Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.75

Edith Hall, Stephe Harrop (ed.), Theorizing Performance: Greek Drama, Cultural History, and Critical Practice.   London:  Duckworth, 2010.  Pp. xiii, 305.  ISBN 9780715638262.  $40.00 (pb).  



Reviewed by Eric Dodson-Robinson, University of Texas at Austin (EDR@uts.cc.utexas.edu)

[Authors, titles, and sections are listed at the end of the review.]

This groundbreaking collection of essays, inspired by a conference held at the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, opens a dialogue about the relations between critical theory and modern performances of ancient Greek drama. The book, which is the first in this subfield to focus exclusively on theory, raises several engaging questions about performance reception and its relevance to classics: what role does the text play in performance? The body? History? How does translation impact reception? The collection comprises an introduction, four sections of essays, a bibliography, and index. Contributions come not only from prominent scholars of reception, but also from theatre professionals. The book’s first section grapples with defining performance reception and exploring what is special about the performance and reception of classical drama. Essays in this section also address a few of the theoretical and methodological contentions between the principal contributors, while briefly and accessibly alluding to their conflicting intellectual genealogies. The second section considers the embodied mind as it relates to performance, and the third explores the problem of text and translation. The final section offers illuminating perspectives from theatre practitioners about the performance of ancient drama.

Edith Hall articulates a multifaceted description of “Performance Reception” through a bricolage of critical theory with a decidedly new historicist or cultural materialist bent. She advocates eclecticism in the theorization of performance, stressing that performance takes place at the intersection of the subjective and the collective, of the synchronic and the diachronic. Hall writes, “it is the dynamic triangular relationship between ancient text, performer and audience that distinguishes ‘Performance Reception’” (11). She argues that performance reception must make use of texts alone while remaining cognizant of the performance and its particular characteristics (12–13). Performance reception is unique, Hall contends, because the translation of classical material often entails appropriation and ideological transformation, and because of the corporeal nature of theatre (13–16). Not only is performance special because the audience affectively identifies with an actor or actors and because the memories created by performance are particularly intense, but the theatre, according to Hall, is even singularly instrumental in furnishing the world of psychic fantasy for any given culture (17–22). Further, the contingency of drama entails a “‘virtual future’, on account of its orientation towards what will happen next,” and, crucially, this quality is implicated with its collective political potential (24–26).

Citing Aristotle, Nietzsche, and the tradition of Wirkungsästhetik as critical antecedents, Erika Fischer-Lichte begins the “Paradigms” section with the argument that performance must be analyzed as event, not text. She highlights the sociopolitical role of the interaction between actors and audience that characterizes performance and catalogues the materiality of space and body as proper to performance, but argues that the text is not part of this materiality (29–36). Rather, performances are events characterized by a collapsing of the distinctions between subjective co-determination and prescription, phenomenal and semiotic embodiment, politics and art (37–38). Fischer-Lichte contends that this breakdown of dichotomies creates a liminal, transformative space for the participants.

“Performance Reception”, notes David Wiles, “has been at the centre of critical discourse in Shakespeare studies for some thirty years” (52). Wiles suggests that ignoring performance reception of Shakespeare runs the risk of fording a river that has already been bridged. He argues that the move by classicists into performance is “a response to the intellectual currents of the present” (52). Wiles points to a few possible reasons why editors of classical plays have been hesitant to follow, the most compelling, in his view, being that classicists invest authority in the text, and that the institutionalization of Shakespearean performance is more pervasive than that of ancient drama (53).

Simon Goldhill and Charles Martindale engage in the most direct and heated debate in this collection. Goldhill attacks Martindale’s “turn back towards Kant” (58). He cautions against Martindale’s practice of Rezeptionsästhetik, which, Goldhill charges, privileges the individual author as the site of reception and often neglects or disengages from historical and political aspects of reception. In a reformulation of Murnaghan’s “mantra” of reception studies, Goldhill proposes that meaning is realized “in the process of reception” (67) rather than “at the point of reception” (67). Goldhill reiterates that performance is an event, and must be considered within its specific historical and cultural context to illuminate both vertical and horizontal relations between texts (68–69; 62).

Martindale counters that he is concerned with judgments of taste, and that an “Aesthetics of Reception” cannot neglect Kant’s foundational aesthetic theory (72). He challenges Hall’s “distinction between reception in performed and non-performed media” (73) by questioning what constitutes a performance. Martindale would include exhibitions of visual art, the recitation of poetry, and, more generally, aesthetic experience itself (75–76). Due to the evanescent nature of performance and response, he suggests, Goldhill, Hall, and other practitioners of reception studies rely on written texts and documentary evidence to form logical judgments rather than judgments of taste based on response (77). He defends his own transhistorical readings, and, inspired by T.S. Eliot, advocates a non-hierarchical model for reception studies in which “texts and receivers can engage in a freer sort of dialogue across time” (79–80).

Michelakis, through the analysis of features of theatrical archives, explains what the archive can tell us about performance reception. Michelakis asks, “can theatre stand witness to history?” (99). He points to the German censorship record of a 1912 film entitled The Legend of Oedipus, which ironically preserved documentation of scenes the public never saw, as an example of the simultaneous preservation and destruction that characterize Derrida’s definition of archivization.

Budelman, whose essay begins the section entitled “Mind, Body, and the Tragic”, offers an exciting glimpse at the perspectives cognitive science can offer on the questions of “universality, human nature, experience” (109) as they relate to performance. Cognitive science challenges the mind / body binary with the developing concept of the “embodied mind” (109), and the division between nature and culture with the theory that culture and nature influence one another. Budelman argues that although pain may be constant, discourses about pain—choral odes, for example—change over time. Studies reveal that cultural conditioning affects the subjective experience of pain (112). Conceptual metaphors, he suggests, may derive from embodied experience (114). Budelman discusses theory of mind, or thinking about others’ thoughts, as a uniquely human activity relevant to dramatic performance, and posits that its universality offers a ready point for cross-cultural and diachronic comparison (118).

Budelman’s essay dovetails with that of Decreus, which focuses on the theorization of the body as it relates to performance through the writings of Artaud, Barthes, Lyotard, and Deleuze and Guattari. Deleuze’s anti-Cartesian philosophy offers a paradigm for theorizing the embodied mind as described by Budelman.

Foley argues that reception studies should take into account the generic expectations of different eras: at what point does tragedy verge into the tragicomic? Modern productions of classical tragedy have revitalized classical plays by introducing generic ambiguity.

In the first of the “Translating Cultures” essays, Gamel catalogues theoretical approaches to performance authenticity, and argues that previous discussions fail to take account of the audience’s active role. Authenticity was not a classical concern, and its definition is contingent. Nominal authenticity, which attempts to recreate the aesthetic of classical productions, creates a distance between performance and audience that was not experienced by ancient audiences.

Perris argues that the key to the reception of classical works is classical texts, which are implicated with even the most radical performances. He distinguishes literary reception studies from performance reception studies, and asserts that both viewing performances and reading are equally valid aesthetic experiences.

Hardwick’s incisive essay explores translation as a “nexus between the ancient text and its reception in performance” (193). She characterizes performance as a creative process, argues that privileging the ‘original’ text is particularly problematic for drama, and analyzes how translation practices shift according to performance context. Ioannidou, combining post-structuralist arguments about the displacement of the author with Turner’s concept of communitas, argues that the act of translation can “inscribe the communal element” (214), or shift the authority from text or author to performance.

Griffiths, Harrop, Wyles, Monaghan, and Morrison approach reception from the performer’s perspective. Griffiths writes, “the actor’s body is the core of performance reception” (228). The body of the actor is both sign and signifier. Harrop emphasizes the physicality of language for the performer. Wyles puts costume and costuming strategy under theoretical analysis. She argues that costume can be interpreted semiologically and “is inherently metatheatrical” (170). Her essay shares points of contact with Monaghan’s piece about the reading of scenes. Monaghan follows Artaud’s spatial poetics, arguing that culture is essential to scenography. In the book’s concluding essay, Morrison explains the practical aspects of writing translations for the stage. He discusses the place of dialogue, the importance of music and verse, the use of contemporary events, and he defends making radical changes to the text while being true to its spirit.

This boldly interdisciplinary collection not only applies longstanding critical debates, such as Nietzsche’s critique of Kantian “disinterestedness”, to performance reception of classical drama in an articulate and accessible way, but also takes riskier first steps: Budelman’s pioneering foray into cognitive science, for example. The dialogue between scholars and theatre professionals is also exemplary, although praxis occasionally intrudes on the strictly theoretical. There are excellent and original essays here, some of which are suitable for undergraduates with limited knowledge of theory: Morrison’s, for example. Others, such as Decreus’s, are suitable for more advanced theorists. While the book includes a diversity of theoretical perspectives, feminist and post-colonial approaches are absent, and neither Slavoj Žižek nor Jacques Lacan appears in the bibliography, despite their prominence in performance studies outside the classics. Such absences point to the incipience of theory in this subfield rather than to ideological bias. Although Hall’s intellectual presence and predilections are manifest in the organization of the book and throughout several of the contributions, the essays of Martindale and others offer occasional, but significant challenges. This book is likely to find a receptive welcome among scholars of theatre studies and among adventurous and theoretically inclined classicists.

1. Introduction, Edith Hall and Stephe Harrop

I. Paradigms
2. Towards a Theory of Performance Reception, Edith Hall
3. Performance as Event—Reception as Transformation, Erika Fischer-Lichte
4. Greek and Shakespearean Plays in Performance: Their Different Academic Receptions, David Wiles
5. Cultural History and Aesthetics: Why Kant is No Place to Start Reception Studies, Simon Goldhill
6. Performance, Reception, Aesthetics: Or Why Reception Studies Need Kant, Charles Martindale
7. From à la carte to Convergence: Symptoms of Interdisciplinarity in Reception Theory, Zachary Dunbar
8. Archiving Events, Performing Documents: On the Seductions and Challenges of Performance Archives, Pantelis Michelakis
II. Mind, Body, and the Tragic
9. Bringing Together Nature and Culture: On the Uses and Limits of Cognitive Science for the Study of Performance Reception, Felix Budelmann
10. Does a Deleuzean Philosophy of Radical Physicality Lead to the ‘Death of Tragedy’? Some Thoughts on the Dismissal of the Climactic Orientation of Greek Tragedy, Freddy Decreus
11. Generic Ambiguity in Modern Productions and New Versions of Greek Tragedy, Helene Foley
III. Translating Cultures
12. Revising ‘Authenticity’ in Staging Ancient Mediterranean Drama, Mary-Kay Gamel
13. Towards Theorising the Place of Costume in Performance Reception, Rosie Wyles
14. Performance Reception and the ‘Textual Twist’: Towards a Theory of Literary Reception, Simon Perris
15. Negotiating Translation for the Stage, Lorna Hardwick
16. From Translation to Performance Reception: The Death of the Author and the Performance Text, Eleftheria Ioannidou
IV. Practitioners and Theory
17. Acting Perspectives: The Phenomenology of Performance as a Route to Reception, Jane Montgomery Griffiths
18. Physical Performance and the Languages of Translation, Stephe Harrop
19. ‘Spatial Poetics’ and Greek Drama: Scenography as Reception, Paul Monaghan
20. Translating Greek Drama for Performance, Blake Morrison
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