“She possessed the faculty of comparison…”

Plato, we can’t escape you. “Theatre and Democracy” was on hiatus today, but “Theatre and Philosophy” more than made up for them in fervor. We began with a brief return to Nietzsche, examining the origins of the linguistic turn (or perhaps its back-formation?) in “On Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense.” In summary: there are only bodies and languages. Except that there is Badiou.

For those of you who thought Platonism was fully vanquished by the language century, Badiou would like to have a word with you. Even Deleuze may be a closet Platonist (so says Badiou, at least). Reactions to Rhapsodie pour le théâtre were… mixed. Below is an artist’s rendering of some of the responses in seminar:

Edvard Munch - The Scream

There was much to take issue with, of course—from an exclusively Parisianistic outlook to an excessively Lacanian inheritance (though attempts at a vigorous defense were mounted). But what of the treatment of theatre itself in Badiou’s pages? What happens to an actor’s body that is consumed by the text? What of the distinction of Theatre and theatre, state and capital, even possibly Event and event? How does the Theatre (contra cinema, says Badiou; and contra Deleuze in Cinema 1, we might add) reshape our world for us and lead us to the possibility of an Event. Can it only do so when funded by the state? Can it only do so when directors and texts are exalted above actors? And where is the spectator in all of this? (A timely question, though we didn’t quite know it at the time.)

Badiou followed us to lunch and to the afternoon discussion with David Levin, where the philosopher’s Five Lessons on Wagner was the topic du jour. (Nietzsche, equal parts anti-Platonist and anti-Wagnerian, would be doubly distressed.) With continued fervor but greater composure, we discussed the ethics and aesthetics of reclaiming Wagner in the manner that Badiou would advocate. It came down to a question of endings, the terms of resolution in Wagner’s work: open or closed. Our own discussion remained admirably open, with a few particularly memorable moments to relay: the struggles and enmities of the Wagner family in the twentieth century recounted as Grand Opera, Slavoj Zizek invoked as the Mick Jagger of theorists.

The question of the spectator returned to us in the evening in Tracy Davis’ address. But not just any spectator: a very particular spectator named Amelia Chesson. She is not one of the “squeaky wheels” of theatre history Davis warned us, but in her very quietude she offers an access point into a feminist theatre history from the ground up. “She possessed the faculty of comparison in a high degree” in the words of her obituary, but even more than that she possessed the faculty of what we might today call super-multi-tasking: child-bearing, child weaning, and child raising all alongside professional book reviews, theatre reviews, music reviews, a little needlework and coat-dying, and late-night travel from the theatres to the newspaper HQ across what seemed like the entire breadth of London. (Not to mention, among everything else, she helped to have Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl published.) Chesson, Davis tells us, stood at a potent meeting point of feminism, liberal individualism, and relationist subjecthood, her contributions generated according to the dictates of a biological schedule that seems almost as ahead of its time as she herself was.

But what of her reviews themselves? (Remarkable in their very unremarkability; she learned the formula well.) How did such a project come about? (With a failed archival trip—spun, to great effect, into a new investigation.) What of Chesson’s own difference not just as a female spectator but as a critic among spectators? (Perhaps not so great a difference at the time, provided she was in the acceptable female positions of chaperone or chaperoned.) What to say of the project’s ability to bridge theatre history and performance studies? (Disciplines are conventions and there is space to explore in-between.) What of the civil infrastructure that supported Chesson’s work and made her innovations possible? (Much may rest indeed on the consolidation of omnibus companies and the installation of new omnibus routes. So much of the mundane may become fodder for the remarkable.)

But what of Badiou, finally left behind in our discussion of the spectator… If you cannot help but want more, you might want to investigate his classes at the École Normal Supérieure (French is prerequisite, of course). Liza Kharoubi, our ambassador from Avignon, offers the following link:


But don’t say we didn’t warn you.

See also: Donna Kornhaber