Monday, June 01, 2009


"I love the ephemeral nature of live theatre. Once a specific performance is over, you can never be subjected to it again.”

This was the caption on a New Yorker cartoon that caught my attention a few years ago. I clipped it and held onto it, but it's always vaguely troubled me.

The ephemeral nature of the theatre, in fact, is precisely its beauty: true. As Peggy Phelan has said, "Performance's only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance" ... "The act of writing towards disappearance, rather than the act of writing towards preservation, must remember that the after-effect of disappearance is the experience of subjectivity itself" (146/148).

The disappearance of performance: the ghosts that haunt the stage, the echoes we hear bouncing around the empty auditorium, after-images of scenery erected and dismantled. Something about this very process reminds me both of the very image of life (and of liveliness) that theatre offers us, and of the disappearance of this liveliness that seems a time-lapse snapshot of life itself.

A student of mine recently posted this site on facebook, and I've spent about 20 minutes, scrolling through its images of abandoned theatre spaces. As my student noted, it's both beautiful and depressing, but while the depressing part of it may come from what it represents about the preservation of art in our culture, for me it is a sense of gloom that we tend to associate with the sublime: if Edmund Burke (and in "Ozymandias," Shelley) finds ancient ruins to inspire us to contemplate mortality and the cruel hand of slow time, then these decayed and crumbling stages perform for us this same effect: If life flickers and dies on the stage, then these crumbling stages have seen whole histories pass across its boards. These are "Stages of Decay" as the collection is entitled, theatres of our own mortality.

One shot in particular has a tattered red armchair set in the middle, may a throne, or maybe the chair that Hamm inhabits for Samuel Beckett's Endgame. That play imagines the winding down of all life, the persistence of human life reduced to a single choice to stay or go. And here in this image, Clov has gone, and the only signs of life on the stage are those that mark life by its conspicuous absence.

And yet these crumbling spaces also find a counterpoint in images like this space, the amphitheatre at Epidaurus, which reminds me that even as performances, performers, stories, and spaces will vanish, they do still echo and haunt, reminding us of the persistence of human play, and that we've been playing for centuries.

1 comment:

Brandy said...

I was thinking of what we learned about the sublime when I saw it too, so I liked what you said about that. I just felt an enormous amount of sadness along with the experience of the raw beauty; sadness because those photographs are such a representation of an "end," but the beauty is of an almost-hopeful quality. I feel like I'd like to stand on one of those broken stages with a deed in my hand and say, "This was over, but now it will begin again, and we will love you better this time." Not just the theatre, but what the theatre represents, which, as you implied, is the ghostly texture of Now.

Love the quote, by the way.