Theatres and Encyclopedias in Early Modern Europe

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Theatres and Encyclopedias in Early Modern Europe, by William N. West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xv + 293. Cloth $65.00.

Most readers will open this volume, I suspect, with some version of the question I brought to it: How much can theaters and encyclopedias possibly have in common, in the early modern period or at any time? The answer I arrived at after making my way through West's book is, alas, hedged: more than I would have thought but not nearly so much as its author claims. In his introduction, as West sets out to justify the pairing, we find the inevitable hybrid phrases--theaters as sites of "the performance of knowledge" (2), encyclopedias as "textual theaters" (2)--as well as some surprisingly bold claims, typified by this one: "[t]he encyclopedia and the theatre are conceptually identical--not merely similar, but in fact versions of the same idea. Together they present a controlled, organized expression of reality" (4). Even sympathetic readers will be able to think of books, paintings, sermons, even tapestries that handle reality according to these criteria; less generous readers may be tempted to conclude that the foundation of West's approach has little warrant. In chapter 2, however, the reader learns that these claims are based not on the theater of the period in its most familiar form--the stages or plays of the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists--and not even on the morality and mystery plays that preceded them, but on the narrow, rather odd genre of "humanist theater" that, as it turns out, has quite a lot in common with the contemporaneous development of the encyclopedia. Also in evidence in the opening chapter are the virtues that make the book a worthwhile and interesting read: West's willingness to wander from his narrow thesis to include more and less relevant examples and reasoning (in the thirteen pages of the introduction, he moves from Pliny to Thomas Elyot, Plato and his sixteenth-century translator Serranus to the Holocaust Museum and back to Kepler) and his ultimately successful attempt to sustain a comparison that few others have thought to make.

The first chapter, "The Space of the Encyclopedia," traces the history of the encyclopedia from its first stirrings in late fifteenth-century Italy into the English Renaissance, with sustained attention to the ambitious conceptual underpinnings of the project. As he describes them, encyclopedias are "reference works, compiled and organized to reflect some reality to which by definition they are secondary" (14); they constitute a "singular entity" (14) that begins with "almost utopian claims for comprehensiveness, compression, and speed of access" (16); they are "atemporal and antinarrative" (17); they seek "to re-present every thing that exists in a (more) manageable form for detached study and manipulation" (19); they are meant "to reproduce the world without becoming involved in it" (23); and the encyclopedic impulse eventually "demonstrated itself to be a self-defeating project" (41). There is much discussion in this chapter of what is at stake when knowledge is organized and presented and an attempt to characterize such encyclopedic presentations as inherently theatrical. West also introduces readers late in the chapter to the idea of "encyclopedic desire" (37), a condition to which Renaissance humanists were particularly susceptible but which also manifested itself in some of their distant forebears. West cites Aristotle ("We consider first, then, that the wise man knows all things, so far as it is possible, without having knowledge of every one of them individually" [35]), Cicero, and Pliny the Elder, who died when he came too close to Pompeii to investigate the eruption of Vesuvius.

"The Idea of a Theatre" is one of the most interesting chapters in the book, primarily for its unusual slant on theater history. West takes his reader back to the first recorded use of the word "theatre" by a Wycliffite translator in 1382 and traces the evolution of the idea of a theater or "common beholding place" from ancient Greece and Rome through the treatises of Continental and English humanists to arrive finally at the construction of the first English theater, The Theatre, in 1576. …