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From the Author’s Perspective: The Art of Theater
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James Hamilton, The Art of Theater (Blackwell, 2007)

In The Art of Theater I propose and explain the claim that, in an unqualified way, theater is a form of art. By that I mean that theatrical performances are what are created in the practice of theater and that theatrical performances are works of art. The agenda I set for the book is to explain what that claim comes to, exactly and in detail.

The book is divided into three parts. In Part I, I present the evidence that suggests the claim is true and an initial response to that evidence. The direct argumentation I offer for the claim is historical. We can see the truth of the claim in the actual historical practices of theater, I maintain, even in its most self-consciously text-oriented periods.

But the enormous success of the conjunction of literature and theater in late European culture means that we must explain the relation between a performance and a literary text. A number of models of the text-performance relationship have been put on offer and I survey three of the main ones – the “literary” model, the “two-text” model, and the “type/token” model. This latter is an ontologically oriented model, comprising a family of familiar views, that has been popular in analytic aesthetics and that attempts to piggyback an account of theatrical works, texts, and theatrical performances on the well-developed ontology of musical works, scores, and musical performance. But the history of theater in the past 150 years teaches us that performers choose how to use texts, when they do, and that this choice itself is a fact about a performance that may play a role in the assessment of the performance by spectators with suitable background. Against the larger backdrop of other theatrical traditions and the most recent history of the text-based tradition, that tradition appears to be only one way among many others that performers can answer the basic questions shaping any theatrical performance, whether or not it involves a text. Grasping this fact amounts to recognizing the truth of what I call the “ingredients” model of the text-performance relation.

I present a number of idealized cases of theatrical performance to give us some sense of the range an adequate account of theatrical performance must encompass. I also explain three factors that should constrain any adequate account of theatrical performance. First, theater is a social practice and, unlike music and dance, there are no non-audience practices of theater. Second, performers and spectators are naturally disposed to interact with each other, and the physicality of that interaction is an important element in any theatrical performance. Third, theatrical performances occur in time, and most of what any spectator gets of the content in the performance she gets during the time of that performance.

I conclude Part I by articulating a central idea of what a theatrical performance is. I ground my account of theatrical performance in the observation that theatrical enactment – the relation between spectators and performers – is a social practice in which spectators attend to the physical and verbal expressions, the sounds and the movements of performers who, by means of those expressions, sounds, movements, and so on, occasion audience responses to whatever the performers have arranged for them to observe about human life. When spectators attend to actors in a narrative performance, they hope to learn the story the actors are presenting and to be able to tell that story to themselves and to others.

Usually, this works out just fine. And this thought suggests the outlines of an explanation of how audiences, most of whom have no idea what precisely they are about to see when they attend a theatrical performance, can and do pick out what is going on in a theatrical performance without reference to the text(s) the performers used in developing the performance.

Part II of the book is devoted to developing that explanation and defending its component parts, the propositions that have to be true if spectators are able to do what they appear to do.

The first proposition is that even naïve spectators can gain at least the basic elements of the content delivered in a theatrical performance simply by attending to performers during the time of the performance itself. I call this level of comprehension “basic theatrical understanding.” In one sense, the content grasped by someone who has only basic understanding may be pretty thin. A spectator may demonstrate her grasp merely by recounting the outlines of the story presented and some sense of the characters in the story. In another sense, however, even basic understanding is fairly robust. If telling a story and talking about some characters is to be evidence of understanding a narrative performance, it must be the story the individual spectator recounts and it must be those characters she discusses.

The second proposition I defend is that it is reasonable to expect that spectators will converge on pretty much the same things. This uniformity across spectators is what justifies us in thinking spectators typically have understood what they have seen. Part of the reasoning I present in support of this proposition is provided by a story – perhaps familiar only to philosophers who have studied game theory – about how individuals find salient any feature of any kind of behavior whatever. Because some of it is highly technical, I take pains in the book to explain that material very carefully. I maintain we find out why it is reasonable to expect convergence – among even disparate spectators, confronted with a mass of detail to sift through – in a feature salience story that reflects situations in which some people (teachers or performers) attempt to focus attention on certain features, and other people (learners or spectators) try to figure out which features are salient.

Although this way of explaining spectator grasp of a performance has important benefits, it fails to deal with how spectators are able to identify characters, events, patterns, props, and images over the time of the same performance and to re-identify the same things across performances. The third proposition I defend is that spectators pick out individuals, objects, and so on by catching sight or sound of them first, and then begin to converge on the same features of particular individuals or objects in their common field of sensory experience and project the same characteristics to whatever is being developed for them to observe over the course of the performance. Spectators react to sounds and movements and have directional responses triggered by the phenomenal experience of people and things moving and sounding in the space they inhabit. Only then do they attach features and project characteristics onto those items. This is built into our biology. Thus, when a spectator has basic grasp of what is presented in a theatrical performance, she is already prepared to grasp the same character, events, props, and so on, when those show up later in the same performance or in other performances.

I conclude that spectators do what they appear to do: they pick out events independently of any texts they may use. But are they works of art?

Part III of the book is designed to defend the claim that theatrical performances are, indeed, works of art.

Some spectators do exceed the merely basic understanding sufficient for picking out performances for reflection and go on to engage in that reflection. I mark that fact by saying that they have “deeper theatrical understanding.” Actually, there are two forms of deeper understanding, either of traditions of content or of practices of performance. Each is necessary for gaining a sense of the achievement in a performance but I argue that neither is sufficient for that task nor are they jointly sufficient.

To see what is sufficient, careful thought must be given to what spectators can know about how performances are made. They cannot know some things. But they can know that what they see – by way of individual actions, vocalization choices, conventions that have certain effects, and styles which arrange sequences of conventional choices in the service of some sense of the whole performance – is arranged deliberately. In fact they count on it. And, in this way, they can assess the achievement in a performance against the background of alternative choices that could have been made. The thought is that if those spectators assess theatrical performances for the same kinds of achievements we praise or disparage in objects and events generally agreed to be works of art, then theatrical performances are also works of art. So, I conclude, since spectators do this, theatrical performances are works of art.

However, most theatrical performers and spectators engage theater within performance traditions. I offer a definition of “tradition” that links it plausibly to conventions and styles. But I maintain that traditions tend to blind those working within them to other ways of engaging in the practice. And this, I maintain, is why some people do not recognize the truth that the history of theater teaches.


© James Hamilton

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