Will Daddario

My recent research and writing on the poet Jay Wright has challenged me to go back to the Ancient Greeks a lot lately. Phrases like this one show up and send me on wild journeys through the classical texts: μὲν βάσις ὰγλαἴας ὰρχά.

I was starting to do so much work with Ancient Greek that I decided to purchase a subscription to the Loeb Classics Online Library, and to encourage my use of this amazing resource I started a blog series called “Classical Bellyflop.” The name comes from the feeling of leaping or diving into the classical texts curated in that library. Since my knowledge of Ancient Greek and Latin is pretty basic, however, any dive would scarcely resemble something pretty; not even a cannonball or a jack-knife would serve as an adequate comparison. No, when I dive into Ancient Greece I most certainly bellyflop. The text-water slaps me with as much force as my dive carries with it. The discoveries I make in the text are usually eye-opening and sometimes startling, similar to the surprisingly painful sensation of breaking the water’s surface.

I ended the last post (on repetition) with a consideration of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the repetition that undergirds that telling, a repetition that is desired, actively tended, and yet also potentially upsetting. This entry you are reading here continues with this line of thought by questioning the ubiquitous use of the word “story” in the realm of social media. So many sites have a section for “your story.” The word shows up in so many places that its history has been evacuated. What does ”story” mean here?

The least generous reading of “story” in this context leads to an equation with marketing. When we update our story, we are marketing ourselves as products in the social marketplace. We market ourselves because we want someone to notice us, to listen to us, to engage with us. That desire is understandable and often sincere, but, at least on social media, it is necessarily bound up within “the society of the spectacle.” Fungibility overwrites intimacy. Our story is a transaction.

A more generous reading acknowledges that many of us—though certainly not all—are aware of the superficial dimension to this story telling, but we do it anyway. We tell “our story” because we want to feature highlights in the grand narrative that is our life. Still, though, a type of blindness persists here, one that becomes sensible through a question: are we in the story or are we making it? It often seems as though we would like to play out our lives as characters in a story that is written by some unseen author. Why? Simply put, it would be easier this way. It would be easier to play a predefined part, to enact a subject position or identity that is already created and in search of an operator or conductor. If we act in this way, however, if we accede to the fiction that we’re all stars in our own movies, then we forget the craft of making, the art of not simply telling a story but selecting one of infinite plots through which that story might unfold. If we think we’re only in the movie, then the ποίησις (poiesis) of life is by default ceded to another entity.

I’d like to suggest that, instead of blindly following the seductive marketing of the “story,” we focus more on the art of making. Furthermore, I would like to argue that we can do this by shifting our attention from our “story” to our “plot.” As I have said in almost every theatre class I have ever taught, plot and story are not the same thing. The story is like the wide-angle view of the events and characters that comprise any tale. The plot, by contrast, is the on-the-ground route that moves audience members and spectators through the story as it’s told. The ability to tell the same story by means of a different plot is what allows artists and entertainers to revisit the same stories from the past continually without losing the interest of contemporary audiences. For example, Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood is a re-plotting of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The story is (generally, we are encouraged to think,) the same, but the telling is Kurosawa’s own. The route he plots through Macbeth is linked to his particular philosophy of cinema and his cultural milieux. We can’t discuss Throne of Blood without talking about Macbeth, but the story is not the most important part of Kurosawa’s cinematic event. The way he plots the story is a key reason why his film is so gripping and unforgettable.

To get to plot, though, it helps to go through “story,” which, for the Ancient Greeks, appeared primarily in two words: λόγος and μῦθος. The first, logos, was a foundational word within Ancient Greek culture. It meant “speech” and “reason.” To speak Greek was to move toward Reason. In the sense I’m referencing it here, however, the speech of logos is particularly a story or a telling of some event. The second word, mythos, which we also rely upon frequently in contemporary English (as “myth”), was a particular kind of story. It did not, as we tend to think today, denote a fictional story, but, rather, a founding story. The myth was an originating event, a happening that was so significant that it required constant revisiting (repetition) through the act of telling (i.e., rhapsodizing). The one who tells such a story is both a rhapsode and a mythologer.

There is no denying that story, as both logos and mythos, was important to the Greeks. Homeric Epics, for example, were myths that compelled constant retelling. When theatre rose to prominence and began to exert such a powerful role in (Athenian) cultural production, however, plot unseated story. At least, that’s what Aristotle leads us to think in his Poetics where, as Gerald Else tells it, he outlines the most important aspects of the art of making (and, in particular, the art of making tragedies). Of all the important aspects, plot is the most important. Reflecting on this today, it seems like this is the case because the telling of the story (myth) is what affected the course of ethical action in contemporary society, and, as such, a poor telling could literally pollute the city. A good telling was, by contrast, akin to the perfect path paved across a treacherous mountain pass. It guided the walker through the dangerous terrain to the other side of the mountain.

This word, however, “plot,” was not strictly equal with contemporary understandings of that word. Aristotle’s word was σύστασις (sustasis or systasis). When we look that word up in Ancient Greek dictionaries, we find that its definition as “plot of a drama” was far from primary. Its other definitions and usages included:

  • bringing together, introduction, recommendation
  • communication between a man and a god
  • protection
  • standing together, close combat, conflict
  • meeting, accumulation, e.g. of humours
  • knot of men assembled
  • political union
  • friendship or alliance
  • composition, structure, constitution of a person or a thing
  • coming into existence, formation

Looking at the list, it is possible to see how it comes to relate to the elements of a story’s structure, but this takes some work. To plot a story, we can deduce, is to bring together its most important elements so as to make visible the story’s lesson for the spectator. This, in fact, was theatre’s reason for existence. Theatre, the seeing place, the site where foundational lessons were plotted for use in the contemporary polis.

When we search for σύστασις in the Loeb Classical Library, we find again that the topic of literature is by no means the primary home for the word. In Aristotle’s other works, for instance, we find the following:

  • Parva Naturalia. On Respiration: refers to “the constitution of the animal” and the “constitution of the organ,” meaning the way the working parts of an animal or vital organ are put together
  • Meterologica: he speaks of the “formation” of a halo around the sun or moon; the “composition” of fiery, meteoric phenomena; the “collection” of vapor that forms morning dew; the “consistency” of a cloud.
  • Generation of Animals: a reference to the substance “constituting” menstrual fluid; the “generation” of plants; the “composition” of the human body; etc.
  • On the Heavens: the “coming together” of the parts of a human or of the world

As these examples suggest, the word that becomes “plot” in the Poetics surfaces in other works given over more to what we would call today the physical sciences. Likewise, it shows up in a similar usage in Galen’s On the Constitution of the Art of Medicine, Theophrastus’ On Odours, Plutarch’s consideration of the face that appears on the surface of the moon, and many other works. Is it at all strange, then, that Aristotle uses the word in ΠΕΡΙ ΠΟΙΗΤΙΚΗΣ, On Poetics, his discussion of the art of making tragedies? That he not only uses the word systasis but that he identifies it as the most important element of this art?

No, not when we consider how Aristotle’s disposition allowed him to look upon the art of making tragedy with the same eyes as he looked at the composition of animals. Aristotle was, after all, a man for whom the interplay of parts and whole, genus and species, was of the utmost importance. His concern with the “coming together of parts” so as to tell a story, therefore, makes sense. Likewise, his other keyword “catharsis” frequently carried the medical sense of “purging,” which was transferred to the work of tragedy: tragedy purged society of its pity and fear. Systasis and catharsis show how theatre, medicine, physics, and philosophy were all intertwined in Ancient Greece.

In my consideration here, the emphasis placed on “plot” by Aristotle deserves our attention because it shifts our thinking from the emphasis on “what” is being told to “how” it is being told. It also drags us out of the story and places us in a perspective from which we can view the making of the story. Both of these shifts are crucially important because they help us remember that we are makers. If we fall into the story and forget about the outside (i.e., the other people and animals and plants and objects and things that make the world), then we become players in someone else’s plot.

The “what” of a theatrical piece is the material, the “how” is the totality of decisions made by the artistic team to help an audience grapple with the material of a given show. In terms of our “stories,” the biography we write with our daily living, we tend to place a lot of importance on the “what,” on the material aspects of our life. On social media, many stories seek to show this material in a good light to anyone who wants to look. But the “how” of our story, the way we compose ourselves over time, is something much harder to showcase. This “how” isn’t visible in a snapshot or even a string of images over a short span of time. Speaking philosophically, the grand “How” comes together in its full form only once the story is over, that is, only once our life has been lived.

So what do we do about this? How do we shift from story to plot? The answer lies in ποίησις, the making, the construction of the story. We cause a disturbance in the society of the spectacle when we reveal how stories are made. This is the shift from History (the story of the past) to historiographies (the writings of these stories). Emphasize the way you make yourself. Show how you put your pieces together. Doing this forces us outside of the stories we tend to tell ourselves (repeatedly) about ourselves and challenges us to put things together differently.


Will Daddario is the author of Baroque, Venice, Theatre, Philosophy. His current scholarly project is a book-length study of Jay Wright’s poetry, philosophy, and dramatic literature, co-authored with Matthew Goulish. In the realm of academia, he is currently most active as a member of the Performance Philosophy network (performancephilosophy.org) where he co-edits the Performance Philosophy journal and the Book Series.


We learn of a warp in time-space, one that actually occurred here on Earth, from Gertrude Stein who, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1932), reflects on the portrait of her painted by Pablo Picasso. It was some time around 1905-1906, Picasso was between periods and thus experimenting with different visions. He had never done a portrait, a fact that might explain why he required ninety sittings from Stein in order to complete it. So much work went into it, so much thought. Upon its unveiling, however, commentators pointed out that the portrait lacked the one element so crucial to the genre. It didn’t look like her. Or, rather, Stein didn’t look like it. Either way, Stein’s representation in oil didn’t represented Stein in the flesh didn’t represent Stein in oil. To this, Picasso famously replied, “She will,” meaning that at some point in the future, Stein would live up to the representation. And sure enough, as time passed, Stein seemingly lived into her artistic representation, growing in appearance more and more like her painting, thereby revealing Picasso’s ability to chart matter’s unfolding through time and space as well as how an art object can act as a foreshock to the future.[1]

As a theatre and performance scholar struggling to make sense of the recent turbulence of the election, I have been asking myself: Is there an analogue in theatre history to this event of painting, one that prefigures our recent election cycle and outcome and acts similarly as a foreshock to the future in which we now dwell? Simon Critchley’s recent post in The Stone about the renewed importance of Existentialist nausea goads my thought, too, though I would like to emphasize here not a philosophical paradigm as such but rather a theatrical-philosophical one.

The foreshock that first comes to mind is The Chairs (1952) by Eugène Ionesco. In this play, now a canonical title belonging to what Martin Esslin named Theatre of the Absurd, we find two characters of greatly advanced age struggling, in essence, to make their lives great again. Dialogue, if we can call it that, drenched in memories, perhaps misremembered recollections, oscillates from semi-sensical to nonsensical and back again, slowly rendering a fuzzy image of the two characters’ present situation. The Old Man, we discover, has something of major import to tell us. He has worked his whole life to express this majorly important insight about the world in which he lives, but he does not have the language to do it. To get the message across, the Old Man has enlisted the help of an Orator who, the Old Man assures us, will convey the full thrust of The Message.

In anticipation and celebration of the Orator’s address, the old couple throws a party. As the play progresses, Ionesco gradually ratchets-up an odd feeling of dis-ease and eventually reveals to the play’s audience that each party guest, while bearing a name and a clear social function, is invisible. One by one, the old couple welcomes these invisible people into their living space. A separate chair marks each guest. It is unclear whether they, the characters, can see these invisible entities or whether they are engaged in some kind of willing suspension of disbelief themselves, a kind of selective dementia. Regardless of the true ontic status of these invisible characters, the frenzy of anticipation grows until the play almost combusts in a conflagration of fragmented speech and hurried movement. The stage, once empty, fills with chairs. The Old Man and Old Woman are moving so quickly that we have either to doubt their age—listed as 95 and 94 in the text—or accept that the vitality of the moment has enthused them.

The Orator finally arrives, and after a suitably grand introduction delivers The Message. But, once again, Ionesco constructs the logic of this moment with his signature strangeness. The Orator speaks in discernable sounds, but not in familiar speech. We learn in the text that he is a “deaf mute,” and thus his message, the oh-so important message hyped throughout the play, is incommunicable and unintelligible. Even when the Orator determines to write The Message on a blackboard, thereby overcoming the problem of the spoken word, the audience, both on and off stage, receives the following: ANGELFOOD […] NNAA NNM NWNWNW V. And so The Message does not land, it cannot land since it seems to have no content. Yet, with renewed vigor, the Orator erases the board and seems to conceive of a remedy: ∧ADIEU ∧DIEU ∧P∧. There’s The Message all worked out. Can’t you see it?

Can we not imagine Trump, Clinton, or Sanders as the contemporary embodiment of the Orator? Enlisted to put into words the message of many disgruntled and uncomfortable citizens of the United States, the message we eventually receive from them is in fact a string of sounds and symbols that have no real import beyond the readymade intelligibility that each sound and symbol may carry for acolytes and those initiated in each politician’s way. As with the Orator’s message, we might ask whether the messages of these politicians lack sense intrinsically or whether some of us lack the reservoir of knowledge to understand the all-important utterance? That Trump won means only that there were more members of the Electoral College who seemed to understand his ∧ADIEU ∧DIEU ∧P∧.

In The Chairs, once the confusion of the message begins to register with the audience—Like, oh, this is it? This is what we’ve been waiting for?—we in the house seats start to re-appraise the character of the Orator. Is he a normal character? Is not something a little bit off about him? Is he indeed a deaf mute (as the text suggests), or is he playing one, perhaps even mocking one? Have we perhaps, because of his title of Orator, overlooked something beneath his appearance? The fact of the matter is that we do not have, nor will we ever receive, answers to these questions. Ionesco, in his stage directions, tells us that the Orator seems displeased with the way his message has landed, but the audio track that slowly rises onstage—“bursts of laughter, murmurs, shh’s, ironical coughs”—suggests that some of the invisible people have understood something. Maybe the Orator’s appearance of displeasure is something else altogether, a kind of body language decipherable only to those who speak his language. After all, before he exits the stage he “bows ceremoniously,” as if he has done what he was summoned to do. When the play ends, a lot has just happened, but what precisely are we to make of any of it?

Back to the present day similarities: The Old Couple foreshadows the electorate. Old and young at the same time, they are equipped with vivid memories but also ample disillusionment, i.e., memories of a past that never existed, able to recognize the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, but simply unable to speak it for themselves. Due to this inability, they require a spokesperson, a surrogate, a representative to drive the message home in precisely the right terms, i.e., terms that make sense to them.

Even the scenography of the piece, which Ionesco draws out in great detail on the first few pages of the script, eerily resembles the floor of a Parliament or legislature: a semi-circular configuration of chairs facing a raised dais with a discernible left side and right side. Are the characters of the play gathered in a political arena that has been evacuated of its use and now functions as a party venue?

While not a completely verisimilar replica of the current political situation, The Chairs nonetheless predicts the confusion, the miscommunication, the enthusiasm paired with despair, and the general out-of-tune-ness of the state in which many now find themselves. A message has been delivered, but can anybody say what precisely that message is. ∧ADIEU ∧DIEU ∧P∧, indeed.

Looking back to the precursors of Ionesco’s brand of theatre, I find another intriguing foreshock: Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921). Midway through that play’s action, which itself consists of a rehearsal of a play preparing for its grand opening, the doors in the back of the auditorium open. Through the very same doors through which the audience will have entered comes an ensemble of characters that, so we are told, are searching for their author. At this moment, “real-life” audience and “fictional” stage actors are united in an uncanny experience that hinges on a seemingly impossible reversal of cause and effect: before an author has created them, a cast of characters wanders the earth. Struggling with this twist of temporality, the six characters plead with the actors to put their story into action.

All of this happens within the framework of a play-within-a-play, what Lionel Abel eventually terms metatheatre. The result of this upon the “real” audience watching the play was profound in its day. Audience members shouted in disbelief: Manicomio! (Madhouse!) Incommensurabile! (Incommensurable!).[2] The uncommon event transpiring within the theatre eventually ends tragically, due in part to an inability between the actors and the six characters to determine the precise mode of realism needed to bring the characters to life, in part to the fact that causality has been broken, and in part to the actors’ inability to properly author the ciphers who appeared before them. The characters are indeed ciphers, placeholders with relatively common dimensions—denoted by names such as “Father” and “Daughter”—waiting to be filled out, but the filling out does not transpire properly and thus tragedy befalls the lot of them. Many of the six characters “die” at the end, but the Director of the “real” show is unsure whether it matters. After all, they weren’t real people were they?

In this foreshock, our recent presidential hopefuls corresponded to Pirandello’s characters. We, the electorate, are going about the dramas of our daily lives when there appears a group of characters claiming to need our support in order to bring their visions to fruition. Clinton is the archetypal matriarch, Trump the dominating and witheringly masculine patriarch, Sanders the son (who, in Pirandello’s play hates the family because they have ostracized him). We, the electorate, are told that without us the power of these characters cannot come into being. We are needed to author the promise of each character. Without us, these characters are empty placeholders, Zeroes, but when we do our best to play our parts we find that the joke is on (half of) us. We act through our vote only to discover that the majority of the voting population hasn’t accomplished anything real at all. The votes counted and didn’t count in the end. Were they fictional votes? Does it really matter?

The point I’d like to make here with these strange resonances between absurdist plays and our recent election cycle is this: history is not repeating itself as either tragedy or farce; it is, rather, fulfilling its identity as the theatre of the absurd. Therefore, the present reality is not absurd in its own right, but is instead theatre of the absurd. We are experiencing another stage in the evolution of the Theatre of the World. Maybe this is the most important aspect of Absurdism that scholars like Esslin have overlooked; namely, that, despite its clear relationship to the climate of the times (post-WWII), the theatre of Ionesco and his contemporaries actually conjured a vision of a future, a future that has revealed itself to be the present in which we live. We have, in other words, finally grown into the misery of the world portended by the Absurdists over half-a-century ago.

Faced with this possibility, what we need today is a team of theatre and performance scholars to investigate this current theatre in which we all find ourselves. To do this, the team could break down the theatre into its constituent parts. For example: language. Is it too much of an exaggeration to say that an orangutan testing the depths of a pool blocking its path is more adept with its tool than any of the presidential contenders were with the tool of language?[3] Transcripts from stump speeches prove clearly that not only did language fail to communicate specific messages to the gathered audiences but also that language consistently failed to rise to the level of meaning at all.

Of course, Trump’s are the most amenable to my argument, as this excerpt from a rally in South Carolina on July 21, 2015, proves:

Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, okay, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, okay, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a conservative Republican they try — oh, do they do a number — that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are […][4]

Where Clinton’s language is concerned, the problem is not outright grammar-less nonsense but, rather, vagueness and empty talk. In her speech for the acceptance of the Democratic Party’s nomination, for example, we heard, “Now we are clear-eyed about what our country is up against. But we are not afraid. We will rise to the challenge, just as we always have.” And then we heard about building a road to citizenship (how?), fixing inequality and social mobility (in what way?), creating better jobs (in what fields?), that climate change is real (…duh?), and other broad-sweeping claims that people in the room with her already believed. What, though, was the main message of her campaign? There wasn’t one. There wasn’t one, and so her speeches could at best aim not to set an agenda but, rather, to accomplish everything that liberals want and to do it all well. This vagueness and lack of message may in fact explain why Clinton polled at 47% for nearly the entirety of her campaign. No message = no change in polls because there’s no new information into which swing voters might tune. (I’d need another 4000 words to discuss the language and logic of polls.)

As was the case in the plays of Ionesco, language did not function in the campaign as a tool to convey meaning but, rather, as a tool to produce not-fully-understood affective responses. With the dog-whistle politics of Trump and the vapid sloganeering of Clinton’s talk, the electorate was left with sound and fury, nothing more. The candidates stripped language down to basic sounds with indeterminate meaning and a hint of recognizable vitriol. In terms of reception, the negatively polarized electorate heard only what it already believed to be true. Like high school fans catching the Fab 4 in concert during the height of Beatlemania, whose screaming drowned out the sound and lyrics of the musicians, the role of the polarized electorate was never to listen to speeches and be convinced of something new. No, the role allowed individuals to cheer and believe that their candidate was saying what they believe he/she has said in the past and what they already fervently believed in before the election cycle even started. Such a breakdown in language’s traditional function as meaning-maker, communication facilitator, or, God forbid, medium of reason, means that we have no hope of applying Aristotle’s tried and true ethos, pathos, logos analytical scheme to the campaign rhetoric. Trump: all pathos (fear), no ethos, no logos. Clinton: all logos (neoliberal), no pathos, no ethos. When we look back on all the transcripts and search for meaning in the words, do we really find anything more “meaningful” than the words uttered by the Old Man and Old Woman in The Chairs?

George Saunders was well aware of this problem when it sprouted a particularly pungent blossom several years ago in the form of Sarah Palin. His essay for the New Yorker, “My Gal” plays with this new de-tooled language. Here are the first two paragraphs in case you missed it:

Explaining how she felt when John McCain offered her the Vice-Presidential spot, my Vice-Presidential candidate, Governor Sarah Palin, said something very profound: “I answered him ‘Yes’ because I have the confidence in that readiness and knowing that you can’t blink, you have to be wired in a way of being so committed to the mission, the mission that we’re on, reform of this country and victory in the war, you can’t blink. So I didn’t blink then even when asked to run as his running mate.”

Isn’t that so true? I know that many times, in my life, while living it, someone would come up and, because of I had good readiness, in terms of how I was wired, when they asked that—whatever they asked—I would just not blink, because, knowing that, if I did blink, or even wink, that is weakness, therefore you can’t, you just don’t. You could, but no—you aren’t.

Saunders went wild over the fact that the key of each Palin sentence, that which was supposed to unlock the hermetic meaning in each convoluted expression, was never tendered. And this way of speaking (strategy?) was somewhat brilliant because it compelled listeners to keep listening for the moment when the idea landed. But it never landed.

If we can compare Palin’s wandering talk with Trump’s nonsense, then we can also compare the empty sloganeering of the McCain/Palin ticket with that of the Clinton/Kaine ticket. Saunders also helps us here as he walks through the 2008 Republican banner slogan:

Now, let’s talk about slogans. Ours is: Country First. Think about it. When you think of what should come first, what does? Us ourselves? No. That would be selfish. Our personal families? Selfish. God? God is good, I love Him, but, as our slogan suggests, no, sorry, God, You are not First. No, you don’t, Lord! How about: the common good of all mankind! Is that First? Don’t make me laugh with your weak blinking! No! Mercy is not First and wisdom is not First and love is super but way near the back, and ditto with patience and discernment and compassion and all that happy crap, they are all back behind Country, in the back of my S.U.V. […]

Given his interest/fear in the unmooring of language in 2008, it is no surprise that Saunders turned up again in the eye of the Trump storm, this time not to accost through wit but to understand who exactly these Trump supporters are. He attended Trump rallies, admitting to those he met that he himself was once an avid reader of Ayn Rand and a registered Republican who voted for Reagan. Bonding in this way seemed to give him access to interviews with the Trump supporters gathered there, such as this woman:

I ask her what, in terms of her day-to-day life, she thinks is wrong with America.

“I don’t like people shoving Obamacare down my throat, O.K.?” she says. “And then getting penalized if I don’t have insurance.”

Is she covered through Obamacare?

No. She has insurance through her work, thank God, but “every day my rights are being taken away from me, you know?” she says. “I mean—this is America. In the U.S., we have a lot of freedoms and things like that, but we’re not going to have all that if we have all these people coming in, that are taking our—”

What is on display here if not the same antilogic (illogic? ill-logic?) that subtends the ever-weakening rationality of the masses in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (1959)? In that play, Ionesco weaves a discussion between the Logician and the Old Gentleman about syllogisms that functions something like background music to the primary dialogue unfolding between the play’s lead characters:

Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Here is an example of a syllogism. The cat has four paws. Isidore and Fricot both have four paws. Therefore Isidore and Fricot are cats.

Old Gentleman: [to the Logician] My dog has got four paws.

Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Then it’s a cat.


Old Gentleman: [to the Logician, after deep reflection] So then logically speaking, my dog must be a cat?

Logician: [to the Old Gentleman] Logically, yes. But the contrary is also true.

This lesson builds to a more complex example of two cats and the number of their paws. Instigated by the Logician’s question, “If you take six paws from the two cats, how many paws are left to each cat?” the Old Gentleman delivers a wide range of answers before stumbling into the category of the unnatural: one cat with five paws, a cat with one paw, a cat with six paws or with no paws at all—all logically possible. These possibilities lead to further possibilities of some cats with special privileges (those with paws) and some cats without privileges (those with no paws). Here the Logician fuses the path of Logic with that of Justice and declares: “Logic means Justice.” But Ionesco undercuts this statement with the sound of a rhinoceros, thereby suggesting that some bestial thinking undergirds the logician’s seemingly scientific rationality. Saunders seems to have discovered a similar (il)logicality in the thinking of Trump supporters, one that aligns with their (in)justice. Violence lurks beneath this irrational rationality.

So we find ourselves now, after the election, cast within the theatre of the absurd. If language has acquired an Ionesco-like ambivalence and malleability, one of our jobs moving forward must be to understand how this theatrical language works, how it is put to use, and what worlds it is capable of making. But theatre and performance scholars should also rush in to assess other constituent parts of this theater: the embodied knowledge of protesters, for example, and the scenography of violent police shootings, and the mis en scène set by those who claim to be directors of the national interest. In short, what we need now is a dramaturgy of this theatre of the absurd, perhaps one armed with a solid background in Wittgenstein and the notion of language games.

Another foreshock, the last I’ll mention, occurred prior to my writing of this essay. Two days before the election I randomly pulled F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Crack Up” off my bookshelf. In that story, the narrator (who seems to be a surrogate of Fitzgerald himself) tells us that the mark of true intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in one’s head. For example, and to stay in the key of the Absurdists, that I can’t possibly go on and I must go on. The narrator who says this with such certainty, however, also vouchsafes to his reader the fact that he himself is slowly going crazy, slowly cracking up. To practice true intelligence is to risk insanity. The primary opposition in the story, the one that will fuse disjunctively into a profound realization of self and world, comes from the confrontation between the narrator and the narrator’s wife (who resembles Zelda). During a bitter argument, the former explains his belief that his crack is interior to himself and thus he himself bears the responsibility of fixing it (or ignoring it altogether with alcohol), while the latter works from the opposite belief that the crack is outside. “The crack is in the Grand Canyon!” she yells. The story ends abruptly, without resolve, and so leave us with questions. Are we to follow the internal crack-up into our own individual depths, thereby pushing our sanity to the brink no matter how dangerous that may be, or do the cracks of the natural and social words impinge on our sanity to such a degree that our job is to map those forces and explore them like an intrepid scout?

With so many cracks showing now in the aftermath of the election, which path are we to follow? “Of course all life is a process of breaking down,” Fitzgerald tells us, and so we see the cracking of language all around us. But the inevitability of breaking down, either through internal cracks or by external blows, does not preclude an attitude of good humor and sharp wit. Indeed, it is precisely now, with the help of our life dramaturgs, that we may find a new dimension to language altogether, one that frees us from the paradigms of right/left, black/white, 99%/1%, and produces instead a new cosmology.

[1] http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/47.106/

[2] https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Six_Characters_in_Search_of_an_Author

[3] Take your pick: http://ow.ly/AoVf3069nZr

[4] http://www.vox.com/2016/8/18/12423688/donald-trump-speech-style-explained-by-linguists


While reading The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears[1] by Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green, I found a footnote to the historic Know Nothing party of the mid-nineteenth century ensconced in a passage about the institutional history of U.S. slavery. The name of the party rang a bell in my memory, but I couldn’t come up with any particulars so I looked into it. After a few minutes of online research, I found myself wondering at the repetition of history, especially Marx’s (oft-cited) famous addendum, “…first as tragedy, then as farce.” Is not Donald Trump the new, more farcical version of John Bell who ran for president on the Know Nothing ticket in 1859, or, perhaps more accurately, the new Henry J. Gardner who became Massachusetts’s Know Nothing governor in 1854? What started off as a historical retracing of one trail of tears soon led to the recognition of another equally troubling road.

Several news outlets have posted articles and op-eds about the similarities between Trump, the current GOP, and the Know Nothings of the 1850s (see notes below and links/footnotes along the way). Such similarities include an overt racist-nationalist platform of exclusion, a party membership of mostly working class white men seeking personal economic improvement, and an honest (if not also ironic) embrace of ignorance (“I Know Nothing!”) as the party’s shibboleth. Indeed, the link between Trump and Gardner emerges from research into these similarities, specifically in the fact that, despite the party’s working class base, the eventual Massachusetts governor was a wool merchant who improved upon his already-considerable wealth thanks to his elite family’s connections. Like Trump, Gardner seemed to have had little in common with his constituents’ economic identities and needs.

My own addition to these publications comes in the form of a connection between Trump, the Know Nothings (past and present, official party members and merely like-minded), and that which Michel Foucault dubbed the “Ubus” of power. In the early lectures of the 1974-1975 academic year now published as Abnormal, Foucault links specific historical political leaders with the protagonist in Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. What allows this link is Foucault’s observation of “the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of its rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited” (13). Nero and Hitler, for example, populate what Jana Sawicki calls this “tradition of vile and buffoonish sovereigns.”[2] Hesitant to facilitate any overly simplistic connections between Trump and Hitler, thereby allowing dialogue and debate to dissolve into platitudes, I do support adding Trump to Foucault’s category of Ubu Rulers. We are witnessing not only the farcical (and, therefore, post-tragic) return of the Know Nothings today but also an index of the racist-nationalist conditions that allow such Ubus to take center stage in the U.S. theatre of politics.

Sawicki underscores a similar point in her speculation on the whereabouts of Ubu-power’s many residences: “Perhaps it also resides in a lack of critical reflection on the historical conditions in which such forms of authority arose.” Indeed, when Foucault, in his 1978 essay “What is Enlightenment?” ends by calling for a “critical ontology of ourselves,” which amounts to a historiography of the present, he is asking us all to refuse Ubu government:

The critical ontology of ourselves has to be considered not, certainly, as a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.[3]

The only chance we have of out-maneuvering the vile buffoonery of the persona known as “Trump” is to create a series of conditions that excoriates pride in ignorance, the likes of which we see not only in the mass of Trumpeteers but also in the belligerent leftist supporters who instigate violence at Trump rallies. As the perspicacious George Saunders has recently outlined in The New Yorker,[4] the true damage of the current political fracas has become visible not as a divisive and sickeningly facile binary opposition between Right and Left ideologies but, rather, as a perpetuation of willful ignorance that keeps the U.S. electorate from participating in meaningful conversations dedicated to the nuanced weave of our country’s political fabric.

To my mind, the disaster that has given rise to the resurgence of Know-Nothing-ness is the evacuation of (yes, I’ll say it and mean it) critical thinking from the halls of Secondary and Higher Education. Given Foucault’s astute reference to Jarry’s theatricality, and my own predilection for performance theory and theatre historiography, I am confident that theatre education (both theory and practice) can thrive as a system capable of performing a critical ontology of ourselves, particularly through its recourse to the study of theatricality in everyday life and the performativity of language. Conversely, however, I am fearful that the ossification of theatre and performance studies in higher education, not to mention the almost complete absence of a fine-arts based critical vocabulary in primary and secondary education, can aid in the momentum of the Know Nothings. Without a self-reflexive and philosophical appraisal of the politics of representation, theatre can easily devolve into thoroughly commodified spectacle, and from there spectacle can be freed up to celebrate the Ubus of the world.

With the highly theatrical and absurd conventions of both the Democratic and Republican parties coming up, I urge us to attend to the conditions that make specific statements possible, to the representational practices that manufacture instrumental visibility, and to the everyday silences that create moral vacuums.

[Other notes]

From Encyclopedia Britannica online

“When Congress assembled on Dec. 3, 1855, 43 representatives were avowed members of the Know-Nothing party.”[5]

  • “The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by the U.S. Congress on May 30, 1854. It allowed people in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. The Act served to repeal the Missouri Compromise of 1820 which prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30´.”[6]

“In 1849 the secret Order of the Star-Spangled Banner formed in New York City, and soon after lodges formed in nearly every other major American city. Members, when asked about their nativist organizations, were supposed to reply that they knew nothing, hence the name. As its membership and importance grew in the 1850s, the group slowly shed its clandestine character and took the official name American Party.”

“the American Party fell apart after 1856. Antislavery Know-Nothings joined the Republican Party, while Southern members flocked to the proslavery banner still held aloft by the Democratic Party. By 1859 the American Party’s strength was largely confined to the border states. In 1860 remnants of the Know-Nothings joined old-line Whigs to form the Constitutional Union Party and nominated John Bell of Tennessee for president.”

  • On Bell (from Wikipedia):[7]
    • “Planter,” or plantation owner; “Although a slaveowner, Bell was one of the few southern politicians to oppose the expansion of slavery in the 1850s…”
    • “During his 1860 presidential campaign, he argued that secession was unnecessary since the Constitution protected slavery, an argument which resonated with voters in border states, helping him capture the electoral votes of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia.”
    • Speaker of the House (1834–1835)
    • “briefly served as Secretary of War during the administration of William Henry Harrison (1841)”

“Two other groups that took the name American Party appeared in the 1870s and ’80s. One of these, organized in California in 1886, proposed a briefly popular platform calling mainly for the exclusion of Chinese and other Asians from industrial employment.”

From Ashefield Historical Society

“Although the Know-Nothing party or the American Party was a national political organization, it was strongest in Massachusetts. This party was based on nativistic beliefs and its members were native born male Protestants who were opposed to immigrants being able to vote or hold political office.”[8]

“One of the most influential party members was Henry J. Gardner who was elected as the Commonwealth’s Governor in 1854. Most of the party’s members were from the working class and wished for many reforms that would affect their lives. Gardner, however, was a wealthy wool merchant and a member of the so-called Boston Brahmins (a small elite group of families who were extremely wealthy and well-educated).”

  • Trump parallel??!

From Op-Ed in Baltimore Sun from July 13, 2016


“Eric Heavner taught political science at Towson University for 10 years and now works for a Baltimore real estate developer.”

  • …indeed…

“Perhaps Mr. Trump will skip the convention and go it alone. Such a move would appeal to Mr. Trump’s love of sensationalism, and it would it not be unprecedented. Teddy Roosevelt, for example, broke away from the Republican Party to run for president under the Bull Moose Party banner in 1912, and Strom Thurmond bolted from the Democratic Party to run as a Dixiecrat in 1948.”

“Despite the years that separate Mr. Trump and the Know-Nothing Party, they have much in common. […] their message is virtually the same: Immigrants take away jobs from true Americans and threaten the American way of life. There are other similarities. The Know-Nothings’ were anti-Catholic. Mr. Trump is anti-Muslim. The know-Nothings believed only native-born Americans should be allowed to vote and hold public office. Mr. Trump played the native-born American card by questioning President Obama’s birthplace.”

From HuffPo’s “The GOP: The New Know Nothing Part?”

January 18, 2016


John W. Traphagan, Professor of Religious Studies and Human Dimensions of Organizations, University of Texas, Austin

Conclusion: “When we look at the GOP of 2016, it seems very much as though we are witnessing a new version of the Know Nothings of the 1850s. One can only hope that this time it is equally short-lived.”


[1] http://www.penguin.com/book/the-cherokee-nation-and-the-trail-of-tears-by-theda-perdue-and-michael-d-green/9780143113676

[2] http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/23977-abnormal-lectures-at-the-college-de-france-1974-1975/

[3] http://philosophy.eserver.org/foucault/what-is-enlightenment.html

[4] http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/07/11/george-saunders-goes-to-trump-rallies

[5] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Know-Nothing-party

[6] http://www.historyplace.com/lincoln/kansas.htm

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bell_(Tennessee_politician)

[8] http://www.ashfieldhistorical.org/nothing.htm

{ 1 comment }

“The photograph of Aylan Kurdi [http://media.breitbart.com/media/2015/09/ap_ap-photo219-640×497.jpg], the Syrian child from Kobane whose body washed up on a Turkish beach, has sparked a “light bulb moment” in the heads and hearts of European public and policymakers alike – forcing both significant debate and new policy towards the refugee crisis.”

-James Denselow, Al Jazeera English 8 Sept. 2015 http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2015/09/europe-light-bulb-moment-150907115044435.html

What is a light bulb moment?

In David Grieg’s eerily prescient play Europe (1994), the cast of characters assemble as a chorus at the beginning of each act (Scenes 2 and 9, to be specific)—each actor identified in the script as a number, not as a named character—and offer descriptions of the play’s time and place to the audience:

1 Ours is a small town on the border, at various times on this side,

2 and,

3 at various times,

2 on the other,

1 but always

1,2,3 on the border.

4 We’re famous for our soup,

5 for our factory which makes lightbulbs

1 and for being on the border.

These manufacturers of soup and light live in a town that, like a rock in the sea, has been washed over by the ebb and flow of warring armies, political and economic interests, and, soon, inevitably, tourists. The identity of the town has been rubbed off. The text hints at the erasure of the town and its people even before the characters speak: “Setting: A small decaying provincial town in Europe. Autumn.” Unlike Autumn, however, a natural and recurring event, or for that matter a rock smoothed into sand by the sea, the decay and erosion of this unnamed European border town results from man-made causes.

I am not sure why Grieg chooses soup and lightbulbs, except that, by doing so, perhaps he offers a spectrum of use-values. Soup to sustain the body. Light to protect the body from darkness. Together, soup and light to nourish the soul and the intellect. Regardless of the meaning, I am confident that Grieg offered a synecdoche of 1994 Europe in his depiction of this small decaying town and by doing so should have sparked a “light bulb moment” to ward off the darkness of racism and economic exploitation that was, at that time, mounting.

The play comments on numerous issues through Grieg multi-layered dramaturgical style. One worth mentioning here is the connection between monetary (in)stability (perhaps thinking of the coming Euro currency) and the hocus-pocus of money changing. The character Morocco, a man who has discovered how to make a living through his mastery of the magic of trade, lays the situation bare:

Morocco         This is what the border is. See…?

Berlin             What?

Morocco         A magic money line. See. You pass something across it and it’s suddenly worth more. Pass it across again and now it’s cheaper. More…less…less…more…fags, drink, jobs, cars…less is more, more or less…see? Magic money just for crossing a magic line. I’m not a smuggler, I’m a magician, an illusionist. There’s no crime in that.


Morocco         I swear to God it’s a conjuring trick. Swear to God. Give me a dollar…abracadabra…I give you roubles back…give me some roubles…come on…give…hey presto…Deutschmarks. It’s all imaginary…none of it’s real, none. You just have to think up the trick…it’s easy.

Looking for contemporary resonance? If we shift our attention to Greece and the never-ending discussion of bailouts, I think we’ll be able to return to Grieg’s play and discern the satire in Morocco’s character. But Berlin, the character with whom Morocco shares his secrets, does not find anything amusing. Berlin—a name laden with historical significance—seems to prove Dan Rebellato’s statement in Theatre & Globalization: “The geographical boundaries of a country are often the arbitrary sediment of centuries of historical processes. Yet they can take on symbolic importance in the national imagination and any penetration of these boundaries, real or imagined, can cause a convulsion of national feeling” (xvi). For Morocco, who no longer pledges any allegiance to the small town where he and Berlin grew up, the border is porous. For Berlin, this porosity and Morocco’s carefree jaunts back and forth through the pores, such a situation amounts to an attack on his way of life.

These two causes in particular bring tragedy to Fret, the local station agent, and his daughter Adele: economic destabilization at the cusp of Europe’s transformation into the European Union and rage; rage focused at the flood of immigrants coming into the town by locals Berlin, Horse, and Billy who believe immigrants—whom they refer to as Flying Boat People—will take their jobs and their money. Again, this twenty-year-old play starts to sound familiar. Grieg managed to capture not only the social, political, and economic forces that contributed to Europe’s internal fracturing in 1994 but also the human habits that ensure the repetition of history. (Consider and consult the following links:




Economic decline shows itself in the play’s setting, a train station that Grieg describes as “a forgotten place [that] bears witness to the past century’s methods of government.” The rage of the townspeople amplifies upon news of the station’s closing, the announcement of layoffs at the light bulb factory, and the arrival of Sava and Katia, a father and daughter who are escaping an unnamed war-torn landscape. For Sava and Katia, the train station acts as a threshold between an old life of violence and uncertainty, to one side, and a new life of stability and hope, to the other. The townspeople, however, see the same train station, which becomes a makeshift immigrant camp for the two refugees, as the threshold between the old Europe that brought them economic stability and the new Europe that makes no promises at all.

Due to their different ages, Sava and Katia have different expectations about the Europe of the north to which they are fleeing. Grieg crafts the viewpoints of all his characters into a kaleidoscopic view of 1994 Europe. In particular, though, Sava’s and Katia’s perspective from the bottom, as it were, offer his European (at first English and Scottish) audience members a vivid portrait of the violence waging just to the south as well as the myth of Northern European Enlightenment that supposedly keeps the north safe.

Sava    […] Katia, we’re not in some savage country on the other side of the world. Look around you, look at the architecture. Listen to the sounds from the street. You can smell the forest. We’re a long way from home but we’re still in Europe. We’ll be looked after. Our situation will be understood.

Katia  Europe. Snipers on the roofs, mortars in the suburbs, and you said: ‘This is Europe…we must stay in Europe.’ So we stayed, even after the food ran out: ‘This is Europe.’ When the hospitals were left with nothing but alcohol and dirty bandages. I warned you and you still said: ‘This is Europe. Honesty will prevail, sense will win, this war is an aberration…a tear in the fabric. In time it’ll be sewn up again and things will look as good as new.’

Things, however, do not begin to improve for the two immigrants or for Fret and Adele who would like to help them. Berlin and Horse conspire to enact revenge against these boat people who will surely take their jobs and steal their way of life. Fueled by hate and ignorance, the two characters eventually set the train station ablaze. Grieg dramatizes this action by having Berlin narrate the events to the audience:

Berlin On the news the fireman said the station was a tinderbox. He said it was criminal. Criminal that it could have been left in that condition. They didn’t have a chance he said. No one stood a chance in that place. Criminal.


At first we just saw the light inside. Just an orange glow inside and then some smore. It was a clear night so we could see the smoke rising. Even from that distance we could feel it warm. AMAZING. (He holds out the back of his hand.)

Katia and Adele manage to make it out. They escape on a train for destinations unknown before the bombing occurs. Fret and Sava do not escape. The darkness of the scene culminates in the final words, which Grieg decides to give to Berlin: “They know that, in our own way, we’re also Europe.”

That is to say, “we,” the good and the bad, the left and the right, the center and the margins, the awake and the sleeping, the hopeful and the hopeless, the terrorists and the terrorized, we’re all Europe. If this play, written 20 years ago, didn’t have the power to enact lasting change for the minorities of Europe or to prevent the public from being duped about the sleight-of-hand economics of the European Union, it is hard to imagine that an image of a dead child on a beach will make an impact now. The “light bulb moment” alluded to by the Al Jazeera journalist may only be a flash, more like the final moments of the forgotten light bulb factory in Europe than an enduring Enlightenment.



The immortality of Foucault’s thought makes yet another mark on English-language scholarship with the arrival of the most recent edition of his lectures. Under the Nietzsche-inspired title, “Lectures on the Will to Know,” this publication offers Foucault’s first annual lecture to the Collège de France, 1970-71. For those of you familiar with the impressive dynamism of Michel Foucault’s life work—much of which exists in English translation thanks to dedicated translators such as Graham Burchell, A. M. Sheridan Smith, Lysa Hochroth, and Catherine Porter, and to editors such as Paul Rabinow, James D. Faubion, Arnold I. Davidson, and, of course, Daniel Defert—you already know that any simple application of this French thinker’s work, or any single use to which you may put his thought, misses the mark. That is, despite the tendency for theatre and performance scholars to poach theories and concepts from other fields, Foucault’s ideas offer so much more than a one-off frame for a study of, say, disciplined bodies, or an easy citation for further reading into the paradoxes of Victorian culture. Foucault, the name and the body of work associated with it, constitutes a mode of thinking, a tactical map for grappling with the discontinuities of history. If you dive head deep into this particular body of work, as I did about nine years ago, then you might experience the wonderful sensation of discovering the art of thinking that Foucault honed over the course of a lifetime which was, in a certain sense, cut short with his early death in 1984; in another sense, however, the art of thinking he developed lives on in his work and can never die.

Now, here’s a bit of information that will offer you a glimpse of how important Foucault’s work is to me and, more importantly, how excited it makes me. I visit the Palgrave-Macmillan website regularly (like, once a month) to check on the process of the upcoming publications from this lecture series. Once I see that a book is ready for publication, I order it in advance from Amazon, and I do this so that I might forget about it, and then, one day, a box arrives at my house or my office (I switch it up) and I get a wonderful surprise. This particular publication actually motivated a re-appraisal of my home library because, I mean, where do you put Foucault’s work? Philosophy? Cultural Studies? Having decided to rearrange the books in my library by subject, I had to think about Foucault’s home and who his neighbors might be. Ultimately, I settled on placing the books, the count of which is now up to twenty-five, in the “historiography” section because, again, what we’re dealing with is a method of study, a plan of attacking numerous historical conundrums, and an art that, given the discipline required to learn it, we might call martial. To me, historiography names a specific thinking practice motivated by a drive to think through, not about, the past, and I have developed this understanding thanks in large part to the work of Foucault.

But why should you care about this art, this body of work, and this particular publication? The answer has to do with Aristotle and the problem(s) that the Poetics poses to scholars in our profession. Foucault has demonstrated his appreciation and respect for classical Greek tragedy in previous works, most notably in the lectures from 19 and 26 January 1983 dedicated to Euripides’ Ion, but this appreciation appears to have existed from an early stage in his career since the 1970-71 lectures revolve around the appearance and articulation of Truth in Classical Greek tragedy. I would like to invite all of you who plan to teach classes related to or touching upon Ancient Greek tragedy to check out “Lectures on the Will to Know,” because the argument leveled there provides a model for engaging with Aristotle’s Poetics and the possibility that plays such as Oedipus Tyrannus express a worldview that the Poetics, and its subsequent uptake by theatre historians, has obscured.

Here’s a brief breakdown of the argument, mixed with my own commentary linking Foucault’s claims to our situation as theatre historiographers:

  • Aristotle’s Poetics cannot be understood without reference to all of his other treatises (Rhetoric, Politics, Physics, Metaphysics, etc., etc.) — AND YET, theatre scholars neglect this rule and like to ignore the material conditions of the Poetics
    • Namely, that it was written approx. 100 years after the golden age of Athenian drama and it was part of Aristotle’s scientific assessment of the world around him
    • This scientific turn marked Aristotle as distinctly different from his teacher, Plato, and that’s important because Plato’s philosophy was certainly linked to and motivated by the theatre of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, on the one hand, and steeped in a distinctly different sensibility from that of his student (Aristotle).
  • On a deeper level: Aristotle’s understanding of the world and of TRUTH (like, the big concept of TRUTH) differs tremendously from the understanding of TRUTH that exists in the plays he talks about in the Poetics
    • In other words, according to Foucault: Aristotle seemed to think that Truth was something that all people necessarily wanted, and they wanted it because it was good for them and even pleasurable
    • BUT, again pace Foucault, take a look at a play like Oedipus Tyrannus and you will notice that the TRUTH of that play is not at all something old Swollen Foot wants. Philosophically speaking, we can say that Oedipus drives toward the truth, but he does so despite the fact that the TRUTH of his identity scares the hell out of him and all but kills him
  • Foucault’s implicit conclusion (which he builds up to from 9 December, 1970, to 27 January, 1971) is that the philosophical stance toward TRUTH enacted by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides is altogether different from the philosophical stance adopted by Aristotle

–       Will’s historiographical conclusion: If we study Aristotle’s Poetics as a helpful tool for understanding Ancient Greek drama, then we first have to realize that Aristotle was trying to write history in his own way through his Poetics. It appears that he was trying to invent specific rules and goals for Ancient Greek tragedy, goals that help individuals of his time achieve Truth as he (i.e., Aristotle) understood it.

–       Add to all of this the fact that the Poetics is an incomplete set of notes transcribed by several students of Aristotle’s and then assembled years later, and we see that teaching Aristotle’s Poetics over and over again is quite problematic

Now, the thrust of this argument, which Foucault does not entirely flesh out but rather leads us toward, is that Classical Greek Tragedy was a kind of performance philosophy. Through theatre, the Ancient Greeks embodied and enacted Truth, one that, should we believe Foucault, we have a hard time viewing in the present because of the Poetics. Not only is our path to this Truth blocked, but so too is our view of the performance philosophy of the Ancient Greeks blocked because the practice of their theatre has been forgotten in favor of discovering the causes and/or (political) e/affects of said practice. But don’t take my word for it. Read Foucault.

Or for that matter, read any number of the exciting books out on this topic, such as Martin Puchner’s The Drama of Ideas, the collection edited by S. E. Wilmer and Audrone Zukauskaite titled Interrogating Antigone, or Freddie Rokem’s Philosophers and Thespians. But, and here’s my point, read these alongside Foucault’s work. We should fight the temptation to limit our understanding of Foucault’s work through the constant invocation of such terms as Discipline or The History of Sexuality, and reappraise the vast body of his life’s work as, perhaps, a form of performance philosophy in its own right, one that can offer tremendous insight into the teaching of theatre historiography and the doing of historical research.

Will Daddario is the Chair of the Performance and Philosophy Working Group within Performance Studies international and a core convener of Performance Philosophy.


Last year I submitted a course syllabus and accompanying (ir)rationale for “TH3171 – Theatre History from the Ancient Greeks to the Neo-Classical Age” to this forum. The (ir)rationale allowed me to elaborate on my choice to teach the canon against itself, as it were, by teaching skills for deconstructing the materials we encountered as we encountered them. I named my plan of action tactical failure: “I have chosen not to construct a radically global theatre history syllabus that can address [Steve] Tillis’s concerns and blaze new trails through the halls of the university, but, rather, one that allows me to perform the limitations of the traditional theatre history survey timeline along with, and for the benefit of, my students. This tactical failure takes a cue from Beckett’s motto in Worstward Ho, ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’”

I’m writing now to report on that experience. In the words of Lisa Le Feuvre, “Even if one sets out to fail, the possibility of success is never eradicated, and failure once again is ushered in.”* These words describe a paradox at the heart of failure pedagogy; namely, that the results of tactical failure will likely lead to great confusion. Did I succeed in failing? Is that even possible? What precisely have I succeeded in doing by performing the limitations of traditional theatre history survey courses? Did my performed failures elucidate anything for the students or were they just plain old infelicitous attempts at action—non-exciting failures (fizzles?), as opposed to productive failures? After reflecting on the highs and lows of that particular course, I came to two realizations:

  1. Tactical failure [as described in my (ir)rationale] helps to teach students the value of self-reflexivity and the benefit of asking good questions: What is this source that I’m reading? Who translated this text? How much of my contemporary, U.S.-based, privileged viewpoint is shaping my reception of this medieval play (for example)? These questions are fantastic, and students recognizably appreciated grappling with them.
  2. Tactical failure did not offer clear strategies for reading old texts, nor does it offer insight into the art of theatre scholarship, by which I mean the craft of doing research.

In short, tactical failure encouraged students to research topics on their own, but it did not teach them the skills to undertake that research. After reflecting on that experience, I decided to approach the 2012 version of TH3171 from a completely different angle. My main goal was to teach strategies for undertaking historical research, thereby introducing theatre history through the doing of historiographical inquiry. I divided the semester into three sections. Section one presented Ancient Greek tragedy, Sanskrit Drama, and Noh Theater as the foci of a case study on Ancient Theater. Through lectures and class discussion, I modeled strategies for learning about these historically specific theatrical practices and introduced students to how historians and theatre scholars have gone about studying these events that happened so long ago. Section two introduced the concept of comedy and asked students to track how comedy had changed from the time of Terence to Molière’s day, and from seventeenth-century France to the world of Aphra Behn and Restoration England. Section three presented a rigorous research project to students that challenged them to practice the ideas we have explored in the first two parts of the course. Guided by detailed prompts (available on the Faculty Club page), students generated research journals and blogs to share their research process; they locate diverse materials—texts, visual art, secondary sources—that lead to an in-depth understanding of an assigned topic such as Yoruban ritual, Russian Theatre pre-1750, and Tudor Drama (to name but a few). Distilling all of their information, students presented a lecture or a performance to the rest of the class that elucidated their specific topic and helped the class to understand how they went about their historical research. By asking them to construct an annotated bibliography while undertaking their research, I was able to collate all of their sources and distribute a lengthy bibliography to the class at the end of the semester.

The experience of teaching this syllabus called to mind the words of Margaret Werry and Róisín O’Gorman: “Failure is an argument for acceptance. To embrace failure is to surrender the will to control.”** Instead of revealing the inability of canonical works to illuminate the mysteries of the world through tactical failure, I found myself letting go of the reins to the class so that the students could collaborate with one another and inch towards their own discoveries. The relaxing of my grip on the class did not mean that I could not teach lessons. Reading Odai Johnson’s essay on Terence and genocidal memory (in Theater Historiography: Critical Interventions) during the first section of the course, for example, allowed me to turn the class’s attention toward the power of absence in the archive. It was only through the doing of the research project, however, that students could put the knowledge gleaned from that article into practice. The effort of completely remaking my theater history syllabus yielded great surprises and a sense of satisfaction among the students that they were learning skills they could transfer to other courses. I will happily re-deploy this syllabus in the future, and I invite you all to borrow from and adapt my assignment prompts to fit your needs.


* Failure, ed. Lisa Le Feuvre, (Whitechapel Gallery, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2010) 12.

** Margaret Werry and Róisín O’Gorman, “The Anatomy of Failure: An inventory,” Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts vol. 17, no. 1 (2012): 110.



While driving to the office on 25 January 2010, Megan was listening to a broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) that was presenting an uncanny story from the recent earthquake off the coast of Haiti : “When the quake struck at 4:53 p.m. on January 12th,” said reporter John Burnett, “Signal FM [a radio station in Port-au-Prince] was playing ‘Hotel California.’ The Earth groaned and the building shuddered, but just before the DJ ran out, he had the presence of mind to hit the ‘repeat’ button…So for the first thirty minutes of Port-au-Prince’s descent into hell, the only thing you could hear on the radio was the Eagles’ standard—over and over and over.” Megan’s and Will’s recent article in Theatre Topics, “Hyperlinking and Hyperthinking through Theatre History: Haiti, Hotel California, Woyzeck, Hegel, and Back Again,” builds up around that bizarre story and culminates in an argument for Theatre History professors to embrace the power of serendipity.

When this story aired on All Things Considered, Megan and Will were in the opening weeks of the University of Minnesota’s TH3172, which traditionally covers a historical trajectory from the French Revolution to the present day. Slated for discussion that week in class was Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, but Megan couldn’t shake the complexity of thought and feeling that the news report instigated. The challenge became clear: how could we link from present-day Haiti to Georg Büchner? The stakes of this challenge were even clearer: to teach students to develop a critical, historically-savvy self-reflexivity requires teachers to fight against the urge to muscle through the syllabus and, instead, to embrace contemporary events of the size and scope of Haiti’s earthquake.

By hyperlinking across time, space, and ideas, we asked our students to engage in hyperthinking—a way of thinking about history (or theatre or any topic) that involves making connections among seemingly disparate entities, and justifying these links and leaps. Couched within a larger discussion of Theatre History curricula and the potentially productive role of failure within the classroom, this article will hopefully fuel conversations already sparked on theater-historiography.org. You can access it through your library’s subscription to Project Muse. The citation information is as follows: Lewis, Megan and Daddario, Will. “Hyperthinking through Theatre History: Haiti, ‘Hotel California,’ Woyzeck, Hegel and Back Again.” Theatre Topics vol. 22 no. 2 (September 2012): 183-194.


Andy White's "Yes It Is" Exercise at MATC 2012. Photo by Ann Haugo.

In Chicago during the first weekend of March, the Mid-America Theatre Conference held its annual meeting. Scott Magelssen reminded me that the conversation that eventually led to the creation of Theater Historiography: Critical Interventions started at this conference many years ago. To build on the link between the conference, the Bial-Magelssen edited collection, and this website, I decided to address my final blog to the response given by Heather Nathans to the theatre history symposium. In what follows, I’d like to replay a bit of that response, analyze some of the reaction it provoked, and offer my own thoughts on the role of theatre history and theatre historiography within the University.

Nathans played the part of respondent, which meant that she had to act the challenging role of what I call “the synthesizer.” From four days of panels on topics ranging from the accidental immolation of ballerinas to the archive of Penumbra Theatre Company to the economics of local Burning Man events, Nathans located a thru-line and shared her reflections with all of us. Her comments focused on issues of methodology. Specifically, she drew our attention to how we as theatre historians and historiographers talk about our individual objects of study. The underlying purpose of her remarks was not isolated to issues of scholarship but looked outward to our role as scholars of theatre within the University. Her response began with a hypothetical question: if we had a meeting with our University president, and asked him/her to tell us how we as theatre scholars think, for example, about race or identity formation, what would the president say? Nathans posited that the president would be at a loss, and that his/her inability to articulate an answer to that question reflects a shortcoming on our own parts. The president would likely not have a response because we as theatre scholars do not always do a good job explaining how we think about certain issues, how we go about our historical investigations, or how we differentiate ourselves from other practitioners such as art historians or ethnomusicologists.

This focus on methodology and its relationship to self-reflexivity certainly demands our attention.  As audience members pointed out, within Nathans’s call for a more articulate framing of how we do what we do exists a pedagogical challenge. After all, as teachers we should be able to help our students learn the how in addition to the what. Theatre history, as a practice, requires an understanding of the research process as well as an understanding of the basic tenets of, say, the Cid controversy or the main elements of Ancient Greek tragedy. On top of that, and perhaps more obviously, theatre historians and historiographers must place ourselves within our work and formulate a clear notion of how we navigate the archives. Without wishing to challenge either of those beliefs, I would like to trouble another aspect of the group’s reaction to Nathans, as well as an underlying assumption as to the purpose of articulating how we do what we do.

Once the conversation opened up to include comments from the audience, the topic of conversation turned to use. If we develop the ability to explain how we do what we do, then we will be able to prove our use to the University. The vibe of the room transposed to a more lightweight and joyous resonance once people got behind this notion that theatre historians might be able to adequately express our value to the University, thereby securing our position within the liberal arts and, perhaps, gaining access to increased research funds. To be honest, my internal resonance clashed with the predominant tenor of the room at this point. I wondered if our segue from the how-ness of what we do to our use within the University pointed to an obfuscation of the discourse on use pervading the current “crisis.” While listening and reflecting on the discussion that unfolded there in that room, I began to imagine a different way of discussing our position within the University. Finally, some weeks later, I’ve put my thoughts into words and I offer this alternate perspective for your consideration.

To begin this alternate line of thought I’d like to summon Theodor W. Adorno’s essay “On Tradition” (Telos vol. 94 [Winter 93/94]: 75-82). In that work, Adorno explores the dialectic of tradition: on the one hand, a questionable value whose link to the past appears fruitless and useless because of the cult of the new which drives culture forward; on the other hand, an imported article to be valued, but valued only as a curiosity (75). University discourse presents us with both sides of this dialectic. We can see this by thinking about the place of theatre history within this discourse. Theatre history, as a discipline, seems to be out of date; as a practice, it appears as something that once had its place but now serves no clear purpose. At the same time, and because of its out-of-placeness, theatre history is a curiosity, an endeavor that unearths bizarre and titillating rituals from days gone by. The curiosity may lose its charm, however, and deflate into an unarticulated otherness. “The less the bourgeois principle tolerates otherness, the more urgently it appeals to tradition and cites what then appears from the outside as ‘value’” (76). Theatre historians face this shift today, as Nathans pointed out. As theatre history becomes more a curiosity and less of a stable link to the recognizable tradition of liberal arts education, the more it loses its value in the eyes of the University.

As we decide what to do about all of this, I would caution us against arguing within the terms laid down by the University discourse, a discourse thoroughly imbued with the logic of the market. Articulating how we do what we do as theatre historians or historiographers will lead to self-reflexive scholarship, there is little doubt of that. But we should not leverage our ability to articulate the specifics of our scholarly practice as a method for proving our usefulness or value within the University. By working to reveal our use, are we not capitulating to the logic of equal exchange, that principle derived from capitalist economic principles applied to all other social relations? If we prove that our discipline provides a service that has immediate applicability to the working on the University administration, then I think we have already conceded the very terms that we should be disputing.

Adorno’s negative dialectic practice reveals another was of thinking about this problem. “What fails to establish its immediate social usefulness in the market place,” he suggests, speaking specifically of the United States in the 1960s, “does not count and is forgotten. Even when someone dies, it is as if he had never lived; he is as replaceable as anything functional. Only what has no function is irreplaceable!” (75). This last sentence deserves out attention, partially because of the exclamation point but also, and more importantly, because it raises a counter-intuitive path for us to follow. We should not develop tools to prove our value and our usefulness to the University; rather, we should contest the terms of any discussion based on “value” and, simultaneously, work to imagine how consciousness of our functionlessness might enrich our practice as scholars of theatre. What would it mean to embrace our uselessness?

Before discussing this functionlessness or uselessness in more detail, I’d like to offer one final fragment of Adorno’s work that serves as a warning for us all as we decide how to position ourselves in the University:

Those who cherish the past and refuse to surrender their love of it so as not to become impoverished, immediately expose themselves to an insidiously inspired misunderstanding, namely that they might not be so dedicated after all and might even be willing to embrace the present. (77)

There is a tendency in the reception of Adorno’s criticism to dismiss the thinker outright because of what appears to be an ultra-obtuse cantankerousness. Rather than disagree with this statement I’d like to embrace the bristly German philosopher because of the difficulty inherent in that very act of embrace. After all, what would it mean to take this warning seriously? It would surely mean at least two things. First, Adorno’s words force us to reflect on what we’re doing when we approach our object of study. He suggests that we should not cherish those objects of study. We must not think of them as our bread and butter, that off which we make our living.

Second, grappling with Adorno’s ideas means understanding that the present is not something we should embrace. We must not embrace it because the terms of discussion about how to proceed from this moment in time into the future are permeated through and through with a logical positivist rationality that would like to move in a straight line from this moment of crisis to a future moment of normality and stability. As historians and historiographers, surely we recognize that this rectilinear march is fraught with complications and that, at the very least, we should stage a conceptual and practical sit-in to slow the march into the future. To do this, however, would require that we take time to articulate the problem and that, of course, we slow down the works, thus making us visible as part of the problem, which we are, whether we like it or not.

I’d like to continue with this line of thought, but I also want to summon several new figures in order to present a rambunctious collection of ideas through which to think this problem of Use and Uselessness. First: Andrew White, founding member of Lookingglass Theare Company and keynote speaker at MATC this year. In his keynote address, White proposed that we all infuse our work with more play. I conjure this sentiment here because, in addition to the utter seriousness Adorno brings to this discussion, I believe we can think our uselessness as theatre historians and historiographers through the practice of play. Playing around with such weighty matters as the future of our discipline seems utterly irresponsible and, for that very reason, completely necessary. How might we reframe our task away from the act of defending our position and conserving space for ourselves toward, instead, the act of play? Play requires the endless production of ideas—something White displayed through his demonstration of the game “Yes it is.” What is theatre historiography? It is a practice of uncovering the conditions that make possible certain understanding of Nationality in a specific time and place. Yes it is. It is a conscious deconstruction of the concept of the archive as the repository of all knowledge. Yes it is. It is a discipline that acknowledges the fictional dimension of all historical narrative and that proliferates the narrative of history with its own brand of (hopefully self-reflexive) fiction. Yes it is. It is a mode of living. Yes it is. It is a challenge to the discourse on usefulness insofar as it reveals the structures that have obfuscated specific people and events whose usefulness was once in question. Yes it is.

Next: Georges Bataille and Stuart McLean. In his 1933 essay “The Notion of Expenditure,” Bataille asserts the following:

Every time the meaning of a discussion depends upon the fundamental value of the word useful – in other words, every time the essential question touching on the life of human societies is raised, no matter who intervenes and what opinions are expressed – it is possible to affirm that the debate is necessarily warped and that the fundamental question is eluded.

How does usefulness warp the debate? For starters, the notion of usefulness usually presupposes a finite number of ways in which something can become useful, thereby ruling out an array of other, possibly silly, possibly frightening, proposals. McLean, an anthropologist at the University of Minnesota, offered this quotation in his manifesto titled, “WHAT IS THE UNIVERSITY FOR? A STORY FROM THE DREAMTIME OF A POSSIBLE FUTURE” performed at the Beneath the University — The Commons conference a few years ago. In that Manifesto, McLean argues that the question “What is the University for?” makes no more sense than the questions “What is a comet for?” and “What is a dragonfly for?” He makes this point in order to challenge the very terms with which we find ourselves discussing the future of the university.

Instead of those questions, McLean departs from the path most taken and imagines a completely “other” university, one that “occupy a status somewhere between a ritual theater and a blue-sky research laboratory for the self-production of social life as an open-ended project of collective poesis.” “The university as I envision it,” he writes, “would still have its Institutes for Advanced Study but they would be more numerous and various, more open and much weirder – animals, plants and supernatural (or other) beings as visiting professors, perhaps?” Recognizing his fanciful imaginings as off-the-chart, McLean advocates for his irrational vision precisely because it does not intersect with the conversation on how to make ourselves useful but, rather, allows the possibility of a new future.

As we process the information gathered at the recent MATC conference and reflect on Nathans’s response to the theatre history symposium, I’d like us to include the concept of uselessness in the picture. We can imagine our function within the university without capitulating to the current order of things, and we can do this by playing with the existing order. Last week in my theatre history class we studied Dada, a group from whom we can take our cue. The Cabaret Voltaire was, in one way, a salon of the irrational and the nonsensical. It was, at the same time, the site from which we can learn that nonsense is often the index of the sensible. That is, a playful invocation of our useless position within the University can reveal the methods used to construct the discourse that requires us to prove our value to the system. If we work to make ourselves valuable and useful, then I think we will have labored in vain.


Path 2: De Witt’s Catalogue

To develop a critique of melodrama and to encourage a self-reflexive practice of historical inquiry amongst my students, I want to return to melodrama when study the Black Arts Movement. To do this, I will share the story of my discovery of De Witt’s catalogue of “Ethiopian and Comic Drama,” along with the research that I am currently compiling, in order to unpack the abuses of melodramatic acting. Despite his curmudgeonly attitude and his dated study of the genre, Lacey provides a starting point for this critique. “Strictly speaking, “ he writes, “there are no characters in melodrama, there are only types, easily recognized and constantly recurring, such as the villain, the hero, the ‘persecuted innocent’ and the clown or ‘niais’. There are also, besides these four principles, two other prevailing types, the ‘accomplice’ and the faithful friend’” (20-1). From here, one need only look to the cast list of Pixérécourt’s Christopher Columbus in order to see the problem of these “types.” How did French actors play the “Savages” encountered by Columbus? What gestures and facial expressions did the acting manuals suggest for playing non-French roles? Along with the knowledge that melodrama was used to foster a nationalistic pride in the European countries where it emerged comes the knowledge that national identity relies on the formulation of the Other against which to cement its traits.

The popularity of the “Ethiopian” type in America during the eighteenth century attested to the racist ideology undergirding the American project of nation building. De Witt’s catalogue offers ample evidence that black people, though not exclusively, filled the subject position of Other to counter-balance the white male subject position engineered as dominant. There’s no need to rehearse the scholarship on this topic here, especially because I am by no means an expert on the topic, but I would like to share my findings on the “Ethiopian” type. I would also like to ask for assistance in compiling source material on the “Ethiopian” farce or sketch from those who are more active in this field of study. Or, if you have knowledge of melodrama acting manuals, I would love to learn more about that as well.

In “‘The Trouble Begins at Eight’: Mark Twain, the San Francisco Minstrels, and the Unsettling Legacy of Blackface Minstrelsy” (American Literary Realism vol. 41 No 3 (Spring 2009): 232-248), Sharon D. McCoy tells us that, “In the stage parlance of the day, ‘nigger,’ ‘Ethiopian,’ or even ‘negro’ (uncapitalized) referred not to actual African American performers but to white blackface performers. ‘Colored’ referred to African Americans” (240). John William Mahar offers similar information in Behind the burnt cork mask: early blackface minstrelsy and Antebellum and American Popular Culture (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999). Thus, the long list of play titles in De Witt’s catalogue refer to plays of the minstrel tradition, though not all of them featured blacked-up white performers exclusively. As Mahar states, “it is not clear how many of the characters actually appeared in blackface in any particular skit because the ‘Cast of Characters’ sections of the published Ethiopian sketches rarely indicate whether all the characters blacked up or only those with identifiable African American roles” (157). He points out that, “The sketches were also adaptable to various ethnic groups through slight changes in costuming or dialect,” meaning that these plays also mocked the French, Irish, and Dutch members of New York City’s populace.

Completely by accident, then, I have come across a list of plays that feature disparaging representations of black people and other members of the immigrant population in America paired with Jerrold’s text of Black-Eyed Susan. It seems reasonable to assume that the type characters created in the melodramatic form pioneered by Pixérécourt and then exported to Britain influenced the types portrayed in minstrel plays, and, therefore, that the melodrama form infiltrated the American imagination via racist depictions of the Other. By rehearsing this history with my students, I hope they will find a foothold in the work produced by the Black Arts Movement, which sought to destroy the image of black people created through this European theatrical tradition.

In recent years, when teaching works by black artists, I have discovered that students have little to no understanding of the history behind depictions such as Sambo or Aunt Jemima. Due to the structure of the theatre curriculum, students rarely take classes in Cultural Studies or American Studies where they might encounter materials like Marlon Riggs’s Ethnic Notions and a culturally-specific critique of aesthetic form. As such, teaching material from the Black Arts Movement and more contemporary artists such as Suzan-Lori Parks or Aishah Rahman has proven difficult. The fortuitous, though disturbing, discovery of De Witt’s catalogue has provided me with new material that might help to connect two seemingly distinct plays such as Baraka’s Dutchman and Pixérécourt’s Dog of Montargis, thereby strengthening the critical historiographical methodology I want to teach in my class.