Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2011.02.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.02.04

Martin Puchner, The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2010.  Pp. xii, 254.  ISBN 9780199730322.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Christopher Moore, Skidmore College (

Martin Puchner’s book aims to describe what he calls a “Platonic anti-tragic dramaturgy” and to show that this sort of theater of ideas influenced both a minor genre of playwriting during the early-modern era, what he calls “Socrates plays,” and major tradition of playwriting in the modern era, which ranges from Strindberg to Stoppard. The book satisfies a certain antiquarian interest in Plato-and-Socrates reception, and usefully highlights more than a dozen plays from the past long century that conduce well to philosophical reflection. It takes an edifyingly broad perspective on the Platonic literary project, the ways in which Plato may have wanted to retain aspects of the Athenian dramatic motivation, and the uptake of his corpus by those outside mainstream academia . Its insistence on reading the argumentative content of a text with and against its narrative structure, though it has become increasingly common, deserves appreciation. Plato’s works have much yet to yield to a concertedly dramatically reading, one attentive to the way the characters talk to one another and the occasions on which they do.

The interesting qualities of the book are not, unfortunately, matched by sufficient conceptual or presentational clarity. The book is weakest in its elusive, incomplete, and protean definitions of key terms. The book aims to reclassify Plato’s works, at least heuristically, in the hope that studying them generically as plays will reveal something other modes of reading would ignore. But it is inadequately precise about two central definitional issues: what ought to count as “dramatic” and thus in what way Plato wrote “dramas”; and how philosophy could be or fail to be dramatic. Its indeterminate historiography obscures what sort of influence Puchner takes Plato’s “dramaturgy” as such to have had on certain trends in modern drama, and what we gain in our criticism of modern plays by thinking specifically of Plato. In general, Puchner’s attempt to look into the possibility of “a truly philosophical drama and a truly dramatic philosophy” suffers from offhanded readings of Plato; eddying, sententious, and often careless exposition; relative silence about performance; and minimal critical judgment.

Puchner’s book could help an advanced student brainstorming topics in the history of the philosophy of drama or in classical reception: it draws on an intriguing range of texts and offers up somewhat provocative theses. I do not know how much insight professional classicists, philosophers, performance historians, or literary theorists would get from the work. The work seems to lack enough unifying discussion to recommend it to the general public.

The earliest parts of the book will have the most relevance to BMCR readers. The opening chapter, “The poetics of the Platonic dialogue” (3-35), suggests a number of reasons for thinking of Plato via drama and for identifying a Platonic challenge to traditional Athenian tragedy. Puchner does this chiefly by enlivening Diogenes Laertius’ claims about Plato’s literary youth; glossing the Republic’s cave parable of puppet-shows and spectatorship; and giving a cursory reading of the Phaedo. (It skips establishing the terms of the argument.) Puchner claims that the Phaedo’s depiction of Socrates’ death instructs the audience to forego pity, to see that arguments deserve depersonalized evaluation, and at the same time to realize that arguments are meant to motivate specific actions even if they don’t always succeed in doing so.

The conclusion to be drawn from Plato’s dramatic technique is that abstraction from people and scenes as demanded by Socrates and explained by the theory of forms happens in response to the overwhelming drama of the scene Plato has created expressly for this purpose. (14)

Puchner summarizes this chapter’s point by claiming that “if handled in a particular way ..., dialogic drama could become the perfect medium for the contentious connection between matter and form that defines the core of [Plato’s] philosophy” (33). Chapter one also briefly discusses Plato’s mixture of tragic and comic elements (15-20, cf. 58, 63) and Plato’s transformation of the typical Athenian chorus and audience in his own works (26-30, cf. 56).

In this chapter Puchner makes the good though familiar observation that by writing dialogues Plato surely means for the reader to study not just the explicit arguments but the whole work: characters, phrasing, historical context, all of it. He is also right that philosophy struggles with a kind of paradox of rationality. Reasons aim for universal scope, but must be accepted by embodied individuals before they govern any behavior. Specific and concrete crises of reason (for example, thinking through a friend’s doom) bring that paradox to our attention. But Puchner’s two observations are by themselves inadequate as grounds for saying that Plato’s philosophical works are importantly dramatic, or should be evaluated or appreciated as dramas, or in influencing dramatic authors have been read as dramas.

There are plenty of reasons for distinguishing Plato’s dialogues from theatrical dramas. Some are obvious. They seem not to have been written for actors; many are very long; their arguments can be well understood only after frequent rereading; and characterization and scene-setting occur only infrequently through their exposition. Others are less obvious but equally important. Many of the dialogues (the Phaedo included) are presented as narratives recounted by Socrates or others; they thus seem more subsumed under the bardic, rhapsodic, or other story-telling traditions. Puchner concedes that Plato’s dramas weren’t staged (and are rarely ever staged, cf. 76), and assimilates them to an early form of “closet drama” (first noted at 56, cf. 89, 140). He explains Plato’s decision to write this distinctly non-theatrical drama by arguing that Plato wished to denature the spectacular aspect of dramatic performance (73). This explanation, however, leaves very much unanswered. How much value does a dramatic work lose with the loss of directorial intervention, stage-technique, vocal inflection, and the actual display of shared human activity? If it is so much--if it is hard to see how the benefits of closet drama over staged theater outweigh the benefits of non-dramatic over dramatic text--why think Plato treated or should be taken as having treated his works as plays rather than as instances of some other genre that shares in characterization, narrative, and dialogue?

This project could have included more direct and sustained analysis of why one should so studiously avoid calling Plato’s works novelistic (the remarks on Bakhtin at 124-125 are inconclusive). Other scholars have made some sense in doing so (cf. M. Prince, Philosophical Dialogue in the British Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2005), or S. Goldhill, The End of Dialogue in Antiquity (Cambridge 2008)). Puchner does not deal (except at a cursory footnote citing C. Kahn, Plato and the Socratic Dialogue (Cambridge, 1996)) with the fact that Plato was writing within a tradition of Sôkratikoi Logoi and of historical exchanges between intellectuals, forms which might participate more in the “reportorial” or “anecdotal” than the “dramatic.” And since this Platonic dramaturgy is presented in opposition to an Aristotelian form, it is surprising to find such little criticism of Aristotle’s view (or engagement with the scholarship on Aristotle’s remark that spectacle is the least important part of tragic theater; cf. p. 26), or of neo-Aristotelianism.

Throughout this opening chapter Puchner recurs to a sentiment he states most precisely at p. 50: “If philosophy is primarily a question of life and of acts, then drama is the perfect form for capturing this philosophy.” This is an intriguing sentiment that Puchner has overdrawn and underdefended. Philosophy is not about lives or acts themselves any more than any other of the human sciences are. Philosophy is about the life well lived, or the life in accordance with reason, or the life concerned with wisdom. Further, there are aspects of philosophy a drama might not articulate as well as some other literary medium could--for example a meditation, essai, autobiography, or treatise; and therefore drama cannot be called, without further argument, the perfect form. (In a note to a remark later in the book, about Timon of Athens and Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puchner, unless he disagrees with Shakespeare’s literary choices, allows that plays aren’t always the perfect form: “Shakespeare did not think of drama as the primary vehicle for his Platonist philosophy, for which he reserved his other great passion instead: the sonnet” (221n65).) The point is not to quibble but to identify a weakness in the argument for the philosophicality of drama or the dramaticity of philosophy.

The second chapter, “A Brief History of the Socrates Play” (37-71), catalogues plays broadly about Socrates written from the Renaissance until the early twentieth century. (A table of 118 Socrates plays or productions closes the book : 199-208.) Many have non-Platonic influences, especially those featuring Xanthippe or the Aristophanic “comic philosopher” (especially in commedia dell’arte). Most differ from Plato’s dialogues in constructing plots that develop the normal sorts of dramatic tensions: lust, difficult marriages, retribution. Though Puchner generally avoids aesthetic judgment, that withholding of judgment implies that most are of indifferent or poor quality. “While [the Socrates plays] tend to be attuned to Plato’s mixing of genres, they often fail to recognize the subtle undercutting of character, action, and the deliberately restrained performance that is the hallmark of Plato’s own dramatic form” (75).

It is a little obscure how this chapter advances the thesis of the book. The chapter opens with a hermeneutic point:

The sheer diversity of these plays demonstrates Plato’s profound influence on modern Europe and North America, including its drama. This influence has been obscured by the distorted image of Plato as the enemy of drama and theater, and, more generally, by the lack of interest in the conjunction of drama and philosophy.... But authors of Socrates plays recognized Plato’s dramatic genius, seeing at work in his Socratic dialogues a new and startling use of prose drama ahead of its time. It is through this tradition that we can retrospectively identify Plato as a dramatist. Put a different way, this chapter tells the story of how Plato became a playwright. (41)

But at the book’s end Puchner says the point of this chapter was to “us[e] the concept of dramatic Platonism ... as a tool to excavate [this] mostly forgotten tradition” (193). The book does not make clear why this tradition, most of which members seem to have been written in innocence of other similar works, and nearly all of which were neither more philosophical nor dramatically successful than any other play, teach us about Plato, philosophy, or drama. These plays’ narrow and repetitive preoccupation with Socrates’ death and his romance with Alcibiades contrast with the remarkably capacious and progressive Platonic project, with its depictions of variegated conversations, on technical and non-technical matters, held over six decades of Socrates’ life.

The rest of the book is about modern literature and philosophy. The third chapter, “The drama of ideas” (73-119), tries to account for the anti-spectacle and even anti-performance tendencies of modern drama by appealing to Plato’s example. Puchner treats this in terms of interest in metatheater and “the ways in which playwrights fundamentally rethink the status of materiality” (75). Sadly he does not devote much attention to what makes abstract philosophical discussions dramatically compelling rather than merely dull (one thinks of the scholarship on Troilus and Cressida’s many philosophical declamations and their role in plot-advancement).

The fourth chapter, “Dramatic Philosophy” (121-171), includes the first definition of “the dramatic” and the first thematization of the difference between “theater” and “drama” (122-5). They have come much too late in the book, and are anyway jumbled. Puchner makes some interesting remarks about Kierkegaard’s reading of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (131-4), talks about Nietzsche, and discusses Sartre and Camus. That these are the best recent examples of philosophers who had specific reasons for writing on one occasion plays, another, essays, and yet another, novels, is a fact Puchner could have made better use of.

Chapter five, “The New Platonists” (173-192), discusses three philosophers--Iris Murdoch, Martha Nussbaum, Alain Badiou--who have sympathetic attitudes both toward Plato and toward theater.

The epilogue, “Dramatic Platonism” (193-198), starts with a one-paragraph summary of the book that imputes a reasonable structure for the work that the work itself did not follow. Then Puchner exaggerates the (real) attention to the body we see in Plato’s dialogues (194). He closes with the enticing observation that the “act of pointing … is dramatic Platonism’s most fundamental gesture.” In support, Puchner cites David’s painting, though he could also have spoken of the end of Mark Morris’s choreography of Satie’s Socrate.

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