Jumping through the fourth wall: realism and/or the real

David Belasco Tiger Rose.jpg

American set designer David Belasco’s highly realistic set for Tiger Rose (1927) britannica.com

In each chapter of Marvin Carlson’s Shattering Hamlet’s Mirror: Theatre and Reality, Professor Carlson follows essentially the same trajectory. Beginning with the earliest historical examples, Carlson traces the lineage of theatrical desire for staging real words, real people, real objects, and so on through the 19th and 20th centuries, concluding with 21st century postdramatic phenomena. So for example, in the chapter on space (Chapter 3: “There Must Be a Lot of Fish in That Lake”) he begins with ritual theatre that is specific to a particular site like the 10th century Quem Quaeritis trope set in a church at Easter and the Egyptian “passion play” at Abydos (2nd millennium BCE) which follows the death and resurrection of Osiris as the ceremonial barge journeys the Nile. The chapter then progresses to reenactment of historically significant events at the original site of said events (e.g. The Storming of the Winter Palace in 1920). This same idea is extended to fictional events, giving birth to a production of Hamlet in 1937 at Elsinore Castle and the Ramona Pageant of Ramona, California based on a popular historical novel. David Belasco rates a mention for importing real furnishings, lighting, and wall coverings from actual-world sites and installing them onstage to create realistic replicas (67). Likewise Beerbohm Tree’s 1911 A Midsummer Night’s Dream with live rabbits and a mossy floor (66)….And from there to contemporary site-specific theatre.

What is great about this approach is that it shows very plainly and convincingly that site-specific theatre in particular (and verbatim, and immersive, and…all our 21st century “novelties”) and theatre of the real in general are not really so new. They all have deep roots in a diverse range of western theatre practices. With Professor Carlson’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the theatre tradition in Europe and North America, he is able to marshall these examples, sketching a sort of network of related of praxis. Ritual practices like the Abydos procession and the Quem Quaeritis integrate the real space into the experience of the narrative bridging fictional storytelling with the real world. The god Osiris and the three Marys visiting the sepulchre are present in both their own historio-mythic time and in the time of the audience/witnesses. They are alive and real again here and now. This bridging experience is consistent with contemporary site-specific staging. The site endures both then, now, and all times in between (What Horner and Renyk call the “sense of since”) It is the connecting tissue between the experience of historical figures and my own present. This same affective bridge is at the heart of contemporary site-specific experience of historical venues where the space is encouraged to ‘speak’ and to perform its temporality.

Carlson’s approach by bringing together disparate manifestations of realness, however, also elides what I think are important distinctions between realism and the real. As evidenced by Carlson’s title, desire for theatre to reflect the real world is a venerable mantra of western performance practice. We can trace a progressing ‘realism’ from  Hamlet’s instruction to “hold the mirror up to nature” through the 18th and 19th centuries to the naturalism of the 1880s, the effects of which extend through the early 20th century. Of course this is not a solid or strong continuum but it has its moments. The examples Carlson gathers from this tradition are aimed at increasing mimetic accuracy. And the key word is mimetic. So in this case, the real is employed in the service of realism. Like David Belasco’s borrowed settings, real elements are kidnapped from the world and put to work representing something else. Sometimes the thing being represented is the thing itself.

(This is of course always true of theatre: things represent other things. Often these things are very similar and the close relationship between the actual thing and the fictional thing it represents causes interesting effects. See my friend Bert O. States on objects of this kind. I have written about this lots elsewhere.)

Realism puts real things on the stage to represent. Theatre of the real attempts to short-circuit mimesis, asking the staged real thing to retain its actual status, being only itself. (Of course, the theatrical frame/audience theatricalizing perception strongly resists this bid. So this may not actually be possible.) The attempt to be only itself and eschewing mimesis aligns with what Hans-Thies Lehmann categorizes as postdramatic theatre. Performance without representation. He says without “drama.” People and things that don’t represent but just be. Not double (actual/fiction) but single (only actual).

This is where the seemingly connected progressive flow of items on Carlson’s lists strikes me as disingenous (or careless? Maybe that is too strong. How about ‘unconsidered’?) . The shift from realism to the real is not simply a step along the same road; it marks a fundamental difference in the way material of the actual world is manifests ontologically. It is a chasm.

That said, realism and our awareness of the real as such (real-ish-ness) are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes we get both, but with two different effects.This is why I think metatheatre is connected to the postdramatic real: metatheatre raises awareness of the always already real in realism. Still so many questions: What are they doing in general? What are they doing in the specific context of a particular performance? How do they work together? Can they be separated?

A key takeaway for me from Carlson’s eclectic mixed list is that I have work to do in figuring out how these different kinds of real–reality, realism, real-ish-ness–function. I want to be precise and clear.


Works Cited

Carlson, Marvin. Shattering Hamlet’s Mirror: Theatre and Reality. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2016.

Horner, Mariah and Grahame Renyk. “Matter Matters: Performing a Stone in the Woods.” Canadian Theatre Review 163 (Summer 2015): 59-63. DOI: 10.3138/ctr.163.012



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