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Reviews

CHRISTOPHER BAUGH. Theatre, Performance and Technology:


The Development of Technology in the Twentieth Century. Houndsmill, UK:
Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Pp. 262, illustrated. $26.95 (Pb).

Reviewed by Kathleen Irwin, University of Regina


Christopher Baughs fascinating study provides a comprehensive and
stimulating overview of the impact of technology on the course of
twentieth-century scenography. A scenographer himself, Baugh explores
both the historical tyranny of established stage practices and the
periodic renewal engendered by subverting these dominant forms.
His investigation of how the stage functions as a place of performance
and a technologically supported machine geared to generate meaning fills
a certain void in the study of scenography.
Beginning his examination in the latter part of the nineteenth century,
Baugh addresses both the scenographers desire to render, within the
proscenium frame, an accurate representation of an outward reality and
the obvious limitations of this problematic pursuit. Ultimately, the drive
for a mimetic realism onstage was overcome by a search for psychological
truth, erupting in what Baugh describes as a millennial frenzy of artistic
rejections and manifestations for change (28). As scenographic practice
evolved through the formative years of the twentieth century, the primary
challenge for theatre artists became to articulate a relevant notion of
theatrical space and to achieve a cogent representation of an inner reality
within the material constraints of the stages of the time. Visionaries such
as Craig, Appia, and Meyerhold did much to re-envision the look of the
stage, and their efforts were fuelled by burgeoning technological
innovations in lighting and hydraulics. Furthermore, through the

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454

REVIEWS

proliferation of the recorded image, new ways of comprehending time


and place were formulated that affected scenographic vocabularies
immeasurably. Questioning the very purpose of scenery as a mimetic
device and the fundamental relationship of stage and spectator, their
work exemplifies Baughs claim that the history of the contemporary
stage is the history of the rejection of former practices, aesthetic
approaches, and ways of perceiving the world.
Central chapters covering the iconoclasts mentioned illustrate the
growing recognition that the real act of theatre takes place in the liminal
space between stage and spectator and that scenography is the space of
imaginative possibility generated where the mind of the artist and the
perceiving eye unite. Addressing Piscator, Brecht, and his designer
Caspar Neher, Baugh evocatively analyses the mid-century shift in
representational strategies across all disciplines, from a focus on
materiality to one on action, social engagement, and place-related
performance.
Guiding the reader through the twentieth century, Baugh braids
together changing modes of scenographic expression, aesthetic
approaches, and technological innovations. For example, the struggle
to produce sufficient incandescence to light the stage and seamlessly
control the level, contours, colour, and quality of light provides insights
into the scope of the experiments of Appia at Hellerau, Fortuny in
Venice, Gray and Ridge in Cambridge, and Gropius at the Bauhaus.
Rejecting the pictorial representation of scenic space in favour of
architectural space (configured of neutral ramps, stairs, and platforms)
and heavily supported by new technology, these designers illustrate the
struggle to find an alternative scenographic identity and an entirely new
aesthetic. The touchstone of innovative practice throughout this period
became to define a scenic space that was fully integrated within the place
of the performance, the architecture of the theatre and thus to bridge the
historic abyss between spectator and performer.
In Czech designer Josef Svoboda, Baugh recognizes a singular artist
who worked to address the antagonism between the movement of the plot
and the immobility of conventional three-dimensional scenery, the central
conundrum expressed earlier by Craig, Appia, Meyerhold, et al.
Svobodas focus on the total conceptualization of a production, the
implementation of scenography in the fullest sense of that word,
anticipated what Hans-Thies Lehmann calls postdramatic theatre, a
term that efficiently covers a range of performance styles that do not
necessarily take dramatic text as an initial or defining impulse.

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455

Having explored the advent and explosion of technology over the


twentieth century, Baugh asks an intriguing question: Why have so many
contemporary theatre artists rejected formal theatre architecture and
sought to locate new performance elsewhere, especially in the old, the
damaged, and the alternative? Current theatre practitioners who
work outside the constraints of institutions and production
infrastructures who reject an over-upholstered stage replete with all
forms of technological wizardry indicate a return to earlier avant-garde
practices like those of Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski. Indeed,
according to Baugh, scenographic minimalism and the move away
from traditional venues have proved to be significant features in the
search for new theatrical identity. New paradigms of performance
practice have emerged that may include the theatre but also represent
challenges to it. The millennial marker of twenty-first-century performance practice is the by-now-familiar ambivalence toward technology
expressed by certain attempts to work in provisional situations as well as
by attempts to colonize, as a platform for experimentation, such
technological frontiers as the Internet.
Baugh concludes that the final decades of the twentieth century have
eroded the inclination to claim a rational basis for art within some
universal structure of human understanding. Illustrating how technology
and mediatization have changed the terms of representation, his book
usefully tracks paradigm shifts away from theatre and towards
performance, from the single authorial and spectatorial viewpoint
offered by the experience of the proscenium stage to the multiple,
contingent, and unstable perspectives of postmodernism or, as he prefers,
postdramaticism.
Such a consideration of how humankind tries to express a satisfying
representation of itself through art and artifice is fascinating not only for
scenographers, designers, directors, and technicians. Nowhere is the
attempt to represent so thoroughly embraced on a human scale and in
live action than on the stage, and perhaps no other art form has explored
emerging technology (and pushed its limitations) as completely.
Theatre artists have, at various times, embraced or avoided technologys
mixed blessings in attempts to discover the stages essence and resolve
its function. Theatre, Performance and Technology will, therefore,
prove valuable to anyone interested in understanding how
technology has affected the way we see and represent ourselves, onstage
and off.