Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History


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Kara Elizabeth Reilly. U of Washington, This study demonstrates that automata, as mechanized theatrical spectacles created through the lens of the mimetic faculty, were often deployed in the service of Foucauldian power and produced knowledge.

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During the Renaissance, the Council of Florence employed Filipo Brunelleschi to create an ingenious machine that would persuade members of the Eastern Orthodox Church of the correctness of the doctrine of Filioque. Thus, Brunelleschi created an iconophilic spectacle in the service of a theological argument. During the Reformation, Protestants banned Catholic icons; they worried that art might surpass nature. Instead of disappearing altogether, these icons resurface in the emerging popular theatre, particularly in the form of moving statues. Moving statues are precursors to seventeenth-century automata, such as the hydraulic automata in the grottoes at Saint-Germain-en-laye.

Built by the Florentine scenographers, Tomaso and Alessandro Francini, these hydraulic tableaux vivants directly influenced Descartes' writings on the mechanical philosophy, particularly his concept of the rational soul versus the animal-machine.

Jacques Vaucanson's eighteenth-century automata had a tremendous impact upon important figures of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution through the concept of object-based mimesis, particularly upon the work of Julien Offray de la Mettrie, Francois Quesnay, Adam Smith, and Charles Babbage.

The chess-playing Turk, an automaton imposter known as the "thinking machine," helped produce the discourse of orientalism. The link between the two is theoretical on the page, but movement on stage would have revealed the disconcerting resemblance. But what if the lighted figure changes while in motion, which would suggest that it is neither an organism nor an object but a hybrid? Identifying the point at which the motion of an android turns from the mechanical to the organic would then become less easy. Swanhilda, for instance, must transform the machine into an expressive organism before the eyes of viewers onstage and in the audience.

The task of the dancer playing Swanhilda the sixteen-year-old Milanese ballerina, Guiseppina Bozzachi, in the first performance was to display the epigenesis of the machine into a human being and to convey the sense of an abiding connection between the two. The problem of how to capture that moment of transformation had already been explored in pioneering motion studies. Articles on human locomotion had begun to appear in the s and s when Eadweard Muybridge had captured, through a series of cameras, a horse galloping.

In baring the constitutive steps of movement, Swanhilda resituates the automated object not as the antithesis of the living, moving body but as an aspect of it. To be sure, the librettists took great care to chart the transformation of Swanhilda from false automaton into a living human being. All at once, her fixed look becomes full of animated expression.

She smiles; a color comes to her cheeks and she is full of life! She becomes a living woman!! Emotion is spontaneous, but here it is also volitional. Caprice is a physical demonstration of curiosity, they imply, which in turn is a state both prior and necessary to capricious behavior. However spontaneous her conduct, it results, they believe, from intention, not from a stimulus.

Yet Swanhilda, executing mechanical and living movements, forges a connection between the two that motion studies and physiology had already revealed. Yet because ballet is an art of movement, the precise point at which matter changes during the long animation scene in act 2—at which the reflexive actions of a machine become autonomous and in turn pass into the regulated motions of a living figure—never emerges, never even comes to be.

Passing from nonbiological to biological motion, Swanhilda renders the boundary between life and objecthood, moving objecthood, permeable. Through her performance, the automaton comes to occupy a categorical position along a continuum of movement between the inanimate object capable of reflexive motion when activated by touch and the living subject characterized by spontaneous and unpredictable behavior.

As Bill Brown has observed, things really become things when they stop working.


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So after the movements of the automata within the ballet have teased the mechanical rudiments of human motion out of their fluid contexts, the spectacle of a broken android obscures the instability of forces in matter. And in the years between its debut and that of Petrouchka a new generation of thinkers pressed the physiological case for a definition of life.

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Man, declared John Davidson in the prolegomena to his sensational play, The Theatocrat , originates in the same matter—specifically in combinations of chemical elements—that constitutes nonhuman, unconscious forms of life. The captain feared the doll was the source of black magic and ordered the crew to throw her overboard [Kang, Sublime Dreams , ; Wood, Living Dolls , ]. William James agreed that consciousness of muscular exertion is impossible without movement. The feeling of muscular sensation is an afferent sensation, originating in the muscles, ligaments joints, chest, and glottis.

The concept of the automatic still conjured the repetitive and stiff action of the automaton, particularly to those outside scientific circles, but increasingly it also suggested subtler physical and physiological movements that occurred in various states of absentmindedness. The encroachment of the automatic on the human was anticipated in the economic sector. As Jessica Riskin has shown, this occurred in the first phase of the industrial revolution, with weaving.

Such insidious trespass continued through the turn of the nineteenth century in the seemingly innocuous world of toy manufacturing, which produced machines that functioned beyond the capabilities of earlier devices. Petrouchka captures these realignments. When its choreographer, Michel Fokine, advanced a set of demotic fundamentals closely patterned after the movements of marionettes and androids, he extended the conception of the automatic in the machine itself. Petersburg in It begins with the activation of the three marionettes before Shrovetide fairgoers.

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The second and third tableaux take place backstage, where Petrouchka and the Moor vie for the attention of Ballerina, who enters each of their separate rooms. She favors the Moor, and in the final tableau he runs out of the little theater, followed by Ballerina, chasing Petrouchka with a saber and, in full view of the horrified fairgoers, splitting his skull.

But in the last chilling moment of the piece, Petrouchka reappears over the wall separating the public area of the fairgrounds from the private backstage rooms of the automata. The Moor was one of the original mechanical toys in the older ballet, and a saber like the one with which he stabs Petrouchka was wielded against him by a joking Swanhilda. In the course of the piece, however, all three of the marionettes begin to act in varying degrees like human beings.

Reilly, Kara

These puppets were operated by concealed pedals: they came out of trunks and performed various acrobatic tricks before returning to their boxes. When, in the second and third tableaux, the puppets retreat into their separate enclosures, they become auto-activated figures that move less convulsively and—this is significant—outside the control of the magician.

Puppets have become automata. Having gained some autonomy of movement, Petrouchka now shows an emotional dimension, like the false automaton Swanhilda: he fingers his clothes, shakes his fist at a portrait of the magician, moves his neck from side to side, greets Ballerina as she enters, then tears a hole in the wall when she leaves. The Moor who has only a mime role in the libretto tries to open a coconut with his scimitar and then, having been unsuccessful, prays to it and pulls Ballerina onto his knees when she enters.

Ballerina too changes, at least in the first production. As Tamara Karsavina danced the role, Ballerina executed doll-like movements in the first tableau but became a human being backstage. The final disposition of Petrouchka, as we will see, is ambiguous. The faces of the marionettes remain expressionless even as they transform into human beings.

The collaborators who first staged Petrouchka brought an old-fashioned but hardly archaic understanding of physiology to the action of the ballet. Norton Wise.

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Bain, whose work was in many aspects protobehaviorist, represented the trend in thinking about the will: according to him, while it operated through involuntary and varying degrees of voluntary actions up to its most conscious form, volition, it retained a mental component in less attentive states.

Regarding this debate, Petrouchka transmits very mixed signals. By enlisting a physiological idea of will, auto-activation displayed, furthermore, the increasingly complex capabilities of the machine—its autonomous operation, in particular. Electricity could have revived the specter of the false automaton, for unlike the clockworks that drove the mechanical figures of previous generations, electricity is invisible.

His beleaguered position in the rabid pamphlet wars with Abernethy and Rennell was vindicated much later in the century by the radical wing of physiology and by the first law of thermodynamics In this light, the jolt with which all three of the puppets first move at the start of Petrouchka demonstrates the irritability hypothesis as the basis of life.

And when such convulsive reactions become, in the second tableau, independent and voluntary actions, and the marionettes function like electric motors, they enable a conception of movement beyond the simple reflex, movement activated in the senses and muscles and wholly autonomous. Feeling is movement, whether or not it is visible. Supporting the idea that energy can convert itself into other forms, the automata typify the electrochemical and thermodynamic body, a body in which muscles change through motion. The Marais manufacturers were also displaying a wider range of motional possibilities in their automata.

- Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History by K Reilly

Advertised automata were now capable of more flexible movements. In , Vichy made an acrobat oscillating with one hand upside-down on a ladder The firm added Pierrots to its list in Bailly, Automata, Whereas the marionette was controlled by strings, pulleys, or pedals, the automaton was self-initiating and seemingly spontaneous.

Such juxtapositions of marionettes and electrical automata suggest epigenesis through movement, in particular the idea that repeated manual action can become sustained and self-perpetuating. Like the advanced electrical automata of the Marais, they develop from machines activated by the human hand into auto-activated objects.

Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History
Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History
Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History
Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History
Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History
Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History
Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History

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