Martin Puchner on “Plato’s Shadows: Theatre and Philosophy”

Professor Martin Puchner
Professor Martin Puchner

Week 9 of the fall semester brought Martin Puchner to the ECLA students and professors in order to further engage in the study of our core text, Plato’s Republic. We thus discovered Plato in his dramatic dimension, one which can offer an alternative to the Aristotelian paradigm of the theatrical enterprise and under whose influence we can find modern dramatic writers such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.

Martin Puchner’s lecture, Plato’s Shadows: Theatre and Philosophy, aims at debunking a preconceived reading of Plato, namely the one which affirms that Plato writes against the dramatic genre, considering it incompatible with philosophy. Professor Puchner’s thesis is centred around two claims: that theatre and philosophy have much more in common than it is usually admitted and that the relation between theatre and philosophy as it is found in the Platonic dialogues imposes a new dramatic paradigm and allows us to look at the history of the theatre through the dichotomy between Aristotelian and Platonic theatre.

In order to show the theatrical character of Plato’s work, Professor Puchner takes as a starting point Diogenes Laertius’ account of Plato’s interest as a young man in writing theatre in the conventional way and of the fact that later on, before turning to philosophy, Plato burnt all his plays. The puzzling question that underlies the present enquiry is why Plato did such a thing. According to the traditional interpretation, if you want to become a philosopher then you have to give up literature and drama. Martin Puchner’s answer follows a different line. He suggests that Plato continued writing tragedies even after this event took place, but in a new mode: that of the philosophical dialogue.

Dialogues such as The Symposium and Phaedon illustrate perfectly well the dramatic dimension of Plato’s works. Philosophy in the form of dialogue is for Plato a kind of dramatic genre, although one that did not fit the theatrical horizon of the time. In fact, in his Poetics Aristotle mentions the Socratic dialogues as an odd new dramatic genre, which appeared at the time together with the mime. Let us keep in mind that Diogenes Laertius also reads Plato’s dialogues as part of the theatre scene of Athens, mentioning the fact that Plato used to write tragedies and that he incessantly engaged in theatrical activities. This connection between Plato and drama was lost in the subsequent period and Plato was read only through the lens of philosophy.  This is mainly because the tradition of the philosophical dialogue later on lacked the dramatic imagination to be found in Plato’s writing.

In hindsight, the dramatic adaptations of Plato’s dialogues come to confirm the hypothesis of considering him a playwright. Two questions can shed significant light on the subject: one is related to what can be extracted from these adaptations and the second looks at the way in which playwrights have adapted Plato throughout the history. Plato’s dramatic influence has been exercised in Giovanni’s Paisiello’s opera Il Socrate immaginario, which features the aria “All I know Is That I Know Nothing”, and also in theatre adaptations, both tragedies and comedies. The subject of tragedies is, recurrently, the death of Socrates as depicted in Phaedon.

In the 17th century, Milton proposes a manifesto for the return to classical tragedy not intended for performance, while in the 18th century Joseph Addison takes Socrates as a model for his play Cato. Later on, in the 19th century more spectacular scenes are added in the representation of Socrates’ death.

Professor Puchner observes that there are some problems posed by the tragic depiction of Socrates since there are many elements in Plato’s dialogue that do not appear tragic. On one hand, classical tragedy is built around elements that pertain to Greek mythology. On the other hand, Plato’s dialogues, just like the comedies of his time, contain figures of contemporary Athens, characters who are drawn as mundane beings, having a low status or being socially inept.

These are intended as an object of ridicule for the viewers. This influenced writers like Voltaire to follow Plato’s intention of not imitating classical tragedy, but instead blending it with comedy. Aristophanes went further on the comedic line, but by doing so he disturbed Socrates’ reception among his contemporaries, thus contributing to the misinterpretation and public denunciation of Socrates. The best way to depict Socrates in a comic manner without grappling with the problem raised by Aristophanes’ treatment is to be found in the tradition of the comedy of ideas.

Further on, Professor Puchner proceeded to propose a theoretical dichotomy between Aristotelian drama and Platonist drama. This distinction would be relevant for the case of modern theatre, which, following Brecht, was described as anti-Aristotelian drama. Professor Puchner highlighted the fact that the dominant practice is to look at the history of drama through an Aristotelian lens. The question that can be raised is whether the philosophical dialogues of Plato can offer the proper lens to view the traditions of Modern drama. Professor Puchner’s provocative thesis, exposed in more elaborate detail in his book The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theatre and Philosophy, is that what is put in negative terms as anti-Aristotelian drama can best be described as Platonic drama.

His argument is supported by the fact that the twentieth century brings adaptations and plays influenced by the Platonic demands of theatre which stand in opposition to the Aristotelian requirements of mimesis and catharsis. Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, August Strindberg, Luigi Pirandello, Georg Kaiser: all used platonic dialogues as prototypes for promoting the ideal of a non-imitative art.

George Bernard Shaw, who coined the term “drama of ideas”, shows in his plays the influences of his idealist socialist conception mixed with platonic philosophy.  This is best revealed in Man and Superman, the play whose subtitle is, not insignificantly, “a comedy and a philosophy”. The German Expressionist writer Georg Kaiser imposes in his play Alcibiades Saved a new view of modern drama, formulating the maxim for a new drama entitled “the drama of thought.”

At the end of a lecture which earned our most enthusiastic applause, Professor Puchner concluded that once you shift the perspective from Aristotle to Plato one can notice that modern drama has been influenced by Plato’s vision of how theatre should be. Plato was critical of the Athenian theatrical system and he aspired to impose a new paradigm.

As such, by reintegrating Plato into the dramatic cannon we can trace back to his dialogues elements of modern drama, such as the mix between tragedy and comedy, writing in prose, the introduction of the dialectical drama and the promotion of a theatre of ideas. But this is a retroactive step, one that projects the afterlife of Plato’s dramatic method from the authors back to the dialogues.

Martin Puchner holds the H. Gordon Garbedian Chair in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he also serves as the co-chair of the Theatre Ph.D. program. After studying philosophy, history, and literature at the University of Konstanz, the Università di Bologna, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Irvine, he earned a Ph.D. at Harvard University in 1998. He has taught English and comparative literature at Columbia University since 1998 and at the moment is Fellow at Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

His writing and research fall under three broad rubrics: drama, philosophy, and world literature. In Stage Fright (2002) and Against Theatre (ed. 2006), he uses drama and theater to highlight the values and contradictions of modernism. This interest also informs his editorial work in drama, including an edition of Six Plays of Henrik Ibsen (2003), a new edition of Lionel Abel’s Metatheater (2003), a four-volume collection of critical essays on modern drama, Critical Concepts: Modern Drama (2008), The Norton Anthology of Drama (2009) as well as his editorship of Theatre Survey, the leading journal in theater history.

His interest in philosophy materialized in the books The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy (Oxford UP, 2010) and also in editing Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto and Other Writings (2005) and publishing in English Alain Badiou’s Rhapsody for the Theatre (2008) in a special issue of Theatre Survey. Puchner is  currently working on a new book entitled Between Theater and Philosophy.

by Diana Martin (AY ’10, Romania)

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