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:
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:
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.
the Godhood of the Dad
will not get knocked,
suffer no thumps,
sustain no thwacks.
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
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.