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Theatre and citizenship: the history of a practice.

Theatre and citizenship: the history of a practice, by David Wiles, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, 258 pp., 55.00 [pounds sterling] (hardback), ISBN 987-0-521-19327-6

David Wiles' book engages its readers productively in examining intersections between notions and practices of citizenship and theatrical events, plays, performances and festivals. Starting from the premise that, while citizenship is embedded in membership of a political entity that is not necessarily the nation or state, Wiles recruits political and social philosophers alongside theatre and cultural historiographers to develop his account. The author is a renowned theatre historiographer with multiple publications to his name. This scholarly work draws upon that knowledge to investigate citizenship as it is advocated and developed by social movements, political players and theorists, as well as playwrights and theatre practices that have been responsive to social and political circumstances. Although rich in descriptive detail of the period and power plays in each context, and arranged loosely chronologically, the work is held together by a complex, reflexive and unfurling discussion of what citizenship could or should entail, both in the periods and places into which the monograph delves, as well as in the present.

Without noticeably recruiting practice theorists, the argument is practiceorientated. Wiles asserts his interest in the performance and practice of citizenship, not merely the concept itself. Likewise the emphasis is on how plays were realised in actual performances, shaped by the site or venue, prevailing social, economic and political practices, as well as by influential figures of the day. The account is further nuanced by the influence of contemporary theorists in a host of different fields. If the book has a weakness, it is possibly that in parts too many thinkers are too quickly invoked to shape the argument. This is well and good for those readers who are already familiar with such thinkers, but for the less informed reader, trying to follow the thinking of a Jurgen Habermas or a Chantal Mouffe in a paragraph or two is a challenge. Sometimes the reader is left uncertain about precisely what is achieved by the cursory mention of a particular theoretical trajectory which is tentatively included and insufficiently revisited to make the contribution clear. On the other hand, where the writer does delve in more detail into political context or theatrical practice or dramatist or political theory, the work is provocative and compelling.

The reader is led into an ever deepening engagement with what it means to be a citizen, whether such a concept is useful or constructive per se, and in what ways it could or should shed light on our contemporary (post-modern, post-dramatic) condition. The writer is adept at bringing the old to bear on new ideas or newly refurbished ideas and practices, and this reader was compelled into engaging with notions of what citizenship might mean to me in my own home community although my locus does not feature in the book.

This reflexivity is partly achieved by means of the device of framing. In each of the chapters, loosely located in a place and period, notions of citizenship and theatre are examined through the lens of the work of one or two leading artists/playwrights/ political activists, who offer a way of seeing and influencing the zeitgeist of a period, by means of their creative or polemical works that engage with the immediate context. And even as Wiles relates the aforementioned artists and writers to the culture of the time, he is also painting a picture of the practices of play production or festivalising or popular entertainments which generate the local social milieu. These multiple layers of influence and engagement provoke the reader to reconsider political, moral, theatrical and aesthetic issues, not discretely, but as affecting one another. This is the work's particular strength, but is also its major challenge to the reader. At all times the field of reference is diverse and heterogeneous, moving between historical periods and literary works, social circumstances, political thought, theatrical events, theoretical insights--to name just a few of the inputs.

The reader is introduced to the issues of citizenship via Aristotle's conception of the citizen, which the writer locates in its contemporary geographical setting in the Athenian city state, where the citizen, freed of work obligations because he (male) was a slave owner, actively exercised his citizenship. Viewed within the context of Dionysian festivals, Wiles reflects on what conceptions of tragedy and comedy in Athens reveal to us about citizenship. Using the political movements of the time, the theories of tragedy and comedy of Plato and Aristotle, Aristophanes' play The Frogs, as well as through more modern theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Hannah Arendt in particular, key questions around citizenship and the theatre are raised which will be interrogated throughout the work. These include the place of theatre in the public sphere, or in creating a public sphere, the role of mimesis, representation and performance in fostering citizenship, and the notion of the citizen/individual/protagonist as against the notion of citizenry/collective/chorus.

The work then examines how the ideals of republican Rome inspired Renaissance Florence. Homologies between Cicero and Machiavelli are highlighted and the intersecting impulses of the dramatist and public servant are explored in terms of Machiavelli's Mandragola. Again in this chapter Wiles considers one context in the light of another: Florence in the light of republican Rome, and Machiavelli's interpretation of Terence's Andria, who in turn 'borrowed' it from Menander. The production histories of Mandragola and Aulularia are the means whereby we obtain a picture of the socio-political machinations of the period and the role of comedy as political weapon.

Wiles then sweeps the reader off to England where in an extraordinarily short space we are thrust deep into the weaver's pageant in Coventry, where productive labour in the guilds, civic membership and collective display play out tensions between Protestant and Catholics, and between civic governance and the ruling monarchy, whilst simultaneously acting as a key site of civic education. Whilst this chapter is politically and philosophically fascinating, the argument, as well as the artistic and historical references, come so thick and fast that it is tiring to navigate. However, for readers steeped in English theatre history, doubtless this section would prove a revitalising new take on old material.

By contrast, this work's treatment of the Enlightenment grips the reader's imagination and generates paradoxically contradictory notions around citizenship. Examining in a more nuanced and slower vein the particular visions, obsessions and convictions of Rousseau and Voltaire, Wiles unfolds his considerations of the question of citizenship. The stage is the small Swiss republic of Geneva which, in Wiles' account, was significant for Rousseau and Voltaire for almost entirely contrasting reasons. Each derived inspiration from it and, although they differed so markedly in points of view, the concerns of both were profoundly theatrical. Intellectual independence or intuitive, collective amity, citizen by birth or citizen by due, strict Calvinism or loosely conceived theism or atheism, theatre for development or theatre for entertainment: these are just some of the tensions which the writer develops in the drama of conflict between Rousseau and Voltaire; which is then developed with reference to the debates around citizenship spawned by the French Revolution.

What the second half of the book brings to light is how aesthetic, political and moral philosophies are materially determined. Theatre not only mirrors society but also represents and performs it, so that it has a sustained impact over time. These chapters are extremely successful, not to say engrossing. I must mention the discussion of David's painting Brutus, in which so many of the key themes of the monograph converge. This is followed by what is made to appear as rather contrived efforts at social engineering by Marie-Joseph Chenier, and then the more incisive and challenging contribution of Diderot.

In the final phase the writer's approach shifts from close-up, to distanced conceptualisation, as he investigates citizenship in the public sphere at certain critical moments in the twentieth century: pre-WWII Germany and post-independence India. In this chapter there is a notable and slightly uncomfortable change of style. Historiography retreats into quite cursory reportage, and complex and possibly over-theorised argumentation comes to the fore. Nevertheless, the important questions raised in the chapter provided this reader with considerable food for thought.

Is the notion of citizenship relevant only to the public sphere? Is there a contemporary public sphere? Is citizenship possible if citizens are unable to act upon their rights? Are human rights only possible for the materially independent, as is the case in many contemporary nation states? What differentiates the popular from the collective? And is theatre a trickster figure, or device, that reinforces apparent social realities which in truth do not pertain? At the heart of some of these questions lie tensions between individual and collective experience, private and public engagements, of which the work provides multiple examples. Theatre and Citizenship is an enriching and multifarious reading experience from which much is to be gained.


Gay Morris

University of Cape Town

[c] 2012, Gay Morris
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Author:Morris, Gay
Publication:South African Theatre Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2012
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