Literary and Critical Theory The Philosophy of Theater
Michael Y. Bennett
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0095


Theater—i.e., traditional text-based theater—is often considered the art form that most closely resembles lived life: real bodies in space play out a story through the passage of time. Because of this, theater (or theatre) has long been a laboratory of, and for, philosophical thought and reflection. The study of philosophy and theater has a history that dates back to, and flourished in, ancient Greece and Rome. While philosophers over the centuries have revisited the study of theater, the past four decades in particular have seen a noted and substantial increase of scholarship investigating this intersection between philosophy and theater. “Philosophy of theater” is, on one hand, a “field” that is just starting to take shape and is barely over a decade old; on another hand, it is a recognized subfield both of aesthetics and of theater and performance studies. And finally, it is also an amorphous concept, either not yet fleshed out, or intentionally amorphous and proudly organic. Philosophy of theater is also sometimes referred to—or is argued to be subsumed, more broadly, in—“performance philosophy,” which also refers to a network of academics and practitioners that publishes a book series and a journal of the same name. Regardless of what it is called or how it is classified, scholarship has coalesced around some fundamental preoccupations, which are not too dissimilar to questions that arise in other philosophies of. . . (e.g., art, film, dance, etc.). The debates in philosophy of theater mostly fall into three of the main branches of philosophy: metaphysics, epistemology, and aesthetics. The major metaphysical debates center on an ontological question: What is theater? Epistemological studies tend to focus on audience reception and/or how meaning is made and/or transmitted. Finally, studies in aesthetics focus on two main questions: (1) What is theater as an art form? (2) What is the relationship between dramatic text and theatrical performance? This article is intentionally narrow in its scope, focusing on philosophy and theater traditions that came out of Greek theater and philosophy, in order to ensure a sufficient amount of depth, not (merely) breadth.

General Overviews

While the epic work of the history of theater criticism, Carlson 1993, traces many of the lines of thought explored in the philosophy of theater, any self-aware semblance of a field did not really happen until the publication of the edited collection Krasner and Saltz 2006, which seems to have almost singlehandedly put its finger on the pulse of this emergent field. Hamilton 2007 is the first book on theater by a contemporary philosopher, which is based on an earlier work (Hamilton 2001, cited under Dramatic Text and Theatrical Performance). It is in the mid-2010s that reflections on, theorizations of, and major contributions to the field begin to come to prominence: Puchner 2013, Stern 2014, Saltz 2015, Stern 2017). Carlson 2018, the third edition of a classic text on performance theory, which intersects in some key ways with the philosophy of theater, is also released around this time. Hamilton 2019 provides the decade with a retrospective and a future path to inquiry.

  • Carlson, Marvin. Theories of the Theater: A Historical and Critical Survey from the Greeks to the Present. Expanded ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993.

    This is a monumental work of theater history, in a sense that it tracks the critical and theoretical response to theater over the millennia, from Plato and Aristotle, through Nietzsche, to the semiotics of theater.

  • Carlson, Marvin. Performance: A Critical Introduction. 3d ed. London: Routledge, 2018.

    While not quite about the philosophy of theater or performance, this is an already-classic text, now in its third edition, that provides a lot of the theoretical backbone to theater and performance studies (intersecting, at times, with philosophy of theater).

  • Hamilton, James R. The Art of Theater. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470690871

    Coming from the field of philosophical aesthetics and epistemology, this is the first major contemporary book-length study on theater by a philosopher, and as such it is a central text to the study of the philosophy of theater.

  • Hamilton, James R. “The Philosophy of Theater.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2019.

    An important compliment and/or supplement to this present article, Hamilton’s article on the philosophy of theater is, primarily, for philosophers. While not overly technical, there are some sections where some familiarity of philosophical discourse is helpful. As Hamilton comes from the field of aesthetics, added emphasis is placed on aesthetics in this article.

  • Krasner, David, and David Saltz, eds. Staging Philosophy: Intersections of Theater, Performance, and Philosophy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006.

    A foundational book in the field, as this edited collection almost singlehandedly brought the study of theater and philosophy to the forefront of the field of theater and performance studies.

  • Puchner, Martin. “Afterword: Please Mind the Gap between Theatre and Philosophy.” Modern Drama 56.4 (2013): 540–553.

    DOI: 10.3138/md.S85

    Giving an overview of the historical distrust between the two disciplines, theater and philosophy, this article attempts to bridge the gap in order to find common ground, understanding how the two fields use each other. This article, both directly and indirectly, provides a thorough history of the intersection between theater and philosophy.

  • Saltz, David. “From Semiotics to Philosophy: Daring to Ask the Obvious.” Performance Philosophy 1 (2015): 95–105.

    DOI: 10.21476/PP.2015.1124

    A great and readable article that offers a (retrospective) history of the field of the philosophy of theater.

  • Stern, Tom. Philosophy and Theatre: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2014.

    This is an introductory book to the field. Those familiar with the field of the philosophy of theater may not need to consult it, other than for a brush-up of the overall sweep of the field. However, this book should prove an indispensable guide into, and a starting point for, the study of the philosophy of theater for the newcomer.

  • Stern, Tom, ed. The Philosophy of Theatre, Drama, and Acting. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017.

    A collection of essays on philosophy and theater/theatrical performance, the dramatic text, and acting, this book has essays on a wide range of topics from many leading philosophers of theater.

  • Zamir, Tzachi. Acts: Theater, Philosophy, and the Performing Self. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014.

    DOI: 10.3998/mpub.6610419

    The first book-length study of acting from a philosophical perspective, this is an excellent and approachable book, key to all future study about the philosophy of acting.

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