Academic journal article About Performance

The Great Resonator: What Historical Anthropology and an Ethnographic Approach to the Auditorium Can Tell Us about Audiences

Academic journal article About Performance

The Great Resonator: What Historical Anthropology and an Ethnographic Approach to the Auditorium Can Tell Us about Audiences

Article excerpt

Is the spectator the "actor's primary partner," as Max Reinhardt has said, and more recently Peter Brook? Is the spectator really the "fourth creator" of the theatre performance (together with the author, the stage director and the actor), as suggested by Meyerhold? Or the "third fellow" (after the author and the actor), as Jean Vilar used to say? Or "a protagonist, the protagonist," to use Giorgio Strehler's formula? Can these terms be taken literally? Does the authence have the power to intervene concretely in the performance process? Can this be verified? Can we describe it? Can we measure it? These were the questions to which I was expected to find answers when I was appointed to a research position at the CNRS in 1986.

The hypothesis that I am proposing here, in revisiting a metaphor used by many stage directors and actors in the early twentieth century, is that of the authence as resonator or soundbox. This endows the spectator with an even more vital function than those suggested by the theatre practitioners cited above, while at the same time raising questions about the emphasis on the moment of copresence that constitutes the performance. According to my hypothesis, the authence of a theatrical production - that is to say all the people who have attended the successive performances of the show - acts like a great 'resonator' of the production, both during and immediately after, but also long after the performances. My proposition is based on three quite different phases of research and reflexion.

In the first phase (1986-1998), I attempted to answer the questions raised by putting together a methodology inspired by ethnography and undertaking fieldwork in the theatres of Paris, consisting of the following: observations of series of performances of the same production (writing up notes shortly after leaving the theatre), sound recordings made inside the auditorium, a large number of interviews with spectators and an even larger number of questionnaires (handwritten, impromptu questionnaires distributed at the beginning of the show or handed out during the interval to volunteers, who were given two weeks to return them to me). The corpus of productions was deliberately restricted to those performed in 'traditional' theatres, strictly end-stage (such as the large auditorium at the Théâtre des Amandiers at Nanterre) or Italian style proscenium arch (such as the Théâtre de l'Athénée), with a seated, immobile and virtually silent authence. The productions themselves were, equally deliberately, extremely varied in style as can be judged from the following examples: Elvire-Jouvet 40 (Brigitte Jaques, Théâtre de l'Athénée, 1986), The Play of Faust (Théâtre du Radeau, several different venues, 1988-89), Hamlet (Patrice Chéreau, Avignon, Nanterre, MKHAT Moscow, the Great Hall at La Villette, 1988-89), I Shall Never Return (Tadeusz Kantor, Pompidou Centre, Théâtre de Chaillot, 1988-89), Iphigenia in Aulis (Théâtre du Soleil, 1990-91).

The second phase (1998-2006) was characterised by a twofold distancing, both critical and reflexive, in relation to the object of my research. The critical distance was caused by the fact that I had started two other projects, one on amateur theatre and the other on the work of director Claude Régy (Mervant-Roux, 2004 and 2008), and as a result of this work, the question of the spectator, far from being erased or forgotten, now appeared to me in a new light. The reflexive distance was provoked by my realisation that the first phase of my research had involuntarily contributed to a widespread redefinition of the authence as a "coactor", an assertion I find in fact to be highly questionable. I decided, therefore, to examine how theatre historians had dealt with the problem of the authence, and so set about constituting an inventory of 'indigenous' figures of the spectator, that is to say figurations constructed within the closed field of theatrical theory, from 1950 to today. As a result of this investigation I found that the question had subtly evolved and I turned towards historical anthropology to try to think it through again (Mervant-Roux, 2006). …

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