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Cambridge University Press
Online publication date:
May 2024
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Book description

Democracy, argues David Wiles, is actually a form of theatre. In making his case, the author deftly investigates orators at the foundational moments of ancient and modern democracy, demonstrating how their performative skills were used to try to create a better world. People often complain about demagogues, or wish that politicians might be more sincere. But to do good, politicians (paradoxically) must be hypocrites - or actors. Moving from Athens to Indian independence via three great revolutions – in Puritan England, republican France and liberal America – the book opens up larger questions about the nature of democracy. When in the classical past Plato condemned rhetoric, the only alternative he could offer was authoritarianism. Wiles' bold historical study has profound implications for our present: calls for personal authenticity, he suggests, are not an effective way to counter the rise of populism.


‘This fascinating re-reading of political thought and practice questions our political values through the observation of democratic behaviour. Historical debates become performance events. Refreshingly, Wiles interprets the democratic process through a combined exploration of intellectual argument and the theatrical mode of political delivery.'

Vicki Ann Cremona - Professor in Theatre Studies, University of Malta

‘This impressive study, arguing that democracy and theatre are grounded in the same cultural practices of rhetoric and performativity in ancient Greece, offers the reader important new insights into both of these two phenomena as parallel working experimental laboratories in social interaction.'

Marvin Carlson - Distinguished Professor Emeritus, The Graduate Center, City University of New York

‘Democracy is a spectacle as well as a practice, as much the province of rhetoric as it is of political science. In this fascinating book, David Wiles uses the techniques of theatrical performance and sheds unusual light on democratic politics.’

Philip Collins - columnist, The Times and former Chief Speech Writer to Prime Minister Tony Blair

‘In this wide-ranging, densely argued book, David Wiles interrogates the intricate and conflictual relationship between theatre and democracy. Since their coeval emergence in fifth-century Athens, these two interrelated institutions have tussled with a set of apparent contradictions that Wiles analyses in superb detail: sincerity and rhetorical technique, rational argument versus affect, individuality versus collective appeal. He marshals not just a set of recurring arguments but a compelling cast of characters from Demosthenes to Gandhi who ‘act out' these principles across the centuries and cultures.'

Christopher Balme - Professor of Theatre Studies, LMU Munich

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