“Come hither, O fire-god…”

It was 51 degrees and raining in Cambridge today, but through the alternating downpour and drizzle we made our way to the Barker Center to begin the second annual Mellon School for Theatre and Performance Research. Some of us (ahem) came from warmer climes; some of us from around the world: Poland, France, Turkey, Brazil, Germany, England, to name a few. Enthusiasm was high, coats were wet, and logistics were brief. After a short welcome and our first round of meet-and-greets, we were off to our respective seminars.

We began as the study of theatre and philosophy must perhaps always begin, perhaps always will begin: with Plato. It was the Symposium in “Theatre and Philosophy,” The Republic in “Theatre and Democracy” (along with Aristotle, de Tocqueville, and Nietzsche). Reports on The Republic discussion are still coming in, but this blogger was party to the Symposium symposium first hand. What to make of the irrepressible theatricality of Plato’s dialogue on love? Is it philosophical illustration, embodied example, proto-novel, theatre-by-another-name? And what of its great humor and pathos, its ability to straddle (as Socrates says all great dramatists must) both comedy and tragedy? Is Plato perhaps not the great anti-theatricalist progenitor of all our dramatic nightmares? Is he perhaps… one of us?

This last thought might be one summary of the central claim made by Martin Puchner in his opening address this evening. “Come hither, O fire-god, Plato now has need of thee,” a young choregus and dramatist supposedly declared as he burned his first tragedy en route to become a student of Socrates. (So says Diogenes Laertius, though we have our doubts as to the accuracy of the quote.) But what if Plato was not casting to ashes the whole institution of the theatre but setting aside (in quite a dramatic way) his juvenilia in favor of seeking out new dramatic forms? It is a theory born out by the multi-century evidence of the Socrates Play, a genre (of sorts) composed of tragedies, comedies, and even operas that take Socrates as their subject and the Platonic dialogue as their model. It is a small but illustrious coterie of dramatists who have taken up the mantle of Socrates and Plato. “In art I am Platonic,” said Oscar Wilde. So too, in one way or another, did Voltaire and George Bernard Shaw and Georg Kaiser, to name just a few; even Broadway got into the act at one point (two cheers for Barefoot in Athens). If we of the theatre have been too quick to declare anti-theatrical prejudice at even the slightest inkling of critique, it is perhaps because we have harbored an anti-philosophical prejudice. Perhaps, without prejudice, there is not so much critique as connection and correction.

But what of the actor? (A preview to our discussions of Brecht.) What of the body? (A recurring concern in Plato’s works; perhaps theatre is not only of the body, perhaps it uses bodies to certain ends.) What of the anti-Platonic turn in twentieth century philosophy? (A trend with exceptions and a fast-forward to Badiou.) Perhaps obscurity is a feature of this genre, a feature of this whole subject of study. (Perhaps, perhaps…)

The idea was raised in the “Theatre and Philosophy” seminar that the Symposium is a study in re-enactment, a work that prompts us to re-enactment. We did our best to re-enact its philosophical and dramatic concerns in workshop, but we perhaps came closest in our evening festivities. We retired to Martin’s home, took up our wine glasses and plates of tapas, and now—dinner party props firmly in hand (with a nod to Andrew Sofer and a forward glance to Davids Herskovits and Greenspan)—we commenced discussions of theatre, philosophy, and almost everything in between.

The terrible weather is supposed to continue all week, but we are steeled. We are lovers of theatre, certainly. And perhaps also lovers of wisdom -- which according to Socrates in the Symposium, makes us philosophers all.

See also: Donna Kornhaber