New Directions in Dramatic and Theatrical Theory: The Emerging Discipline of Performance Philosophy

by Michael Y. Bennett
The Journal of American Drama and Theatre
Volume 28, Number 1 (Winter 2016)

ISNN 2376-4236
©2016 by Martin E. Segal Theatre Center

There has been rising interest in theatre studies in employing and turning to philosophy. Unlike previous trends in literary (and theatrical) studies over the past couple-plus decades that read literature via “Critical Theory” and/or “Cultural Studies”—a collection of thoughts, ideas, and texts (generally) from Continental Philosophy/the Continental tradition, taught most predominantly in English departments—currently, theatre studies has very successfully been reading theatre through philosophers who are routinely studied in philosophy departments, such as Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Wittgenstein. Representing major figures in classical, modern, and contemporary philosophy, theatre studies has done quite well in the past decade-plus, compiling a veritable (i.e., for academic work) barrage of noteworthy studies exploring the intersection between theatre and philosophy.

(NOTE: This is NOT A VALUE JUDGEMENT about “Critical Theory,” “Cultural Studies,” and Continental Philosophy!!! After all, my first book, Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd (2011), relies heavily on re-reading plays associated with the absurd through an up-to-date understanding of a major Continental philosopher, Albert Camus. I am just stating the simple fact that the philosophers in the Continental tradition are much less-likely to be taught in philosophy departments, especially in the United States, than philosophers not in the Continental tradition.)

Philosophers in the analytic tradition have thought quite a bit, and for quite some time, about fiction/literature (and, often, the theatrical character, Hamlet, is used as an example) to pose and answer questions about, especially, the existence of fictional entities. Until very recently, however, there has not been that complimentary (mirror-image) approach taken by scholars in theatre studies (broadly defined) to think about issues of philosophy to answer questions posed in theatre. That is not to say that philosophy (broadly defined) has not influenced or been employed in theatre studies. Quite the contrary, in fact, as there have been, largely, two separate, but slightly overlapping “movements” within theatre studies that had employed/been connected to philosophy. First, in the late-1970s to early 1990s, there were a number of studies in theatre semiotics (most notably, Elaine Aston and George Savona, Theatre as Sign System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance; Marvin Carlson, Theatre Semiotics: Signs of Life; Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama; Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Semiotics of Theater; Marco de Marinis, The Semiotics of Performance; and Patrice Pavis, Languages of the Stage: Essays in the Semiology of Theatre). And, then, from the mid-1980s to the early-2000s, a number of studies in the phenomenology of theatre came out (most notably, Bert O. States, Great Awakenings in Little Rooms: On the Phenomenology of Theatre (1985); Stanton B. Garner, Jr., Bodied Spaces: Phenomenology and Performance in Contemporary Drama (1994); and Alice Rayner, To Act, To Do, To Perform). These two “movements,” if you will, paved the way for the (current) third wave (or “movement”) of philosophy seen in theatre studies: the recent rise in studies, starting in the late-2000s, that rely (mostly) on the lenses of classic and modern philosophy and philosophical aesthetics through which to read theatre. This emerging discipline has been named “Performance Philosophy.” This emerging discipline has been strengthened by the online network of the same name of over 2,000 academics (http://performancephilosophy.ning.com); an online, peer-reviewed journal of the same name, which is connected to this online network; and a book series of the same name published by Palgrave Macmillan, also connected to this online network. Some of the initial titles in the book series are reflections of the continued dominance of thinkers from the Continental tradition (for example, Žižek and Performance (2014) and Adorno and Performance (2014) represent two of the book series’ initial five offerings). However, part of the reason that Performance Philosophy has emerged is due to its origins, if you will, in philosophical circles and also the number of recent books that successfully have studied theatre alongside philosophers from the classical, modern, and contemporary periods (not associated with philosophy in the Continental tradition).

Much of this recent discourse exploring the overlap between theatre and philosophy began in philosophical circles, particularly in the field of philosophical aesthetics. In 2001, in a special symposium in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, David Z. Saltz, James R. Hamilton, and Noël Carroll all discussed the relationship between text and performance in theatre. In short, Saltz and Carroll argue that an element of interpretation is needed in order to create performance (and, therefore, the text is, something of, the original that that is interpreted in order to make the performance, which is a once-removed artistic expression), while Hamilton suggests that performance is a unique art form. The following year, in 2002, John Dilworth, in both American Philosophical Quarterly and the The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, suggests that the notion of “representation” helps explain the nature of both dramatic text and theatrical performance, where a play is a type and performance is a token of that type.

These debates set the stage for the groundbreaking 2006 collection, Staging Philosophy, edited by David Krasner and David Z. Saltz, in which the essays explore a wide range of topics examining the intersection between philosophy and the theatre. This collection, in turn, paved the way for nine monographs exploring this intersection between theatre and philosophy. Hamilton’s The Art of Theater (2007) is a further-developed book of the above-mentioned essay that is rooted in analytic philosophy and makes an argument that theatrical productions are not re-productions of a dramatic text, but are their own art form. Paul Woodruff’s The Necessity of Theater (2008) is a philosophical meditation on how to make (good or bad) judgments about theatre, connecting these judgments to a larger question of ethics. Freddie Rokem’s Philosophers and Thespians (2010) explores specific, historical encounters between philosophers and those in the theatre arts. Martin Puchner’s The Drama of Ideas (2010) argues that a case can be made that drama extends from Plato, rather than from Aristotle (as has been the traditional argument). My book, Words, Space, and the Audience: The Theatrical Tension between Empiricism and Rationalism (2012) argues that in order to make meaning out of theatre, the epistemological tension between understanding a play empirically and understanding it rationally must be explored. Darren R. Gobert’s The Mind-Body Stage (2013) investigates how, after Descartes, the Cartesian mind-body duality and notions of subjectivity were explored in theatre. Tom Stern’s Philosophy and Literature (2014) is an introductory survey of the overlap between theatre and philosophy. Pannill Camp’s The First Frame (2014) explores how the rise in natural philosophy in France, which looked more to Isaac Newton’s theories of physics than Descartes’ metaphysical notions of subjectivity, contributed to re-imagining the theatre space. And Spencer Golub’s Incapacity (2014) reads drama and art (broadly defined) through Wittgenstein’s notion of “pain behavior,” which Golub adapts as “performance behavior,” to investigate the public expression of private experience.

As these recent books demonstrate, the study of philosophy has become (appropriately so) the latest breakthrough in theatre studies. What is exciting about this, TO ME, is not that there is an interest in turning to philosophers not in the Continental tradition, but that a whole “new” 2,500-year-old-plus discipline is at our disposal and in our realm of consciousness. That means one thing: “new” ideas (to those of us in the theatre world)! This can only re-invigorate our excitement, our studies, and the possibilities of inquiry!


This essay is an adaptation and an expansion of a short section in the following article: Michael Y. Bennett. “Theatrical Names and Reference.” Palgrave Communications 1, Article number: 14005 (2015). ​doi:10.1057/palcomms.2014.5: <http://www.palgrave-journals.com/articles/palcomms20145>


Michael Y. Bennett is Associate Professor of English and affiliated faculty in Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre and Literature of the Absurd (2015); Narrating the Past through Theatre (2012); Words, Space, and the Audience (2012); and Reassessing the Theatre of the Absurd (2011).

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