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  • The Birth of Theater from the Spirit of Philosophy: Nietzsche and the Modern Drama by David Kornhaber
  • K. M. Newton (bio)
David Kornhaber. The Birth of Theater from the Spirit of Philosophy: Nietzsche and the Modern Drama. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2016. Pp. xi + 238. $33.00.

The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Philosophy is Nietzsche's first and most famous book. Whether modern commentators consider it his best or most important text is doubtful. It may be mentioned first in studies of Nietzsche but is generally left behind when the emphasis shifts to his later work. David [End Page 237] Kornhaber's book is a departure from most recent studies since he considers it the key Nietzsche text. He claims the reason for modern critics' comparative neglect of it is due to their lack of appreciation of what Nietzsche is really concerned with in The Birth of Tragedy. This lack of understanding does not only apply to modern commentators but was initiated by the scathing attack by the philologist Wilomowitz who interpreted the book too single-mindedly as an attack on the classical tradition of criticism. This lack of understanding is continued by modern critics, argues Kornhaber.

Nietzsche's central concern in The Birth, according to Kornhaber, is the theatre. He provides convincing evidence of Nietzsche's preoccupation with the theatre and drama both at the time of writing The Birth and throughout his life. Nietzsche was apparently an avid theatregoer and an enthusiastic reader of theatrical reviews. This theatre-going Nietzsche does not fit well with one's general image of him and this may be a reason why commentators on his work have neglected it as a significant element of his philosophy: "More than just a youthful preoccupation, Nietzsche's interest in the theater persisted well into his young adulthood and beyond" (24); he regularly visited theatres in Bonn and Cologne and according to his sister had the "desire of frittering away all his evenings at the theater" (24).

One might also not have expected Nietzsche to have been greatly concerned with theatre subsequent to Greek tragedy at the level of theory. Kornhaber shows however that Nietzsche had a serious interest in Goethe's and Schiller's writings on theatre and points out that "direct discussions of Goethe and Schiller in The Birth…exceed or nearly equal the book's more famous references to Schopenhauer" (25), going on to argue that Nietzsche was concerned not only with the "intellectual and theoretical features" of German classicism but also with a "direct development of eighteenth-century thinking on the phenomenon of theatrical illusion" (26). But the German theorist Nietzsche mainly focused on, states Kornhaber, was Lessing. Indeed, he sees strong continuities between Nietzsche's and Lessing's thinking in regard to theatre and dramatic theory and practice. At one point I wondered whether Kornhaber was going to create a highly revisionist version of Nietzsche as a product of Enlightenment or German classical ideas, somewhat in the manner of Walter Kaufmann who in his book on Nietzsche stressed Nietzsche's links with Socratic philosophy and played down the Schopenhauerean aspects of his thought.

This does not happen however. Kornhaber recognizes that Nietzsche eventually broke with Lessing and eighteenth-century classicism: "And yet, for all his affinity to the great dramatic project that originated in German eighteenth-century thought, Nietzsche also felt that this earlier tradition was in some sense fundamentally flawed—that it had, in his words, 'failed in some central area to [End Page 238] penetrate to the essential core of Hellenism'" (36). Though the Apollonian has its place in Nietzschean thinking, the Dionysian cannot finally be resisted, and Kornhaber goes on to chart Nietzsche's disillusionment with virtually all aspects of modern theatre in the central section of his study. This phase of Nietzsche has led to the neglect of or failure to recognize the importance of the theatrical and dramatic interests that for Kornhaber are fundamental to The Birth of Tragedy and that do not go away even when Nietzsche appears to become seriously hostile to theatre and drama, especially in its modern manifestations.

The third section of the book discusses three...


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pp. 237-240
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