- The Theatrical Public Sphere by Christopher B. Balme
Christopher Balme begins his introduction by suggesting that contemporary theatre, especially the subsidized repertoire of Western Europe, “has little engagement with the public sphere” because it takes place in a society in which “innovative, taboo-breaking, and transgressive” artistic practice is received with “aesthetic absorption” rather than violent outrage (3), and speaks to a specialized audience in a space more private than truly public (23). He thus implies, perhaps ironically, that the properly theatrical public sphere may not exist. Nonetheless, the book goes on to demonstrate that controversies on the stage and in the house in the modern period, which Balme understands in a broad sense as stretching from the Elizabethan era to the present, have indeed “spilled out” of the auditorium into streets, newspapers, and most recently the blogosphere; they have influenced debates about social and political conduct and priorities in the wider public sphere (15). Balme’s title, introduction, and chapters one and two suggest that public debates provoked by theatrical performances should be understood as instances of a specialized theatrical public sphere, but the discussion in later chapters offers a more complex account of theatre’s participation in a broader public sphere, as only one site among others in which social controversies and political conflicts are played out. This broader claim is in my view more compelling, but it may burst the narrower bounds implied by Balme’s title.
In the first chapter, Balme grounds his definition of the public sphere squarely in the field delineated by Jürgen Habermas, whose Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (1962; 1989) analyzed the “structural transformation” of bourgeois society in 18th-century Europe that enabled the open exchange of ideas and thus challenged the concentration of power in the absolute monarchy. Habermas defines Öffentlichkeit as a concept, public-ness, and as the institutionalized and informal ensemble of social formations and cultural conventions that enable this exchange rather than particular sites where exchange takes place. Balme acknowledges the potency of face-to-face exchange in theatre foyers and in the streets but focuses on the circulation in print of information about theatre, whether promotional, such as playbills advertising theatre in the 18th and 19th centuries; or controversial, such as a Puritan pamphlet attacking theatre in the 17th century; or newspaper debates about social conflicts raised by theatre from the 18th century to the present. Although Balme supplements Habermas with more recent theories, especially Chantal Mouffe’s agonistic pluralism (2013), his focus on print might have more fully engaged other key theorists, in particular: Peter Hohendahl (1992), whose name appears only in two footnotes but not in the bibliography, despite his role in introducing Habermas to English-language readers and his own studies of the public sphere in Germany and elsewhere; and Nancy Fraser (1989), whose critique of the gendered character of the bourgeois public sphere [End Page 171] and whose discussion of the intersections of intimate and public spheres influences critics that Balme does discuss, such as Michael Warner (2002).
The strongest chapter in the book examines the controversy around Mahomet (1888) by the French Arabist Henri de Bornier, which was to be performed by the Comédie Française but, because the play had Muhammad on his deathbed forsake Islam for faith in Jesus in the final lines, provoked consternation in the Muslim world, from Algiers to Istanbul and in the Ottoman court, which demanded its cancelation. Balme tracks the controversy to India and elsewhere in the British Empire, once Henry Irving acquired the English rights, and concludes the chapter with the case of a “post-Orientalist” production in Berlin of Mozart’s Idomeneo in 2006, whose stage effigies of the severed heads of prophets including Muhammad incited rumors of Islamist retaliation while hardening the defense of artistic freedom by both politicians and cultural elites in Germany. While acknowledging the force of this defense, Balme notes the elite’s disingenuous avoidance of the critical fault line between freedom and license that hides the persistence of “latent Orientalism” (136), citing...