Theatre Design & Technology - Feb 1969 - 17

right in the presence of its consumers. Live
actors, dancers, musicians confront the Iiving audience. Action and reaction are to all
intents and purposes simultaneous: the contact is electric and yields an emotional
climate which is specific to the theatre. It
is the product of a triangular relationship
(not a two-way one, as is commonly assumed): the actor's impact upon the audience as a whole; the collective response of
that audience; and the effect of that response upon upon the individual playgoers
who make it up. This three-way feed-back
is what has always made the theatre the
most electrifying of all the forms of art.

Until modern times, it was always understood that each theatre form, play, opera,
concert, dance-had its own special environmental requirements and own inherent
scale. When the Greek city of Eretria in
Euboea made attendance at the theatre
compulsory for its citizens on certain high
holidays, it was acknowledging the potency
of the form. The theatre was a major instrument whereby 1 its citizens were inculcated with Greek values-where, in sober
fact, they learned to be Greek. The form of
the play and the form of the theatre that
held it had symbiotic origins, in whose development the playwright and the architect
took equal and mutually supporting parts.
Lacking the technical means for amplification
of word or gesture, the authors developed a
characteristic set of formal conventions-the
shouted lines and exaggerated, styl ized
gestures; the tragic and comic masks; most
of all, the Chorus. Placed midway between
the cast on its raised stage and the audience in its roofless bowl, the Chorus was a
remarkable invention. It acted both as interlocutor for the audience (Why, oh why,
must Oedipus kill his father at the crossroads]) and as interpreter for the playwright
(Patience, patience, you will see, the Gods
have willed it so). Pulsing back and forth
between the cast and the audience, the
Chorus welded the two into one communion.
Catharsis through pity and terror was the
Understanding both the importance and the
fragility of this emotional climate, Greek architects exercised great care in designing
the ambiance in which the play was to be
experienced. Lacking adequate artificial illumination, performances were held in daylight. With the rainless Agean summers,
there was little need for a roof but, without
any technical means of visual or aural amplification, sight lines and acoustic behavior
had to be exactly calculated. The Greek
theatre building was thus a vessel perfectly
shaped to contain the Greek play. Moreover, its Iimits were perfectly comprehended.
In such great structures as that at Epidourus
with a radius of 193.5 ft., they pushed this
particular design for communication just as
far as the unaided eye and ear could reach.
Greek theatres are considerably

never become "obsolete." It represents a
prototypal form which cannot be manipulated
without fundamentally altering the theatral
experience itself. Even to enlarge the auditorium is to push the outermost seats beyond the range of good seeing and hearing,
thereby reducing the potency of the actors'
projection. These limits are established by
the physiology of the eye and the ear and
they cannot be violated without aqualitative
dimunition in the experience itself.
American architects, like Americans generally, have accepted without serious challenge the proposition that technology has
made obsolete or inoperative all these ancient relationships. Yet it should be obvious
that when, for example, a play is transposed
from the stage to the movie screen, it has
already been divested of its most magical
property-that feed-back which enables the
audience not merely to receive the play but
to modify the very quality of the actor's
projection by the intensity of its response.
In the movie, the audience no longer has a
direct line of communication with the actor.
This role is delegated to the director, who
has a double chance to intervene in the
audience's behalf-first in the actual shooting of the scenes, then in the cutting rooms
where the facsimile is given its final form.
The extent to which he understands his
audience's needs and the responsibility
with which he acts in their interest will determine the ultimate val ue of the production.
Modern audio-visual technology gives him an
acceptabl e facsimile of multi-dimensional
reality; and as long as it is projected before
the living audience of the movie theatre,
it maintains some of the central elements of
theatral experience. Aviable art form results.
But when this same movie is projected upon
an outdoor screen and the individual members of the audience are isolated in the
sealed compartments of their individual automobiles, the situation is further compromised. Perception itself is fragmented. The
visual image is reduced in size, distorted
by curved glass, dimmed by condensation,
wipers, etc.; the sound, robbed of dimension, direction and depth, issues from one
little box; heated or cooled air from another.
The entire experience is converted into a
travesty of the technical virtuosity which
makes it possible.

Because of this experiential totality, its
physical union of actors, audience and individual playgoer, the Greek theatre can




And when, finally, that same cinematic facsimile is projected across the indecent privacy of the TV screen, the process of electronic attrition is complete. With the radical
alterations of both the intrinsic properties of
the form itself (grotesque distortions in
size, scale, color and length as well as the
periodic interjection of extraneous advertising) and the radical change in the ambiental
circumstances under wh ich it is projected,
the play has been reduced to an impoverished simulacrum of the original. In removing it from its special container of public
exposure, the form has been mutilated and
the climate demolished. Now, indeed, man
has been reduced to the one-dimensional role
of passive spectator. Instead of being submerged in the rich and stimulating theatral
experience, a participant through all his
senses, he views it as if through a knothole .


It would be nonsense, of course, to argue
that all electronic facsimiles (films, recordings, tapes) are without esthetic value or
cultural utility. But it is equally nonsensical
to argue that they are identical with or interchangeable with their prototypes. Yet this
is just the position assumed by many critics,
including one who writes:
.almost any recording studio is acoustical/y superior to all but half a dozen halls
in which orchestral music is played to audiences; and it is preposterous to think that
a third-rate orchestra in a second-rate hall
is closer to the prototype (what the composer intended) than a great orchestra, using
the most modern equipment, in a studio.

But the conditions under which the record
is cut or the video taped are not the decisive factors in the experience: it is rather
th e experiential circumstances under which
they are projected and received. These are
literally never "superior" in the noisy bar or
across the static and flicker of the living
room TV, or in the parked car or the picnic
grove. It is preposterous not to recognize
this fact. Indeed, one could easilyarguethat
it might be much more preferable actually to
hear the live performance of a third-rate orchestra in a second-rate hall. (Though why
must we assume, with this critic, that we
must content ourselves with third-rate men
playing in second-rate architecture]) To insist upon distinctions is not to assume an
"undemocratic" posture, as this same critic
has charged: it is rather to establish and define the critically-important categories of experience in a period when the tendency is
to vulgarize them all.
Clearly, some art forms sustain technological
duplication and mass distribution much better
than others. The artistic ambitions of Twain
and Faulkner survive the printed facsimile
far better than those of Rembrandt or Rodin,
just as Beethoven's full intentions are more
adequately represented by recordings than
are those of Shakespeare. But we might recall that the only literary form without an
oral origin-and without the artistic dimensions derived from that ancestry-would be
the census tract, the chemical formula or
the mathematical treatise. All other literary
forms-novel, play, poem, history-reveal
their debt to an oral prototype. Tribal histories like The Illiad or the Old Testament
were not only" meant to be read ou t loud."
They were first made out loud, so to say,
and only subsequently transcribed.
For just this reason, for example, many of
Mark Twain's most delicious anecdotes,like
that of the jaybird at the knot hole, could
only have come into being via th e spoken
word. Many of h is essays and short stories
were polished in repeated personal performances before they saw prill!: and, judging from contemporaneous accounts of his
tours, it was on the stage, face to face
with his audience, that his special art
achieved its most electrifying power, If this
be true, then the printed facsimile of his
works, while much, much better than nothing, is much, much less than all. A recording of Hal Halbrook's famous readings of
Twain is more moving than a printed facsimile. An actual performance by the live



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