Matthew Wilson Smith, The Nervous Stage: Nineteenth-century Neuroscience and the Birth of Modern Theatre

Matthew Wilson Smith, The Nervous Stage: Nineteenth-century Neuroscience and the Birth of Modern Theatre Oxford University Press 2017 240 pp. £29.99 Hb. ISBN: 9780190644086

In The Nervous Stage Matthew Wilson Smith unfolds a fascinating world of relationships between nineteenth-century studies on the nerves and drama, in order to demonstrate that the roots of brain research and its avant-garde impact on twentieth century theater – bearing in mind the case of Antonin Artaud – are to be found throughout the nineteenth century. This ambitious project challenges simplistic portrayals of neural studies in the nineteenth-century as predecessors of modern neurology and traces different moments which emphasize the central role of theatre in both social interaction and neural exploration. Each chapter maintains a dialogue between artists and scientists, advancing the argument that increasing interest in the nerves and sensations generated a series of literary works which destabilized representation. These compositions are what Smith will call theaters of sensation (11).

Smith sets the scene by presenting the early nineteenth-century cultural shift from gestures to sensations. A crisis of representation of the universality of gestures as a straightforward way of reading behaviors paved the way towards the fault lines of pedagogical handbooks such as Henry Home Kames's Elements of Criticism (1762), Gilbert Austin's Chiromania (1806), and Henry Siddons's Illustrations of Gesture and Action (1807), which already show the difficulty of distinguishing the universal reading of feelings (19-25). This introduction concludes with a close reading of Joana Baillie's Plays on Passions (1798-1836) in tune with the latest neurological research of the time (31), to prove the increasing fascination for involuntary expressions and the consequent betrayal of the features of the well-educated. This fault line makes Baillie dive into the 'most hidden regions of the mind' (28) and ushers in the rise in neurological explorations. This gestural disintegration is also present in Percy Shelley's The Cenci and George Büchner's Woyzeck. The Cenci and Woyzeck are the subject of the second chapter, which delineates the crisis of representation in both works, linking the two to the Avant-Garde era, when they were finally premiered (48). Woyzeck, particularly, conceptualized the change from gestures to sensations and articulated a common ground between Kantian idealism and materialist physiology, borrowing from the latest theories of nerve stimulation (57). In a similar argument to the first chapter, Smith concludes that Büchner’s conflation of several material mysterious forces and influx of sensations make his preoccupations close to those of the twentieth century.

The third chapter moves to mid-century sensation drama, technology, and the press by exploring the artistic and neurological dilemmas of the railway, which was viewed as a systemic transformation of the neurological discourse. Here, the author excels in describing how the railway expands as a discourse of nervous trauma. The chapter concludes with a close reading of Charles Dickens's 'The Signal Man' (1866), in which the author reflects on the relationship between melodrama and industrialized sensation, and shows that 'in a world increasingly governed by nervousness and risk […] gesture hunts rather than signifies' (97).

Following the thread of popular sensations, Smith jumps to Richard Wagner's exploration of nerves through his works Beethoven (1870) and Parsifal (1882), the subject of the fourth chapter. Disentangling the relationship between Wagner and Schopenhauer, Smith unfolds the composer's conception of mutual participation of external stimuli, sense organs, and the brain in the production of sensation. Greatly influenced by Schopenhauer's writings on neuropsychological conditions, Wagner reorientates music and drama 'in favor of the spiritual and disembodied', while keeping alive 'the pulsations of the nerves' (113). More importantly, both Beethoven and Parsifal blur the boundaries between the clairvoyant somnambulist and the clairvoyant hysteric, a fear dramatized in Kundry, Parsifal's mysterious creature. The predilection for hysteria connects Wagnerian aesthetics in Bayreuth to the great medical theater of Jean-Martin Charcot in La Salpetrière.

The fifth chapter accordingly constructs the neural subject around the extravaganzas of Charcot, the premiere neurologist of La Salpetrière during fin de siècle Paris, and his relationship with Hyppolite Bernheim from the School of Nancy. Charcot made neurology 'a coherent field of modern scientific study' (132) by crafting a purely theatrical method of diagnostics insofar as 'he sought what he called archetypes, or general forms of illnesses discovered through a synthesis of observable clinical signs and underlying pathological changes' (133). In order to experiment with hysterics, Charcot used hypnotism with a pedagogical purpose, blurring the line between medical spontaneity and performance. Ironically, Charcot fought against stage representations of hypnosis by creating his own neural theatre. This dilemma leads Smith to  conclude with the popular theatrical representations of Le Grand Guignol (1897-1962), which usually portrayed 'a grotesque picture of neurological and psychological institutions' (146) while entertaining the audience.

Finally, Smith explores Emile Zola's 1873 theatrical adaptation of Thérèse Raquin (1867), which inspired August Strindberg's Miss Julie (1888). While both plays complicate the neurophysiological determinism of naturalism, Miss Julie, influenced by the spiritual disembodiment of turn-of-the-century occultist trends and Charcot, moves towards the modern techniques of Expressionism while extending the neural subject to a network of invisible, mysterious energies. Concluding this impressive survey of science, theater, and cultural history, Smith finishes with Sigmund Freud's Interpretation of Dreams and Artaud's theater as the latest forms of the gradual transition 'from the gestural representation to one of nervous sensation' (183).

The Nervous Stage: Nineteenth Century Neuroscience and the Birth of Modern Theater makes a convincing case for the centrality of literary forms in the study of the history of science. The only caveat is that there is too much information in different chapters, which jump chronologically and spatially, and might make reading a little confusing at times. But apart from this minor limitation, this is a highly recommendable book, which will pique the interest not only of an eager band of nineteenth-century historians of science, but also of scholars throughout the humanities.

Marta Ferrer, Columbia University