Tag Archives: Wooster Group

The ghost in the machine

hamlet.jpg
The ghost of Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Story of the Play Concisely Told with 55 Illustrations from the Cinematograph Film (1913). From the Folger Shakespeare Library Collections.

 

‘…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’.

Related image
Pepper’s Ghost: A light is shone on an actor performing under the stage, whose image is then reflected into the audience’s view by a hidden mirror.

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).

Elsinore programme
A programme for Robert Lepage’s Elsinore, performed in 1997 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. From the Folger Shakespeare Library Collections.

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.

Capture
An engraving of the Boydell Shakespeare monument, originally located in Pall Mall in London and now in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust gardens in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Hamlet quote is just visible in the rectangular pediment under Shakespeare. From the Folger Shakespeare Library Collections.

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.

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Going live with Philip Auslander

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With the end of the academic term and a few long flights under my belt, I’ve managed to crack on with a bit more of my digital Shakespeare reading list. One of the books that almost always comes up in discussions of live theatre broadcasts is Philip Auslander’s Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture, so I was especially excited for the opportunity to sit down and work my way through this text – and it certainly didn’t disappoint. First published in 1999, and then revised and reissued in 2008, Auslander’s book feels alarmingly prescient. He takes as his central premise the idea that ‘liveness’ is an ever-evolving concept, always existing in relation to the art forms and technologies of which it is a part. While theatre critics such as Peggy Phelan have argued that theatre’s unique value is in its live, ephemeral irreproducibility – that its ‘only life is in the present’, and that it ‘cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations’ (qtd p. 44) – Auslander sets out to make a case for how theatre has been shaped, marked, and circulated by media technology since the early twentieth century through to the present day.

This relatively short but forceful book divides into three chapters. The first and longest is a recapitulation of the book’s title and overall focus (‘Live performance in a mediatized culture’) and accordingly it offers the broadest and most theoretically encompassing examination of the study’s central concerns. It is also the chapter most focused on theatre itself, and accordingly the one of greatest interest to people like me thinking about the changing landscape of Shakespearean performance. Auslander begins with a rich history of the beginnings of television, which he evocatively, if questionably, suggests we might take as ‘an allegory’ for the wider relationship between the live and the mediatized (p. 10). In this account he documents how early TV broadcasts took theatre as a model for its own emerging art form, frequently featuring live theatrical performances in its programming. By the 1950s, however, a consensus began to emerge that TV was more akin to cinema than theatre, largely due to its adoption of filmic technologies and techniques, including multiple cameras and angles and denser visual editing.

The attention to editing and the kind of imaginative experience it produces for the audience of course interested me here. In one telling passage Auslander quotes at length from a 1953 TV production textbook, in which the author asks:

Why cannot the television medium transmit a stage play to the home audience, capturing the immediacy of the performance instead of attempting to simulate the motion picture? Perhaps if a play were televised into one continuous long shot with the proscenium arch of the stage constantly visible, the effect of a stage play would be retained. (p. 21)

Of course, theatre stages and technologies have changed alongside televisual and cinematic ones, with so many of the theatre broadcasts we see today coming from stages that are not proscenium arched. But the basic concept of the space needing to reveal itself through the relay as a stage, and perhaps also for the theatrical audience to maintain a visible role in this exchange, is one that I think still stands over 60 years later.

The chapter goes on to consider a series of examples from the late twentieth-century performing arts in which the ‘live’ and the ‘mediated’/‘mediatized’ have found themselves in close dialogue, including: the use of microphones as well as recorded music in many theatrical productions, experimentation with close-up video monitors in some symphony concerts, the inclusion of a laugh track in television sitcoms, the use of video and photo documentary in body and endurance performance art, and the use of ‘nonmatrixed, task-based’ performance styles by some avant-garde theatre companies interested in interpolating live human performance with media content (think the Wooster Group, below). Through each of these examples Auslander builds a case for the reflexive relationship between mediatization and the theatre, a relationship that helps him progressively call into question the ‘ontologically pristine’ nature of performance as beside or even beyond media representation and reproduction (p. 45).

All of this builds to a closing discussion of how our understanding of liveness has changed over the past century, evolving from a ‘classic’ conception encompassing both temporal and geographical co-presence, to more flexible varieties that may accommodate lack of geographical co-presence (such as live arts and sports broadcasts) or even lack of both (such as live recordings that can be viewed or listened to repeatedly at later dates). The rapid expansion of the internet has changed this even further, with Auslander discussing social ‘liveness’ online and the sense of co-presence and connection with others that it involves. Here he also considers what it means for a website to ‘go live’, a phrase and concept that he argues has principally to do with the generation of feedback between technology and user (pp. 59-62).

I found all of this discussion extremely productive and provocative, so much so that Auslander’s illuminating research and analysis ended up prompting me to call into question a few of his smaller points. His characterization of the liveness of websites made me think about the broader ways in which we use and understand the word ‘live’, most centrally in the sense of being a-live. While I can seeing how ‘going live’ with a site makes possible a kind of real-time interaction with site users that is akin to the temporal liveness and exchange involved in many forms of theatre, I also wonder if the phrase actually came about through a sense of the site becoming alive, of being birthed into the wider world of the world-wide web.

Such a sense of ‘live’ points us in the direction of liveness as vitality, of being alive with presence and some sort of emotional agency. Auslander begins to gesture towards this kind of aliveness, albeit somewhat indirectly, when he suggests that today our ‘emerging definition of liveness may be built primarily around the audience’s affective experience.’ (p. 62) Feeling live and alive is perhaps the most important criterion for what we understand by the experience of liveness, with Auslander suggesting that the sensation or even emotion of liveness may derive for the qualities of ‘spontaneity, community, presence, and feedback’ that we associate with many forms of theatrical performance. Though he goes on to systematically deconstruct and demystify these values, I would suggest that they remain core elements of live and alive experience, though that doesn’t mean that I think that they can only be achieved through traditional, face-to-face modes of interpersonal contact. We need to recognize the life that exists in so many forms of communal exchange, and we need to think about ways to cultivate that experience across a wide variety of arts and media. It is in that form of communion, I think, that we find culture.

So in about a thousand words I’ve just about managed to summarize and respond to Auslander’s powerful first chapter, which hopefully gives some sense of just how rich his book is. Though the second two chapters don’t address my particular research question quite so directly, they nonetheless offer compelling and very readable accounts of the constant reiteration of acoustic craft and recorded craft in pop music (‘Tryin’ to make it real: Live performance, simulation, and the discourse of authenticity in rock culture’), and the way in which economic and legal networks fashion seemingly abstract concepts like liveness in very technical, enforceable, and documentable ways (‘Legally live: Law, performance, memory’). They prompted me to ask myself whether I think it’s important if a band sings live or lip-syncs in a show, or if an actor has a right to control the data created when his or her body is digitally mapped for complex CGI effects in films. My immediate answers would be ‘yes’ and ‘yes’, but accounting for them in reasoned, logically consistent detail is more of a challenge. These kinds of questions and challenges are characteristic of Auslander’s book from start to finish, and I’ve no doubt that I will be returning to its pages many times again.