April 28: Joseph Cermatori

April 28: Joseph Cermatori

Landscapes of Melancholy: Benjamin, Trauerspiel, and the Pathways of Tradition

April 28, 2022 12-1pm ET via Zoom

The cover of Joseph Cermatori's newest book, "Baroque Modernity: An Aesthetics of Theater."
The cover of “Baroque Modernity: An Aesthetics of Theater.”

This chapter analyzes Walter Benjamin’s postdoctoral thesis (or Habilitationsschrift), the Origin of the German Trauerspiel, both as an idiosyncratic work of theater history, and as a theory of baroque theatricality. The rise of German Expressionist Theater in the 1910s impelled Benjamin’s study of the baroque Trauerspiel, or mournful stage play. In this light, I demonstrate that Benjamin’s Trauerspiel-book characterizes baroque theatricality as irreducibly spatial, medial, and incompatible with humanist notions of sovereign subjecthood. Trauerspiel in Benjamin’s description anticipates the rise of twentieth- and twenty-first-century “landscape” theaters as described by numerous contemporary critics (Elinor Fuchs, Una Chaudhuri, Hans-Thies Lehmann). Hence the emphasis in baroque theater generally on spectacle and choreography, on staging as such, subjects on which Benjamin makes crucial insights frequently overlooked by Benjamin scholars. With reference to Trauerspiele like Andreas Gryphius’s Leo Armenius (1650) and Catherine of Georgia (1657), I read Benjamin’s theory of allegory as a theory of theatricality in performance, one that anticipates the notion of theatricality Michael Fried has developed in his writings on painting. In the baroque, allegory presupposes a necessarily theatrical quality, insofar as it demands a hieroglyphic spectator (or beholder) to interpret its emblems in space and time. With this notion of allegory as theatricality, I show that Benjamin soon associated the full panorama of modernist art and literature from Baudelaire to the 1930s with a diffuse but somehow unavowable baroque inheritance.Above all, he detected baroque qualities in Brecht’s epic theater, which Benjamin recognized, against the grain, as allegorical. Teasing apart Brecht and Benjamin’s theories of theater, I underscore the baroque conventions that persist within Brecht’s dramaturgy, revealing him within the same tradition or historical pathway as the Trauerspiele of Gryphius, Shakespeare, and Calderón. Finally, I read the Arcades Project to show Benjamin recognized the commodity form to be allegorical in structure and modern capitalist markets to be likewise baroque in form, imposing upon humanity a cycle of catastrophe that Trauerspiel already detected in the history process as early as 1600.

Photograph of Joseph CermatoriJoseph Cermatori is a writer, editor, critic, translator, and historian. He teaches and publishes in the fields of comparative literature, modern and contemporary drama, performance studies, and critical theory. In addition to his primary research interest in twentieth-century modernism, his scholarship encompasses the broad history of art and ideas in Western culture from 1600 to the present, focusing on the philosophical content of artistic and creative forms.

Currently he is assistant professor of English at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he is affiliated with the department of theater and the program in gender studies. He previously taught at The New School in New York City as part of its liberal arts faculty (2013-2016). He received the Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature with emphases on Theater, and Comparative Literature and Society, in 2016. Since 2016, he has been a contributing editor to the downtown arts magazine PAJ, where he has written regularly for over a decade. He contributes widely to field journals and public discussions on the arts, with recent work appearing in PMLA, Salmagundi, The Village Voice, and The New York Times.

Most recently, Cermatori is author of Baroque Modernity: An Aesthetics of Theater (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021), which traces the survival of baroque aesthetic forms through modern theater and philosophy, uncovering a long history of theatricality that echoes into the twenty-first century. The book was honored with the American Comparative Literature Association’s Helen Tartar First Book Award in 2021 and has been hailed as ‘a genuine tour de force’ by Adrian Daub (Professor of Comparative Literature, Stanford University). At present, Cermatori is preparing a new edition of nonfiction writings by the American playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, expanding on previous Wilder anthologies by editors Donald Gallup and J.D. McClatchy.

His studies have been supported with awards and fellowships from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library (2008, 2022), the U.S. Department of Education’s Jacob K. Javits Foundation (2011-2015), the Marion Ponsford Fellowship Fund (2016), and through his participation with institutes for advanced research at Northwestern (2009) and Harvard University (2012).

Outside the academy, Cermatori has served as a dramaturg for numerous organizations and artists, including Theater for a New Audience, Classic Stage Company, and the stage directors R.B. Schlather and Daniel Fish. His published translations include scripts and aesthetic writings by the Italian theater director Romeo Castellucci. As a director of theater and opera, he has staged productions of works by William Shakespeare, Henry Purcell, Sarah Kane, and Bertolt Brecht, among others. He is the author of a new libretto, entitled Saint Cecilia: or the Power of Music (after Heinrich von Kleist), currently being set to music by the composer Ryan Homsey.