“Its identity resides not in any single transcendent personality…”

“Theatre and Democracy” embarked on Coriolanus today, but we in the “Theatre and Philosophy” seminar can’t help but be suspicious of this so-called man of action (just like the Tribunes themselves, perhaps) after reading Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s critical dialogues and plays were on the table for us, and we’ve since learned to value leisure over action, lying over truth-telling, and eating muffins at country estates above all else. There’s no need to perform a theatrical reading of Wilde’s philosophical dialogues—he wears his theatricality on his sleeve and wears it so well—but it did take some doing to unravel the philosophy inside the witticisms. Wilde might have declared himself a Platonist, but it’s an aestheticized Platonism—the world of art as access point to the world of forms. There are Nietzschean shades as well, a lean towards social constructionism and art as world-creation. But don’t dare call it labor—and heaven forbid your art should be realist or naturalist (now that we have the difference between them straightened out). But what of the plays themselves? Salome is a favorite, for form and content alike. (As for Al Pacino, incidentally. You can watch him “obsess” over it in his film documentary of his film adaptation of his stage production—yes, you read all that correctly—here: www.wildesalome.com.) But what about The Importance of Being Earnest? Perhaps we might elevate the handbag to the status of the mask or the veil as a theatrical device? Perhaps we might recast talking as the greatest action of all? We do know one thing for sure: that Lady Bracknell may in some ways be the greatest of Wilde’s dandies (with kudos to Matthew Wilson Smith, Mellon faculty alumnus extraordinaire.)

If our morning seminar covered The Critic as Artist, our afternoon discussion with Tracy Davis examined the Theatre Historian as Artist. Returning to the story of the Chesson family, we discussed the ethics and exigencies of the historian’s mandate: to understand others’ worlds in their own terms—an act of artistic world-creation if ever there was one! The discussion covered two related questions. On the one hand, how might we begin to understand the diaries of Frederick Chesson and his notable approach to issues of performance? What to make of his temporal language, his attunement to sonic details, his handling of scope and scale? (Of course, we have to allow for the fact that we were only getting the juicy bits of his diary— at least, what we theatre scholars might consider the juicy bits, which are probably not the parts that Gwendolyn Fairfax would want to read on the train.) A separate line of question asked what frames we might properly bring to our reading of Chesson’s words and our creation of his world? Can Rancière be applied? (Dissensus was the text in question.) Is this too much of an anachronic reading? Is there a difference between applying a Performance Studies lens and a theory lens? These may ultimately be questions to be worked out in our scholarly practice, but they were fodder nonetheless for a very lively discussion.

For our evening lecture, we all turned together to Coriolanus—now focused on the corporate body of the king and even the corporate body of the King’s Men. Henry Turner offered to us a history and theory of the early modern corporation vis-à-vis Shakespeare’s troupe and Shakespeare’s work, a topic already deeply steeped in a theatrical and theoretical language that made us feel right at home: personas, masks, fictive persons, even the idea of the universitas as the original corporation. Corporations may not quite be people (contra what a certain presidential candidate recently remarked…) but they are indeed persons—and ideas and bodies as well, all at once. In Ernest Barker’s reading of the corporation, “Its identity resides not in any single transcendent personality but in a single organizing idea permeating simultaneously and permanently a number of personalities.” Coriolanus would come into such trouble in part, perhaps, because he resisted the idea of the corporate body of the sovereign. But the King’s Men would succeed for accepting the same idea of a corporate body, assuming and enacting a collective identity greater than any one of its members (yes, even Shakespeare). There are some fictions that are also real, we learned—not the least of which is the corporation itself.

But what of forces beyond anti-theatricality in Coriolanus’ discomfort with the fictive corporate body? (Material to be further explored.) What of the mechanisms of change within a corporate identity? (A matter of text on the one hand, but also an issue of the total ecology of signifying practices of a corporate entity in a larger sense.) What of the role of texts in the corporation that was Shakespeare’s company? (An item perhaps to be explored further, though text already figures prominently elsewhere in the project in the consideration of other joint stock companies and their multiplicity of documents and accounts.) What of the words corporation, company, and troupe? (Important valences all, especially in positioning the group identity in relation to the polis and the public sphere.) And what, at last, of gender? (A non-gendered corporate body? A neutered corporate body? Tune in to tomorrow’s blog for a continuation…)

As an addendum: some photographic evidence has finally emerged to confirm our corporeal existence (a dangerous statement in a philosophy seminar). At the very least, it documents our existence while we’re eating lunch. The photograph is below, with thanks to Ilaria Pinna for capturing this candid moment. Note the wonderfully imposing and wonderfully incongruous figure of Teddy Roosevelt—theatrical figure par excellence—peering down upon us all:

Teddy Roosevelt

See also: Donna Kornhaber