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Summary Article: theater
from Aesthetics A-Z

Theater is the oldest hybrid art form. It is traditionally a combination of prose or poetry, music, dance, visual and decorative arts, and with current technological advancements, also film and new media art, all incorporated into live performance. Thus the philosophical study of theater tends to overlap with many of the issues that are indigenous to the other arts. A typical theater performance – for example, a performance of Shakespeare's Hamlet – is in a sense enacted literature, and it is also thoroughly mimetic. Ontologically, such a typical case can be easily handled by the type/token distinction: each performance of Hamlet is a token of the type Hamlet, that is, Shakespeare's play, which is the artwork. The performance is an interpretation of the play; this means that the performance token will have properties that exceed its type. Furthermore, a live theater performance is attended by an audience. Insofar as the performance is mimetic, it will normally involve also the exercise of the imagination on the part of the audience and a subsequent emotional response. However it is important to note that this characterization of the typical theater performance is far too restrictive to account for the full spectrum of theatrical phenomena. In effect, the identity of theater is rather fixed by marking the range of relevant phenomena, not by any set of necessary and sufficient conditions. While theater has been traditionally understood as enacted literature ever since Aristotle, a script is not a necessary condition for a theater performance, and this also limits the idea of performance as interpretation. Theater is also not necessarily fictional or representational. The fact that during a live theater performance the players and the audience occupy the same space at the same time is an open invitation for many aspects of encroachment on the barrier between make-believe and reality that are now rampant in contemporary theater. In fact, theater tends to blend into the broader realm of performance art. Given these conceptual complications, it is noteworthy that the make-believe theory shows unusual promise as a viable framework for a philosophical understanding of a broad range of theatrical phenomena.

See improvisation; paradox of acting; paradox of tragedy; realism; tragedy

Further reading: Saltz 1991; Thom 1993

© Eran Guter, 2010

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