"What if we just say this?"

Samuel Beckett’s Endgame was on the table in “Theatre and Philosophy” today, in conversation with Theodor Adorno and Stanley Cavell. (We were happy to be joined by David Herskovits and David Greenspan, in a way staging our very own encounter of philosophers and thespians, with a nod to Freddie Rokem.)Philosophical readings were aplenty: not just Adorno’s vision of Beckett as an exemplar of Modernist estrangement or Cavell’s connection to ordinary language philosophy but also Martin Esslin’s linkage between Beckett and the existentialism of Sartre and Camus and even Georg Lukács’ attacks on Beckett’s supposed abstraction. Our own readings centered on a number of issues: the role of language in the play (perhaps lush, perhaps bare) and of grammar and rule-making, the relationship to history and especially to the idea of catastrophe, the imperative to communicate or even simply to go on acting, overlapping varieties of modernism (archeological—think Eliot, redemptive—think Joyce), the prospect of Beckett as an optimist (shades of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, courtesy of Cavell). Most of all, what to make of Beckett’s play as a work (and perhaps a philosophy) for the stage, particularly in regards to its handling of objects? There are objects that prompt us to comedy (echoes of slapstick and silent film), objects that script the characters’ actions and demand habits from them, objects as prostheses that become entangled with bodies.   Perhaps most of all, there are objects that demand nothing beyond themselves—“no symbols where none intended,” in Beckett’s words.

Upstairs from us, “Theatre and Democracy” was covering Suzan-Lori Parks’ The America Play alongside Bruce Ackerman’s We the People I: Foundations. Irreducible art object or radical American history with a postmodern veneer?—that was the conversation over Parks’ play in the lunch line today. But for an insider’s view of the “Theatre and Democracy” proceedings from one of the seminar participants, check out the blog “Polis in Pieces” being kept by Ilaria Pinna, our scholar from Sardinia by way of the University of Exeter. Ilaria’s blog details some of the discussions in the “Theatre and Democracy” seminar and offers a new perspective on many of the shared events chronicled here. (You’ll also recognize a few familiar photographs.) Find it here: http://polisinpieces.blogspot.com/

For our afternoon discussion, David Herskovits and David Greenspan assumed the armchairs in front of the fireplace for a conversation on The Dinner Party and The Argument. It was an animated and wide-ranging exchange, covering topics such as the exigencies of writing, casting, and rehearsing, the implications and instigations of putting particular bodies in particular roles, the relationship of Plato and Aristotle, the treatment of individual moments and individual characters from The Symposium, the place of emotion and instinct in the theatre and the theatre-making process. One of the most extended lines of discussion concerned (not surprisingly) the relationship of theater and philosophy. Dieter Thomä, as the resident philosopher in the room, described his own “learning curve” in watching the play—how Greenspan’s repeated gestures (reminiscent of Brecht’s idea of gestus, observed Matthew Smith) helped him realize anew the strange importance of violence in Aristotle’s treatise, even a creeping Dionysianism. It was, we might say, a staging of a reading of the work. Freddie Rokem asked if we might not be able to say that there is a form of “philosophical action,” a “special mode of action” that the theatre is capable of staging. Perhaps a matter of thinking on stage—one of David Herskovitz’s great interests. Or perhaps a matter of talking. “What if we just say this? What if we just talk?” he asked, recounting his own thought process in creating the piece. In a way, he said, staging The Dinner Party was “my version of writing a philosophy.”

Post-discussion, today was the last day for our two writing workshops, one for faculty (led by Andrew Sofer) and one for graduate students (led by David Kornhaber). They haven’t received much mileage on this blog—workshopping is such a private affair—but we did want to commemorate their conclusions. Here are the smiling faculty workshoppees (with Jon Sherman joining via Skype):


And here the smiling future of our profession:WorkshopOur day ended with an elaborate dinner party of our own, with the Mellon Schoolers sequestering numerous tables at the locally famous Cambridge Commons pub. No photographs of the experience were taken. It will remain, like Plato’s own Symposium (and like the theatre itself), a remembered event.

See also: Donna Kornhaber