Analytic Philosophy and the World of the Play by Michael Y. Bennett
In Michael Bennett's thoughtful book, analytic philosophy and dramatic performance share a balancing act between data and potentiality. In the case of analytic philosophy, as explained by Bertrand Russell's landmark essay "On Denoting," logic, mathematics, and epistemology emphasize "knowledge about" and "acquaintance about"—that is, unambiguous (definite data) and ambiguous (indefinite potentiality) knowledge. Definite knowledge employs empiricism (something happens, leading to general knowledge about); indefinite (or subjunctive) knowledge employs logic (something might, should, or could happen, providing an acquaintance about). In theatre the oscillation between definite and indefinite knowledge, or between reality and possibility, coincides with Coleridge's famous maxim, "willing suspension of disbelief." Productions depend on audiences' "willingness" to accept theatre's situated-ness between reality and modality (possibility). Bennett asserts that "fictional entities … exist analogously to 'possible worlds'" (7). The book's fundamental claim is that possible worlds enable theatrical productions to present "the world of the play [through] the developed idea of 're-creation'" (9).
Among Bennett's salient points is that theatre is, or should be, a laboratory for analytic philosophers to examine language, reality, and the imagination; theatre also provides a vehicle for considering distinctions among what is, might be, ought to be, and, for theatre, could be "re-created." He confects the various threads of theatre and analytic philosophy, whereby possible worlds initiate theatrical productions. For Bennett, "the world of play is a 're-creation' of our world" (2; emphasis in original). It is neither a reflection, copy, imitation, nor mirror of nature, nor is it a metaphysical abstraction divorced from reality; rather, theatre is a fungible operation recreating modalities of possible worlds. Modal logic, for Bennett, straddles the lines among necessity, reality, and possibility, sharing with fiction (literature or drama) constructs analogous to possible worlds. Theatrical re-creation, then, is what Bennett describes as a "messy" interface between fiction and reality in which a dramatic character has a "dual existence on the page and stage" (10). Characters share characteristics of reality, but reside onstage in their subjunctive sphere of possibility.
The book is structured in two parts: part 1 "outlines the problems" of comparing analytic philosophy with theatre, then "develops the (proposed) solutions"; part 2 "applies the proposed solutions" to numerous examples (18). This structure enables the author to proceed systematically from problems inherent in his comparison between analytic philosophy and theatre, to its usefulness in practical terms. In the first part Bennett describes theatrical characters as "dialectical-synecdochic objects," encompassing an "entire range of re-creation" (31; emphasis in original). Dialectical-synecdochic objects exist "as a 're-creation' of our world, through a particular combination of synecdochic elements, which are actually existing subjects and predicates" (38). An actor (might, could, would) proceed according to possibilities (predicates); audiences observe productions through the dialectic process of deciphering reality (what is) and possible worlds (what might be). Audiences compare what is given in the world and what is presented onstage, with reality and possibility existing simultaneously through the imagination. This theory implicitly privileges director-producer over author-writer, because directors can recreate the production-performance as the urcreation of a play. Bennett is sensitive to dramatic texts, but eventually comes down on the side of the director, and by extension the actor, because both are able to create a wide range of interpretive and spontaneous choices (possible worlds). The actor and director are, in a sense, creating possibilities of the character: the actor, guided by the director, embodies the role not merely as a surrogate, or simulacrum, of reality, but rather as a re-creator of various possible worlds, since the role has been and will likely be inhabited by many actors over time, with each performer re-creating the role anew, and by extension creating new and possible worlds.
Part 2 examines theatre not as a momentary presence, but as a "past subjunctive," conceptually providing "an accurate description of the temporality of theatre both in the dramatic text and in performance," as well as "a key insight into how and why theatre feels 'live'" (79; emphasis in original). The past subjunctive (a form of modality) for Bennett is a conditional possibility that permits theatre practitioners to convey the feeling that there are many possibilities in performance; something might happen, but something else could occur as well. Spontaneity and suspense, terms implied by Bennett, provide the theatrical experience of possibility, ephemera based on a past subjunctive rather than an immediate presence. Bennett raises the issue of production's creative ownership, using the example of the "Theseus paradox": if a plank is removed from a ship, how many plank removals does it take before the ship no longer resembles the original ship? In this way a production presents new possibilities, new creative worlds that redefine the text (that is, the [End Page 126] ship), which may no longer resemble the original production (past worlds) or the text itself.
Bennett illustrates the philosophical argument of possible worlds by drawing attention to off-stage characters as they relate to possible worlds. Beckett's Godot exemplifies the conundrum of the off-stage character's ambiguity through his relationship between certainty and uncertainty: who he is and what possible worlds he might inhabit. As a "penumbra," Bennett contends, Godot stresses the predicament: "how can certain details that are not present" on-stage, but are "extensions of what is present in the counterfactual conditional statement" (Godot's existence as reported by the messenger boy), "affect the meaning of the details that are specified in the statement while not actually affecting/changing any of those specified details?" (117).
Bennett's book combines depth with theoretical sophistication. One might quibble that the book's argument is stacked in its favor: plays present multiple worlds based on creative imagination. Like fiction generally, imagination is theatre's driving force, and imagination is restricted only by the limits of the artist-creator. Who could argue otherwise? More importantly, who has argued otherwise? The analysis runs the risk of tendentiousness; the reader waits in vain for the author to provide substantive counterarguments (if for no other reason than to provide dramatic tension). This caveat aside, the work confidently animates a template of analytic philosophy on drama with engaging examples and thoughtful application. In the end, Bennett contends, the audience "recreates the meaning [of the production] from the reality in front of them" (127), a reality dependent on subjective and subjunctive possibilities. The book is ultimately an invigorating and probative examination of theatre and philosophy.