Julie A. Carlson
Staging Death

My introduction to the essay component of the UCSB conference on "Terminal" considers two aspects of a logic of the terminal that converge around a practice and a history of tragedy. The aesthetic genre most committed to the cultural production, reception, and reconceptualization of death, tragedy prompts reflection on the mechanisms by which technology blurs the distinction between person and thing. The primary means of stage tragedy--live bodies--do not remain tragedy's end, which is usually bodily remains, and the ends of viewing these remains involve a mastery of death that we now call sublime. To focus on the staging of death, on the trappings that enable death to display itself on stage, is to challenge on two fronts the status of tragedy as a production. On the one hand, death is the scene that is most frequently not to be seen, only heard. On the other hand, staging it employs the most unproductive part of tragedy: stage machinery, spectacle, what the early-nineteenth century liked to call stage business. From the start, theories of tragedy manifest ambivalence toward technology, Aristotle deeming the mere "machinist's" domain the source of the most vivid pleasures. I wish to approach this ambivalence through consideration of the special effect of theatre--seeing things--because it also constitutes one primary defect of theatre--only seeing things. This problem of seeing converges around a common property of death and technology that the production of tragedy by definition plays up and sets to rest: confronting our being things. Characters avert this destiny by making passivity in the face of death heroic activity.

The connection between the technologization of the stage and its effects on seeing is explored aggressively in the period known as English romanticism. This is a period famous for its antitheatricalism and cultural lamentations over the death of tragedy and the decline of drama overall. Stage histories both then and now, essays and reviews in the period, even the House of Commons in 1832 all agree. The decline of drama is linked to technological changes in the size of the patent theatre auditoriums, the shift to gas lighting, increasingly mobile and decorated stage sets, historical costuming, and a rage for spectacle--dogs that swim, cannons that fire, simulations of battle at sea, horses and elephants on stage. Focusing on the linkages affirmed in this period result in two contrary observations. The separation of page from stage, reading from viewing, is a vital legacy from romanticism that dogs contemporary discourses on technology, particularly in their association of technology with novelty. Acknowledging a certain pastness of this past points up the second component of the "terminal" that the history of tragedy reveals: death sentences intensify living. This is not only one end of tragedy, where expressions of dying at once terminate and drag out the show, but of a history of tragedy that periodically declares tragedy dead. In this case, the literary history of tragedy manifests the difficulty of determining the time of death through recognizing the extent to which death marks periods of time. To critical eyes, apparently, it is as clear that tragedy is dead as that tragedy keeps living on.

One way of characterizing a difference between pre-romantic and romantic notions of the stage in England is to reflect on the difference between "seeing things" and seeing things. Both properties of viewing revolve around determining a proper relation between word and thing. In the case of pre-romantic staging, the relation between word and thing governs our understanding in two different respects. Critical commentary on classical and Renaissance stages mirrors this problematic of death: we just don't know how others do it. The difficulty of ascertaining how anything was staged in those periods is that little "eye-witness" evidence remains. And this is alleged to be true whether we conceive of eye-witness as constituting visual evidence, stage scenes as depicted on vases, paintings, sketches, photographs or textual evidence--reliable manuscripts, plots or plats, prompt copies, the Henslowe papers, diaries, reviews. In this situation, what would constitute supporting materials regarding staging become the primary materials themselves (whether metadiscursive comments in the plays or the available stage directions) which gives priority to text even when the ostensible object is viewing. This dynamic is foregrounded in the foundational set of assertions advanced by Nicole Loraux in her important study, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman. Her initial affirmation, "how can one possibly doubt that in the Athenian theater death was meant to be seen?" is followed by an immediate warning: "the listener to tragedy will take precedence over the spectator, because everything comes to us through words. Everything happens in words, and this is particularly true of death." Writers on theatre further safeguard the priority of text by granting mediacy, difficulty, interpretability, to it alone. However, when we finally gain access to eye-witness accounts of staging in reviews, letters, diaries, biographies from the eighteenth century on, evidence appears anything but reliable. These texts reveal the radical indeterminacy of viewing that actually occasions attempts at its stabilization through words.

Conceding this problem of evidence but also the textualist interests that it serves, the little evidence that we have of classical through Restoration staging suggests an enabling dynamism between word and thing. In this stage, words are things not merely in the sense of designating a materiality of the signifer that perpetuates indeterminacies of reading. (Indeed, antitheatricalism is based on an alleged oversimplification of meaning that follows from only hearing words once on stage.) Instead, words are viewed as the material of things, words make things as well as make things happen. We are familiar with the necessity of this materializing property of language from the Prologue of Henry V: "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs in the receiving earth; / For tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, / Carry them here and there." We know it too from the requirement that words tell time in theatres without variable lighting. But the extent to which things are words is equally crucial to the success of pre-romantic staging and reminds us that, even in the two cases mentioned, audiences were able to take part in stage illusion by seeing things: for example, tapers to indicate indoor night scenes, torches for night outdoors, chairs for sickness, dishevelled hair for the mad. Like words, but also apart from them, such things designate a world, in the manner suggested by Alan Dessen in his attention to the subjunctive nature of Renaissance stage directions. Actors are directed not to "enter a shop" but "Enter as from" a shop or "Enter as in" a forest. In other words, place does not precede the actor, instead the actor brings place in and on. S/he constructs the world out of props and words that the audience both sees and sees through.

Apparently spectators lose the capacity to see through things in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century London theatre. Judging from the commentary, this loss is indissociable from a multiplication of things on (and off) stage. A few objects facilitate but a vivid array of things blocks symbolization, an effect viewed as positioning early-nineteenth century theatre audiences in "reality" and thus contributing to the decline of drama. According to this logic, playwrights now must cater to the lowest common denominator--the debased taste of the masses--because spectators, in their craving for things, are craving the wrong things. An extreme consequence is that the stage is seen as violating its fundamental property, illusion, and thus the proper aim of drama is deemed achievable only outside of theatre. Drama belongs in the reading-closet, where imagination makes a world in its image of things: as potential, evanescent, similar to "me". In endorsing this shift, Charles Lamb diagnoses the fantasy: in theatre the "too close-pressing semblance of reality" gives a "pain and an uneasiness which totally destroy all the delight which the words in the book convey, where the deed doing never presses upon us with the painful sense of presence." In the caverns of the newly-renovated theatres, poets grow anxious about things. Neither words nor things are perceived as capable of filling the spaces at the same time that both press too palpably on ears and eyes.

The consequences for tragedy of this version of romantic technophobia extend in directions that themselves outdistance the stage. Coupled with its closeting, tragedy becomes a vehicle less of ethical than of a psycho-analysis, uncovering secrets of the heart that must and must not be seen. In the romantic period, the move toward interiorization is most visible in the canonization of Shakespeare, a process that, in bringing Shakespeare and his characters to life, pronounces several death sentences on classical tragedy. Thomas DeQuincey pronounces one: "That kind of feeling which broods over the Grecian Tragedy. . . was more nearly allied to the atmosphere of death than that of life. . . . Now, on the other hand, the breathing life--life kindling, trembling, palpitating--this is also the life that speaks to us in English Tragedy." Virtually all the canonical romantic writers pronounce a second: Shakespeare's ideal characters revise classical conceptions of the interplay between action and character as the means for analyzing agency. Shakespeare's genius breathes in the interior and recognizes passivity, vacillation, contemplation as fundamental activity. Maintaining both features of this "life" of Shakespeare requires that his "breathing, palpitating" characters do not depict themselves as material forms. To see them embodied, according to Lamb, satisfies a "juvenile pleasure for distinctness" that reduces "fine vision" to "flesh and blood." What we confront, then, is not life in its organic development but our potential reality as thing.

An alternate project from the period continues the shift toward tragedy's exposure of interior secrets without eschewing the medium of theatre. In the early years of the nineteenth century, Joanna Baillie composes a "Series of Plays: in which it is attempted to delineate the stronger passions of the mind; each passion being the subject of a tragedy and a comedy." An inversion of Aristotle on the scores of character, tragic effect, and spectacle, Baillie's aim on each count is to lessen aesthetic distance through an intensification of pressure. "To tragedy it belongs to lead [heroes] forward to our nearer regard, in all the distinguishing varieties which nearer inspection discovers." "To her only it belongs to unveil to us the human mind under the dominion of those strong and fixed passions. . . which, from small beginnings, brood within the breast" until they swallow up all the "better dispositions." In her two plays on fear, Orra and The Dream, fear is not the effect of tragedy but its cause. Orra explores the "too close-pressing semblance of reality" of ghosts--that way lies madness and jouissance for the heroine, and The Dream stages not the fear of death but death by fear. In the final scene, the intended execution is stayed, but the hero is already dead from having imagined it. "No sorcery hath been practised on the deceased: his own mind has dealt with him alone" (The Dream, p. 276).

But it is Baillie's notions on spectacle that best measure her distance from Aristotlean and psychoanalytic investments in tragedy and play up the imbrication of death in technology. Her proximity both to Aristotle and psychoanalysis comes from acknowledging "vivid pleasure" in spectacle as a source both of human delight in stage representation and of the pre-subject's lack of distinction from things. Formed as subjects on objects, spectators in Baillie's view rediscover in theatre their delight in being taken in by things. "A love for active, varied movement, in the objects before us; for striking contrasts of light and shadow; for splendid decorations and magnificent scenery; is as inherent in us as the interest we take in the representation of the natural passions and characters of men: and the most cultivated minds may relish such exhibitions, if they do not, when both are fairly offered to their choice, prefer them." Such insight into the residual material attractions of a subject's pre-history poses a powerful corrective to the association of technology with either realism or progress. In her many renderings of death as a spectacle, Baillie displays a machinery of death that in its reality makes the master, mind, do its bidding. Sheer show stops the heart; for on Baillie's stage, things have a life of their own. Her recognition that love of sound, light, motion is as inherent in us as love of word suggests why we are moved by things on stage. We are formed on such abjects. The question is why reinscriptions of tragedy in psychoanalysis disavow their precondition as theatre--why, even those who model an ethics of psychoanalysis on the tragedy of Antigone scorn the "third eye," spectacle.