The nervous stage: nineteenth-century neuroscience and the birth of modern Theatre by Matthew Wilson Smith (review)

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Title

Modern Drama




University of Toronto Press


Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA)


Marshall, J. W. (2018). The Nervous Stage: Nineteenth-Century Neuroscience and the Birth of Modern Theatre by Matthew Wilson Smith (review). Modern Drama 61(4), 602-604. University of Toronto Press. Available here


The rise of neurobiology has led to a concomitant rise in scholarship examining its influence on the arts. Drawing especially on Nicholas Daly, Joseph Roach, Rae Beth Gordon, Stanton B. Garner, Jr., and Alan Richardson, Matthew Wilson Smith traces a trajectory through acting, melodrama, opera, naturalism, expressionism, and Artaudian theatre to argue that the nineteenth-century "theatre of sensation" as Daly calls it (qtd. on 14–15) served as a template for modern performance. In The Nervous Stage, Smith uses six horizontal case studies to sketch an impressionistic narrative, offering some quite brilliant exegeses of his texts. The focus on depth over breadth means that Smith presents a theorization of what makes theatre modern, rather than a vertical history of modernist theatre per se. Smith initially positions his study as an account of how the transparent language of gestural expression underpinning classical acting gave way to an abstract and self-referential neural formulation, an energetics of semi-reflexive corporeal events (8–9, 42). The author only spends part of the first chapter discussing acting theory, however, elsewhere delving into scripts, scores, and dramaturgical writings as he draws the reader inexorably toward his concluding discussion of Artaudian cruelty.

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