Philosophical Tensions in Modern Dramatic Literature

Article excerpt

Philosophical Tensions in Modern Dramatic Literature Michael Y. Bennett, Words, Space, and the Audience: The Theatrical Tension Between Empiricism and Rationalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Pages 179.

Behind Michael Y. Bennett's Words, Space, and the Audience is the defining and decidedly intractable question of reception theory, namely, "how does meaning get made in the theatre?" Bennett's answer is that meaning is produced through negotiating tensions between "empirical and rational ways of knowing," particularly at those historical moments when such tensions are encoded in local and global concerns (8-9). Adeptly blending philosophy, history, and politics, Bennett demonstrates how the philosophical debate between empiricism and rationalism is thematized in four major works of modern drama: Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953), and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof (1962). Through thoughtfully researched and engagingly argued case-studies, Bennett accomplishes two overlapping aims: to offer new readings of these canonical works and, more significantly, to develop a heuristic for considering the key question from reception theory as it relates to modern dramatic texts.

Deeply interdisciplinary, Bennett's argument is convincingly developed as part of a rich and complex study of four crucial historical moments, marked by tensions between empiricism and rationalism, which helped produce these dramas and which these dramas helped produce. The Importance of Being Earnest (and, briefly, Salome) is read against the height of British Idealism and the beginning of pragmatism and analytic philosophy during the fin de siecle. Six Characters in Search of an Author is considered against the struggle between pragmatism and idealism (in its worst manifestations, the rise of the fasci and Benito Mussolini) during post-World War I Italy. Waiting for Godot is read against the "The Great Quarrel" between Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus regarding existentialism during post-World War II Paris. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof is considered against the demise and normalization of analytic philosophy during the Cold War and the Cultural Revolution in the United States. Through these chapters, Bennett traces "the waxing and waning of rationalism and empiricism in key historical moments" (25).

More impressive is Bennett's meticulous examination of how the empiricism-rationalism dispute manifested in these historical moments and across the more than seventy years covered by the book. Naturally, he documents the major figures involved in these disputes, including T. H. Green and F. H. Bradley who advanced idealism in response to the empiricism of John Locke and David Hume at Oxford University during Wilde's tenure; and including the letters between Sartre and Camus, printed in Les Temps modernes, just one year before Beckett's play debuted in Paris. …