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  • The Birth of Theater from the Spirit of Philosophy: Nietzsche and the Modern Drama by David Kornhaber
  • David Krasner
THE BIRTH OF THEATER FROM THE SPIRIT OF PHILOSOPHY: NIETZSCHE AND THE MODERN DRAMA. By David Kornhaber. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2016; pp. 256.

Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy is one of the most important philosophical texts on modernity and drama. Nietzsche's thesis shifts our understanding of Greek tragedy from a sanctified and rigid classicism and toward a dangerous thrill of mimesis (the untrammeled thrill that terrified Plato). Dismissing Aristotle's view of tragedy that highlights a drive toward rationality and systematic parts leading to catharsis, Nietzsche posits instead a Dionysian movement of epistemic and ontological instability, exposing a world only partially intelligible. Nietzsche, drawing on Schopenhauer, situates tragedy in a miasmic whirl of intoxicating lust, thwarted human agency, and Hamlet-like inertia. This interpretation of Nietzsche has been taken for granted, with little if any interest in his focus on theatre itself. David Kornhaber's significant book takes Nietzsche in a heretofore unexplored direction: Nietzsche as stage reformer, stewarding a modernism that eschewed Hegelian didactical positivism and melodramatic excesses not merely philosophically, but also theatrically—ensconcing his philosophy in the nuts-and-bolts of actual hands-on acting, directing, and theatricality.

Nietzsche, according to Kornhaber, was an avid theatregoer throughout much of his life, but his interest in theatre has "never been brought into view" (5). Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy and other works demonstrated a significant and integral engagement with theatre practice, including dramaturgy, staging, performance, audience response, play reviews, and criticism. Kornhaber's aim is "to place theater back into the history of Nietzsche's thought and to place Nietzsche's thought back into the history of theater" (11). To accomplish this, Kornhaber's book is divided in half: the first three chapters analyzes Nietzsche's investment in theatre as practice, while the second three chapters examine three playwrights—Strindberg, Shaw, and O'Neill—who were deeply influenced by Nietzsche's belief that philosophy "can only take place in the moment and the space of performance itself" (14).

Nietzsche carried forward the German theatrical tradition of Goethe, Shiller, Schlegel, and Lessing, focusing on the stage, specifically the sulfurous mixture of Greek tragedy as the paradigmatic cauldron where the Dionysian and Apollonian product of theatre produces "the undulating absorption and detachment that enables the aesthetic contemplation of terrible suffering" (34). Kornhaber maintains that "[l]ike the classical thinkers who came a century before him, Nietzsche's grand cultural postulations are grounded on an engagement with questions of the stage, specifically on a meditation about the structure and function of the orchestra—the section just in front of the stage platform used by the chorus in Greek theater—from which all his other insights derive" (21). However, Kornhaber argues, past philosophers "who engaged with tragedy have seemed too greatly invested in the interpretative and the theoretical, and too little invested in the actual experiential conditions of theatergoing or the subjective" (37). Nietzsche, by contrast, was concerned with theatrical reception as well as academic scholastics, and theatregoing as well as theatre-contemplating. Kornhaber unpacks Nietzsche's commitment to the theatrical, arguing that, according to Nietzsche, "the great German dramatic thinkers had ultimately betrayed the self-same theater they sought to revive by reducing it to the only thing a theorist ever truly understands: a vehicle of thought, a form of theorization by other means. In their theatrical practice and theory, they had for Nietzsche minimized German drama to only its language and its concepts, robbing it of all that might truly make it theatrical" (38). Theatre for Nietzsche contained an immediacy and urgency exploiting the visceral experience of the playgoer. "Theater is an art that happens in three dimensions," Kornhaber claims for Nietzsche, "with drama only its literary blueprint"; as a result, theatre is "an art that involves the whole bodies of its spectators and moves them to new affective states" of sensory totality (46). Nietzsche, Kornhaber maintains, stresses that "the power of performance lies in the unique, interminable, and ultimately irresolvable dynamic between" the immediacy of performance and the orientation of the dramatic...


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