Theater, Theory, Practice

Martin Puchner Harvard University
Abstract: Based on my recent experience starting a program in theater, dance, and media at Harvard University, I propose an approach to teaching the theory and practice of theater that takes into account the long history of anti-theatrical thought. Instead of beginning with Aristotle, as is usually done, this approach begins with Plato and centers on the intertwined histories of theater and philosophy. Such an approach is especially appropriate when theater is being taught within a liberal arts context, where the goal is not professional training but intellectual development. This approach also dovetails with the understanding of theater practice and pedagogy exemplified by the performance artist David Levine and might herald a new alignment between art making and engineering.

These days, when I think of the future of theater studies, the discipline that I have been asked to represent here, I think of it in relation to the institution in which it is anchored and the pedagogical mission that sustains it. It is difficult to imagine a future for theater studies as we know it without the research university and, therefore, without the undergraduate students that are its main revenue source and audience. This general point has particular urgency for me right now. My university is affiliated with the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.), which has its own MFA program, but when students graduate from this excellent program, their degree says “A. R. T. Institute/Moscow Arts Theater”; Harvard University does not  lend its name to this enterprise. There has always existed a thriving extra-curricular theater scene at Harvard College — over 700 students each year are involved with performance in one way or another — but no theater major. This is so even though Harvard has a long history of teaching theater. In 1905, the English professor George Pierce Baker offered a course in playwriting, one of the first academics to do so, and some years later, he added a course in which plays were staged; one of his most talented students was Eugene O’Neill. Other significant theater artists, including Peter Sellars, Wallace Shawn, Natalie Portman, and Matt Damon, as well as Diane Paulus, who now heads the A.R.T., have emerged from this environment. As students, they did a lot of theater but not as part of a coherent program of study. Since 1905, there have been several attempts to create such a program, but they all failed.

Stephen Greenblatt's report puts it succinctly: the arts are supposed to be part of the cognitive life of the university. I take this to be a rejection of any art for art's (or careers in the arts') sake.

Fortunately, this situation is about to change. Barring natural disasters or professorial dissent, by the time this conference meets, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will have voted in favor of establishing a concentration in Theater, Dance, and Media. During the laborious process leading up to this vote, I have had ample opportunities to think about how to teach theater at an institution that has such a long history of skepticism concerning theater as an academic discipline.

The fact that I have had to contend with this kind of institutional history serves me right, perhaps. I have, after all, argued vehemently for the importance and constructive power of anti-theatricalism, based on the observation that some of the most important modern playwrights and theater makers have had little good to say about the theater.1 Whether you turn to Edward Gordon Craig or Bertolt Brecht, Antonin Artaud or Samuel Beckett, they all dismissed theater and everything associated with it tout court, and it was out of their shared rejection of theater that their most important and innovative work arose. One consequence of this recognition that anti-theatricalism has had an important place in modern theater is the fact that a number of anti-theatrical theorists and philosophers, from Plato to Adorno, no longer need to be decried as mortal enemies of the theater; instead, they can now be enlisted as allies for all kinds of theatrical enterprises. This, anyway, has been my theory, which I have elaborated on various occasions, cheerfully lecturing bewildered theater people on the salutary effects of embracing their supposed enemies as an untapped intellectual resource.

But as we all know, theory is one thing and practice is another. For my sins, I have found myself confronted with an institution that had been more than happy to hand theater studies to its arch-rival, Yale University. Yes, perhaps it all served me right.

Strangely, though, this institutional context has also served me well; such is the cunning of history. There are many reasons why our efforts to start a theater program has now succeeded. One of them is a report authored by Stephen Greenblatt about the importance of art making for the cognitive life of the university;2 Harvard’s President, Drew Faust, who commissioned the report, has been especially supportive of this effort as well. I was just the last straw that broke the anti-theatrical camel’s back, finding myself in the right place at the right time. Perhaps the fact that this last straw was so closely identified with anti-theatricalism may have played a small role as well. If you are an anti-theatrical institution, nothing feels safer than to hand the reigns of a theater program to a card-carrying anti-theatricalist. Put differently, anti-theatricalism in theory (mine) and in practice (Harvard’s) has proven to be a match made in heaven and has produced a theater program, perhaps one might say in the best modernist tradition. Whether it will be any good remains to be seen.

What should a theater program that arises from this history and institutional context look like? For one thing, there should be a philosophical strain, a certain emphasis on the kind of thinking that happens with, in, and against theater. Conventionally, reading lists in theater studies begin with Aristotle, the patron saint of the discipline. This is not a bad choice, but it brings with it a lot of assumptions about what an analysis of theater, or thinking about theater, should look like. It means looking at the history of theater through the lens of Aristotelianism and various reactions to Aristotle, culminating neatly, perhaps too neatly, in Brecht’s avowed anti-Aristotelian theater.

But there is an alternative starting point, and that is the first and most forceful anti-theatrical philosopher of them all, Plato. Once we get over the old worry that Plato would commit us to the most rabid anti-theatrical Puritanism, leading to the closing of theaters, we can see that this philosopher actually had a good deal to say about theater, including mimesis, diegesis, and acting. Equally important, Plato’s own choice of genre, the philosophical dialogue, brought him into direct competition with the theater. Indeed, both major dramatic genres, tragedy and comedy, appear in Plato’s dialogues, which combine the two into a new, unheard-of third genre, noted even by Aristotle. In this context, the anecdote, reported by Diogenes Laertius, that the young Plato himself wrote tragedies makes a lot of sense.

What happens when we take Plato, not Aristotle, as a point of departure? A very different picture emerges, one that binds theater and philosophy more closely together. For me, thinking about theater and philosophy was a natural outgrowth of an interest in anti-theatricalism, helping me broaden this earlier interest into a larger interdisciplinary perspective. The “inter” between theater and philosophy has not been easy, and that is the point.

Claiming Plato as some kind of philosophical rogue dramatist opens up a whole field that one might call the theater of ideas.3 When I arrived at this point, I was worried that I was more or less the only person interested in this topic. The drama of ideas, after all, has been the most despised dramatic genre of all time. When you study theater, the first thing you learn is that theater is an art of the body, not of ideas. In philosophy, theater is usually not given much thought at all, with the exception perhaps of a tradition of philosophical commentary on tragedy, ultimately in the wake of Aristotle.

As it happened, however, I was not alone. The last ten years have seen a flowering of interest in theater and philosophy to the extent that one might reasonably speak of a growing subfield. Let me sketch its contours. There is, for example, Freddie Rokem’s Philosophers and Thespians (2010), which, like many of these studies, also begins with Plato.4 The ultimately goal here is not a Platonist perspective, however, but a series of actual encounters–or even friendships–between philosophers and thespians, for example between Socrates and Aristophanes or between Benjamin and Brecht. Another contribution to this conversation is by Paul Woodruff, who turned his attention to theater in 2008 with a book entitled The Necessity of Theater.5 He did so after a career spent focusing on Socrates and Plato. These are but two of many examples, which also include recent work by Laura Cull (Deleuze), Darren Gobert (Descartes), David Kornhaber (Nietzsche), and Tzachi Zamir (acting), not to speak of a continuing supply of French philosophers, for example Alain Badiou, who likewise derives his approach to theater from Plato, and Jacques Rancière, for whom Plato is a constant reference point. 6 Where the French go, the Germans want to be as well, and it is perhaps noteworthy that Christoph Menke, who now occupies the chair in philosophy at the University of Frankfurt previously held by Adorno and Habermas, has written several works on theater.7

That Plato would be a reference point for a subfield that includes philosophy is, on the face of it, not surprising. After all, Alfred Lord Whitehead was right when he observed that the history of philosophy is but a series of footnotes to Plato. But, at least according to the standard histories of these fields, this is very much not the case with theater studies, which might be more accurately described as a series of footnotes to Aristotle, or rather, not to Aristotle the philosopher but to Aristotle the author of the Poetics, which means Aristotle the theater critic. The fact that a number of thespians would be ready to embrace Plato, or at least move beyond an almost instinctive dismissal of Plato as enemy, shows that there is something important happening in this corner of theater studies. I am sure that it is highly reductive to divide the world into Plato and Aristotle, but when it comes to theater, this division may be somewhat more justified.  In any case, when seen through this Manichaean lens, it is clear that Plato is on the upswing.

The growing subfield called theater and philosophy–or philosophy and theater–is perhaps best registered in two phenomena. First, there now exists a kind of introduction to the field, by the philosopher Tom Stern, who also takes his point of departure from Plato.8 Second, harking back to my initial point about institutions, we now have an association of performance philosophy, as it is called, founded by Laura Cull, with a five-digit membership as well as various ventures in the form of book series and conferences, most recently at the Sorbonne. There is talk of a journal.

Why this sudden interest in theater and philosophy? One reason has to do with the fate of capital-t Theory. During the theory explosion, which reached theater studies late, theory was a rather free-floating endeavor, unmoored from specific disciplines, if not intellectual traditions. It is difficult to pinpoint the moment when this type of theory ran out of steam. It might have been some time in the 1990s or after 9/11, to use that date as a convenient shorthand. In any event, it was sometime during the years following 9/11 that scholars working in this area started to reconnect theory to its disciplinary history and home, namely philosophy. It was this grounding of theory in philosophy, or at least the recognition that it will not do to practice theory without relating it to philosophy, broadly conceived, that suddenly opened up this new area of inquiry and insight. It allowed us to think about the history of anti-theatricalism in philosophy in more productive ways. It opened up the complex relations between individual philosophers–Descartes or Rousseau, Kierkegaard or Badiou–and the theater. And it gave us a new lever with which to investigate actual theatrical practice, now seen through the lens of this intellectual inquiry.

The grounding of theory in philosophy has also revealed more subtle and eerie connections between theater and philosophy that have yet to be fully thought through. One has to do with the word “theory” itself. The classicist Andrea Nightingale (who has worked on Plato and his relation to theater) was the first to offer a full-fledged account of the history of this term, which shares the root “thea,” for seeing, with the word “theater.”9 What are we to make of this strange shared root of theater, the place of seeing, and theory, a term that includes, as Nightingale details, the practice of making a pilgrimage to a festival?

To begin with, it means that thinking about theory (in its philosophical context) and theater is not some sort of eccentric subfield composed of philosophers who are failed thespians and thespians who are failed philosophers (although there are plenty of those around, and it pains me to think that ill-wishers might have some justification to describe me as having failed at both). But aside from such biographical reflections, the connection between theory and theater is here revealed to be an inevitable, necessary endeavor, one based in the very logic of this single root. Theater and theory, it turns out, have always been entangled in a strange sort of embrace, albeit one that has included quite a bit of kicking and biting, which we have only recently had the wits to see.

Theatrical experiments... train students in different forms of physical disciplines for cognitive purposes.

The theater/theory embrace also has consequences for teaching what we generally call practice. One of the premises of the new program at Harvard is to teach both theory and practice. Needless to say, this can mean many things. It can mean that students will work alongside theater professionals, many of whom are based at the American Repertory Theater. But what is the purpose of this practice? It is not, or not only, professional training, the kind of training that happens in a conservatory. Rather, it is supposed to be part of a liberal arts education. This raises an immediate follow-up question: what is, and what is the purpose, of a liberal arts education? It is difficult to get a precise answer to this question from anyone, and I myself have often been at a loss (most recently in China, where a student, upon hearing me describe this American-style model of education, responded with a baffled: “So, it’s everything mixed together?” I found myself agreeing with this astute assessment). Perhaps the best thing that could be said about it is that the lack of precision is part of the point here, in the sense that a liberal arts education is not supposed to be a narrowly construed career path or skill set. Rather, it aims at a broader, fuzzier idea of intellectual development, a kind of institutionalized bildungsroman. Stephen Greenblatt’s report puts it succinctly: the arts are supposed to be part of the cognitive life of the university. I take this to be a rejection of any art for art’s (or careers in the arts’) sake. To be sure, if, despite our best efforts, our students become the next generation of set designers, directors, actors, or playwrights, we will not feel that we have failed. But this is not our only stated goal.

How to elaborate on this cognitive understanding of theater practice? To my mind, it is best understood as the flipside of the theater/theory embrace. In other words, this embrace affects not only how we think about theater but also how we do theater.

As is the case with theory, there exists a long tradition of theater practice that points in this direction. Most visibly located in the twentieth century, it goes by the name of “experimental” theater or “laboratory” theater. These phrases have become so familiar that it is sometimes difficult to hear how the adjectives modify the noun. They come from the world of science and aim at knowledge and insight, not at art (there is no experiment for experiment’s sake or laboratory for laboratory’s sake).

There are many ways in which experimental theater is different from scientific experiments. They do not reduce reality to a single variable (although they do reduce reality in some form). They are not repeatable (although theatrical performance also aims at being repeated night after night in some fashion). They are not part of the scientific enterprise (though Brecht hoped to bring theater up to date with the scientific age).

There is one set of characteristics that both scientific and theatrical experiments share. An education in laboratory work instills in students cognitive habits even as it furthers the physical dexterity and discipline necessary to plan and carry out experiments. It forces them to connect a set of physical actions with a set of theoretical assumptions and hypotheses without which an experiment would be pointless and moot.

Something similar happens with theatrical experiments. They train students in different forms of physical disciplines for cognitive purposes. A good example is a class currently being taught by the performance artist David Levine called Acting and Authenticity. Levine began his theatrical career in New York, directing shows at venues such as the Soho Rep and Shakespeare in the Parking Lot. Then, like a good number of American artists — I am almost tempted to say, like all good American artists — he went to Berlin. In Berlin, he found that his own avant-garde sensibility was superfluous: it was the state-sanctioned norm, especially at the Volksbühne and, to a lesser extent, in the rest of the state theaters dotting the landscape. What could he contribute? Levine found himself looking back at his native theatrical tradition from a distance. What came into view was the aspect of American realism that the avant-garde, both in the US and in Berlin, had made it its business to revile: method acting. Levine was not going to sell method-style realism as the new avant-garde. Rather, he noticed how weird method acting actually is in attempting to turn one human being into another human being, combining an odd set of psychological and philosophical underpinnings.

This core insight became a driver for a number of performance pieces aimed at exposing method acting by pushing it to its logical extreme. In the class, students are first trained in method acting, as they would be in most actor training institutions. But then Levine asks them to really, truly become another person. Each student “acquires” another student, studies and interviews that person, observing not only external ticks and habits but also that person’s whole outlook on life. Finally, the student goes out into the world as another person, is asked to acquire experiences as and, in some sense, for that other person. The goal is not for the students to become better actors (though that might well be a side effect); the goal is insight into the underpinnings of method acting. This is practice (although the course includes quite a bit of reading and analysis as well), but practice with a cognitive purpose, practice infused with theory.

It may not come as a surprise that, according to Levine, his formation as a performance artist was in no small part shaped by the essay “Art and Objecthood” by Michael Fried. There are few essays that have riled up thespians more reliably than this short piece of juvenilia, written by the 23-year-old art historian. The essay is, famously, not about theater; it is about minimalism and an attack on minimalism. But in the course of that attack, Fried pens sentences such as “theatre now is the negation of art” and “the success, even the survival, of the arts has come increasingly to depend on their ability to defeat theatre.”10 It would be easy to dismiss this strange theory, according to which the work of Richard Serra is bad because it is theatrical, as yet another example of theater hatred of the rankest type. But for Levine this anti-theatrical diatribe is a blueprint for his own practice, instilling a healthy skepticism at the core of his art making. Through separate routes, David Levine and I have come to a similar place of using anti-theatricalism for the purpose of a new understanding of the theory and practice of theater.

Let me return to the beginning, the institutional configuration of theater. Right now, the new program is part of the Arts and Humanities division, as it should be. But the kind of experimental, theory-infused pedagogy I have in mind also points in a different direction, in our local case, beyond the Charles River to Allston. Right now, Allston houses the Harvard Business School; it will soon also house the relatively new School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. I have a hunch that a particular form of art making, our form of art making, will be next. The kind of theory and practice we theorize and practice is in many ways closer to what happens in some engineering and business classes than, say, your average literature or music class. In other ways, this may well be the beginning of a broader institutional realignment that moves the arts away from the humanities and closer to engineering. At the very least, theater programs could be the bridge between the two. But it is dangerous to predict the future, so I better stop now.

  1. Martin Puchner, Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatriciality and Drama, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
  2. Report of the Task Force on the Arts, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2008.
  3. Martin Puchner, The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  4. Freddie Rokem, Philosophers and Thespians: Thinking Performance, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010.
  5. Paul Woodruff, The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  6. Laura Cull, Theatres of Immanence: Deleuze and the Ethics of Performance, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2012; Darren Gobert, The Mind-Body Stage: Passion and Interaction in the Cartesian Theater, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013; Tzachi Zamir, Acts, Theater, Philosophy and the Performing Self, Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 2014; Alain Badiou, Rhapsody for the Theater, ed. Martin Puchner, Theater Survey 49:2 (Nov 2008); Jacques Rancière, “The Emancipated Spectator,” Artforum 45 (March 2007): 272-280.
  7. Christoph Menke, Tragic Play: Irony and Theater from Sophocles to Beckett, trans. James Phillips, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
  8. Tom Stern, Philosophy and Theatre: An introduction, Abingdon: Routledge, 2013.
  9. Andrea Wilson Nightingale, Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in Its Cultural Context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  10. Michael Fried, “Art and Objecthood,” –
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