Sunday, August 21, 2011

Name That Audience 9

Can you guess what these gentlemen are watching? What's up with the odd postures? Is that man in the back sleeping? Answer after the jump.

It's the audience for a mastectomy operation, as depicted in Thomas Eakins' The Agnew Clinic, from 1889.

I have been reading Siddhartha Mukherjee's The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer and was fascinated when he pointed out that medical surgery, by 1898, "had transformed into a profession booming with self-confidence, a discipline so swooningly self-impressed with its technical abilities that great surgeons unabashedly imagined themselves as showmen. The operating room was called an operating theater, and surgery was an elaborate performance often watched by a tense, hushed audience of observers from an oculus above the theater." (66) Such performance was often for the benefit of fellow physicians and medical students, but also sometimes family, nurses, and others.

I have been aware of operating theaters but have never thought about them in terms of the kind of audiencing I study. They do, in fact, reflect a performance display for the benefit of an audience, and audience members comport themselves similarly to spectators in the theater or the concert hall, valuing the experience of a "live" event onstage as it unfolds. Obviously, the closest association is the kind of demonstration audiencing that takes place in a classroom (the "stadium seating" common to operating theaters is still used in university classrooms, especially those dedicated to science). But, as Mukherjee suggests, surgeons could easily slip from the role of teacher to "showman." Regarding the Eakins painting, what's most interesting is the way in which the spectators are intently trying to get a view of the procedure; what looks, at first glance, as a kind of laziness (heads lolling to the side) is, in fact, an attempt on the part of the audience members to get a good view of what's happening and to hold it. More on the story of The Agnew Clinic (including an identification of the audience members) can be found at the UPenn Archives.

I find it useful to think about non-conventional audiencing, in realms outside of music, theater, and popular culture, as a way to situate and understand those more conventional audiencing. What were the similarities and differences between how, say, commercial theater in the late 1800s and operating theater in the late 1800s was experienced? Were some seats considered better than others? In what ways were spectators' attention controlled or exerted? I assume that there was no clapping in the operating theater, for instance, but did audiences show approval in different ways? Was that sort of qualitative evaluation even assumed, or was the performance more akin to the eucharistic re-enactments of the Catholic mass, where witnessing is considered a form of ritualized participation? 

Another wrinkle in all this is that, whatever happened in the operating theater itself, artistic depictions of operations did have evaluative audiences. Eakins' paintings, the first of their kind, for example, were considered especially shocking because they introduced the realities of performed surgery outside of a scientific context. As Helle Mathiasen notes, "Though well received by Agnew and his students, the painting, when shown at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893, met with this review: 'It is impossible to escape from Mr. Eakins’s ghastly symphonies in gore and bitumen. Delicate or sensitive women or children suddenly confronted by these clinical horrors might receive a shock from which they would never recover.'" I'd like to learn more about the reception of Eakins and other artists and photographers who attempted to reveal medical culture to the public.

Today, hospital "operating theaters" have generally become closed operating rooms, though the term "theater" is still regularly used, and live operations before an audience, for demonstration and teaching purposes, still occur. (See the guidelines for exhibitors for the American Urological Association annual meeting, for example). Old theaters continue their performances, too, in a way--the old St. Thomas's Hospital in London, for example, is now the Old Operating Theater Museum.

Massachusetts General Hospital, 1889
Bellevue Hospital, c. 1890
Jefferson Medical College, c. 1900

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