Professor David Wiles
Emeritus Professor of Drama
I am a historian of the theatre, which means that I am someone who wants to understand the present, because it is the past that has made us who we are. Teaching and creative practice has always informed my research. I now live in Oxford where I am pursuing community theatre ventures, and participate in academic life as a member of Wolfson College.
My main historical areas of interest have always been the theatres of Greece and Elizabethan England, and more recently the European Enlightenment. Important themes in my work have been performance space, masked acting, festival, and the function of theatre in society. I have resisted limiting myself to a single period in order to take a broader view of how theatre has evolved. My last two books on 'citizenship' and on 'rhetorical' stage acting' have led me to my present project: an examination of the foundations of democracy. Democracy cannot function without oratory (in whatever mediatized form), and oratory is necessarily grounded in theatricality.
My publications since 2017 (when my Exeter post became 'emeritus') are listed at the end of the 'research interests' section of this site.
A research trajectory...
My research began in the field of Shakespeare, where my first major publication was Shakespeare’s Clown, a study of the Elizabethan clown William Kemp. I followed up this book with an exploration of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a wedding play, which laid the ground for my subsequent interest in theatre and time, culminating in the short Palgrave volume Theatre & Time.
Greek theatre has always been a foundation stone for my research. My first major work here was a monograph Masks of Menander, analysing the masking code that shaped the performance of Greek comedy in the fourth century BCE, a code that modelled the form of an ideal society. I pursued Greek masks in Mask and Performance in Greek Tragedy, a study of fifth century masking that drew both upon archaeology and upon 20th/21st century experimentation with the mask. I broke new ground with Tragedy in Athens, a study of performance space and the way space made meaning in classical performance. This volume led on both to a widely used student introduction to Greek theatre Greek Theatre Performance (also translated into modern Greek), and to my Short History of Western Performance Space (also translated into Polish), a study of seven basic configurations of the actor audience relationship.
In my next research phase, I investigated the social function of theatre in relation to the classical republican concept of the citizen in Theatre and Citizenship: the History of a Practice. In essence I asked in this book whether theatre acts primarily upon self-aware individuals, or upon groups where people experience themselves as a collectivity.
In collaboration with Christine Dymkowski, I edited the Cambridge Companion to Theatre History published in 2013. We sought in this project to focus on the question of why the past should matter to the present, and assembled a powerful team of contributors. The challenge we addressed was to engage with diversity while holding on the principle of a disciplinary core.
I collaborated with Willmar Sauter on a study of performance in the 18th century theatre of Drottningholm. This book is distributed in hardcopy by the University Presses of Exeter and Chicago, but can be viewed online at www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:756254/FULLTEXT01.pdf My IFTR keynote lecture based on this book can be viewed on https://www.su.se/ike/om-oss/nyheter/david-wiles-presenting-the-theatre-of-drottningholm-1.285938
My work on Drottningholm laid the ground for The Players' Advice to Hamlet: the method of rhetorical acting from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (2020), a study of classical acting which investigates how Roman antiquity provided professional actors for centuries with a language through which to articulate debates about the craft of acting. Prince Hamlet is a paradigm for theoreticians who fail to understand how actors actually work. My book challenges the idea that important debates about acting only began with Stanislavski.
I am currently contracted with Cambridge University Press to write a book entitled Democracy and Theatre. The Brexit crisis prompted fundamental questions about the nature of democracy, and I investigate the foundational moments of modern democracy in order to argue that democracy cannot exist without the theatrical skills of an orator whose arguments play on the emotions of an audience. Deliberative models of democracy postulated on the rationality of individual citizens do not take account of the theatrical nature of human life. I take Athens not as a point of origin for modern practice but rather as thought-provoking alternative model.
Publications since the date of my formal retirement are listed below:
Wiles D (2021) Theatre/Performance Historiography for the 2020’s. A review essay. Theater Survey 62.3 forthcoming
Wiles D (2021) Rhetoric, mimesis and Elizabethan acting: lessons from Hamlet. Société Française Shakespeare 39: Shakespeare et les acteurs. https://doi.org/10.4000/shakespeare.6479
Wiles D (2020) The Players’ Advice to Hamlet: the rhetorical acting method from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, Cambridge University Press.
Wiles D (2019) On being a twenty-first-century theatre historian. Theatre Research International, 44, 190-194.
Wiles D (2019). Premodern training: a provocation. In Evans M, Thomaidis K, Worth L (Eds.) Time and Performer Training. Routledge, 38-42.
Wiles D (2019) On the Greekness of Terzopoulos. In Dionysus in Exile: The Theatre of Theodoros Terzopoulos. Theater der Zeit.
Wiles D (2018). Epic acting in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Macintosh F, McConnell J, Harrison S, Kenward C (Eds) Epic Performances from the Middle Ages to the Twenty-first Century. Oxford University Press, 76-89.
Wiles D (2017). The environment of theatre: experiencing place in the ancient world. In Revermann M (Ed.) A Cultural History of Theatre in Antiquity. Bloomsbury, 63-82.
My study of rhetorical acting, The Players' Advice to Hamlet (2020) benefitted from engagement with the Stockholm ‘Performing premodernity’ research group, with the University of Palermo where I held a visiting professorship, with the Institut de Recherche sur la Renaissance, l'Age Classique et les Lumières at Montpellier, with the TaPRA Actor Training Working Group, and with the Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama in Oxford. Membership of the Theatre Historiography Working Group of the IFTR has kept me thinking about the wider implications of my work.
At Royal Holloway, I saw 16 PhD projects through to completion,and am pleased that many of my students now hold academic posts.
Research through practice
I translated Aristophanes' Ploutos, for performance by Thiasos theatre company, performed at The Space in London in the summer of 2020. A short version was given at Gardzienice in Poland in 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKcyHMO-0aw
I worked with Oxford medievalists to present a play in Old French in April 2020 - a project halted by lockdown. Work in progress was recorded https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kJbWZvonDUU
This was the sequel to a medieval community production presented in 2019 in St Edmund Hall https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mig1KBJNFig and in Iffley churchyard https://livingstonesiffley.org.uk/past-events/f/the-creation-and-deluge
I gave a keynote lecture to the IFTR in Stockholm in 2016 which entailed working with actors on the Drottningholm stage. https://www.su.se/ike/om-oss/nyheter/david-wiles-presenting-the-theatre-of-drottningholm-1.285938
Collaborations with Thanos Vovolis and Michael Chase informed my earlier work on the Greek tragic mask.
External impact and engagement
My work on the mask was informed by a close relationship with professional mask makers like Michael Chase and Thanos Vovolis. As a Greek theatre specialist, I have worked as a consultant to Gardzienice theatre company in Poland. I was involved in a research project with the 18th-century 'heritage' theatre of Drottningholm, examining the function of its summer operatic season. In April 2013 I was invited to address the Opera Europa conference of theatre managers and practitioners on the theme of opera and citizenship. More recently, I have participated in Oxford University public engagement projects in the fields of utopian thinking, and medieval performance.
Contribution to discipline
Between 2011 and 2013 I convened the Theatre Historiography working group of the International Federation for Theatre Research. I am a regular attendee at the IFTR, and will be delivered a keynote address at the annual conference in Stockholm in 2016. In 2018 I convened a meeting of intenational theatre historians in Bloomsbury, in collaboration with colleagues from Exeter and RHUL. An account of the meeting was published by Theatre Research International in the summer of 2019.
My teaching at Exeter always involved a dimension of practice. I regard it as a creative activity, and therefore never taught the same course in the same way twice. I particularly enjoy projects which test out historical propositions, and courses which allow students to bring their own experience of the world to bear upon their work.
In 2021 I served a visting professor at the University of Malta, and my online lectures incorporated practical exercises on C18th acting.
Jesus College, Cambridge, B.A./M.A., 1969-72
University of London, Goldsmiths' College, Cert.Ed., 1973-74
Department of Drama, University of Bristol, Ph.D. 1975-78 (title: 'The servant as master: a study of role definition in Classical and Renaissance popular comedy')
employment in higher education:
temporary lecturer in drama, University of Manchester, 1978-80
lecturer in drama, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth,1981-86
lecturer in drama and theatre studies, University of London,
Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, 1986-93; reader in drama 1993-1998; professor of theatre 1998-2013
maître de conférence invité, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier, Oct.-Dec.1990
Virginia C.Gildersleeve Visiting Professor, Barnard College, University of Columbia. Sept 2002
Professor of Drama, University of Exeter, August 2013-17
Common room member of Wolfson College Oxford 2018-