It is easy to forget that there are disadvantages to preserved performance. Even old technology, like this very book, has downsides for a culture or an individual. A seminal attack on preserved performance was written by the philosopher Plato who worried that philosophy in books lost something when compared to philosophy learned live in the marketplace with a teacher such as his own beloved Socrates. Plato said:

“Take a man who thinks that a written discourse on any subject can only be a great amusement, that no discourse worth serious attention has ever been written in verse or prose, and that those that are recited in public without questioning and explanation, in the matter of the poets, are given only in order to produce conviction. He believes that at their very best these can only serve as reminders to those who already know.

And he also thinks that only what is said for the sake of understanding and learning, what is truly written in the soul concerning what is just, noble, and good can be clear, perfect, and worth serious attention: Such discourses he may have discovered already within himself and then its sons and brothers who may have grown naturally in other souls insofar as these are worthy; to the rest he turns his back. Such a man, Phaedrus, would be just what you and I both would pray to become.” 4

Plato’s Problem with Preserved Performance

What is Plato arguing in this passage? It is very odd that a literary genius writing one of the greatest books, Phaedrus, would attack books in his book.

There is a silly opinion about Plato among artists, poets, and communicators that he didn’t like art, poetry, and communication.5 Plato worried about preserved discourse but went ahead creating it. He warned about the abuse of texts while creating them. One way he guarded against the dangers of static discourse was to write in the dialogue format. By building his conversations around conversations, Plato intentionally invited the reader to challenge his opinions. He tried to invite the reader into an active conversation with himself by paradoxes and puzzles.

Something more subtle than a rejection of preserved text is at play in Phaedrus. Plato is attacking written communication to argue that something is being lost when you preserve a performance.

First, preserved performance is static. It cannot change to suit the needs of the audience.

As a member of the audience, my interaction with a theater performance can change the play. A “hot audience” makes a play better, and a “cold audience” can do the reverse. Different responses draw attention to different aspects of the play often unseen by cast and crew.

Any actor knows this is the case. I once performed in a play held during a blizzard. Almost nobody showed up, and all the energy was drained from the cast or at least from me. It was the hardest performance of my life since getting three people to laugh is basically impossible, and when they do, solitary laughter in a great space is hard to tell from mockery.

Community is formed between actor and audience in live theater, music, or any other artistic performance. The audience is part of the event.

On the other hand, if I go to a film, whatever my response, the film just keeps rolling. I might be able to impact the viewing pleasure of fellow audience members but not the performers. Recently my wife and I had the misfortune of seeing a film in a theater full of junior high students. They ruined our evening, but they did not change the film. The actors and the production were not impacted by them. This is an important difference between the community formed between actor and audience in theater and the more distant relationship between film actor and filmgoer.

The community of audience and performers in a live performance is something that should not be missed, but our culture is making it ever easier to miss it. Music, for example, is now rarely experienced live, and this cheats us out of a deep musical experience that cannot be duplicated with even a perfect sound system.