by Eylem Ejder*

Martin Puchner. Photo: Gretjen Hellene

Martin Puchner is one of the leading intellectuals in the field of theatre, modern drama and literature. He is the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard University and the founder of the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research at Harvard University. Puchner, a prize-winning author, public speaker, educator, has a great number of books, essays, articles ranging from theater, philosophy, modern drama to world literature, which have been translated into many languages. His most known books in the field of theater are Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality, and Drama; Poetry of Revolution: Marx, Manifestos and Avant-Gardes; The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy.

Poetry of Revolution is available in Turkish as Marx ve Avangard Manifestolar. Devrimin Şiiri from Altıkırkbeş Yayınları. His latest book The Written World is also being translated into Turkish and will be published by Pegasus Yayınları.

I met Prof. Martin Puchner in June 2018, at the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research. I wanted to talk with him about his ideas on theater, the relationship between theatre, philosophy and literature, his concept of the avant-garde, and its role in twenty-first century.

Your most known works such as Stage Fright; Poetry of Revolution; The Drama of Ideas, were all researched and written between the end of the 1990s and the early 2000s. These years are also described by some as a turning point: a “theatrical turn,” a “performative turn,” an “affective turn” and an “avant-garde turn.” What was the typical characteristic of this period for you? Where and how do you locate your academic career, research areas as a writer during this period? How did it affect, develop or restrict your potential to write and produce an idea?

I think you’re right that this period saw an increasing interest in terms and concepts coming from theater and the performing arts. The success of performance studies would be one example. My own work was much more interested in literature and texts than what was being done in performance studies, but I nevertheless have always felt an affinity to it (Richard Schechner once whispered to me at a conference that he subscribed to my notion of anti-theatricality). The interest in theater and performance was true of literature and even of philosophy. The Drama of Ideas was an attempt to write the history of philosophy as seen through the lens of drama and theater. My books from the period were focused on genres—the closet drama, the manifesto, the drama of ideas—that were located in this field of tension between literature, philosophy and performance.

Martin Puchner, Poetry of Revolution: Marx, Manifestos and the Avant-Gardes. Princeton University Press, 2005

In one of your public presentations you invited us to a practice of “minding the gap between theater and philosophy.” You are approaching this gap as a productive power, not a problem we should avoid. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of this task, which seems to me highly performative? Where do you pose the concept of “theatricality” in this gap?

Yes, this notion of minding the gap was the result of a development that really took me by surprise. When I was working on Drama of Ideas, I thought that I was pretty much alone with my interest in the relation between theater and philosophy. (I had started out as a philosophy major, something that was pretty unusual in theater studies, and done some graduate work in analytic philosophy.) But, then, I realized that actually there were a lot of people who were interested in the same thing, including Freddie Rokem and Laura Cull, who organized an entire scholarly association, with book series, etc., in this field, called “Performance Philosophy.” I was delighted.

At some point, I wanted to take stock of this emerging subfield and noticed an interesting phenomenon: a number of scholars felt that the distinction between philosophy and theater was a problem; that it needed to be dismantled. This struck me as a mistake. I was interested in the ways these very different traditions and disciplines—theater and philosophy—ignored each other, attacked each other, borrowed from each other, envied each other.

That was the dynamic I was interested in and I felt that, if we argue against the difference between theater and philosophy, or wish it away, we would miss that dynamic. I therefore suggested the following: let’s acknowledge that there is a gap—that is, a difference—between theater and philosophy, not for the purposes of policing that gap but for studying precisely how different people have crossed it.

Martin Puchner, The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010

What if we re-read or think of the written history of theatre—at least for western theater—through this “friendly” gap? What do you think we may find? Do you think “being mindful of the gap” can change the story of theater or its perception?

Great question. That’s exactly what I envisioned, a history of the relation between theater and philosophy; a history of the gap between them, if you will. What we see is that, at different historical moments, philosophers borrowed from theater, starting with Plato, who wrote philosophical dialogues, which sometimes were even performed, at the same time as he is attacking the theater.

Others, like Nietzsche, had a similar love-hate relationship to theater, worshipping Wagner, breaking with Wagner, worshipping Bizet, embracing dance. The same is true of Kierkegaard and his love affair with Mozart and other philosophers, all the way to Alain Badiou. On the side of theater, we have those dramatists who were interested in philosophy and sought to bring it to the stage, from Aristophanes’ The Clouds to Tom Stoppard, while also making fun of it.

Martin Puchner, Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality and Drama. The Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins University Press, 2002

Yes, exactly; today as well we have seen a number of essays on theatre by philosophers like Ranciere, Badiou, Žižek, Weber. Can we say “anti-theatrical prejudice” has disappeared in our times?

Interesting question. On the one hand, there’s theatricality, an embrace of personae, performances, self-conscious self-presentation, everywhere in our culture, above all online. The art world, museums, are actively building and incorporating performances into their spaces. Theatricality seems to have won, and anti-theatricality seems defeated. But, on the other hand, I think that anti-theatricality has never been completely defeated. Our abundant performative modes of theatrical self-presentation are breeding a backlash as we speak. It will be interesting to see where this new wave of anti-theatricality will manifest itself.

It seems to me you have a keen interest in similar concerns which we can trace from Stage Fright to Poetry of Revolution, and to Ideas of Theater: “theatricality,” “anti-theatricalism,” “pro-theatricality,” manifesto as a genre, “gap between theater and philosophy.” I would like to name this concern as a matter of “theater of ideas” to borrow the title of your book. But what about the affects and feelings? What do you think about the role of “affect” in/after a “theater of ideas”?

Video 1

Martin Puchner on contemporary literature

You are right, both closet dramas (which I studied in Stage Fright) and the drama of ideas, and perhaps even manifestos (Poetry of the Revolution), are cerebral, intellectual, theoretical. They tend to be written not by popular writers but by niche writers and for coterie audiences.

What fascinated me about these genres was this: the writers of these three genres could have written philosophical or political treatise, but they didn’t. In opting for dramas or manifestos, they decided to work in a genre that would require them to create characters with bodies and feelings, or, at least, in the case of manifestos, a genre that was supposed to appeal to the emotions of readers, not just their intellect. Now, you might say that many of these texts failed to do that, and it is true that the history of these three genres is littered with abysmal failures, so much so that it is difficult to come up with more than a handful of successes. But, no matter how quixotic their attempts, writers of closet dramas, dramas of ideas and manifestos pursued the attempt to borrow from drama and theater and to appeal to emotions as well as appealing to the intellect. They wanted to integrate the two; a worthy goal, in my opinion.

Martin Puchner

I would like to talk about your understanding of terms like “avant-garde” and “rear-guard” and what they mean for today’s theater and performance studies or more generally for cultural and political life?

Avant-garde is originally a military term, the advanced corps of an army, which means that baked into this term is the sense that a small group is ahead of the masses. The term entered the world of art towards the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century; precisely the time when suddenly art movements sought to outdo each other in being more advanced, more ahead, than everyone else. I studied this dynamic through manifestos, which were the vehicles through which this sense of being advanced was articulated most fully.

In fact, I came to the conclusion that this new avant-garde competition in the field of art was partially a result of all these manifestos being written by artists (previously, manifestos were only written by revolutionaries). Manifestos, when they were imported into art, brought with them the spirit of being advanced.

I understand the rear-guard to be a reaction to the avant-garde. Some artists reacted to the avant-gardes simply by reverting to tradition. But others borrowed some elements from the avant-garde, including formal innovation and manifestos, but used them to slow down their influence. Those artists, Wyndham Lewis for example, I termed rear-guard artists.

Martin Puchner’s latest book, The Written World: The Power of Stories to Shape People, History, Civilisation. Published by Random House, 2018

What might be the role and importance of an avant-gardist community as being ahead in our times, if we especially re-consider occupy movements such as Gezi Occupy in Turkey (2013), Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong (2014), Arab Spring (2011)? These political acts are also seen and discussed as art events by many scholars and artists. My experience, for example, during Gezi Occupy showed me that “the sky can still fall on our heads,” to borrow a sentence from Antonin Artaud, who thinks that art has been “created to teach us that.” This political movement was both a demonstration of “being mindful of the gap between life, art and politics” and, also, a liminal experience between those. It was not ahead of something or someone, but the ahead of its own self. Would you like to talk a little bit about your point of view or your experience of avant-garde and today’s politic-artistic upheavals?

I think you yourself just gave a couple of great examples. I completely agree that the movements you mentioned have something of the avant-garde spirit in them, including in the innovative use of art, especially public art. As someone who has studied the manifestos written by earlier generations of artists and activists, I am struck by how relatively few manifestos have emerged from these movements. In the case of Occupy Wall Street, there were even deliberate decisions to avoid writing manifestos (though manifesto-like texts did emerge).

Video 2

Martin Puchner on the history of the written world

My own guess is that today, it is difficult to write in a single, collective voice, the “we,” of the manifesto. There is too much internal dissent. The organization of these new movements does not revolve around a charismatic leader like Marx, or Lenin, or Breton who might author such a text. It will be interesting to see what new genres will emerge from these movements, how they will articulate their vision. Because I think they need to do that. It doesn’t have to be in the form of the manifesto, but I firmly believe that without some form of pointed, collective articulation of a movement’s values and goals, it will be difficult to sustain them.

Allow me just one more closing question. You are the founder of the Mellon School of Theatre and Performance Research. Can you talk a little about it? What are the objectives or the aim of this “summer school”?

The Mellon School was a reaction to what I see as the relative isolation of early career scholars in the performing arts. Many of them are based in English departments, where few colleagues will study the performing arts, or in theater practice departments, where most colleagues will be practitioners, not scholars. In this situation, I thought that it would be important for advanced graduate students, post-doctoral students and faculty to come together as a community. And this is exactly what happens every year. I have been particularly pleased by how well this community-building effort has succeeded. Many participants stay in contact and collaborate with each other or with the faculty we invite afterwards. I’m also pleased with how international the school has become. Sometimes, theater scholarship here in the US can be a bit provincial, too focused on US topics and themes, which is why it’s been a true pleasure for me to see so many international participants.

Puchner with participants of Mellon School of Theatre and Performance Research. June 11, 2018.
Photo: Rebecca Curran


*Eylem Ejder is a PhD candidate in the Department of Theatre at Ankara University, Turkey. She is a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics—Turkey Section and assistant editor of the theatre journal Oyun (Play). She is currently writing her dissertation, entitled “Narratives of Experience: Monodrama in the Post-2000s Turkish Theatre.” Her PhD studies are being supported by The Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TUBITAK) within the National PhD Fellowship Programme.

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Theater, Philosophy, Literature: A Field of Tension. Interview with Professor Martin Puchner
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