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REVIEWS Jonas Barish. The Antitheatrical Prejudice. Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1981. Pp. 499. $24.50. This ambitious, extensively researched work is, in its outward form, a historical survey of writings against the theater—or, to be more precise, of writings addressed in some way to the phenomenon of theatricality and to the kinds of moral disquiet and (more rarely) moral optimism which it has shown itself capable of engendering. Although the greater part of the book deals specifically with the stage and associated polemic, this is merely the focus of a more general treatment of Western responses to “the theatrical” in art and behavior. Writers of the stature of Dickens and La Rochefoucauld therefore have as important a place in the study as single-minded campaigners like Prynne and the Reverend Arthur Bed­ ford. The book also gives detailed attention to Plato, Rousseau, and other influential figures whose attacks on the stage provide a way of access to a more general cast of thought. Its fourteen substantial chapters are organized on broadly chronological lines, their principal topics being Plato and Greece (I), Rome and Early Christianity (II), the fourteenthcentury Tretise of Miraclis Pleyinge (III), Puritans and Renaissance humanists (IV), Ben Jonson (V ), Renaissance attitudes to display and self-display (VI), seventeenth-century France (VII), eighteenth-century England (VIII), Rousseau (IX), nineteenth-century suspicion (X) and equivocal affirmation (XI), Nietzsche (XII), the criticism of Yvor Win­ ters (XIII), and twentieth-century drama and society (XIV). This inventory does not, however, do justice to the book’s more stimulating qualities; it is at once something more and something less than the comprehensive map of an important tradition in Western thought. Professor Barish points out that his account is, of necessity, selective and somewhat personal, making “no pretense at being a systematic history” (p. 2). And the narrative intractability of the material commits the author to some extent to construction a tiroirs: themes and topics (for example, Renaissance images of Protean change, pp. 99-112) are gen­ erally allowed predominance over story; a number of provocative com­ parisons are drawn between the thought of different epochs (for example, in the diagnosis of antifeminism, or at least “anti-femininity,” as a recurrent strain in polemic against the theater). The book can usefully be approached via its index, as well as via its order of presentation. True to the challenging definite article in its title, the book sets out to display and analyze a single phenomenon, considered to retain the same essential qualities behind the surface variety of its self-manifesta­ tion across time. “The antitheatrical prejudice” is presented as a largely 381 382 Comparative Drama unreflective pattern of feeling which goes on seeking plausible alibis for its own existence; in the author’s words, “it is ‘ante-predicative,’ and seems to precede all attempts to explain or rationalize it” (p. 117). This seems acceptable as a narrative convenience: the reader is cued to expect, and for much of the work is given, a journey full of incidental discoveries towards a final goal which remains partly notional. It may also have some value as a proposition about a general malaise of Western thought. But it seems less useful as a principle of historical analysis. The book’s central thesis is, in fact, explicitly a-historical: The prejudice seems too deep-rooted, too widespread, too resistant to changes of place or time to be ascribed entirely, or even mainly, to social, political, or economic factors, (pp. 116-17) It is therefore not surprising that, allowing for necessary selectiveness, the work should only be partially successful as a history of attacks on the stage and the theatrical. The decision to draw mainly on written argu­ ment, and to assume some knowledge of theatrical and social conditions, is not necessarily a disadvantage: the work is probably at its most incisive as historical criticism where the language and concerns of thinkers and polemicists are shown to intersect with those of the dramatists (notably in the treatment of English Renaissance drama) and where authors are shown to have foregrounded, for their own moral and aesthetic purposes, a particular idea of the theatrical. Conversely, the less illuminating...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 381-383
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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