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Vibratory Modernism

Anthony Enns; Shelley Trower


ISBN: 9781137027252
DOI: 10.1057/9781137027252
Palgrave Macmillan
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10
Nicholas Ridout

Towards the end of the famous passage in which his young narrator
attends the theatre for the first time, Marcel Proust offers what looks like
a peculiar account of the physical and emotional effects of real events
on groups of people:
It would appear that certain transcendent realities emit all around
them a kind of radiation to which the crowd is sensitive. Thus it is
that when any great event occurs, when on a distant frontier an army
is in jeopardy, or defeated, or victorious, the vague and conflicting
reports from which an educated man can derive little enlightenment stimulate in the crowd an emotion which surprises him and
in which, once the experts have informed him of the actual military situation, he recognises the popular perception of that aura
which surrounds momentous happenings and which may be visible
hundreds of miles away.1
This account is peculiar for several reasons. First, it suddenly expels
the reader from the particular situation of the novels theatrical scene,
to suggest, it seems, that emotional effects the narrator is experiencing in the theatre may also be experienced outside it, as a kind of
radiation. Second, it offers an account of the transmission of news
in which technologies of communication (such as, perhaps, the telegraph) seem to generate something in the air which may be detected
by the uneducated, even when the educated man can make nothing
of the actual news in circulation, as though a confusion of different
convictions might in their mingling magically approximate the truth.
Third, it suggests that there exists around momentous happenings an
aura which may be seen at improbable distances. Why step outside the
215

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But this immediate recognition of the crowd being mingled with


a hundred others, all erroneous, the applause came most often at
the wrong moments, apart from the fact that it was mechanically
produced by the effect of the applause that had gone before, just as
in a storm, once the sea is sufficiently disturbed, it will continue to
swell even after the wind has begun to subside. No matter, the more
I applauded, the better, it seemed to me, did Berma act.2
The point, it now seems, was to explain a theatrical effect. The
applause of the uneducated, coming haphazardly and in no relation
to the significance of any particular dramatic moment or high point in
Bermas performance, generates an eddying of physical and emotional
activity, a kind of turbulence out of which confusion emerges a rhythmic logic which is the applauses own. This rhythm then transmits itself
to the performer, in such a way that she is carried to apparent heights
of performance which appear to be the logical cause of the mechanical applause. The apparent heights of the performance are similar to
the imagined aura of the distant momentous event, created not by
the event itself, but rather by the radiation emitted by the people
who respond to it. Transcendent realities only appear to emit such
radiation. In fact they merely bask in its glow, for it is produced by the
crowd. The crowd captivates itself. That is how transcendent realities
happen; they are the productions of ordinary people, gathered together.
The more I applauded, the better, it seemed to me, did Berma act.
The audienceperformer reciprocity imagined here is not merely
imaginary. It is real, it is constitutive of the performance and its reception, and it generally escapes the attention of theorists of the theatre.
If, as Proust seems to suggest in his extra-theatrical excursion towards
a distant frontier, this kind of radiation between people is something
that can be observed in the so-called real world, then perhaps the
theatre itself might be imagined as an experimental apparatus for the
exploration of intersubjective or social affect and its transmission. If
theatre theorists were to direct their attention towards the behaviour of
such radiation in the theatre, they might perhaps find ways of saying
something about the nature of social experience and about how popular
understandings of the particularities of social experience including the

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theatre at this point, why attribute mystical powers of perception to


the uneducated, and why speak of this radiation as a process which
produces something visible? The answers to these questions may be
deduced from what follows:

communication technologies that help constitute it might also contribute to popular understandings of theatrical experience. If people are
coming to think of their social world as one in which they both receive
and transmit information in the form of radiation across long distances,
then they may also come to understand the theatre as a place in which
such transmissions circulate with particular intensity. Hence this essays
invitation to the theatre, as a space from within which to contemplate
certain transcendent realities. Welcome to the Vibratorium, where
these realities are experienced in the tremors of the spectatorial body.
Theatre theorist Gay McAuley includes as a key constitutive element
in what she terms the basic apparatus of the theatre the experience of
energy exchange:
In the theatre, due to the live presence of both spectators and performers, the energy circulates from performer to spectator and back
again, from spectator to performer and back again.3
McAuley points to a number of anecdotal and autobiographical accounts of this process, while observing that these expert-practitioner
testimonies rarely enter the scholarly discourse. As McAuley indicates,
in much performance theory and historiography the anecdote is neither
valued in itself nor subjected to an analysis that might lead it towards a
more general theory of theatrical experience:
Performance analysts have hardly begun to explore the factual basis
for such anecdotal evidence, and much work is needed to understand
how the complex and subtle interchanges occur, but what is evident
from the scattered references in published sources such as actors
memoirs is that the spectators in the theatre are far from passive, that
the live presence of both performers and spectators creates complex
flows of energy between both groups, and that it is even questionable
whether what is going on can be discussed in terms of stimulus and
response. At the very least questions need to be asked about who is
doing the stimulating and who is responding.4
As Proust suggests, the stimulation appears to be mutual, and
response may determine the performance. The experience itself is one
which is constituted by a movement between, a back and forth in
which back and forth are not fully differentiated one from another. It
is an experience which is both intimate and individual (experienced
within the body as the impact of radiation) and social at the same time

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(experienced when we find ourselves part of the body that is the audience). Its intimacy depends upon its sociality, as the radiation described
by Proust only seems to function when there exist reciprocal bodies
through which it may be conducted or transmitted. It is the individual
experience of social reciprocity, apprehended physiologically. For
Teresa Brennan, this seems to be why what Proust calls radiation is
best thought about in terms of vibration. In Brennans account of the
transmission of affect, it is the idea of vibration that allows us to think
of this movement between bodies as social and physical at one and the
same time, and to do so in a way that allows us to continue to insist,
as Gay McAuley does in her account of theatre spectatorship, upon the
primacy of the social.5 In Brennans account
In the last analysis, words and images are matters of vibration, vibrations at different frequencies, but vibrations. The significance of this
is easily underestimated in that we have failed to consider how the
transmission through physical vibration of the image is simultaneously the transmission of a social thing; the social and physical
transmission of the image are one and the same process, but (once
more), if we have to make a distinction pro forma, the social, not the
physical is causative.6
The social relation is apprehended as physical experience, and the
apprehension of word and image the act, one might imagine, of
theatrical spectatorship is in the last analysis physical, vibratory
and social. That is to say that the relation itself vibrates. The theatrical
act of becoming someone for the other an entry into a rudimentary
sociality is accompanied by, or, rather, consists in, a vibratory adaptation of the body to the social relation, and that something similar happens in the body of the other, for whom one is becoming something.
The theatre is where we create the conditions in which we heighten our
sensitivity to our mutual becoming-for-others.
It is a widely accepted narrative of theatrical modernisation often
related in a melancholy key that the darkening of the auditorium
towards the end of the nineteenth century pacified the audience, and,
in ruthless disregard for the primacy of the social in the theatre, interrupted the circulation of energy between stage and house, between
performing and spectatorial bodies. In the light, action; in the dark,
increasing passivity. This view, most strongly associated with Bertolt
Brechts polemical and modernist critique of bourgeois realist theatre
and the demand that its spectators be reactivated into thought, might

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During the nineteenth century the behaviour of audiences in the


western non-musical theatre grew increasingly subdued, and for
the better part of the twentieth century, spectators sat quietly in the
dark, not applauding, let alone speaking or shouting, until the end
of the performance. Thus when what we call modern theatre began
in the 1880s, norms of behaviour were shifting toward but did not
yet dictate, unprecedented restraint.7
There is plenty of truth in this story, and, indeed, relevant anecdotal evidence, recorded by theatre historians, of how this interruption
was experienced. For example, in the specific circumstances of late
nineteenth-century theatre in Paris, with which this essay is primarily
concerned, Frederick Hemmings reports the recollections of a celebrated
actress for whom the replacement of gas with electric light was clearly
experienced as a reduction in the energy exchange which McAuley
places at the heart of the performerspectator relation:
Older actors too found it difficult to adjust, to move around as
Jenny Thnard wrote in 1909, in front of a black hole, dazzled by the
garish footlights and aware of nothing but, from time to time, a few
bursts of applause. The give-and-take that used to exist between
actors and audience, this intercommunion of minds called, I believe,
telepathy, had been lost. Henceforth a chasm was to yawn between
the world of the stage and the world the spectator inhabited; there
was loss as well as gain, but whatever the balance of advantage might
be, going to the theatre was no longer the experience it had been.8
However, in what follows I want to offer an analysis of the vibration
described by Proust in order to suggest that the telepathy of which
Jenny Thnard laments the loss was not entirely eradicated, and that
instead it may have been transformed, manifesting itself less obviously
but nonetheless powerfully in the electrically illuminated theatres of
modernity. Might this also change our historical understanding of a
later avant-garde conception of the theatre, such as Antonin Artauds, in
which the hearts and nerves of the audience are worked upon directly
by a performance whose shocking power awakens an otherwise passive

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be regarded as a dominant motif in modernist accounts of the theatre.


A recent account of modern disruptions to this orderly state of affairs
is typical in taking the accomplishment of this process of pacification
as a given:

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public from their sedentary slumbers.9 In order to do so I must consider


the material circumstances of the late nineteenth-century theatrical performance which Proust, writing in the second decade of the twentieth
century, describes in the novel. In particular, I wish to focus on a technological development which did much to complete the process by
which the auditorium was darkened, and in which it might be possible
to detect the grounds for a new and distinctly modern understanding of
the social transmission of affect. The technological development I wish
to consider here is the rise of electricity, and its use for a range of communications technologies from the telegraph to stage lighting.
The performances upon which Proust based his account of Marcels
visit to the theatre, to see Berma reprise her role as Phdre in Racines
play, were, according to Prousts biographer Jean-Yves Tadi, either a
special gala performance by Sarah Bernhardt (who was the model for
Berma) at the Opra in May 1892, or those which she gave at the
Thtre de la Renaissance on the Boulevard St Martin in November
1893. The Opra had been built in 1875 (with a substantial infrastructure for gas lighting), but had been refurbished with electrical lighting
in 1887. The Thtre de la Renaissance had been built in 1873, and
by 1889 it was certainly using electricity, since two items in the faits
divers section of the journal La Lumire lectrique early that year refer to
an incident in which a member of the public had received a mild electric shock from an exposed wire. In the second faits divers appearance
of this news item quite probably included at the request of the theatre
management in order to affirm that they could not be held responsible
for the incident it is made very clear that, since the installation of
the electrical system had been completed by Clemanon (Pariss leading electrical installation company of the time) in full compliance with
the relevant police regulations, the shocked spectator must be regarded
as le premier coupable: that will teach him not to play around (faire
joujou) with electricity.10 So, in either case, we can be confident that
the performance in question was illuminated by electric light: indeed,
in a survey of the state of the art in theatre arts and technology in Paris,
published in 1893, Georges Moynet reports that all theatres ... are today
lit by electricity; there are just a few rare exceptions which, day by day,
are confirming to the general rule and that at the Renaissance, we
may count 34 footlights ... 184 lamps on battens (horizontal bars) ... 52
lamps on vertical bars.11
There is no overwhelming internal evidence to suggest that Proust
based his account on a performance or performances at one or other of
these theatres. However, there is some basis for supposing that it was

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the Renaissance. The performance at the Opra appears to have been a


one-off event, while the performances at the Renaissance constituted
a run of twenty exceptional matines of a new production especially
mounted for the theatre, which Sarah Bernhardt had taken over earlier
in the year.12 Given that the fictionalised performance described by
Proust was a matine, and that there were twenty more opportunities
for him to have seen such performances than there were to have seen
the gala at the Opra, I think one may reasonably take the Renaissance
performances as the more likely source of material for Prousts account.
As John Stokes notes in his account of Bernhardts management of the
Renaissance, she saw the theatre as an opportunity to respond to some
of the most recent developments in Paris theatre, specifically the launch
of the Thtre Libre by Andr Antoine in 1887 and of the Thtre de
lOeuvre by Lugn-Po in 1893.13 These two innovations understood
both as modernisations of theatre practice, and as constituting distinctive strands in theatrical modernism involved a new relationship
between actors and spectators in the theatre, with a particular emphasis
on a kind of intimacy and proximity which had not been possible in
the larger theatres, such as the Comdie Franaise (where Bernhardt
had first performed as Phdre in 1874) which still dominated the theatrical landscape of Paris. On the smaller stage of the Renaissance and
for an auditorium intended for up to 1,200, Bernhardt could hope
to generate her own version of a more intimate relationship with her
audience.14 It is interesting to note, in considering the social aspects of
this theatre, that despite its use of electric light, and, thus, presumably,
a darkened auditorium, the audience, as reported by a distinctly troubled Marcel, was far from silent and passive in its reaction to events on
stage. Indeed it is precisely the simultaneity of the relationship between
his own and others applause and Bermas acting which characterises
the energy exchange he describes. This audience is not waiting until
the end of the performance to make its contribution to the vibratory
encounter. The telepathy is still happening. Might it be the case then,
that this telepathy, understood as a vibratory communication, driven
by an electrified theatre in an electrified city, does not actually require
the audience to do anything other than sit quietly in the dark; that
even if no one seems to be doing anything, their hearts and nerves are
awake and vibrating, all the same?
While the narrative in which the theatre audience gradually accommodates itself to sitting quietly in the dark contains, as I have suggested,
some truth, it is also, I will suggest now, slightly misleading, in that it
assumes that this silence may invariably be equated with passivity. This

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is precisely what Jacques Rancire, in The Emancipated Spectator (but


drawing on earlier work on theatrical performance and spectatorship
in nineteenth-century Paris, too), seeks to challenge. For Rancire, the
opposition between activity and passivity is not logical but political. To
privilege one over the other is a matter of what he calls the distribution
of the sensible. In modern theatre, he suggests, the spectator is discredited because she does nothing, whereas actors on the stage or workers
outside put their bodies in action. But in other historical moments the
hierarchy of this opposition has been different: in the past property
owners who lived off their private income were referred to as active citizens, capable of electing and being elected, while those who worked for
a living were passive citizens, unworthy of these duties. What Rancire
proposes is that this hierarchical opposition may be undone when
we understand that the self-evident facts that structure the relations
between saying, seeing and doing themselves belong to the structure of
domination and subjection, and when we come to recognise that
the spectator also acts ... she participates in the performance by
refashioning it in her own way by drawing back, for example, from
the vital energy that it is supposed to transmit in order to make it a
pure image and associate this image with a story which she has read
or dreamt, experienced or invented.15
Rancires argument would gain further traction were scholarship to
act on McAuleys suggestion that it pay more attention to anecdotes,
in which, she suggests, plentiful evidence will be found that even those
unseen and unheard audiences of the modern theatre are far from
passive.
Indeed Rancires thought would encourage such attention to the
unofficial and the non-expert, precisely as a way of struggling against
the homogenising tendencies of the distribution of the sensible that
organisation of perceptible events (sounds, sights, feelings) according to
which some are paid attention and others never even register as events
in consciousness. The narrative of pacification is itself simultaneously
a product and productive of a distribution of the sensible in which
owners and managers of theatres, and the journalists, scholars and,
indeed regular theatregoers sustain a consensus in which those who
do not speak are assumed neither to think, nor to count. My ambition
here, then, is to place some pressure on the familiar narrative, and to
wonder what would happen to a history of modern theatre if, instead
of being understood as having consigned the audience to passivity, the

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modern theatre, with its electric light and its darkened auditorium, may
instead be understood to have facilitated a vibratory mode of sensory
communication between actors and groups of fully active, even perhaps
electrified spectators. In other words, in attending to the vibrations that
precede speech itself, a different distribution of the sensible might be
made, through the production of a revised historical account of the
transmission of affect in the theatre.
The idea that theatre might involve modes of sensory communication that precede or exceed language is, as I have already suggested,
more readily associated with modernist experimental practice in the
second and third decades of the twentieth century than it is with late
nineteenth-century productions of classical theatre, influenced by the
recent success of such projects as Antoines naturalism. It is an idea
familiar, for example, from the writing of Antonin Artaud, for whom
the ideal theatre should work directly upon the bodies of its spectators:
Snakes do not react to music because of the mental ideas it produces
in them, but because they are long, they lie coiled on the ground and
their bodies are in contact with the ground along almost their entire
length. And the musical vibrations communicated to the ground
affect them as a very subtle, very long massage. Well I propose to
treat the audience just like those charmed snakes and to bring them
back to the subtlest ideas through their anatomies.16
Artaud is one of the two emblematic modernist reformers of the
theatre (the other, of course, is Brecht) whose assumptions of audience
passivity Rancire wishes to move beyond, on the basis of the radically
different assumption in which theatrical spectators are active participants in a scene of equality, even amid the apparently pacifying and
stratifying social conventions of the bourgeois theatre.17 The Thtre
de la Renaissance does not need to be reformed in order for this sensory and intellectual participation to be possible: the vibrations of the
pre-linguistic may be felt here too, as electrified telepathy or wireless
telegraphy.
For it is not just the theatres that are electrified, nor is it just the single
coupable spectator who received a shock at the Renaissance: the city
in which the spectators of the 1890s lived, worked, ate, drank, shopped
and went to the theatre was undergoing a process of electrification.
This process had begun in 1878, when, in conjunction with the Paris
Exposition of that year, the municipal council had decided to illuminate
the Avenue de lOpra all the way from the Opra itself down to the

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Comdie Franaise at the lower end. This illumination was powered by


steam-powered dynamoes located in the basement of the opera house
itself, by two at 28 avenue de lOpra and one at rue dArgenteuil which
would supply power for the installations around the Comdie Franaise.
The lights were illuminated from May to October, from dusk to half
past midnight, when the gas lighting would be turned back on. The
Socit Gnrale dElectricit (SGE), which provided these facilities, for
which it charged the municipality, extended this provision until 1882,
at diminishing costs. Eventually the facilities were withdrawn, however:
the SGE had failed to secure a ten-year contract from the municipality
and was losing money. For five years the issue of electrification in Paris
was the subject of inconclusive debate, as potential suppliers failed to
get the municipal council to commit to issuing concessions.18 However,
the issue became more urgent after 1887. A fire at the Opra-Comique
on 25 May, caused by a batten of gas lights catching fire, led to an
estimated 170 deaths.19 The official response included the replacement
of gas lighting in theatres with electric lighting, with the municipal
theatres leading the way.20 The following year the municipal council
voted to approve the issue of concessions to six companies who wanted
to establish electricity supplies across the city, and the electrification of
the city would now proceed apace. The centenary Exposition of 1889,
for which the Eiffel Tower was constructed, and at which modern technologies, many of them electrical, took pride of place in the Galerie des
Machines, gave additional momentum to this process, generating an
irreversible association between the new source of light and Parisians
sense that they lived in the most modern city in the world.
The theatre was one of electricitys special places, not least because it
was, in a sense, the place through which electricity made its entry into
the infrastructure of the modern city. Although the modern theatre had
long since gone indoors, closed itself in against the world outside the
better, perhaps, to fabricate a second nature within a nature no longer
illuminated, as in the past, by the sun the installation of electricity
plugged the theatre back into the world against which it had enclosed
itself. A theatre lit by electricity might be felt and imagined by its occupants to be simultaneously enclosed and connected, and may have
given spectators a sense of being right where the electricity was happening, offering them a conceptual model for thinking about theatre
as a place where energy circulated with a particular intensity. In linking
the energy exchange between spectators and actors to the transmission
of the radiation of distant events, Proust seems to point to a sense that
the charged atmosphere of the theatre auditorium is an ideal medium

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for feeling how new technologies of transmission and communication


work. In harmony with the movement of the telegraph, the humming
of the generators, the buzz of the filaments, the theatre functions as a
sort of data hub, drawing in the experience of the world and intensifying it, almost as though it were in fact a bulb. In the semi-darkness of
the theatre its occupants still participate in the back and forth of feelings between people, no longer so frequently spoken or shouted now,
but felt all the same, tremulous beneath the skin, and this way sentiments of all kinds are conducted from body to body, before anyone
has to speak or even announce themselves as a character in a story.
The theatre vibrates at the heart of the vibratory city of light. And it
is this vibration, hovering just below the threshold of the languages of
speech and image, that holds all its participants together, equally, for
a moment.

Notes
1. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Volume II: Within a Budding Grove,
trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (London: Vintage, 2002),
p. 24.
2. Ibid., p. 24.
3. Gay McAuley, Space in Performance: Making Meaning in the Theatre (Ann
Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000), p. 246.
4. Ibid., pp. 2478.
5. Ibid., p. 248.
6. Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca and London: Cornell
University Press, 2004), p. 71.
7. Neil Blackadder, Performing Opposition: Modern Theatre and the Scandalized
Audience (Westport CT: Praeger, 2003), p. xi.
8. F.W.J. Hemmings, The Theatre Industry in Nineteenth Century France
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 456.
9. Antonin Artaud, Theatre and Cruelty, in The Theatre and Its Double, trans.
Victor Corti (London: John Calder, 1993), p. 60.
10. Faits Divers, La Lumire lectrique 31 (1889): 3989.
11. Georges Moynet, La Machinerie thtrale: Trucs et dcors, explication raisonne
de tous les moyens employs pour produire les illusions thtrales (Paris: Librairie
illustre, 1893), p. 252.
12. John Stokes, Michael R. Booth, and Susan Bassnett, Bernhardt, Terry, Duse:
The Actress in Her Time (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 23.
13. Ibid., p. 23.
14. Ibid., p. 23.
15. Jacques Rancire, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliott (London
and New York: Verso, 2011), pp. 1213.
16. Artaud, Theatre and Cruelty, p. 61.
17. Rancire, The Emancipated Spectator, p. 22.

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References
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18. Alain Beltran, La difficile conqute dune capitale: lnergie lectrique Paris
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(New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), p. 85.
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