- Philosophy and Theatre: An Introduction by Tom Stern
The cross-disciplinary study of theatre, performance, and philosophy has been an area of active and growing scholarly interest. But for all of the material this subfield has produced in recent years, there has been a dearth of introductory works aimed at orienting those who might be new to this realm of inquiry. In this regard, Tom Stern’s Philosophy and Theatre: An Introduction marks a welcome addition to the literature by virtue of its initiatory approach alone. Yet this slim volume is also something far more than a precocious student’s handbook. Though pitched at the undergraduate reader, complete with a helpful schematic of suggestions for further reading at the end of every chapter, the relative simplicity of Stern’s meticulously jargon-free prose belies the book’s more sophisticated agenda. Like the best philosophical interlocutors, Stern invites his readers to consider seemingly basic questions only to reveal within those simple queries levels of complexity that might unsettle even the most seasoned scholars.
The order of terms in Stern’s title offers a guide to the true method at work in this volume. This is a philosopher’s investigation into questions of truth and meaning as they are embodied in theatrical performance rather than a theatre historian’s treatment of performance-minded theorists, past and present. Stern’s philosophical reference points are appropriately varied: stalwarts like Plato, Diderot, and Nietzsche all make sustained appearances, as do less frequently considered philosophers of performance like Kierkegaard, Hume, and Sartre. Yet Stern organizes his introduction not around a history of past theatro-philosophical investigations but around the selfsame topics that have stood at the center of those prior treatises. Mimesis, truth and illusion, history, morality, emotions, and politics are the thematic signposts of Stern’s six main body chapters, with an introductory chapter that considers at length the overarching question of “What is Theatre?” [End Page 99]
Within these chapters, Stern’s calm approach produces some notable intellectual tremors. Stern wonders at the strange phenomenology of going to the theatre, noting that no existing theory of emotion truly “helps us to explain how I pity Vanya, knowing he does not exist.” And he entertains seriously the contentions of philosophers like Burke and Hobbes that the appeal of tragedy may have less to do with a sense of transcendent wisdom than with a simple matter of human sadism and voyeurism. As a conduit toward knowledge, Stern speculates, theatre may be at best a vehicle of “non-propositional learning,” or of learning how rather than learning that, although even this modest ability is in doubt: “Theatre audiences do not leave with any obvious new skill or ability.”
Stern’s treatise is refreshingly short on final answers to its many thorny questions, and in this sense his volume is an introduction in at least two important ways. It is, on the one hand, an overview of some of the more intractable problems in the philosophy of theatre. Just as importantly, it is also an invitation for readers to join a conversation that has been going on for centuries.
DAVID KORNHABER is assistant professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of The Birth of Theater from the Spirit of Philosophy: Nietzsche and the Modern Drama.