Antitheatricality and the Body Public

Antitheatricality and the Body Public

Antitheatricality and the Body Public

Antitheatricality and the Body Public

Synopsis

Situating the theater as a site of broad cultural movements and conflicts, Lisa A. Freeman asserts that antitheatrical incidents from the English Renaissance to present-day America provide us with occasions to trace major struggles over the nature and balance of power and political authority. In studies of William Prynne's Histrio-mastix (1633), Jeremy Collier's A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1698), John Home's Douglas (1757), the burning of the theater at Richmond (1811), and the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley (1998) Freeman engages in a careful examination of the political, religious, philosophical, literary, and dramatic contexts in which challenges to theatricality unfold. In so doing, she demonstrates that however differently "the public" might be defined in each epoch, what lies at the heart of antitheatrical disputes is a struggle over the character of the body politic that governs a nation and the bodies public that could be said to represent that nation.

By situating antitheatrical incidents as rich and interpretable cultural performances, Freeman seeks to account fully for the significance of these particular historical conflicts. She delineates when, why, and how anxieties about representation manifest themselves, and traces the actual politics that govern such ostensibly aesthetic and moral debates even today.

Excerpt

At least since Plato, or so we have been taught, the playhouse has been construed as a house under suspicion, a site of endemic moral corruption and existential peril from which we all ought to flee. This antitheatrical posture, composed of a fundamental distrust of representation and an equally strong discomfiture with the bodies that lend themselves to the art of performance, has been eagerly iterated and reiterated for centuries to the point that we have come to take it for a settled truism, an inescapable fact, an inherent aspect of human nature. No less erudite an authority than Jonas Barish has contributed to this mystification by pronouncing in his seminal tome, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, that this condition is no mere prepossession but indeed “a kind of ontological malaise, a condition inseparable from our beings, which we can no more discard than we can shed our skins.” With just a few exceptions, it is safe to say that this belief, or the presumption of some kind of foundational aversion to the effects of play, has constituted the theoretical and critical point of departure for almost every major discussion of antitheatricality to date. Yet from any number of perspectives, this might seem an odd place to begin. For those who have taken an anthropological approach to performance, for instance, and who have documented the extent to which play and performance serve a fundamental purpose in all human cultures, such an articulation might even seem rather baffling. Indeed, it might be construed as a fundamental misprision that mistakes the effect for the cause. For to posit, as Barish and many others have done, that the persistent denunciation of theater across time and space signifies a “permanent kernel of distrust waiting [only] to be activated by the more superficial irritants” not only glosses over the more consistent human propensity for play but also ignores the more likely possibility that those intermittent irruptions of antitheatrical sentiment are actually the . . .

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