Our world is currently characterized by digitization. On a daily basis we interact with digital tools and properties. However, if we think about digitization in general, we probably think about the big things first: communications (who writes letters these days?), transportation (how many times have we cursed at the computers that make our new cars unfixable with a wrench and a willingness to bark our knuckles), and of course, weapons (drones, anyone?).
But the success of this technology on a large scale has given birth to an almost pathological willingness to experiment on a personal scale. Things we never would have thought needed digital versions – cabs, meals, maps, books, cigarettes, wine – we now can’t imagine in solely analog forms.
Part of this trend is commercial. Entrepreneurs and investors are looking for the proverbial next big thing and who’s to say that isn’t digital underpants that track your menses? Surveys only get you so far. After that you have to take the risk of producing and trying to sell the beeping networked panties of your dreams.
But an arguably more dignified reason for experimenting is the human desire to answer the question “What if?”
Another motif that accompanies our accelerated lives is the notion that what we’re doing is sui generis, that what we are doing – from going bananas with our wedding tackle to invading Afghanistan – is being done for the first time. That is nowhere more clear than in our belief in our technology. The problem with this technological exceptionalism is that while the vocabulary might be new, the syntax isn’t.
Victorians did it first
150 years ago and more the Victorians were engaging in a full-steam ahead mechanical fandango. When we think about Victorian mechanization – if in fact we ever do – we are likely to think of the big things. (Sound familiar?) Communications (tele…what?), transportation (how many times have we cursed those devil carts that scare the horses?) mining, and manufacturing (ever heard of the production line…well, maybe you haven’t: kids these days).
The urge to solve serious problems and the way it flowered into both a commercial mania and a desire to challenge heaven motivated the Victorians every bit as much – and perhaps more – than it currently motivates Silicon Valley.
Those lines of force that create, and are created by, technological innovation do not come bang up against a wall and stop. They ripple out into every element of society, affect it, are affected by it, and flow back to the center. Anyone who works in the arts, as opposed to viewing it from a high white flet above the greasy needs of the hoi polloi, knows this first hand, and that includes theatre professionals. Shakespeare himself began inflected by the technology of his age (development of props and costumes, scenery walls, the gods, hell, and the trapdoors) and attitudes toward tech have effected how it has been used in production of his plays.
The Victorian relationship to Shakespeare has been decried as a period of priggish mutilation of the texts, married to extravagant production qualities – Shakespeare as spectacle. The spectacle, in this case was to be sniffed at as much as the bowdlerization. They became associated. This despite the Victorian age being one of great Shakespearean experimentation – specifically different groups, ranging from working class union members to American alienists to imperial apologists to saloon-goers, seizing on Shakespeare as one of their own, as a vector for the communication of their own loves and hates shaped and presented in a form that hallowed it, whatever it might be.
Shakespeare was no more victimized by his least sensitive Victorian proponents than he has been by the least sensitive TV and film producers of the modern age (though perhaps no less victimized either). So to conflate experiments with stage technology with the efforts of prudes, dullards, and pandering impresarios is to misunderstand the motivation behind experiments with stage tech.
Shakespeare in the empty space
When I graduated from college, the Victorian age was considered an era in which the real meaning of Shakespeare was neutered and what few words remained were subjugated to a florid, almost choking ornamentation. The set decoration, costume design, and stage technology of that fussy aunt of the English empire was vulgar, over the top, overgrown with irrelevant visual distraction, and poisonous with curlicues (not unlike this sentence).
Shakespeare, the cant went, was meant to be produced as Shakespeare himself produced it: bare bones. (Never mind that in Shakespeare’s time there was a constant innovation of all those elements of the theater as a way to appeal to the theater-going public. Theater was, and remains, a commercial venture.)
In the subsequent years, that belief that Shakespeare was to be stripped down was tested out. In smaller venues, with scrappy companies, his words were given rein. Props, even at the best heeled theaters, might consist of a few swords and some colored sashes. Or perhaps sticks, and nudity. Then, of course, as these things happen, it became the rule.
In the last several years, there has been a rebellion against that rule. Some theatres, especially the bigger repertories have returned to some sense of, if not spectacle, at least belief in the desirability of stage works and machinery as part of the experience. Smaller companies, thanks to the ubiquity and affordability and power of current digital technologies, have found they can do more with less.
Technology as theater, theater as technology
It cannot be a coincidence, given how closely the various parts of our societies are interconnected, that the lush, dynamic “spectacle” of Shakespeare reached its apogee at the same time the Victorian era reached its zenith. The impulse to invent that gave the Victorians the first mechanized washing machine also gave them the ability to stage a terrifyingly realistic shipwreck in a theater.
Nor can it be a coincidence that in an era in which the collection of big data and its near-instantaneous recall and parsing, we are also seeing productions of Henry V in which the scenery wall would not be out of place at the Consumer Electronics Show.
Our Shakespeare will always reflect our mores. It will reflect our fears. (Who can doubt a major new staging of Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra are in the offing?) And it will reflect our loves and our brotherhood. (Who will honor the victims of Orlando in a new production of Romeo and Juliet?)
But it will also always reflect, and adapt to, those elements of our society that we commonly believe take a back seat to fear and love, things like economics, social trends, and yes, technology.
But whether you’re an enthusiast or a skeptic, it might be comforting to reflect on what will always be the foundational technology of theatre: A place to stand.
Photo from Flickr by Loco Steve (CC BY-SA 2.0)