Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.61

David Wiles, A Short History of Western Performance Space.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. 316.  ISBN 0-521-01274-0.  $24.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Dana F. Sutton, The University of California at Irvine (
Word count: 1244 words

In writing a book, one way to get in trouble is to have a change of mind in mid-course about what you are attempting to do, which is what seems to have happened in this case. David Wiles, Professor of Theatre at Royal Holloway, The University of London (henceforth W.), adopts a taxonomy of spaces divided into Sacred Space, Processional Space, Public Space, Sympotic Space, The Cosmic Cycle, The Cave, and The Empty Space, and, to judge by W.'s introductory Chapter I, his focus is primarily on dramatic performance. Nothing in his ensuing chapter on Religious Space alters this impression. The first chapter creates expectations that we are dealing with a book of special interest to classicists because he has a fair amount of illuminating observations about Greek and Roman theaters (although it may be anticipated that few classicists will be convinced by what he writes about the physical alignment of the Theater of Pompey to the Temple of Venus on p. 37). Readers familiar with W.'s important 1997 Tragedy in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning will imagine we are going to be treated to further work along the same line, extended to subsequent Western dramatic traditions.

But when we turn to his third chapter, on Processional Space, we are in for a surprise, because he begins with the highly politicized parades in modern Northern Ireland, and goes on to write about such things as the procession along the Sacred Way at Delphi, the entry of Henry VII into York, the Medieval York Corpus Christi pageants, a 1615 Brussels procession honoring the Archduchess Isabella (memorialized in a painting by Denis Van Alsloot), the 17th century May Day processions at Wells and the more modern processions at Lewes. Suddenly the definition of "performance" has been drastically and inexplicably expanded to embrace a wide variety of activities which are, to be sure, performative in the sense that they involve performers and spectators, but which scarcely qualify as theater.

For true theater to occur, there must be a clearly understood demarcation between the dramatic space occupied by the actors and the everyday space occupied by the audience . This is equally true no matter what shape this fictive space may assume, whether the demarcation is achieved by something as formal as a proscenium arch or as informal as the sweep of an actor's hand. Several years ago I sat in an aisle seat during a performance of Twelfth Night where an actor stood in the aisle next to me delivering his lines: we were separated only by a few inches, and yet I had no difficulty in accepting the fact that the actor inhabited his kind of space, and I inhabited my own very different one.

Phenomenologically speaking, dramatic space displays various kinds of behavior that everyday space does not. The most important of these is that, like the actors it encloses, it assumes fictive identities, and it also serves as a container for dramatic time, which takes on fictive identities of its own and can behave with unrealistic elasticity (by moving faster or slower than real time, by jumping forward or backward, and so forth). According to the artificial conventions of the theater, dramatic space can display more particular forms of non-natural behavior (for example, an audience may be required to believe that one actor cannot overhear another within the context of dramatic space, even if in everyday space one individual standing at the same distance could easily hear another speak).

Real theater can only occur within the context of this dramatic space (and when similar conventions regarding time and performers' identities are operative). With the conceivable exception of the York Corpus Christi performances (although some argumentation would be required to make this case), the kinds of activity involving performers and spectators that W. writes about in his Processional Space chapter and the remainder of his book, as well as a large number of varieties he does not consider (including such things as athletic competitions, courtroom trials, and public executions), can of course easily acquire what we might care to identify as a "theatrical" quality, but only metaphorically so. Surely it is important to differentiate theater from "theater."

So some important distinction-drawing seems in order and some fundamental questions need to be asked. The first is whether all the kinds of spaces in W.'s taxonomy are really capable of accommodating dramatic space. This seems particularly questionable regarding Processional Space, in which some or more likely all of the activities he describes are at best pageants.

Also, W. never addresses the question of how tightly theatrical performances need to be tied to the particular kind of space in which they occur. Since theater can happen only if an audience accepts the premise that dramatic space can adopt fictive identities, it would seem that, to one degree or another, an audience is required to ignore the identity of the real-space context in which performance occurs. Also, the question arises whether the quality of a performance is appreciably altered as it occurs in different spatial contexts. There is considerable reason for doubting this is necessarily so. Because of the architecture of purpose-built theaters such as the Globe Theater, for example, W. discusses Shakespeare in his chapter on the Cosmic Circle. But Shakespeare's company, the King's Men also performed at Court, at the Inns of Court (one such performance is noted in his chapter on Sympotic Space, pp. 147ff.), and in such impromptu settings as the courtyards of inns when they toured the provinces. So even in the playwright's own lifetime Shakespearean drama, far from being tied to any one form of dramatic space, was characterized by considerable flexibility in being adapted to a variety of venues that were spatially organized in different ways.

These observations are all rather elementary. W. is a sophisticated enough theatrical historian that they must have occurred to him, and the reason he ignores them is most likely that in writing this study he had some other purpose in mind. At the point where he seems to radically redefine his notion of what constitutes "performance," his book becomes impossible to review: when a reviewer is so unsure what this book is really about, he could all too easily (and maybe with justice) be accused of misunderstanding W.'s intentions. One possibility, as suggested above, is that as W. wrote his conception of "performance" progressively expanded and the range of performative activities he chose to consider was enlarged proportionally. Another is suggested by a number of rather Neo-Marxist observations on ways in which different kinds of performance space are coordinated with different social structures, that his interest is in studying his sevenfold spatial taxonomy from the standpoint of audiences at least as much as that of performances. But, absent a clearer statement of purpose, it is impossible to grasp precisely why he adduces many of the examples he does or what exactly they are meant to illustrate, and so at this point I am obliged to break off.

If this is a perplexing book I do not mean to imply that a student of ancient drama can derive no profit from it. W. is an important enough theater historian that one cannot afford to neglect anything he chooses to publish. And it is worth concluding with the observation that he has the uncommon virtue of being able to discuss and employ modern critical theories without murdering the English language, for which we should be duly grateful.

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