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  • The Nervous Stage: Nineteenth-Century Neuroscience and the Birth of Modern Theatre by Matthew Wilson Smith
  • Sarah McCarroll (bio)
Matthew Wilson Smith. The Nervous Stage: Nineteenth-Century Neuroscience and the Birth of Modern Theatre. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xvi + 221 b/w illus. $39.95.

To assert that the theatre is a place where larger political, social, cultural, and/or scientific developments are embodied via performance is nothing new. What is new in what Matthew Wilson Smith has to say about the performance of developing philosophical and medical discourses of the human nervous system during the nineteenth century is his understanding of the ways in which those discourses did not just influence dramatic texts or themes, but lie at the heart of dramatic structures, presentational styles, and the expected effects that productions had on audiences. In The Nervous Stage: Nineteenth-Century Neuroscience and the Birth of Modern Theatre, Smith traces a move from a gestural, representational drama to one in which representation has been fully disrupted, one which "sought to play directly on the nerves of spectators through non-representational and sensorial means and did not so much eschew representation as profoundly destabilize it by means of direct effects upon the audience's sensorium" (11). The question this move immediately raises is how theatre, a form with embodied representation at the heart of its traditional act, can function in the absence of a stable notion of representation; in short, how mimesis is possible for the neural subject. Smith's answer to this question is ultimately found in the work of Antonin Artaud, which emerges here not as the radical epistemological (one might even say ontological) departure from "traditional" theatrical forms it is often positioned as being, but as the endpoint of a century-long "decay of the language of gesture as an accurate representation of mental states [from which] modern European theater emerged" (183), one in which can be seen "a gradual transition from the dominance of a discourse of gestural representation to one of nervous sensation" (183).

As Smith sure-handedly explores these cross-fades from the gestural to the nervous to the sensational, he pairs the work of neurologists, philosophers, and others interested in the mind-body problem with close readings of dramatic texts. It is these analyses that make The Nervous Stage a thoroughly enjoyable experience for the reader. Smith examines the ways texts as varied as Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, Augustin Daly's Under the Gaslight, Richard Wagner's operas, the horror dramas of the Grand Guignol, and August Strindberg's Miss Julie, among others, showcase what Smith sees as "two fundamental shifts" (8) that occurred as the Enlightenment gave way to the Romantic era, which in its turn ceded to the Victorian age, which was brought to an abrupt halt by the cataclysm of World War I. Those shifts were: "1. Where gestures once served as a window into a person's hidden inner life, nerves increasingly fulfilled the same function. 2. Where sympathies once helped to construct the liberal subject and [End Page 119] the promise of a liberal social order, the stimulation and networking of neural sensations increasingly operated in their place" (8; emphasis in original). Each of the texts Smith examines in his roughly chronological journey along the path of these shifts is clearly and cogently connected to the scientific works that influenced (or in some cases, were influenced by) its presentation of characters' external demonstrations of the visible signs of internal, invisible, nervous/neural operations.

The lines of intellectual and artistic transmission are clearly drawn in The Nervous Stage; it is always clear what evidentiary value Smith is claiming for the texts and events he examines. It is particularly welcome that Smith so clearly positions his work ("I am differentiating historical studies of relations between neurology and the theater … from the application of contemporary neuroscience and/or cognitive science to theatrical practices. … The methodology and aims of such works are quite different from those of the cultural historian" [12]). In addition to clearly laying out the aims of his work, Smith is notably effective at providing nuanced yet concise historical and theoretical summaries that keep his...


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pp. 119-121
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