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  • The Birth of Theater from the Spirit of Philosophy: Nietzsche and the Modern Drama by David Kornhaber
  • Mary Ann Frese Witt
David Kornhaber, The Birth of Theater from the Spirit of Philosophy: Nietzsche and the Modern Drama Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2016.

In this well-written and original book, David Kornhaber correctly maintains that Nietzsche's interest in drama and theater has until recently been neglected by scholars. Even most of those who acknowledge an influence of Nietzsche on modern drama tend to see it as philosophical rather than theatrical. Rarely is The Birth of Tragedy read as a text about theater. Kornhaber, highlighting the convergence of philosophy and theater, examines in the first half of the book Nietzsche's profound interest in and debt to drama and theater from The Birth of Tragedy through The Case of Wagner. In the second half, he reads the work of three modern dramatists—Strindberg, Shaw, and O'Neill—in the light of their reception of Nietzsche's theories of the theater.

In his thorough and well-informed interpretation of The Birth of Tragedy, along with other early writings by Nietzsche, Kornhaber convincingly demonstrates the young philologist's passionate interest in both drama and performance. Not only did Nietzsche read the classical German drama and theories of theater by Goethe, Schiller, and Lessing, he attended the theater frequently and wrote numerous theater [End Page 371] reviews himself. In The Birth, the actor embodies the Dionysian and the dramatic poet the Apollonian. Drama cannot be separated from performance: both are necessary to the spirit of tragedy. For Kornhaber, "the first tragic philosopher," as Nietzsche called himself, might today be designated a performance theorist. His view of tragedy is also philosophical in that in performance genuine tragedy points toward metaphysical truths that cannot be shown in mere words.

Nietzsche's story of the birth of tragedy is also to a large extent concerned with tragedy's demise. Socrates's rationality and Euripides's emphasis on page over stage abandon the Dionysian and thus the crucial metaphysical component of tragedy. In calling for a "music-making Socrates," Nietzsche is also calling for a rebirth of tragedy in Europe in his own time. As is well-known, in 1876 he saw Richard Wagner's opera as hailing this rebirth, only to completely reverse himself a decade later. "I am essentially anti-theatrical," he wrote in The Gay Science in 1887. "I regard the theatre with deep contempt." In The Case of Wagner, Wagner's music-drama appears as a spectacle for the masses. And yet, Kornhaber convincingly argues, Nietzsche's proclaimed anti-theatricality does not signify an abandonment of his essential positions in The Birth. Anti-theatricality, as Martin Puchner has shown, can in fact open the way for a new kind of theater. To a certain extent, Nietzsche considered himself (inspired by Bizet rather than Wagner) as a music-making Socrates, particularly in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Although he disparaged the plays being produced on European stages, he continued to hope for a birth of the modern theater he had envisioned.

To what extent did the modern drama by playwrights aware of Nietzsche's writing on theater fulfill his hope for a rebirth of tragedy? The question is probably unanswerable. In his introduction, Kornhaber attempts a very brief survey of modern dramatists under the impact of Nietzsche, mentioning Ibsen, Yeats, Pirandello, and Genet. A broader and more exact survey would have been helpful. There is little to suggest that Pirandello was well-acquainted with Nietzsche's works or wanted to write modern tragedy in a Nietzschean vein. His contemporary Gabriele D'Annunzio, however, read Nietzsche extensively and explicitly attempted to introduce in his own modern tragedies a rebirth of the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Genet was indeed a great admirer of Nietzsche, but the most important French man of the theater to mention would be Antonin Artaud, whom Kornhaber discusses in his Epilogue.

Whereas there is no explicit justification for the choice to focus on Strindberg, Shaw, and O'Neill, the chapters on each of them are revealing in that they trace what each dramatist found in reading Nietzsche and how their plays incorporate...


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pp. 371-373
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