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The Meaning of Spectacle

Ronald Tamplin

Bilkent University

I want briefly to investigate stage spectacle. Aristotle sees the whole visual aspect of drama as spectacle (opsis) and I follow him in this. I want first to indicate some experiences which have clarified my own sense of what goes on in stage performance. These experiences fall broadly within Aristotle's use of the term "spectacle". They include homely conjurors, ordinary stage business, pleasing stage sets, modest machines, all, however, galvanised by the moments of their occurrence. But when, leaving Aristotle aside, we speak of spectacle, it habitually involves magnificent mechanisms, startling appearances, sensational effects, transcendent design, and it is spectacle in this sense, kindred to the ordinary but enhanced beyond it, with which I am mainly concerned. Spectacle such as this I will call "enhanced spectacle". My examples will, in the main, be drawn from medieval and nineteenth century sources. Rather than analysing them in great detail, I am concerned to stress three aspects they present: they elicit a particular audience reaction; they are habitually achieved by mechanical and ingenious means; they invite some sense of mental elevation, a raising of our emotions, even though we are usually quite conscious that what is before us is simulation not reality. Necessarily, my examples will be few but I hope they can reasonably stand for many - that we can all recognise our own wider experience of theatre in them - and that they will, therefore, permit a tentative account of a wider theory. It is in pursuit of this wider experience that I start not with the medieval nor with the nineteenth century but with the twentieth and my own experiences, two as a boy growing up in London, and two as a visiting teacher, in these last months, in Turkey.

For the first, I was nine years old. World War Two had just ended in Europe and all the children in my part of town were herded to our local cinema -The Regal - it was anything but - for a party. There, on stage, in due course, was a conjuror, the first most of us had ever seen. For a time he did pretty dull things with top hats, endless ribbon and knotted handkerchiefs, and then he called a boy up from the audience to help him, fortunately not me. The conjuror rolled a newspaper into a tall cone and gave it to the boy to hold, which he did, nervously, with two hands. The conjuror took a bottle of milk and poured it all into the cone. We could all see the bottle was empty. Then he took the cone carefully from the boy, unrolled it; there was no milk in it, the paper was completely dry. We gasped, laughed, clapped and cheered. On the stage the boy burst into tears, shut out by innocence, even terror, from our knowing complicity with the conjuror. How he'd done it we didn't know but we revelled in the marvel of it, delighted to be victims of illusion. The conjuror - a kindly man - was concerned for the boy. It was not a reaction he had expected but secretly, I suspect, he was impressed by the power of what he'd done.

My second moment was at the Old Vic, probably in 1952, I would have been 17 and I'm not sure that I had read the play, which was Hamlet. The Prince was a young Richard Burton. In Act V, in the sword fight between Laertes and Hamlet, at the line, "Have at you now!", Laertes lunged forward at Hamlet, who stood front centre stage, his bare sword arm hanging slack. Laenes' sword slashed across Burton's upper arm and left a red swish of blood across it. It was e1ectrifying; in full light, the red streak on the white, though I suppose, in fact, bronzed flesh, the black and white of Hamlet's clothes. Again illusion, but it is still my most vivid sense of the flesh and blood reality that performance gives to poetry. If I had known then Aristotle's view that "spectacle, to be sure, attracts our attention but in the least artistic and least essential part of the art of poetry", (Golden 1981:14) I would have, then and there, seen that what he said was inadequate. Better what Lorca said in 1936:

Theatre is poetry that rises from the page and becomes human. And in so doing it speaks and cries out, weeps and despairs. The theatre requires that the characters appearing on stage wear a cloak of poetry and at the same time, allows us to see their flesh and blood. (Londre 1984:147)
My third clarifying moment was at a performance of Humperdinck's opera Hansel and Gretel in Ankara. The theatre was frill of children, good children but very noisy. Of the overture not a note could be heard. The conductor, another genial man, could just be seen, his arms only, rising from the orchestra pit, a man with a stick drowning in a sea of noise. Suddenly the curtains swung back revealing a gorgeous set lull of light and colour, the cottage where Hansel and Gretel lived and its little garden. Every child was silent and from then on every note was heard. It showed me that Aristotle was right to see the whole visual effect of the stage as spectacle not just its more sensational moments. Where there are curtains we wait for them to be drawn, the action to begin.

My fourth moment, in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul at the beginning of this year, added something quite crucial to what I want to say about spectacle. I was in the jewellery collection; It was awash with Italians, impossible to move except with the crowd. I was borne along abreast of a glass case inside which was a diamond, big as a duck egg, the Spoonmaker's Diamond, 86 carats, bizote-cut and set with brilliants. Concealed lights and folds of heaped black velvet set it off. But what made the display totally compelling was that the diamond rested on a rocker concealed beneath the velvet, so that the stone tipped slowly from side to side, flashed and flung out light from its facets and from its depths. The Italian next to me, struggling to extricate his arms to express himself the better, turned, looked at me, and said, "Mamma mia!". He was clearly short-sighted or extremely unlucky in his parentage. I was about to reassure him when he said, "Molto spectaculo!". He was dead fight, as indeed Aristotle would have been this time too. And it was the simple technology of the hidden rocker that, combined with the lights, the arts of the window dresser and of the diamond cutter, brought to fullest life what might otherwise have been an inert rock in a glass case, merely big.

Here then, translated to the stage, were the parameters within which I wished to explore; complicity between performer and audience in an illusion that elicits a knowing wonder and the vicarious experience of awe and tenor (the conjuror); the alliance between poetry and its graphic realisation in flesh and blood (Burton); the wonder at and the concentration of attention on colour, light and scenery (the children); a simple machine which can enhance some show to extraordinary splendour, and where we can admire both the ingenious means and the imposing end (the diamond). After Topkapi it occurred to inc that there was something analogous, correspondent, between the conjuror's transformation of ordinary means to extraordinary end; the collusion between flesh and blood and poetry in Hamlet; the effect of light and colour suddenly impacting on the childrens' minds in Hansel and Gretel; and the simple technology enhancing the diamond in the glass ease. And that it was not the gods who worked on us in the stage spectacle but the machines, and the machines were products of our own ingenuity, an extension of ourselves. To savour them we had only to acquiesce in the possibilities of our owi nature, our own flesh and blood.

In the light of this, I want now to turn to medieval practice. The spectacular effects on the medieval stage were particularly, though not only, deployed in representing heaven and hell and the descent and ascent of angels, God the father, and Christ between heaven and earth. In Florence, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) built a machine to represent Paradise to be used each year on the Feast of the Annunciation. Vasari describes it:

The thing was truly marvellous and displayed the ability and industry of the inventor. On high was a Heaven full of living and moving figures, and a quantity of lights which flashed in and out.
He details the mechanical intricacies of this machine, its lights and angels, its springs, telescopic joints and its great revolving half-globe suspended in the roof of the church, so that "the nosegay (of ange1s), the Deity, the mandorla, with numerous rights and sweet music, represented Paradise most realistically" (Nagler 1959: 41-43). He describes another machine in Florence built by the carpenter Francesco d'Angelo in the fifteenth century and used to carry Christ into heaven on the Feast of the Ascension:
  This was marvellously done - another heaven . was arranged over the principal tribune, in which large wheels like windlasses moved ten circles representing the ten heavens, from the centre to the circumference, full of lights representing the stars, arranged in copper lanterns and so fixed that when the wheel turned they always remained in position . From this heaven, which was a truly beautiful thing, issued two large cables connected with the gallery of the church. Each was supplied with a small bronze pulley supporting an iron bar, fixed to a plane upon which stood two angels hound at the waist, counterpoised by a lead weight beneath their feet, and another at the base of the plane on which they stood. The whole was covered with cottonwool, forming a cloud full of cherubim and seraphim, and other angels in divers colours and very well arranged. These being let down by ropes to the top of the screen, announced to Christ His Ascension to Heaven ... and they were drawn up by the same means by which they had descended (1959: 44).
At Valenciennes, machines were used outside church and the town chronicler wrote:
  We saw strange and wonderful things. The machines of Paradise and of Hell were absolutely prodigious and could be taken by the populace for magic .... For we saw Truth, the angels and other characters descend from very high, sometimes visibly, sometimes invisibly, appearing suddenly. Lucifer was raised from Hell on a dragon without our being able to see how. The rod of Moses, dry and sterile, suddenly put forth flowers and fruits. Devils carried the souls of Herod and Judas through the air Here Jesus Christ was carried up by the Devil who sealed a wall forty feet high: there He became invisible. Finally He was transfigured on Mount Tabor .... The eclipse, the earthquake, the splitting of the rocks and the other miracles at the death of Our Lord were shown with new marvels (1959:47-49).
Machines and effects, descended from these, continued in use in all parts of Europe, unchanged in their essentials. Francois Hedelin, Abbe d'Aubignac, writing in 1657, did not like them mainly because they were costly and people had lost the art of using them well, but he nonetheless recognises their power. "'Tis certain", he writes:
  that the Ornaments of the Stage with the Scenes, Machines, and Decorations, make the most sensible delight of that ingenious Magick which seems to make Heroes live again in the World after so many Ages; it sets before us anew Heaven and a new Earth, and many other wonderful appearances of things which we imagine present, though we know at the same time that they are not so, and that we are agreeably deceiv'd: These Ornaments make the Poems themselves more illustrious; the people take them for Enchantments, and the men of understanding are pleas'd to see the dexterity of the Artists (who deservedly attract admiration) with the concurrence of so many Arts and Professions employed in the Execution of these contrivances, to which all run with joy and delight (1959.172-73).
To switch now to the nineteenth century, the Irish dramatist Dion Boucicault, who wrote mainly for the English and American stage, was the master of such enhanced spectacle -- "sensation drama" as it was known. Box office was the prime motive and, to a degree, Boucicault despaired not of his abilities as a sensationalist, as of the public, which he felt forced the role upon him. He attributed the public hunger for sensation to the nineteenth century desire for facts. Of his audience he wrote:
  Their prosaic minds, heavy with facts, cannot rise .... If we have no poets, painters, sculptors or philosophers now, it is simply because the mind of the Nineteenth Century has other aspirations (Fawkes 1979: 50). It is a world, he says, in which "Bacon is trying to reach the North Pole, while Michael Angelo is inventing a sewing machine" (1979:5l).
This is extremely interesting in that it shows that the dramatist's pursuit of spectacle was tied as much to realism as to the extraordinary. Richard Fawkes, in his book Dion Boucicault, writes of Boucicault's first hit, London Assurance (1841), "The use of real carpets, chandeliers, ottomans, windows and mirrors drew gasps of astonishment and rounds of applause" (35). And many nineteenth century stage sets achieved their spectacular effects from historical or realistic minuteness as much as from illusion. But illusion in pursuit of effect was Boucicault's trade mark. In Arrah-na-Pogue (1865) a character escapes from prison by climbing a tower which sinks into the stage as he climbs so he seems always to be going higher and higher. Boucicault ran the English Derby on stage with cardboard horses but with a real horse paraded on stage as the winner. The Oxford and Cambridge Boatrace, rowed on stage, was the climax to Formosa; or, The Railroad to Ruin in 1869. In The Poor of New York (NY, 1867) a house is set on fire. In an article in the Scientific American in 1881, Boucicault described minutely and at length how this was done, with impressions of "blackened and charred wood", smoke and falling rafters, and with details of the chemicals he used to produce his effects. He concludes:
  Behind the entire scene is placed a very large endless towel upon which is painted a mass of flames. This is kept in constant upward motion, and when viewed through an open window of the house, gives a good idea of the raging furnace within. Add to these things a real fire engine on the stage, a host of yelling supernumeraries, in discarded fireman's uniforms and the spectator is easily filled with a sense of tremendous danger (1979:95-96).
In Pauvrette (NY, 1858) there is a stage direction for an avalanche:
  Large blocks of hardened snow and masses of rock fall, rolling into the abyss . the avalanche begins to fall - the bridge is broken and falls into the abyss -the paths have been filled with snow and now an immense sheet, rushing down from the Right entirely buries the whole scene to the height of twelve or fifteen feet, swallowing up the cabin and leaving a clear level of snow - the storm passes away - silence and peace return - the figure of the Virgin is unharmed -the light before it still bums (1979: 100-101).
Queen Victoria, that inveterate theatre goer, saw Boucicault's The Corsican Brothers in 1852. She wrote:
  The effect of the ghost ... with its wonderful management and entire noiselessness was quite alarming, the tableau of the Duel ... almost immediately after the vanishing of the Ghost, was beautifully grouped and quite touching. The whole lit by blue light and dimmed by gauze, had an unearthly effect and was most impressive and creepy . We both and indeed everybody was in admiration at the whole performance (1979:72).
Of the same production George Henry Lewes wrote of the appearance of the ghost "with blood on his breast":
  Nothing can exceed the art with which this is managed; with ghostly tenor, heightened by the low tremolo of the violins, and the dim light upon the stage, the audience, breath-suspended, watches the slow apparition, and the vision of the duel which succeeds, a scenic effect more real and terrible than anything I remember (1979: 73)
So much then for the ingenuities and effects of enhanced spectacle. The range of adjectives describing them is curiously constant over the centuries and, to an extent, the means - modest mechanics ingeniously applied, effects of light, painted board and cloth, are also constant. Constant effects and constant means suggest a constant cause and a constant end. And though there is no need to speculate in pursuit of an overarching theory, it may be enlightening to see how far one could be taken. Let me suggest this then: I don't think we can assert that the end - in its fullness - is a constant. The medieval end is to illustrate an understood spiritual reality, specifically the story of Christian history, including its Old Testament prefigurings, essentially from Creation to the Consummation of the World. Because this was necessarily spectacular, it required spectacular presentation. Divine descent and ascent required ingenious machinery. Because the Christian God was understood to have appeared as man, mechanical methods so deeply involved in the technologies of man, were peculiarly appropriate. In the world of the medieval theatre it would seem entirely appropriate that Jesus should have been a carpenter by trade. For the medieval, ingenuity was in-built into the methods that God used to rescue man from the consequences of the Fall. The Incarnation was in part a divine trick to confuse the Devil. When, in Piers Plowman, William Langland describes the lead-up to the Crucifixion, Faith tells the Dreamer how Jesus will put on the armour of Piers, an Everyman figure, in order to fight for Mankind. in my translation:

in the freedom of his will

in the fulness of his love

gives you his guarantee



in line with his lineage

will press home his attack

in Piers' heavy armour

his high hat and flak jacket

which is to say,

in the language of the masses,

in the flesh, as a man,

one of your very own,

so that no one will suss out

he's God. In Piers' metal suit

this horseman shall ride.

That way

the Godhood of the Dad

will not get knocked,

suffer no thumps,

sustain no thwacks.

In Langland's original:
  That this Iesus of his gentrice shal joust in Pers armes,

In his helm and his haberion humana natura;

That Crist be nat yknowe for consummatus deus

In Pers plates the ploughman this prikiare shal ryde,

For no dount, shal hym dere as in dehate patns

The technology of human natura is, then, entirely appropriate to the appearance and nature of deus consummatus and human ingenuity, - machina, the armour - an echo and realisation of God's own redeeming methods. In the Renaissance, the theatrical Gods change from Christian to Classical and demand not a spiritual acknowledgment from their audiences but an aesthetic or an ideological one. But the ingenuity lavished on spectacle remains the same, even augments. With the transfer of drama from Church and Guilds to Prince and Courtiers, the cost of the machine goes up and the audience becomes particularised. But such patrons can support the cost. With the

nineteenth century and a widening audience, box office becomes both paramount and problematic. In a world of "fact", but also of endeavour, spectacle attracts and the flow of money it requires to support it, in turn, depends on attracting an audience. The stress therefore is on sensation. The means has remained the same but the ends are clearly different. But are there common factors? I think there are. First, there is at all times a delight in human ingenuity and skill And next, there is our wish - perhaps need - to be amazed and raised in the spirit or in our mental make-up. Nineteenth century supernatural effects seem to reflect a continuity here, but less abrupt enhancements of the ordinary are probably more important. With enhanced spectacle we see apparently impossible theatrical presentation which echoes our own needs to test our limits, to outreach ourselves "1 could invent, therefore I might be". In the 1930's, the cinema, the palaces of the people, answered the same need. The Regals, the Majesties, the Empires, rise out of a world of depression and unemployment. Spectacle, far from being escape, is confirmation of our reality, understood in terms of our potentiality, which we must feel is only hampered not destroyed by the conditions life puts upon us. In projecting our natures beyond the habitual, through an ingenuity that we collude with, enhanced spectacle confirms us in our own possibilities, therefore our worth. It is not the cry of curiosity that is uppermost, - How do they do that?"- but a sense of participating in, even if only by witnessing, extraordinary achievement. Since it is human achievement it is a reassurance as to our own possibilities, a cry therefore, of dignity. Yosser's knowledge is somewhere in that cluster of feeling - "I could do that" - to which , at some time, we have all added, with him, "Gi's a job" - some, painfully, more than others. Enhanced spectacle articulates then, the cry of a humanity which knows it should be valued, that it has reach.

If I could end where I began, a nine-year-old in the Regal cinema, as we went in that day we were all given raffle tickets for a prize draw, one prize for the girls, one for the boys. The draw was made at the end. The boys' prize, such were the days, was a pair of short, thick, heavy, grey flannel trousers, given by some kindly tailor of the town. None of us wanted to win. Somehow we knew, in a world where we got into the Regal free, a world of conjurors and this new thing called Peace, there must be greater prizes. Our hard-pressed mothers, had they been there, might have settled for the trousers. This time the conjuror was the assistant and held out a bag. The Regal Manager put in his hand. We hoped he would pull it out dripping with the long-lost milk. But instead he held a raffle ticket. He unfolded it. 99 he said. I looked at my ticket. 99 it said. I half rose in my seat, thinking of my mother. I looked again at my hand, turned it slightly. 66 it said. I sat down. It was to be the story of the world I was about to enter. But it was the story of another world too, a world where short thick grey flannel trousers might foreshadow the glittering prizes and a palpable 66 might, by a sleight of hand, be transfigured to 99 - the world of spectacle itself


Fawkes, Richard, Dion Boucicault, London: Quartet Books, 1979

Golden, Leon, trans. Aristotle's Poetics, Miami: University Presses of Florida, 1981

Londre, Eclicia Hardison, Federico Garcia Lorca, New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, 1984.

Nagler, A.M., A Source Book in Theatrical History, New York: Dover Publications, 1959.