Filmed theater, staging in the round, the omniscient viewer, and The Crucible on video

Richard Armitage tweeted this scene from Digital Theatre’s documentation of this summer’s production of The Crucible at Old Vic Theatre today that made me think about some stuff I’d read previously about the filming of the play from the viewpoint of Robert Delamere, who took the main hand in filming and editing the version of The Crucible that will be preserved for audiences who did not witness the production in the theater.

I described my reaction to this scene in the most detail so far here (look under INTERVAL, as this scene occurs in the last third or so of Act Three, beginning with “I see Armitage at the corner of the stage.”)

Delamere writes a blog here as “film director,” and he took a lead role in editing what UK / Irish audiences are about to see, as well, which we know from his tweets. On the blog, at some time back he raised the question of whether filmed theater is a new art form. Then, a few days later, he posted this about the political and social commentary offered by Miller’s play, and its enhancement through the political implications created by the audience’s position in staging in the round (where he quotes Farber).

I totally agree that the filmed version of this play will be a different art form than its live performances provided, and I have said that before, after the first glimpse of how it had been edited: It will give the viewer a perspective that no single viewer could have seen in one performance. I myself hope to see things that I could see because I missed one perspective entirely from the cancelled Monday evening performance, and because I only saw the play once from any further away than the first row. I hope that we see some views from mezzanine perspectives, for example. In short, Delamere’s editing will give the film the perspective of the omniscient viewer, which not only decisively changes the viewing form, but has the potential to create a much fuller experience, at least from some standpoints. One sees a lot more of a football game when one watches it from home on television than one does when one stands at the fifty-yard line, as desirable as the fifty-yard-line perspective may be. I can imagine, too, that it will give a lot of people who bought tickets toward the back of the stalls, or in one of the mezzanines, some of the immediacy of the front-row perspective, which was ridiculously gripping.

As right as he is about that, however, I think that that point undermines somewhat his second remark about Miller’s play as a social commentary and his long quotation of Yael Farber’s position on the potential political significance of the play. As I wrote this summer before I saw Farber’s production, Miller seems to be saying something about the “banality of evil” roughly a decade before Arendt coined the term, although it wasn’t clear to me that they intended to say the same thing or that Miller would have drawn that parallel at the time he was writing the play, though some evidence survives to suggest that he may have come to it later. I found Farber’s remark exciting, although neither she nor Delamere appear to be aware of just how controversial Arendt’s observations were at the time (and they have become more, rather than less so, in the interval).

It was encouraging, though, in the theater itself, to feel like the staging in the round enhanced the political qualities of the play. Not so much for the reasons that Farber stated (that the audience’s role as intimate witness to these events implicates it in the cruelty that it witnesses on stage), although they are also true. Rather, one of the qualities of the live experience was that the viewer toward the front of the stalls (and particularly in the front row) was delivered a paradoxical experience. On the one hand, one was up so close to things that they felt viscerally and absolutely real. Proctor’s emotions and responses were credible, for instance, precisely because they were absolutely inescapable. On other, however, the viewer was constantly aware that she could only see some of what was happening — that as real as what was happening right in front of her was, at the same time, it blocked other things out from perception. Thinking about this especially after repeated viewings, one realizes that one wonders about what is going on from the other perspectives. Front / stage left was in my opinion the perspective most sympathetic to Proctor (whether in the front or the stage left seats), but still, one was always aware that other things were happening elsewhere. This is the point from which the video begins — the first perspective, with Proctor, was taken more or less where I sat for the first three performances.

The staging in the round implicates the viewer, it’s true, at the same time that the intimacy of the viewing experience as it is found in the round makes the viewer realize how fragmented her perspective  — and thus her legal and political judgment — might be. This experience moves in contradiction, however, to that of the omniscient narrator, whose judgment is much less easy to question for the conventional reader (awareness of poststructuralist discussions of unreliable narrators might be helpful). The omniscient narrator is rhetorically much more akin to a preacher than to a camera (which is not neutral, either, but whose positionality is more out in the open). On the nights when this play was particularly good, one left very much with the feeling that one did not entirely understand with whom one should have sympathized, or why precisely Proctor was supposed to be a hero — in other words, the round pursued the political consequences of the “banality of evil” point essentially by undermining the viewer’s judgment even as it forced events into his face.

What the clip tweeted today suggests, however, is that the editor is going to tell us the political lesson (or the artistic lesson) of the play. The clip reveals 50 seconds of a play that goes on for hours, so I’ll reserve judgment until I see the final cut and the entirety of Act Three. But speaking frankly, I was jarred here by the prioritization here of the 90 degree shift to Elizabeth Proctor over Abigail Williams’ shoulder at 0:14 (a perspective from which I saw the play on Saturday afternoon) over the other perspective of Elizabeth seen past Proctor’s shoulders. When you watch the play in person, you get only one perspective, but with unavoidable awareness that troubling things are going on elsewhere. Here the camera is trained on Abigail for quite a long time — and in that it is faithful to one piece of the round perspective, namely the intimacy of the viewer’s position and the credibility of the data due to the immediacy of the perspective. Additionally, one reason the camera seems to be trained on Abigail here is the drama of her acting (Samatha Colley can apparently cry on command — we see it several times in the work). At the same time, however — and this is particularly clear when the camera cuts to the headshot of Jack Ellis as Danforth — it seems to want to be telling us the right viewpoint, insofar as it filters awareness of all of the others out. When one sees the play in person, one never sees Danforth this close up — so that he is presented here as a talking (screaming) face independent of the courtroom context in which he stands in Act Three, not as the tenuous presence he is, a man who uses his fury to overcome the increasingly unsettling effect of revelation after disturbing revelation about the congregation, Salem Village and the Proctors’ private lives.

In short, it seems to me that the point about evil was most striking in the theater because one realizes how messy one’s perception of the play is (another thing that probably made people want to see it again and again) even as one wants to draw one conclusion or the other. If the omniscient editor undermines that uncertainty, it will be a different art work, certainly, and perhaps it will make Farber’s standpoint on the audience implication more forcefully than the theater staging did, and thus represent her vision in a more distilled form, but it also runs the risk of reifying a particular view of the play (political or otherwise) in contrast to the pleasantly fragmentary experience of perception in the theater itself. This effect seems more pronounced than it did in the previous clip — which seemed to make the viewer’s stance seem more, rather than less, arbitrary.

We’ll see!

~ by Servetus on November 29, 2014.

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