Theatrocracy; or, Surviving the Break
THE RELATION between theater and politics has a long and vexed history. Of all the “arts,” theater most directly resembles politics insofar as traditionally it has been understood to involve the assemblage of people in a shared space. But the audience in the theater differs from the members of a political grouping: its existence is limited in time, whereas a polity generally aspires to greater duration. Theater acknowledges artificiality and artifice, whereas political communities are often construed in terms of a certain naturalness, an association underscored by the etymology of the word nation—deriving from Latin nasci, to be born.1 Political entities have historically derived their legitimacy from their ability to promote what is shared and common—a “commonwealth”—whereas theater tends frequently to the extreme and to the exceptional.2 Politics is supposed to involve an appeal to reason, whereas theater frequently appeals unabashedly to desire and emotion. Finally, perhaps most important of all, politics as generally practiced claims to be the most effective means of regulating or at least controlling conflict, whereas theater flourishes by exacerbating it. Yet both the thinkers of politics and its practitioners have recognized a need to come to terms with theater, lest it wind up dictating its terms to them.
One of the earliest and most illuminating articulations of this strained relation between politics and theatricality is to be found in book 3 of Plato’s Laws. As has often been noted, not the least significant of the paradoxes that mark Plato’s work is that such an eminently theatrical writer should have so profoundly mistrusted the political effects of theatricality. In the passage I am referring to from the Laws, the main speaker, called simply “The Athenian,” discusses the reasons for the decline of his city. He identifies as a major issue the way in which political communities respond to fear. Formerly, he recalls, his