BMCR 1994.05.01

1994.05.01, Carlson, Theories of the Theatre

, Theories of the theatre : a historical and critical survey from the Greeks to the present. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. 553 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 9780801429354. $17.95.

Like a dog walking on his hind legs, this book evokes a particular sense of the remarkable. It traces from Aristophanes in the fifth century B.C.E. to Elin Diamond in 1991 C.E.—’theories of the theatre’. Its twenty-two chapters are arranged chronologically and spatially—1: ‘Aristotle and the Greeks’; 7: ‘The Renaissance in England and the Netherlands’; 14: ‘Russian Theory to 1900’—and each contains brief comments on major claims about theatre from a huge range of Western writers, some famous and part of everyone’s critical lineage, some less well-known (name six Russian theorists of theatre from before 1900…). Almost all secondary material is eschewed, and all primary sources are fluently translated.

The generous reviewer will note that few people could claim to have read this book and not to have learnt of previously unread writers and debates. It is a useful starting point for the teacher or researcher who wishes to dip into unfamiliar territory. It is throughout written with clarity and ease, and some overall themes emerge—a concern with tragedy’s didacticism and grandeur; a contest over naturalism and formalism; the role of the emotions. Some giants (e.g. Aristotle, Hegel) come to dominate the landscape, as the figures against which a great deal of later theoretical writing is articulated. That six chapters and some two-hundred pages are dedicated to the twentieth century is a clear indication of the book’s aim of constructing a teleological history, tracing how we have come to be where we now are—an aim whose impossibility this second, expanded edition also inevitably records. The final chapter (‘The twentieth century since 1980’) is presumably still expanding for the next edition. The details lavished on the sometimes less than grand pronouncements of these most recent periods is out of kilter with the earlier sections. It is possible to write extended, detailed and fascinating accounts of theoretical responses to theatre for many of the periods which are very briefly annotated by Carlson (see e.g. J. Barish The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley, 1981), for one period’s theoretical oppositions to theatre, a theme less well treated here), and the effect of this choice is greatly to emphasize the (self-)importance and in-fighting of the twentieth century. This makes the clear lines of the earlier chapters seem something of an oversimplification. The recent past indeed often seems to receive this heightened attention simply because it is recent (and thus apparently more easily available or accessible), rather than because of its intrinsic theoretical interest.

The less generous reviewer will begin by noting that the lack of a bibliography or adequate index makes the book very hard to use, unless your interests overlap precisely with the volume’s own categories, which, like all such periodizations, are inevitably somewhat arbitrary: how inevitable a pairing is ‘The Renaissance in England and the Netherlands’? So if you want to trace responses to Greek theatre, or the influence of Seneca, or even the different references to Antigone in this volume, there is nothing to be done but to read all 533 pages.

There are bigger worries, however. The volume’s particular view of what theory is—avoiding all ‘related social and cultural material’—requires extraordinary blinkers. ‘Theatre’ is taken as a constant towards which various theories look (as if Aristotle and Brecht were writing about the same phenomenon). Statements about the theatre across the centuries spring forth without any of the trappings that actually construct them as theoretical—that is, the range of aesthetic, ethical, psychological and social commentary by which a theory of theatre is framed and from which it draws its force. For most classicists this damaging narrowness will be instantly evident in the barely six pages that sum up Aristophanes, Plato and Aristotle on theatre. A paragraph informs us that in Republic 2 and 3 Plato worries about poets telling lies; and that in Republic 10 Plato accuses poetry of encouraging the passions and of being epistemologically dodgy, because of its commitment to mimesis. Nothing on the Laws or Ion. Nothing on theatre versus philosophy. Nothing to help place Plato’s remarks in an intellectual or cultural context; no attempt to find what Plato is really writing about, how hard his ideas are, why poetry might be thought of as lies, whether this is true of all art or only theatrical performance—and one could go on. Now it is perhaps unfair to complain that a survey book is partial, superficial and reduces theory to a list of bon mots to be recirculated in undergraduate essays. But even within the scope Carlson allows himself, it would have been possible to create a more nuanced account, and, with more careful and informed bibliography, to have directed a student towards other people who are interested in Plato and in his contribution to the Western tradition of writing on theatre. Unfortunately, what Carlson offers throughout is an account of theory that removes most of what makes theory exciting: the delight in argumentation, its rigours and betises; the sudden new perspective; the invasive power to uncover hidden connections, secret harmonies. Why so many writers over the centuries have been passionate about theories of the theatre is swamped in Carlson’s relentlessly undramatic history. Above all, Carlson ignores the prime injunction of theory—to self-awareness, self-questioning. That twentieth-century views of Greek tragedy are different from nineteenth-century views of tragedy must affect the way he too writes about Greek tragedy; but at no point does he adequately theorize his own apparently dispassionate position as theorist, as a theoretically informed writer about the past—as if one could write untheoretically about theory.

Bertrand Russell’s bestselling pot-boiler The History of Western Philosophy (‘Bertie’s Westies’ to a generation of Oxford philosophers) seemed to see the philosophical tradition in Western culture as a list of books with a set of well-defined questions with a range of right and/or wrong answers. This type of popular history—which would take a good deal of analysis to place as a historical document—has had a huge influence, which, coupled with the academic institution’s current preoccupation with survey courses, has helped produce this attempt to write a dispassionate, atheoretical history of theories of theatre. The next time I want to know about writing on theatre in nineteenth-century Italy, say, I will no doubt turn to Carlson for a convenient starting point. But remembering the chapter on the Greeks, I will use it only with the very greatest caution—as the Tourist Guide that does not really want you to engage with the culture it offers to your gaze.