This article explores the relationship between theater and emotion, considering the problematic paradigm of theater as the most emotional of literary forms. It cannot exist without the actor who performs and the playgoer who responds and in this sense is a collaborative venture between the performer and the audience. These issues are embedded in the eighteenth century's concept of sympathetic response –a spectator's involuntary emotional reaction to what he or she sees upon the stage. Using James Boswell's comments about the weakened emotional impact of a play performed in a half empty auditorium as a starting point, the article discusses the power of communal emotion within the theater audience. It considers the distinction between drama (the thing) and theater (the experience), and explores questions that arise from this distinction, such as: Is it possible to contemplate or assess theater (as opposed to drama) without exploring its emotional effect? How do we judge theater? What makes a good play? Does it lie in the words on the page or in the tears of the audience? These questions are essential to a reconsideration of the theater–and the drama–of the second half of the eighteenth century.


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pp. 297-307
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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