances that spectators come to know or understand during performances. Reflection influenced by Marxism, feminism, race studies, queer studies, and postcolonial studies, to mention just a handful of theoretical perspectives, have contributed substantially to our understanding of what spectators can bring to and can also learn from theatrical performances. But what has not been studied in sufficient detail so far is how spectators come to grasp those contents.

What I will now call “the new questions” for theatre theory are not so much what spectators know, when they know it, or even when they learn it. The new questions are how they learn it and why they get it right.2 The second clause in this formulation of the questions may strike some as tendentious; for we have rightly learned to be suspicious of some claims concerning “getting it right.” But, as I have argued elsewhere, there seems to be a basic level of understanding that many, perhaps most, spectators achieve that rests on facts about theatrical spectators that largely cut across cultural, ideological, gender, and generational lines in remarkable ways and for remarkable reasons: and this basic level of understanding is what underwrites the many disagreements spectators come to have with each other about the meaning and significance of what they see. Although I will address some issues about this formulation directly in the next section of the paper, I note here that this essay is primarily a contribution toward answering the questions just mentioned, those I have just called “the new questions.” How do spectators grasp the contents that many theoretical essays have convinced us they do grasp? How do they get it right?

In 2007, I wrote a defense of the views that (a) there is a basic level of understanding that most spectators to any kind of theatrical performance often achieve, and (b) that the reason for this is that it is rational to expect most spectators to both converge on roughly the same features of a performance and project from these features roughly the same descriptions of what they have encountered.3 Some [End Page 105] of the reasoning that leads to (a) will be discussed in the first part of this paper. I have since come to see that, although it is rational to expect convergence on roughly the same features of a performance, this does not make it rational to expect that spectators will project even roughly the same descriptions of those performances. Yet many spectators do so. If it is a narrative performance, they are likely to describe a story, and pretty much the same story. If it is not narrative, they are likely to make plausible and frequently correct guesses as to its actual structure. So, it is important to figure out how they do that. And that is the focus of this paper. It must be stressed that this does not mean spectators will agree with each other concerning what the story is about, what it means, or what its significance is. Indeed, they frequently do not. And, because they often disagree on interpretations of what they describe, they also disagree regarding how to evaluate it.4

Departures from the dominant pattern of focusing on content grasped by an audience are present in the literature of theatre theory, especially in the last decade.5 One truly notable exception to that dominant pattern is Bruce McConachie’s Engaging Audiences that, as its subtitle suggests, offers “a cognitive approach to spectating.” McConachie deploys a range of results in cognitive science to suggest answers to a variety of pressing questions about the mechanisms of spectating.6 Other theatre theorists contributing to this trend include Evelyn Tribble, Amy Cook, and Rhonda Blair and John Lutterbie.7 As Blair and Lutterbie remark in their informative introduction to a special section of The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism on Cognitive Studies, Theatre, and Performance, developments in the cognitive sciences “can support and enrich our appreciation of a whole range of existing performance and theatre theories.”8 And that, indeed, is the...


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pp. 105-125
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