The Pleasure of the Phenomenological Attitude

Bert O. States, The Pleasure of the Play. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Bert States’s plan was to write an introductory text for a beginning course in drama, a book that would deal with the basic principles of dramatic construction. That plan was gradually abandoned as he became aware, first, that the elementary principles of dramatic structure—e.g., plot, character, action, thought—“demand the most complex consideration,” each being problematic in itself, each throwing off a host of related problems, and that, therefore, the audience for the book should not be beginners. He then, as he says, waked up to a fact that had been “in front of [his] eyes all along”: namely that Aristotle, in the Poetics, had already written “the real introductory text of the drama,” and that what he actually wanted to write was “a book about that book’s value as a tool for poking among these so-called elementary problems.” The resulting work—The Pleasure of the Play—is an engagement with drama that is profound, charming, and useful.

Its profundity arises in part from States’s adherence to “the phenomenological attitude,” about which he had written in 1992 ("The Phenomenological Attitude," Critical Theory and Performance, rev.ed., ed. Janelle O. Reinelt and Joseph Roach [Michigan, 2007], pp. 26-35). As a phenomenological critic, he refuses to take his eye off what he actually sees, he ponders issues that most critics consider obvious, and, in the process of striving “to show how theater becomes theater—that is, how theater throws up the pretense that it is another kind of reality than the one constituting the ground on which its pretense is based”—he also presents, as a necessary corollary to theater’s pretense, unexpected truths about the “kind of reality” in which we as mortals live and die. Of these three characteristics—the unwavering focus on what theater presents to his eyes and ears, the willingness to rethink the obvious, and the awareness of the clear differences between drama and “the ground on which its pretense is based”—the first two he shares with other phenomenological critics. He is like them in wishing to strip away the film of perceptual familiarity created by reiteration in order to see and hear—and accept—the thing itself. As he wrote in 1992, “if one were looking for an alternative to the radical skepticism of deconstruction and postmodernism,…one can find it most readily in the phenomenological attitude that uninhibitedly accepts everything it sees.” Given the fact, for example, that much appears to change in a given character during a play, “where do the eye and ear get the notion that something called character is iterating itself, always being itself, in this chaos of different and differing phenomena in the stage world?” As for the charge that much of what he explores can be dismissed by the unsympathetic as “obvious,” he quotes phenomenologist Bruce Wiltshire--“Phenomenology is the systematic attempt to unmask the obvious”--before adding his own explanation: namely, that phenomenology is “an effort to recover what in our experience has been ‘annihilated . . . by reiteration.’” His willingness to rethink the obvious accounts for his comment on Coleridge's formulation, now become a truism for theatrical performance, that fiction demands "a willing suspension of disbelief": "the suspension is willed, or we are willing to undergo the suspension," he writes, "only in the sense that we weren't forced to come to the theater in the first place; once there, we are helpless expectant victims, and two of the few things that can rescue us from its grip are poor acting and a boring play."

The third characteristic that grants profundity to The Pleasure of the Play seems to belong distinctively to States. Behind his descriptions of the play’s wholeness, of its portrayal of a world in which there is a level of entelechial causality, as if a god lurks behind and within the action, lies States’s constant awareness of how these features set the play world apart from our world. He writes, for example, that an event seen through "the window of mimetic art" reveals "a unity, the sign of a fateful order inhering in human events," while the same event occurring in real life more often reflects "the indifference of the causal order to human desires." Or, in another example that at the same time goes to his awareness of the seeming obviousness of his questions, he reflects on Aristotle's "claim that a dramatic action must have 'a beginning, a middle, and an end,' thus forming a 'whole' with a 'certain magnitude'":

As a student, this idea always struck me as belonging in the same book of tautologies as Calvin Coolidge's remark that the more people are out of work the higher the unemployment. How could it be otherwise? But if one takes Aristotle's statement as a necessary first step--in effect, as a beginning, in his own sense of a beginning as something that has nothing before it and from which something else follows--one has the advantage, in one clean shot, of separating the action of plays from human action and experience in the open world where things, more often than not, go on and on in all directions and get hopelessly mixed in with other things.

This passage not only neatly separates the fictive world from "the open world," but it also serves as an example of the book’s charm. Its range of rhetorical registers is wide--more typical is the sentence following the above quotation: "In other words, the idea of the whole may be obvious, but it is a first principle in which virtually all the constructional subprinciples of the Poetics are nested"--and States's occasional shifts into the colloquial, as in the above quotation, are witty and pleasurable. Writing about the differences between epic and tragedy, for instance, he notes that in epic "skill in combat or superior numbers" tend to decide any given battle, while in tragedy "skill in arms is scarcely a factor (Hamlet seems to be a better swordsman than Laertes, and look what it gets him.)" Or, again, in discussing that which gives pleasure in the drama, he writes that "Discovery, or what I call unconcealment, is probably the central principle of dramatic action and a main source of our pleasure in reading or witnessing plays. It is not pleasurable to the likes of poor Oedipus, of course, but then he is only an imitation of the real thing."

The Pleasure of the Play, then, is itself a pleasure to read. It is also extremely useful for the student of drama, and perhaps of Shakespearean drama in particular. Its analysis of the nested cluster of Aristotelian “parts” that characterize good drama—wholeness, peripety, recognition, pathos—demonstrates persuasively that drama is a single genus obeying the same general principles and giving the same general pleasure whether the dramatist be Sophocles or Beckett. The book’s discussions of character (in that word’s assortment of meanings) and of dramatic character in particular are eye-opening, especially when States selects such a character as Othello to show how action, wholeness, and probability are inseparable, how Shakespeare creates protagonists who do not violate what States elsewhere calls “an invisible circumscribed field of behavioral potentiality,” to whom Shakespeare gives “a certain stance toward the world, until he submits them to the machinery of reversal, which is substantially composed of the Identity-projects of other characters.” I have also found especially helpful States’s formulation of what he names “Aristotle’s law” –namely, that “the interest and pleasure of the audience arise from the gap between the predictable and the unexpected”—along with his illustration of this law in Oedipus Rex, a play which makes electric an already familiar story through its “countless moments of friction, recursion, and strange attraction, signaled in the seemingly gratuitous occurrence of innocent details that turn out to be less than innocent, and in the constant suppression of Oedipus’s own suspicion under the cover of his violence—in other words,” he goes on,

all those things, large and small, in which the progress of the inevitable clarification registers itself as an unforeseen feature of the causal order. This, I assume, is what [Victor] Shklovsky meant by saying that the purpose of defamiliarization is to make poetry “difficult” and to increase length of perception—that is, difficulty as a form of impedance, like air density, that slows down the speed of the event so that it may be savored, at the proper pace of unconcealment, by the play’s wonder-wounded hearers.

In his 1992 essay about the phenomenological attitude, States noted that “phenomenological criticism is probably the most personal form of critical commentary.” Although he himself saw The Pleasure of the Play as an attempt to link Aristotle’s thinking to a variety of “more recent methodologies, such as structuralism, semiotics, [and] reader response theory,” its primary stance is phenomenological—and therefore personal. The voice that comes through its inquiry into “how—by what structural means--the play ‘anticipates’ our desires and succeeds in awakening [and satisfying] them” is that of an engaging, humane, and perceptive critic. It is a voice to which I always listen with pleasure.