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The Institute for the Arts and Humanities welcomed philosopher and literary critic Martin Puchner to UNC to give the 2013 Mary Stevens Reckford Memorial Lecture in European Studies on Thursday, February 21. This talk was the 19th annual Reckford Lecture presented by the IAH.

Puchner, the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of Drama and English and comparative literature at Harvard University, delivered the free public lecture entitled “Theater and Philosophy: Socrates on the Modern Stage” in Gerrard Hall. This year’s Reckford Lecture was one of many events taking place on campus as part of The Rite of Spring at 100, a year-long initiative and collaboration between the Institute and Carolina Performing Arts.

In his talk, Puchner explored how The Rite of Spring exemplifies a form of traditional European modernism based on ritual, primitivism and the body, and he confronted it with a tradition of modern theater focused on the drama of ideas. He argued that the traditional form of modernism of “shock and awe” which The Rite embodies is common, but is not the sole form that modernist art takes.

Theater is a mixed art form, Puchner explained, so it naturally challenges any simple notion of truth. “How, then, can philosophy, with its focus on truth, coexist with theater?” Plato famously banned theater from his ideal Republic, thus establishing the hostility between philosophy and drama. Yet Plato’s philosophy is presented in the form of dramatic dialogues that incorporate common elements of traditional drama such as conflict, characters and scene. Puchner then considered modernist playwrights, especially Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw, who write plays that can be called “Platonic” in both their use of dialogic form and their focus on philosophical ideas.

Puchner ended the lecture by pondering if these two forms of modernism—primitivism vs. intellectual art—are two separate traditions, or if perhaps there’s not as much opposition as one would imagine. Where do we see the philosophical drama in The Rite of Spring, known for shock and awe? He prefers “drama that doesn’t use theater as a means to an end or a pedagogical vehicle, but is rather a confrontation between material art forms and philosophies.”

Martin Puchner

Puchner’s writing and research focuses on world literature, drama, modernism and philosophy. He is the founding director of the Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research at Harvard University and is the general editor of the Norton Anthology of Drama (2009), the Norton Anthology of World Literature (2012) and the Norton Anthology of Western Literature (2013).

His publications include Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality, and Drama (Hopkins, 2002); Poetry of the Revolution: Marx, Manifestos, and the Avant-Gardes (Princeton, 2006), for which he won the MLA’s James Russell Lowell Award; and The Drama of Ideas: Platonic Provocations in Theater and Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), winner of the Joe A. Callaway Prize and the Water Channing Cabot Prize. His essays and reviews have been published in The London Review of Books, Raritan Review, N+1, Yale Journal of Criticism, The Drama Review, The Journal of the History of Ideas, New Literary History, Theatre Research International, and Theatre Journal, among others.

The Mary Stevens Reckford Memorial Lecture in European Studies

The annual Reckford Lecture in European Studies is designed to appeal to a broad public by introducing a general audience to the study of modern and historical Europe through a humanistic lens. UNC classics professor emeritus Kenneth J. Reckford established the lecture in 1990 to honor his late wife, Mary Stevens Reckford, and speakers are asked to provide “pleasure, instruction, an interdisciplinary approach and a sense of shared humanity.”

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