Friday, January 13, 2012

Name That Audience 10

Here's an interesting one. What's happening, here? It's obviously a theater, but why is there an audience on both sides of the proscenium? A theater in-the-round? An elaborate production about a large theater audience? The answer is after the jump.

It's an 1822 print depicting the famed "looking-glass curtain" at London's Royal Coburg Theatre (later known as "The Old Vic"). The curtain, made of 63 plates of mirrored glass, enabled an audience to admire a reflection of itself before and after performances. It certainly enhanced the "to see and be seen" culture of theater in the time period, while also giving audiences a direct sense of control over what occurred onstage. Jim Davis and Victor Emeljanow report that "the weight of the curtain made it unmanageable and...poor ventilation coated it with a misty opaque film, thereby defeating its whole purpose," (Reflecting the Audience: London Theatregoing, 1840–1888, Hatfield: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2001: 35) but still the novelty of the curtain created a sensation. When it debuted in 1821, it was apparently more popular than the plays onstage. This particular print (London: G. Humphrey, St. James's Street, 1822), by the way, depicts Ramo Samee, a juggler, magician, and sword swallower, juggling on stage, in front of the mirror, something that must have created a number of double reflections--an audience looking at itself looking at itself--while also looking at a performance.

Spectatorship is never simple.  

1 comment:

  1. The mythical claim by 20th century theatre historians that people attended theatres "to see and to be seen" has nothing to do with this marvellous mirror curtain. Please note the performer is sitting on a stage front that extended into the auditorium. Theatre historians who have claimed spectators attended theatres to "see and be seen" cite very selective evidence that is not countered by an immense amount of other evidence demonstrating spectators' interest in, and love of, plays. These theatre historians frequently are uncritical "Positivists" with little or no interest in the successful impact of play performances, which remained hugely popular till 1892. Key to the success and popularity of play performances were the fact that they were acted on stages that extended into British theatre auditoria from Shakespeare's time to 1892. when they were abolished & outlawed by a Parliament fearful of the political comment that these stages facilitate during play performances. From 1892, on the specious grounds of "fire protection", all theatres with stages extending into the auditorium were closed. The conversations play performers had maintained with spectators since Shakespeare's time were silenced. (The Lord Chamberlain had already been trying, in vain, for about 60 years to persuade theatre managers and Proprietors to build proscenium arches separating spectators from play performances, but when too many managers refused, he persuaded Parliament to give him the power to enforce them in every play acting theatre.) Immediately, plays lost their popularity. They regained their popularity in the late 20th century only with the revival of stages with spectators on three sides, or in-the-round, supported by Stephen Joseph, Alan Ayckebourn, Max Stafford Clark, Peter Brook, Bill Bryden and others.