- Antitheatricality and the Body Public by Lisa A. Freeman
In the heady days of the 1990s culture wars, my college mentors presented the history of antitheatrical thought as a grand historical struggle, as if there were an unbroken line from Plato/Ion to Dan Quayle/Murphy Brown. Central to this narrative was The Antitheatrical Prejudice, a 1981 book by Jonas Barish that took a philological approach to the matter, locating a fundamental "ontological queasiness" (Barish 3) in mimetic practices. Barish's book became the point of departure for the next generation's exploration of historical conflicts between performers and what Barish called the "unmistakably crackpot streak" of "hard-shelled, mole-eyed fanatics" (Barish 2). Lisa A. Freeman's Antitheatricality and the Body Public reins in some of the essentialist excesses that Barish's approach has inspired and points the way toward an even more urgent homology between the Jeremy Colliers and the Jerry Falwells: that their denunciation of dramatic representation is aimed at the legitimacy of sovereign authority itself.
Antitheatricality and the Body Public uses well-known instances of anti-theatrical fervor in Anglo-American history as occasions for richly detailed analyses of what Barish dismissively called "local considerations" (Barish 4). Throughout, Freeman harnesses not just the strategies of theatre and performance studies, but also a deep fluency in the historiographical tools of cultural, intellectual, and legal histories. While each chapter offers a well-researched, persuasively-argued case, the cumulative force of the chapters illustrates a "repertoire" of antitheatrical rhetoric, replacing Barish's "ontological malaise" with an instrumental (and [End Page 174] performance-inflected) citationality. To read Freeman's book solely as a corrective to Barish would be to miss the book's more significant contribution: the articulation of a "body public" as a term that expands upon queer theorist Michael Warner's formulation of a "public" as an entirely discursive phenomenon. Warner's Publics and Counterpublics offered a crucial model for understanding the ways a "public" could be constituted and mediated through the participation of its constituents. However, Warner used theatrical audience only as a metaphor for how a public operates, as a totality witnessing itself in a shared visible space. Freeman shows the crucial role that "concrete, visible, and embodied forms" play in the dynamic by which discursive publics were articulated and challenged.
Freeman's first chapter, on William Prynne, is a significant contribution on its own, and at eighty-five pages, it comprises nearly a third of the book. Freeman offers a close reading of Prynne's mammoth Histrio-Mastix, an obsessively thorough antitheatricalist tract from 1633. Freeman's reading goes beyond prior treatments by looking past an anachronistic binary between print and performance, showing instead how print worked performatively within Jacobean society and was understood as such. Freeman offers a careful, yet innovative, evaluation of the documents surrounding Prynne's Star Chamber trial for sedition. By comparing previously undiscovered manuscript sources, Freeman shows how the trial itself and the competing transcripts of the trial worked performatively to "create" the constituencies they purported to represent.
The next three chapters reframe well-known controversies of the long eighteenth century as conflicts stemming from the divergence of public policies and practices from religious doctrine. Chapter 2 reads Jeremy Collier's A Short View… as a rebuke to the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, which replaced the Catholic James II with his Protestant cousin, William of Orange. In this reading, Freeman convincingly shows that Collier was notorious at the time for his Jacobite provocations, and that his antitheatrical views were an extension of that position. Moreover, the eventual absorption of Collier's critique by the public sphere transformed regressive provocation into forward-thinking debate, as William Congreve highlighted the stage's capacity as a social corrective.
The third chapter situates John Home's Douglas and the debates it inspired among the rivalries between secularist Scottish enlightenment writers (with their general optimism about the human capacity for reason) and the more pessimistic view of human depravity found in Presbyterian orthodoxy. Freeman shows how a growing...