Theses Doctoral

Traditions of the Baroque: Modernist Conceptual Stagings Between Theory and Performance

Cermatori, Joseph Paul

Between 1880 and 1930, European and American modernists connected to the theater became fascinated with the subject of the baroque. Among the first, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that the baroque style recurs throughout western history, tending in every artistic medium toward the theatricality of strong emotions and exciting gestures. His writings reflect a larger trend during this period, imagining the baroque as a spectral presence of sorts, a force both haunted by theater and haunting western history repeatedly. “Traditions of the Baroque” takes up these various hauntings, pursuing two simultaneous claims. It argues that the memory of the baroque stages of seventeenth-century Europe helped produce new forms of theater, space, and experience around the turn of the twentieth century. At the same time, it also argues that modern theater has played a key role in the baroque’s development into a modern philosophical concept, both for the analysis of art, and for a self-reflexive inquiry into the nature of philosophical discourse itself. These two reciprocal developments amount to a “modernist baroque” paradigm in theory and theater alike: a pattern of having to look back to the past in order to pursue the new.
Tracing this pattern, “Traditions of the Baroque” focuses on avant-gardists whose thought and writing takes place between theory and performance: philosophical theater-makers and theatrical philosophers from Nietzsche and Stéphane Mallarmé to Walter Benjamin and Gertrude Stein. Moving between the page and the stage, it tracks citations of seventeenth-century theater through modernist aesthetic theory across an array of otherwise disparate materials: Nietzsche’s writings on Wagnerian opera; Mallarmé’s hermetic and unstageable theatricals; Benjamin’s analyses of Expressionism and Epic Theater; and Stein’s saintly miracle plays. At each step, it uncovers a notion of historical unfolding based not on narrative progress, but on the citability and iterability of the past, making clear that the idea of the baroque spurred modernist thinkers to reimagine both western history and modernity altogether. Far from perpetuating age-old anti-theatrical prejudices based in transcendental metaphysics, Nietzsche, Mallarmé, Benjamin, and Stein all adopt baroque forms of theatricality precisely to subvert the ideological regimes of the past. The baroque becomes, for these authors, a means to disrupt norms of representation across a wide array of registers: aesthetic, economic, sexual, historiographic, and metaphysical. These modernists take up the baroque vision of the world as a grand theater organized around a divine center, and radically transform it to suit a modern awareness of performance’s pervasiveness in everyday life. Their modernist baroque functions not as an official style of hegemonic power— such as the absolutist state or counterreformation church—but as a deconstructive force, one that extends the baroque’s afterlife into the contemporary theater and theory of our present time.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Peters, Julie Stone
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 27, 2016