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Philosophical Tensions in Modern Dramatic Literature.

Philosophical Tensions in Modern Dramatic Literature Michael Y. Bennett, Words, Space, and the Audience: The Theatrical Tension Between Empiricism and Rationalism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Pages 179.

Behind Michael Y. Bennett's Words, Space, and the Audience is the defining and decidedly intractable question of reception theory, namely, "how does meaning get made in the theatre?" Bennett's answer is that meaning is produced through negotiating tensions between "empirical and rational ways of knowing," particularly at those historical moments when such tensions are encoded in local and global concerns (8-9). Adeptly blending philosophy, history, and politics, Bennett demonstrates how the philosophical debate between empiricism and rationalism is thematized in four major works of modern drama: Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (1953), and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof (1962). Through thoughtfully researched and engagingly argued case-studies, Bennett accomplishes two overlapping aims: to offer new readings of these canonical works and, more significantly, to develop a heuristic for considering the key question from reception theory as it relates to modern dramatic texts.

Deeply interdisciplinary, Bennett's argument is convincingly developed as part of a rich and complex study of four crucial historical moments, marked by tensions between empiricism and rationalism, which helped produce these dramas and which these dramas helped produce. The Importance of Being Earnest (and, briefly, Salome) is read against the height of British Idealism and the beginning of pragmatism and analytic philosophy during the fin de siecle. Six Characters in Search of an Author is considered against the struggle between pragmatism and idealism (in its worst manifestations, the rise of the fasci and Benito Mussolini) during post-World War I Italy. Waiting for Godot is read against the "The Great Quarrel" between Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus regarding existentialism during post-World War II Paris. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woof is considered against the demise and normalization of analytic philosophy during the Cold War and the Cultural Revolution in the United States. Through these chapters, Bennett traces "the waxing and waning of rationalism and empiricism in key historical moments" (25).

More impressive is Bennett's meticulous examination of how the empiricism-rationalism dispute manifested in these historical moments and across the more than seventy years covered by the book. Naturally, he documents the major figures involved in these disputes, including T. H. Green and F. H. Bradley who advanced idealism in response to the empiricism of John Locke and David Hume at Oxford University during Wilde's tenure; and including the letters between Sartre and Camus, printed in Les Temps modernes, just one year before Beckett's play debuted in Paris. Beyond this, Bennett considers the non-dramatic writings of the playwrights and their contemporaries to situate the plays in the empiricism-rationalism debate, including the letters exchanged between Pirandello and Benedetto Croce, which debated idealism from 1908-1909; and including Albee's essays, "Some Notes on Non-Conformity" and "Which Theater is the Absurd One?" which commented on the social, cultural, and artistic movements of the time. More than demonstrating the sophistication of Bennett's argument, this research allowed him to structure the chapters in ways that substantiated the project's defining assumption, namely, that the plays function as "philosophical inquiries into the age-old epistemological empirical versus rational debate" (1-2). In all, these chapters were an exemplum of new historicism in the ways they discussed the interplay and interdependence of philosophy, history, politics, and drama.

If there is a weakness to this book it is that although Bennett's claims are intellectually rich, his argument tends to rely on rather limited sampling--both in the scope of the book, by only addressing four works; and in the chapters, which address a few select moments rather than examining the tensions between empiricism and rationalism more comprehensively. Yet I intend this comment less a complaint than an affirmation of the significance of the heuristic that Bennett develops for reception theory, dramatic criticism, and even performance studies. The fact that it is clear that his approach could reveal even more about these plays is testament to its value. As Bennett suggests, his approach builds on previous work in reception theory, which has privileged phenomenology, such as Gay McAuley's Space in Performance and Bert O. States's Great Reckonings in Little Rooms, not by dismissing phenomenology but instead by complicating it. Indeed, the reason that Bennett's argument proves so effective is that he carefully traces the tensions between empiricism and rationalism instead of falling into the sort of reductivism that is possible in this approach: this play corresponds with empiricism and that play corresponds with rationalism. Because of this, Bennett's argument has far-reaching implications for considering other dramatic texts and for theatrical performance, although this is beyond this book's scope. In all, Words, Space, and the Audience is a welcome addition to the field of reception theory.

Reviewed by J. Chris Westgate, California State University
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Author:Westgate, J. Chris
Publication:Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
Words:815
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