Jane Goodall, Stage Presence (London and New York: Routledge, 2008)
What does it mean to say that a performer has 'stage presence'? Is presence a tangible quality we can identify and analyse? Can it be taught? Why are some performers able to command the attention of vast numbers of people while others wither and die in the glare of the spotlight? What role do authence perceptions and expectations play in a performer's manifestation of presence? These are some of the questions that Jane Goodall poses in her eminently compelling book about this somewhat mystical and mysterious quality.
The work is primarily concerned with the ways in which European actors, directors, critics and theorists write about the phenomenon, and this focus is a provocative response to what Goodall identifies as two tendencies in contemporary discourses about stage presence: 'the orientalist move' and 'the focus on absence'. The orientalist move refers to the way figures such as Artaud embrace the religious and mystical aspects of the performing traditions of Asia as a 'reaction against modernism, not just for its technologies, but for the quality of consciousness it fosters, and the ways in which it promotes constant change in a relentless future-bound drive that by implication devalues the past' (4). It also refers to more recent work inspired by Eugenio Barba's theatre anthropology. The focus on absence is a little harder to grasp since Goodall makes a relatively fleeting reference to Derrida' s critique of Western metaphysics without explicating in sufficient detail the implications of Derrida's philosophy for theorisations of stage presence. She observes that Derrida 'has influenced a widespread movement in contemporary philosophy that has found it easier to convert discussion of presence into a focus on absence' (5). I will return to this somewhat hasty dismissal of Derrida later, because in some ways 'absence' haunts Goodall' s discussion of stage presence in important ways.
Nonetheless, she marks out a relatively underdeveloped area of critical inquiry and does an admirable job of demonstrating that stage presence is a persistent theme in a wide range of cultural and historical contexts. …