Back from study leave after a busy year of research and writing and now fully immersed in teaching again. One of several things I worked on in 2017 was a short guide to Stratford-upon-Avon and its theatres for a forthcoming book on theatre-going in the UK. Below is an abridged version of the entry, which will hopefully appear in print sometime later in the year.
So you’re interesting in going to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare? Plan for 1-2 days, depending on how much theatre you want to see, and prepare yourself for a charming little oddity of a town that tends to divide visitors. Some love its quietly bustling, timber-beamed way of life; others find it a rather twee imagining of ye olde England intended to snaffle as many tourist ducats as possible. Either way, it really is worth seeing, not least because it’s home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, which has put on an impressive year-round season of Shakespeare, early modern drama, modern classics, and new work since 1961 …
… The main reason you’re here, of course, is the theatre, and if the timing’s right then you may have as many as 3-4 productions to choose from during your stay. Like the National Theatre in London, the RSC has three stages and tends to use them for different kinds of productions. The main house is the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, typically reserved for Shakespeare’s works and modern classics. It’s been here since 1932, when the building was constructed as part of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and until 2007 featured a large, proscenium-arch stage. It was in this space that Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh titillated audiences with a chemistry-ridden Macbeth in 1955, John Barton and Peter Hall literally made history with The Wars of the Roses in 1963, and Peter Brook redefined what British Shakespeare could be with his ‘white box’ A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1970.
Today, the interior space is entirely transformed: following a three-year, £112.8m redevelopment project, it now features a deeply thrust stage, around which a 1,040-person auditorium wraps on three tiers. Recent highlights in this redesigned space have included Rupert Goold’s Las Vegas-inspired The Merchant of Venice in 2011 and Amir Nizar Zuabi’s politically incisive The Comedy of Errors for the theatre’s World Shakespeare Festival the following year. The good seats in the RST really are special, with the space achieving an intimacy that is rare on big, main stages, but watch out for the poor views that come with many of the cheaper seats. In some cases it’s better to go with the discounted restricted view tickets than to chance the costlier seats next to them: the view from the latter may very well be nearly as limited, and for a pretty penny more.
For those interested in something a little different, and for the chance to see one of the most beautiful and dramaturgically powerful spaces in the UK, head next door to the smaller Swan Theatre, built in 1986 and seating 426 people. Though many Shakespeare plays have been staged here through the years—highlights include Greg Doran’s dazzling Anthony and Cleopatra, starring Harriet Walter and Patrick Stewart in 2006, and Maria Aberg’s daringly inventive King John in 2012—these days this theatre tends to be reserved for lesser-known works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries and new plays commissioned by the RSC …
… If after these delights you find yourself with time to spare, just down Waterside you’ll discover the Dirty Duck pub (officially ‘The Black Swan’), site of thespian drinking antics from the mid-twentieth century onwards. For tasty, late-night fare, you can’t beat Hussain’s Indian Cuisine on Chapel Street, rumoured favourite of Sir Ben Kingsley when he tread the boards in the 1970s. After this you’ll no doubt be stumbling back to your B&B for a cosy night’s sleep, or jogging across town to the station to catch the last train back to the big city.
The event began with a half-hour panel chaired by Dr Daisy Murray and featuring academics associated with the University of Birmingham and theatre practitioners and audience analysts from the RSC. Dr Erin Sullivan and Dr Kerry Cooke spoke about understandings of emotion in Shakespeare’s time, as well as the ways in which performing the plays on stage creates a complex emotional relationship between performers, characters, audiences, and text. Matt Dann and Esh Alladi, both part of the RSC’s current production of Twelfth Night, in turn reflected on the role of emotion in the rehearsal room and the kinds of emotional journeys actors experience as they acquaint themselves with a new role. Becky Loftus, Head of Audience Insight at the RSC, finished things off by speaking about a study that the theatre conducted into audiences’ emotional responses to live theatre, cinema broadcasts of theatre, and 360° VR theatre (more on that study available here).
Thinking about the differences and similarities between ideas about emotion in the past and present proved especially interesting for many participants, with one university undergraduate commenting that she ‘enjoyed hearing about the historical context, which created another way of looking at Shakespeare’. Likewise, a university postgraduate noted that ‘the panel’s discussion of the perception of emotion in the early modern period [was] very interesting. I spend a good deal of time reading the modern scientific papers on emotion in voice and visual communication, so to compare those ideas with the idea of the four humors was intriguing.’
In the second half-hour, the audience broke into small groups and looked at a selection of emotional passages from Shakespeare chosen by each member of the panel. Each group was led by a PhD student in Shakespeare studies who served as a discussion facilitator, inviting participants to talk through the emotional experiences, ideas, metaphors, and scenarios depicted in their passage. For many audience members, the chance to become actively involved in small-group discussion was a particular highlight: ‘working in small groups to further discuss emotions as well as listening to other people’s ideas’ was especially enriching, one A-level student commented, while an undergraduate reflected on how the ‘opportunity to read an extract in group work before and after our analytical discussion’ encouraged him to think more deeply about ‘how dialogue changed with added knowledge of its context’.
Attendees at the event weren’t the only ones who found the small-group discussions beneficial. The five PhD facilitators, whose involvement was made possible by a British Shakespeare Association small event award, spoke afterwards how the event helped them develop new ideas and skills: ‘Participating in the “Shakespeare’s Emotions: Lost and Found” event gave me practical and valuable experience in a teaching setting’; ‘It showed me that preparation is invaluable, and it was lovely working with a young group of students who had very creative and intelligent responses to the text’; ‘I was very pleased by the group’s happy surprise that our quite challenging passage had, in the course of the discussion, suddenly become not only intelligible but even emotionally resonant’; ‘Several students even stopped me on the way out to ask further questions and share more ideas’. The event offered these early career scholars the chance to develop their teaching and public engagement skills and to work with Shakespeare enthusiasts from a range of different backgrounds.
In the final half-hour of the session, representatives from each of the small groups and the opening panellists finished with short presentations and whole-group discussion about the varied role of emotion in Shakespeare. Students highlighted key ideas discussed in relation to their passages, including the way specific words and images help shape emotion, the way performance turns emotion into a very social and at times tense event, and how historical differences in ideas about emotion can give us new insights into how culture shapes human experience. As the event came to a close, many participants hurried off to grab a quick dinner and then to take their seat for the RSC’s evening performance of Twelfth Night – no doubt resulting in even more emotional experiences and ideas after an already very passionate afternoon!
This week at the Shakespeare Institute was a particularly exciting one. A delegation of colleagues from Waseda University in Tokyo came to see us and speak about the late, great theatre director, Yukio Ninagawa. Their visit coincided with the Ninagawa Company’s most recent residency at the Barbican in London, where they performed their revival of Ninagawa’s 1985 production of Macbeth (the production that first brought him to fame in the UK). The Institute and Waseda hosted a special symposium on Ninagawa at the Japanese embassy in London on Friday, and then on Saturday I was lucky enough to get to see the production myself (at last!). I won’t review it here, other than to say that it was genuinely astounding in many ways and that interested readers can find out more from Michael Billington’s expert account for The Guardian.
What I would like to do is share a bit of writing that I’ve been working on that relates to another Ninagawa production: the Titus Andronicus that he brought to the RSC in 2006. Like his Macbeth, which Billington describes as ‘unashamedly pictorial’, this Titus was a visual wonder — a fact that has led me to focus on it in an essay I’m writing on Shakespeare, the senses, and twenty-first-century performance. For this essay I’m selecting one production to illustrate the power of each of the senses in the theatre, and while Ninagawa’s productions are sensuous in many ways, it probably won’t surprise those familiar with his work that I’ve decided to choose his Titus to talk about sight.
Below is a draft of part of the section — still a work in progress, but moving in the right direction I hope!
Many contemporary directors have sumptuously embraced the possibilities of visual experience, in particular those also working in opera or film, but there is arguably no greater practitioner of the art in recent memory than the late Yukio Ninagawa. ‘Always visually ravishing’, ‘staggering aesthetic beauty’, ‘so beautiful, [it’s] painful to look at’—these are the kinds of phrases that critics in Britain, as well as Ninagawa himself in his interviews with them, have applied to the director’s work (‘Yukio Ninagawa’ 2017; Billington 2017; Ninagawa qtd in Secher 2006). It perhaps comes as little surprise, then, that he originally aspired to become a painter before turning his attention to drama in his twenties (Huang 2013).
Consider his iconic staging of Titus Andronicus, for instance, which played in Stratford-upon-Avon for a week as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2006-7 Complete Works Festival, making it ‘the first Japanese-speaking Shakespearean production to be performed in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’ (Kawai 2009: 276). A vast, icy-white stage, almost blue in its frigidity, framed the action of this vicious revenge tragedy, providing a pristine canvas onto which its gore might spill. But audiences soon found that stage blood was in short supply: in an echo of Peter Brook’s 1955 Stratford production, billowing strands of ‘Kabuki-derived’ red yarn twisted and hung from each character’s newly opened wounds, be they Alarbus’s severed limbs, Lavinia’s mouth and wrists, Chiron and Demetrius’s bulging necks, or Tamora’s back as Titus drove a knife into it in the final scene (Billing 2007: 205). The effect was at once patently artificial and uncannily shocking: against the antiseptic white of the stage, and the contorted agony that constantly emanated from the actors’ faces, these stark rivers of blood pointed like arrows to the unspeakable violence at the heart of the play. At the same time, in their strange, emblematic beauty, they released the production from the trappings of naturalism and set it adrift in a mythic, dream-like world.
Figure 1 Lavinia (Hitomi Manaka) in Titus Andronicus, dir. Yukio Ninagawa, at the Royal Shakespeare Company (2006). Photograph by Keith Pattinson for the RSC.
No scene illustrated this heady mix of brutality and beauty more vividly than that of Lavinia’s mutilation in the forest. After the close of Act One’s court scenes, which featured a towering statue of a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the stage went entirely to black. Just a few seconds later, or at least so it seemed, lights returned to reveal a dazzling stage filled with dozens of huge, pearly lilies, set against a jet-black scrim and dappled with blueish light. This ‘scenographic … coup de théâtre’ literally set the stage for the nightmarish violence that soon followed (Billing 2007: 206). After Bassanius’s murder, and Chiron and Demetrius’s off-stage attack of Lavinia, the latter returned and staggered downstage, shrieking in horror and swathed in streams of garish red. Behind her followed Tamora’s howling sons, naked other than the bloody loin cloths that covered their genitals and the lurid strands of crimson yarn that decorated their bodies. Against their grotesque laughter, Hitomi Manaka’s Lavinia stumbled towards the edge of the stage, where she sank to the ground and raised her ribbony stumps to the sky for all to see. Positioned front and center in this perfectly composed mise-en-scène, Lavinia’s searing pain was thrown into relief—both visually and viscerally—by the ethereal beauty of the stage that surrounded her and the intense contrasts of red, white, and black that it presented. When Marcus at last entered, his niece moaned in dread, draping her long hair over her face and frantically trying to hide herself, to no avail, behind one of the set’s delicate lilies. No matter where she went, the shocks of red that issued from her arms and mouth made sure that all eyes remained fixated on her.
The stunning dissonance at work in Ninagawa’s rendering of this sequence goes some way to explaining why such a gruesome moment has become the production’s most reproduced, and implicitly most celebrated, image. Unspeakable violence and astonishing beauty sit side-by-side, with each extreme intensifying the other through the force of their juxtaposition. ‘When will this fearful slumber have an end?’ (3.1.251), Titus asks in response to the butchery inflicted on his family, but witnesses to Ninagawa’s extraordinary vision of the play have been less willing to wake from his other-worldly dreams. The fact that the majority of the production’s international audiences did not speak Japanese contributed to this sense of captivating, even hypnotic, estrangement, as well as a heavy reliance on the visual—or, as one critic put it, the experience of ‘hearing with eyes’ (Gilbert 2007: 39). With Shakespeare’s original words gone, Ninagawa’s use of colour, composition, and contrast translated the play imagistically, ‘turning [its] horror into visual poetry’ (Macauley 2016). In this sense, Ninagawa more than realized his early dreams of becoming a painter, though on a bigger and more dynamic canvas than he likely ever imagined.
Summer has officially been and gone, and almost as if on cue the leaves here in Stratford have started to redden and fall. A new cohort of students has arrived, and just three days into the term it feels as if they’ve always been here. The only difference is that I’m on study leave this term, observing all these changes from my window rather than being in the middle of things.
For this precious term of leave I of course have many research goals, and hopefully I’ll be writing more about some of them on this blog in the months to come. But for now I thought it might be helpful to look back at what I’ve been working on this summer, not least because taking stock often helps me focus my mind as to what comes next.
While my blogging over the summer has been woefully thin, my academic writing has, happily, been much more fulsome. (I did win a readers’ award for my blog in July though! Official badge below.) Earlier this year I finally wrote up a long article on cinema broadcasts of Shakespeare productions, and I’m very happy to say that the finished version will soon appear in Shakespeare Bulletinas ‘”The Forms of Things Unknown”: Shakespeare and the Rise of the Live-Broadcast’. In many ways this article is the direct result of the thinking that I’ve been doing on this blog for the past four years, so it’s especially gratifying to be able to announce its forthcoming publication here.
In addition to this I’ve also been working on a chapter for an essay collection on Shakespeare and live-broadcasting edited by Pascale Aebischer, Susanne Greenhalgh, and Laurie Osborne, which will come out with Arden next year. My chapter, ‘The Audience is Present: Aliveness, Social Media, and the Theatre Broadcast Experience’, analyses a large set of tweets from two 2016 broadcasts and uses them to make a case for the importance of experiential ‘aliveness’, which I suggest is related to, but ultimately distinct from, the more familiarly debated concept of ‘liveness’. Both pieces have been a pleasure to work on and I’m very excited to at last be publishing research on both the formal and experiential dimensions of theatre live-broadcasting.
But what next? Well, I am certainly planning to write at least one, and hopefully two, chapters of my book on Shakespeare and digital performance over the next six months. The one I know that I’ll be tackling is chapter 2, on live recordings and broadcasts, which is a no-brainer considering how much work I’ve already been doing on the topic over the last year (and more). The other one is less certain: it could be chapter 3, on digital or ‘intermedial’ dramaturgies, or it could in fact be chapter 1, on theories of digital performance. I had originally intended to write that one last, since it needs to encompass all of the issues covered in the book’s more practical chapters, but having had a go at theorizing ‘a/liveness’ in the aforementioned edited collection essay, as well as on this blog, I’ve begun to realize that doing some of the abstract work before the applied work is more possible, and productive, than I originally thought.
As I attempt to work all this out, I’m still trying to experience as many digital projects and productions as possible. That means a large helping of theatre broadcasts screened here in Stratford, but also as many digital things as I can muster when I’m on the road. At the start of September my family and I finally had our summer vacation, which we spent exploring Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. During that time I was lucky enough to catch two very exciting and very different digital engagements with the arts. The first was the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts in Brussels and Google Cultural Institute’s ‘Bruegel: Unseen Masterpieces’ exhibit, which explores three Bruegel paintings through an immersive film installation. I had already experienced part of the project through Google’s online feature, and in particular its 360º-enabled video for Google cardboard (the video in the link above automatically displays in 360º when you watch it on a VR/Cardboard viewer). In person in Brussels I was delighted to be able to see the full version of the project, a digitally enhanced video projected onto three walls, which illuminated dozens of details in the painting and proved a richly beautiful aesthetic experience in its own right (and my companion agreed!). The project illustrated the value of remediation in a powerful way: this wasn’t just about creating digital copies that could be accessed more widely, but rather about using digital technology to open up existing works of art in a way that might deepen our appreciation of them.
When we got to the Netherlands, things got a bit more theatrical: in Amsterdam we were able to see Simon Stone’s adaptation of Medea for Toneelgroep Amsterdam, a company that we and pretty much everyone else in the theatre universe has grown to admire. As is often the case with the group’s productions, live video featured prominently. In this drastically updated version, the two young sons of Anna (Medea) and Lucas (Jason) are making a video of their (steadily deteriorating) family life. On the white box stage, the video feed from the boys’ camera frequently appeared, zooming in on the strain, surprise, and sometimes happiness that crossed their parents’ faces. More abstract, non-diegetic footage, usually filmed from a bird’s-eye view of the stage, also flashed onto the backdrop at times, giving audiences a heady, out-of-body take on the explosive tragedy that we all knew would unfold. As is often the case with live video on stage, the camera simultaneously objectified and personalized its subjects, pinning them helplessly within its frame while also illuminating otherwise hidden traces of their inner lives. Like with the Bruegel exhibit, ‘unseen’ details of Euripides’s ‘masterpiece’ came forcefully into view, both through Stone’s engrossing adaptation and the camera’s penetrating gaze. And I think that’s where I’ll leave things for now: tech as microscope, at once distancing us from ‘originals’ and yet drawing us more deeply in.
I had the great great pleasure of speaking on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour yesterday – as I said in a tweet afterwards, life goal unlocked! I was speaking about parts in Shakespeare’s plays for older actresses – the greatness of them, the scarcity of them, and the possibility that there might be more of them than we think if we continue to embrace cross-gender casting. The full interview is available through the BBC iPlayer here (from minute 30), or you can check out the shorter clip below.
On 18 May I’ll be leading a workshop on ‘Understanding reception in a digital age’ as part of the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Advanced Studies. Below is a description of the event and the schedule for the day. If you’re a researcher at UoB or an artist in the Midlands region and are interested in attending, please get in touch!
Digital connectivity is radically reshaping how we engage with culture in the 21st century. Whether it’s the books we read, the music we listen to, the theatre we see, or the people with whom we interact, new technologies are remapping the way we access, consume, create, and share cultural experience. This one-day workshop will explore the impact such changes are having on the study of reception across the humanities and social sciences.
Since Stuart Hall’s ground-breaking work in field in the 1970s, the University of Birmingham has been at the forefront of debates about how people interact with culture and the meaning they derive from it. This workshop will build on this long history of interdisciplinary, grassroots thinking by investigating how digital technology is changing both the methods and the objects of reception-oriented research. It will consider how audiences are becoming increasingly active co-producers or ‘pro-sumers’ of artistic works through collaborative digital media, how the data produced through digital encounters might be used to generate new creative projects and formulate new research agendas, and how environment and materiality still shape cultural experience in the supposedly de-localised and disembodied world of online interaction. It will ask how we can best study audience, reader, listener, and user experience in a digital age, making the most of the new methods available to us and the new ways in which people are interacting with and creating culture.
The workshop aims to bring together expertise in reception studies and the digital humanities from across the University, and also to strengthen partnerships with artists and cultural programmers conducting practice-based work in the field. It will showcase the findings of several externally funded projects based at the University, and it will build upon strategic developments in digital research. Each panel will feature three brief presentations from academics and artists, leaving 20-30 minutes per session for further discussion among all the workshop participants. The day will conclude with a one-hour, guided roundtable session, which will result in a list of key questions for the field, identify possibilities for follow-on projects and funding, and outline next steps for digital culture and reception research at UoB.
10.30-10.40 Introduction and aims for the day – Erin Sullivan (Shakespeare Institute)
10.40-11.30 Data – Michaela Mahlberg (Language and Linguistics), Rowanne Fleck (Computer Science), Di Wiltshire (visual/performance artist)
11.50-12.40 Co-production – Caroline Chapain (Business School), Helen Abbott (Modern Languages), Annie Mahtani (Music/composer and curator)
1.40-2.30 Space – Patricia Noxolo (Geography), Matt Hayler (Literature), Katie Day (theatre director)
A second post inspired in part by Benjamin’s ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, and the final one — I think — about my research adventures in the US last month.
So I’ve finished Benjamin’s essay now. At a whopping 10 pages, this perhaps isn’t saying much, but the intelligence, weight, and importance of the ideas presented there are not to be digested hastily. I’m still not sure if I know where Benjamin ultimately stood on the issue of technology’s impact on art: it seems clear that he’s disconcerted, dismayed even, by the way reproduction erases a work’s history and erodes its aura. He compares such a process to prying an oyster from its shell — though he doesn’t say it explicitly, the metaphor is surely one of death. ‘Art has left the realm of the “beautiful semblance”‘, he writes, leaving his readers with the lingering question, what happens next?
I’ll come back to that question at the end of this piece, but before that I want to think a bit more about aura, authenticity, aliveness, and digitization. As I mentioned in my last post, over the past few weeks I’ve been working on an essay about ‘aliveness’ during theatre broadcasts to cinemas and online. For me, ‘a-liveness’ is the less visible but just as important cousin of ‘liveness’, that ever-present topic in discussions of performance, technology, and mediation. What does it mean for something to be live, especially in a digital age? I won’t go into the details of the debate now, but my own response to Philip Auslander’s game-changing book, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, can be found here.
What interests me most in this debate aren’t the details of time and space that have often been taken to constitute different degrees of liveness, but rather the experiential and emotional pull that a work of art elicits when we feel its aliveness — by which I mean its vivacity, immersiveness, and depth, its irresistible demand. While liveness in terms of shared time and space can often enhance and even create a feeling of aliveness, I don’t think that it’s absolutely essential to the experience. In my essay, I’m exploring this idea by looking at how audiences at theatre broadcasts use social media — specifically Twitter — to form online communities of shared experience even when they are located at a distance from one another. In such moments I think we can see audiences ‘doing liveness’, to quote Martin Barker, whose research into live-broadcasting I have blogged about here.
Though my work so far has focused on aliveness as an audience activity and even construction — part of the surrounding context for the work of art — as I’ve been writing I’ve also been thinking more about the aliveness that arises from the work of art itself. This seems to me to be very much akin to Benjamin’s aura: it’s that ineffable substance that draws you in, that makes a work of art present, unignorable, captivating, thrilling. The question of what exactly this substance is is worth a series of blog posts in and of itself, so I’m going to resist attempting to answer it here other than to say that, in my view, it is most certainly about aesthetics (a statement that should seem blindingly obvious, but that has become somewhat marginalized in recent decades). Beyond that, I’ll simply offer an image of a work of art that for me is very much alive, in the spirit of showing rather than telling.
Those who know me well may recognize this image from the cover of my first solo-authored book; a further few may be aware of the fact that it’s a painting that privately obsesses me. This is partly down to contextual issues: why had I never heard of the artist, Lavinia Fontana, before 2013, and how did this extraordinary woman manage to become such an accomplished and successful painter in seventeenth-century Italy? Even more important though are the aesthetic issues: for me, this is a sumptuously engrossing painting, startling in its power of presence.
Interesting, then, that until a month ago I had never seen it in person. I first encountered it online, during a standard search for free images that I might use in a seminar publicity flyer, and later through the website of the Walters Art Museum, which through the institution’s tremendous generosity makes high-resolution images of most of its collection available to the public for free (authors, take note!). In fact, when I emailed the museum to see if I could reproduce this painting on the cover of my book, the staff there not only agreed, but also sent me a 275MB TIFF file. For those not in the know (like me), it turns out that this is really big — much bigger in fact than the original painting from which it was made.
It also means that you can zoom very, very deeply into the image, examining tiny details like the shimmer on each of Signora Hercolani’s pearls or the absorptive gaze in her eyes. When you do this, whatever part of the painting you are exploring, you also realize how much of it is made up of rich, inky darkness. Zooming into the painting is like venturing into the widow Hercolani’s very being, which fills up the frame with its cavernous, shadowy presence even as the work’s symbolic focal points, the loyal dog and the pure white handkerchief, point to her recently departed husband. In her eyes and in this darkness, the painting — for me — becomes all about her.
So when I found myself in Washington, DC last month I wasted no time in making arrangements to get up to Baltimore to visit the Walters Art Museum and see this painting in person. Thinking back on the afternoon, I remember being not only full of anticipation, but actually rather nervous. What if the painting wasn’t actually on display, despite the fact that the museum website confirmed that it would be? What if I couldn’t find it? How would it be displayed? But, most importantly of all, how would I feel when I saw it?
After some shuffling between rooms I did at last find her, and I was impressed, though not in the way I expected. There it was, this painting that had not only fascinated me for years, but that also stood synecdochally for my own intellectual ambitions and achievements, made material in a book on a shelf back in England. I instantly fell in love with it again, but for different reasons than before: now, it was the love of recognition, of self-affirmation, of fulfillment. What it really wasn’t, to my surprise, was the love of unmistakable aesthetic power. This is not to say that the painting was and is anything other than extraordinary. Rather, it’s that looking at it and into it in person was not, in fact, as powerful for me as engaging with it digitally.
This might be down to the fact that it was now familiar: the shock of the new was gone. Perhaps more significantly, the museum’s method of displaying the painting veers more towards the decorative than the aesthetically imposing. Positioned above three smaller works, the painting is mounted well above human eye-line, meaning that there is no chance of meeting Signora Hercolani’s gaze straight-on. Perched on high, she is suitably imperious, authoritative, and aloof — all qualities that I had previously seen in the painting — but gone is the intimacy that I now realize was so impactful in my first encounter with this work.
What this is all pointing to, as some might already suspect, is my realization there in the Walters that for me the aura and aliveness of the digital image was much stronger than being physically in the presence of the painting in Baltimore. Some of this is certainly contextual, but a good part of it is also formal. There is simply something about the digital image that I love that is not there in person.
In many ways this personal reflection is positioned as a rejoinder to Benjamin and his belief that aura always sided with the physical, original work. But in another sense, it’s not, because Benjamin himself recognizes in his essay that the ‘mechanically’ produced work comes with its own startling advantages. One is the potential for ‘simultaneous collective experience’, while another is the ‘incomparably more precise’ representation of certain actions. But most significant of all is the way new technologies open up the possibility of new worlds of experience in art: ‘a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye … The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject.’
This has certainly been my experience with Fontana’s portrait of Hercolani — so much so that I was unsettled and even disappointed when those new worlds of formation were suddenly closed off to me in person. But to return to my very first question, where does that leave us? Benjamin doesn’t offer much by way of a definitive answer: in the final pages of his essay, he turns to a dark reflection on the growth of Fascism in his own time, and the way Futurist artists like Filippo Tommaso Marinetti were celebrating technology as an integral part of an aesthetics of destruction. He also talks about the use-value of art, about audiences, and about the way the technological arts cater the distracted masses rather than the focused observer. In many ways, the conversation really hasn’t changed, and as I read it I found myself agreeing with most of his essay. One thing I do know, however, is that my own encounter with the Hercolani portrait in digital form has been all about concentration, absorption, and auratic experience. It is in this form that the painting, for me, has truly come to life.
‘…profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of the Beautiful…’
When Walter Benjamin decided to start his now-famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, with these words from Paul Valéry, his attitude towards the future they envisioned might be described as ambivalent at best. Writing in 1936, in the early years of what would become the golden age of film, Benjamin, like Valéry, recognized the potential for technology to bring the beauty of art to ever-widening audiences. At the same time, he could also foresee the ways in which these same advancements might threaten the very essence of artistic tradition and experience — namely, by chipping away at the uniqueness and material presence of previously hand-crafted, aesthetic objects, and in doing so dampening what he dubbed their ‘aura’.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Benjaminian aura lately, partly because I’m in the middle of writing an essay about the experience of presence at theatre broadcasts, and partly because I spent the last two weeks of my research trip in the US looking at the ghostly side of technology. Benjamin understood aura as emanating from the unmediated, a-technological artefact — ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art’ — but the more I look at digitally rich productions of Shakespeare and their historical precursors, the more I find myself thinking about the auratic or spectral potential of technology itself. Take, for instance, the production still above, which comes from a 1913 book about Hamlet based on Jonston Forbes-Robertson’s silent film of the same year. This book, held in the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collections, uses images from the film to illustrate a prose version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. What struck me most as I perused its pages were the photographs featuring the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who takes the shape of a bright, ethereal spirit produced by innovations in film technology. To see how the ghost flickers in and out of frame in the movie, have a look at the clip below.
The creative use of technology in the performance of Shakespeare is not unique to film, particularly when it comes to staging the supernatural. John Gielgud’s 1964 production of Hamlet on Broadway, starring Richard Burton, featured an audio recording of Old Hamlet’s lines recited by Gielgud himself, accompanied by a looming shadow on the wall, to body forth the ghostly presence of the late king. Long before that, John Pepper created a similarly ethereal ghost of King Hamlet in the nineteenth century by using mirror and light technologies to project the reflection of an actor onto the action of the stage (see the image below for an illustration of this technique, known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’). In both cases, ingenious uses of technology allowed theatre-makers to present a disembodied version of King Hamlet’s ‘aura’, or, to quote from the Oxford English Dictionary, that ‘subtle emanation … viewed by mystics as consisting of the essence of the individual, serving as the medium for the operation of mesmeric and similar influences’.
Even beyond the obviously supernatural figure of the ghost, I’ve increasingly found that Hamlet stands out in the archives as one of the most frequent plays that actors and directors look to when they want to explore what technology might tell us about Shakespeare. Some of the productions I’ve been reading about lately include Robert Wilson’s staging of Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine (1986), Robert Lepage’s one-man show Elsinore (1995), the Wooster Group’s reconstruction of Gielgud and Burton’s Hamlet (2006), Katie Mitchell’s multimedia exploration of Ophelia in Five Truths (2011) and Ophelias Zimmer (2016), and finally Annie Dorsen’s ‘machine-made’, algorithm-based version of the play, A Piece of Work (2013).
While all of these productions use technology in different ways, I find it interesting that Hamlet repeatedly proves fertile ground for mechanical, multimedial, and digital experimentation. Perhaps this is due to the sheer fame and monumentality of the play, but I also wonder if there’s something particularly haunted and haunting about Hamlet that continually seems ripe for technological exploration. There is of course the play’s obsession with death and all the ‘things in heaven and earth’ that push beyond the limits of our philosophy, as well as the tragedy’s own gargantuan and even superhuman literary and theatre history, which looms so large in the study and performance of Shakespeare. Shakespeare himself has often been memorialized by lines from Hamlet — ‘He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again’ — and perhaps, in a way, all of us who are drawn to Shakespeare’s work find ourselves obsessed and even haunted by Hamlet for at least a time.
Indeed, the more I think about it, the more it seems like Hamlet is a play that started out being about death but that has become one of resurrection. It’s not just that it shows us a young man facing the spirit of his dead father — though that of course is significant. It’s also that in its virtually unparalleled cultural legacy, it connects us with a never-ending history of scholars, actors, directors, critics, and thinkers of all kinds who have come before us and pondered this seemingly insurmountable testament to human creativity. When we look on Hamlet, we also look on those who have been there before us. Their ghosts are with us alongside the Old King’s.
Maybe the next thing, then, for theatre-makers to experiment with are hyper-real technologies such as 3-D holograms that have started to appear on other stages in recent years. At Coachella in 2012 the long-deceased rapper Tupac Shakur astonished audiences when he appeared to take the stage alongside Dr Dre. Imagine Laurence Olivier coming back to give his final turn as Old Hamlet, or Richard Burton, or even Shakespeare himself, given that he too is sometimes said to have played the role. It’s possible that such innovations, with their complicated ethics, are a bridge too far. But even if this is the case, I have no doubt that directors and actors will continue to mine new technologies to bring us freshly startling takes on the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and, indeed, on the tragedy of Hamlet itself.
This month I’m in residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, home to the largest dedicated collection of Shakespeare-related materials in the world. I’m in heaven!
My focus during my time here is on the pre-history of digital Shakespeares — that is, the kinds of stage technologies that pre-date the proliferation of digital adaptations in the twenty-first century. This means that I’ve been looking at programmes from productions like Robert Lepage’s Elsinore, and also ogling over photos of Richard Burton & co. in their groundbreaking ‘Electronovision’ Hamlet in 1964, which used new film technology to live-record their Broadway production and then show it in cinemas across America. Here’s one explanatory diagram of the technical set-up:
More than anything, though, I’ve been having lots of fun exploring the collection of interactive Shakespeare games that the Folger holds in its vaults. These games have very little to do with technology per se, but their relevance for my project is in the way they invite their players to be active participants in the making of Shakespeare. For me these board games, card games, and book games herald a form of collaborative and participatory Shakespeare-making that we see today in Shakespeare-themed video games, choose-your-own-adventure books, and immersive, interactive theatre productions. In this sense the games constitute an early history of ‘prosuming‘, a concept developed by Alvin Toffler in the 1970s to refer to ‘production by consumers’. In the world of creativity and culture, the term ‘prosumer’ is often linked to instances in which audiences become creative practitioners themselves, helping produce the artistic world of a theatre production, video game, art installation, etc. by playing an active part in it.
Most of the games in the Folger collection are from the nineteenth century, some with very beautiful illustrations, although a couple come from the more recent past. I thought I’d share a few photographs here with notes about how the games work and what I think is most interesting about them…
First up are versions of familiar games like Checkers, Memory, and Go Fish, which use Shakespeare not as a crucial part of the game mechanism but rather as thematic/decorative content. So, for instance, you get a typical checker board from 1864 (Shakespeare’s 300th birthday!) that you play exactly as you would a normal one, but you also get to look at Shakespeare quotes and trivia as you do so. Ditto for the 19c. ‘Shakespeare Game of Concentration’ that you play like Memory. This seems like a Shakespeare-by-osmosis approach to me: you’re playing a familiar game that doesn’t rely on Shakespeare knowledge or appreciation in and of itself, but by using Shakespeare quotes and images as filler it tries to instill that knowledge in the process.
The Go Fish-style game is slightly more complicated for two reasons: first, because although the game mechanism works as usual for Go Fish, with players aiming to collect sets of cards that they search for in the hands of other plays, the literary trivia is more foregrounded, meaning that quotes and facts will be read aloud with frequency and inevitably play a more central role. Second, this game from c.1887 isn’t actually Shakespeare-specific, even though his face graces the box that the cards come in. Rather, it includes ‘familiar quotations’ from several ‘popular authors’ (Milton, Wordsworth, Longfellow), although it must be said that Shakespeare looms large within the deck. Each card contains several quotations in a different order and players work to collect as many complete sets as they can.
Next up are the board games, the earliest of which really only uses Shakespeare in the title: ‘Wallis’s Fashionable Game of the Seven Ages of Human Life’ (c.1814-26). It’s worth mentioning and illustrating though because it is by far the most beautiful of the bunch! Plus I love stage 29 in the timeline: ‘The Bachelor’, entertained by his faithful cat.
The other two board games are the most modern entries in the collection: ‘The Game of Shakespeare’ from 1966, and ‘The Play’s the Thing’ from 2003. Both invite players to collect Shakespeare cards studded with quotes, facts, and illustrations, and to use them to progress towards the finish line.
Related to these modern board games are the trivia-oriented card games that typically focus on Shakespearean quotes and are often explicit in their educational intent. ‘A Study of Shakespeare’ from the Shakespeare Club of Camden, Maine, in 1901 invites players to ask each other trivia questions and to collect the cards that they win. It also includes several endorsements from Shakespeare academics as to its educative value. The Cincinnati Game Company’s 1901 ‘Shakespeare’ seems to work to similar principles, with Shakespeare quotations and illustrations gracing each card in a deck divided into four suits, but, alas, the majority of its game instructions no longer survive (what is left seems to suggest that you can use the deck to play three different games, indicating perhaps that it’s essentially a regular deck of cards that you can use to play rummy, poker, etc.).
But of all these fabulous games, my very favorites are the two that are the most personalized. In ‘Shakespeare the Oracle’, 1892, and ‘Shakespeare’s Mental Photographs’, 1866, players select questions relating to their own lives and loves and then choose a number that produces a Shakespeare quote in answer. Both of these are meant to be party games, I believe, with the main thrill being the experience of revealing bits of personal information about oneself in front of a group of excitable and chirpy friends. Many of the questions have to do with the man or woman of your affection: so, for instance, you might choose the question, ‘What are his personal charms?’, and then select the number 3, from which you would get the reply, ‘His garments are rich, but he wears them not handsomely’. Ouch! While ‘Shakespeare the Oracle’ comes in the format of a series of circular question cards that participants hold, plus the oracle pamphlet from which the most esteemed member of the company reads, ‘Shakespeare’s Mental Photographs’ is potentially a more solitary affair, presenting its questions and quotes in book form.
Whatever shape they come in, though, all of these games have been lots of fun to explore and to attempt to unpuzzle. I’ve attracted lots of curious questions from fellow readers in the process–everyone loves a good game, it seems! Perhaps we can convince the Folger to let us throw a games night, with players in archival white gloves. Or, maybe more realistically, one or two of the older games could be digitized for playing online or through an app. Words with Friends Shakespeare-style, anyone?
I’ve been thinking lately about why I originally set up this blog, and why, more than three years later, I continue to post on it. In the very early days I think I was looking for a place to work through some emerging ideas about digital forms of performance, in particular live broadcasts. I was still in the midst of another research project on a different topic, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to publish any work in this new area for quite some time. The blog seemed like a good way to document ideas as they came up, to get feedback on them, and then one day to put them together into something longer and more detailed–i.e. an academic publication.
The difference now is that ‘one day’ has finally arrived. The older project is finally done and dusted and the monograph out, and now my primary focus is on the publications that will come out of this research into digital technology and Shakespearean performance. At last, I’m able to devote the bulk of my research time to these ideas, and that time has also dramatically expanded, as I’m on study leave for about 7-8 months of this year. Hurrah!
But the thing I didn’t expect is that, now that I have the time and energy to focus solely on this digital research, I’ve actually started to blog less. In fact, I haven’t written a proper post on the subject for more than half a year. Instead, I’ve been writing up this research as a series of journal articles and chapters, and making plans for the book that will eventually come. Every research day has gone to this more publication-oriented mode of writing, and as a result the blog has lingered by the wayside.
So now that I am officially on sabbatical, I thought I’d take some time reflect on what I’ve learned about both my research and myself as a researcher through blogging, and to think about what I hope to get from it in the future…
1) Blogging offers a way of working oneself into a new research area, especially when time is limited and has to be split among many other things.
The biggest difference for me between starting my first book project and my second one has been time. When you’re working on your PhD, at least in the UK, your main focus is your research. After I started my first job I was suddenly responsible for a lot more things and many more people. Extended periods of research time took a particularly painful hit: I went from spending 4-5 days a week on my research to 1 if I was lucky. So this blog became a way of stealing snatches of time in between teaching, meetings, proof checking, and everything else to start working my way into a new topic. I could have done all this privately, keeping my own personal research diary, but to be honest being able to share my ideas with others was more motivating. This might be useful for me to remember in other aspects of my life: if I really want to do something, do it publicly/socially.
2) Blogging has allowed me to work up chunks of writing (and thinking) that can become part of future publications.
This is true, but also a bit trickier than I originally expected. It’s definitely been the case that several of the details I focused on in blogs have become key points in articles that I’ve recently been drafting. But I’ve also found myself a bit unsure about how to draw on this previous writing without duplicating it. For the most part I’ve developed existing points in new terms, but there are instances in which I’m just really happy with the way I originally wrote it. So I’ve actually been thinking about redacting the occasional sentence from some of my posts, should it prove an issue. I’m still not sure about all of this: I think it’s a grey area and that feelings about it can differ depending on who you ask. About 80% of A Year of Shakespeare had been published online before it became a book, for instance, and all that material is still available through www.yearofshakespeare.com. But I know that others are understandably more wary about material previously posted online, and so I’ve started thinking more pragmatically about what can go on the blog as I come closer to getting some of my ideas more officially in print.
3) Blogging has helped me become part of a community of researchers in this field, both directly and indirectly.
This maybe seems like a no-brainer: blogging is social, responsive, immediate, conversational. You can respond to ideas in a few hours, whereas academic publishing would at best take a few months, and more realistically a few years. This doesn’t necessarily make blogging better than academic publishing–just different. I’ve been able to get talking to others in the field, both directly and indirectly, and to learn from them as I go. This has perhaps been the greatest benefit for me. The flip side is, now that I feel well connected and reasonably well read in the field, I kind of just want to get my head down and write my ideas up the old-fashioned way. Blogging has been a great way of getting started, but, as of yet, not the most natural way of continuing on.
4) Blogging can take a lot of different forms and, presumably, they can change with time.
This is probably the most important thing for me right now. When I first started blogging, I was careful to post regularly and to make sure that those posts were in-depth pieces of writing that I would be happy to publish in more academic contexts. I still really value those posts, and I must say that they’ve been the most helpful in terms of generating feedback from others and establishing some of the key issues that have turned up again in longer publications. But shorter, more whimsical, more descriptive, and/or more irregular posts have their place too. I suspect that as I get further into the writing of this project, the blogs will become more about the process of writing or the activities that surround and support the writing, rather than the writing itself. We’ll see; I might surprise myself. But given how precious having time to write is, I plan to make the most of it while I have it. This blog–or, who knows, maybe a future one–will always be there when it’s time for something different.
The British Milton Seminar meets twice yearly to discuss papers on subjects relating to John Milton's life, work and times, together with his legacy and influence. The seminar is open to academic and academic-related staff and to postgraduate students.