Unaccomodated Kings on Stage: Cavell and the Curse of Theatricality
In an effort to approach the larger question of the importance of theater to the philosophical thought of Stanley Cavell – and especially to his interests in moral perfectionism, modernism, and tragedy – this paper considers two seminal essays from Must We Mean What We Say?: “The Avoidance of Love,” which scrutinizes Shakespeare’s King Lear, and “Ending the Waiting Game,” which sounds out Beckett’s Endgame. Both of Cavell’s careful readings register the philosophical problem of theatricality – a problem that is both articulated and complicated by the theater. Moreover, in crucial ways that have gone unremarked, Cavell’s attention to these particular plays – representatives of Renaissance and modern drama –not only reveals the way in which this problem of theatricality is related to the politico-philosophical problem of sovereignty (the figure of the king is paramount for each play, and indeed, Hamm seems to be a modern reflection of Lear), but also suggests that these linked issues of theatricality and sovereignty constitute a complex problematic that modern drama inherits, perhaps as a curse.
Nicole Jerr is the Shirley Passow and Ruth Rickard Humanities Fellow in the Humanities Center at Johns Hopkins University, where she is completing her dissertation, Pretenders to the Throne: Sovereignty and Modern Drama, under the direction of Michael Fried, Hent de Vries, and Martin Puchner (Harvard University). She has been a participant of the Mellon School for Theater and Performance Studies both for its inaugural session, “Theater Among the Other Arts,” as well as its session on “Theater and Philosophy.” She is co-editor of The Scaffold of Sovereignty (forthcoming from Columbia University Press, Studies in Political Thought Series). Her article, “Modern and Tragic? Kierkegaard’s Antigone and the Aesthetics of Isolation” is forthcoming in Philosophy and Literature (April 2014).