Christopher Grobe

Associate Professor, Amherst College

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Irony-Machines and Telephone Scenes

Working Session on "Technology Performs: New Media Onstage and Off" (ASTR 2014; Baltimore, MD)

Theater, with its radical materiality and its emergent practicality, is a unique resource for media history  In it, we can observe how new media interact with and change their human scene partners.

Having recently written on onstage telegraphy--how it altered melodramatic dramaturgy and acting, how it taught the theater to be live--I'd like test my methods on a project of broader scope.  Instead of a relatively narrow genre like the "telegraph play," I want to study the ubiquitous onstage use of telephones.  Telephones have been so common onstage for so long that I will eventually have to make this a distant-reading project, using (perhaps) the metadata to be found in acting edition prop lists as a way to locate scenes for collective analysis.

For ASTR, however, I have a more modest goal: to do a few case studies of early uses to which telephones were put onstage.  Some used the telephone to show a man (almost always a man) learning of a reality that he is, by dint of distance, powerless to change (e.g., André de Lorde's Au Téléphone).  Others used it to show the difference between what a woman (almost always a woman) was visibly feeling and what she presented herself as feeling (e.g., Jean Cocteau's La Voix Humaine).  In both cases, the telephone is an irony-machine, prying apart knowledge from power, interiority from action.  In the process, though, it creates an opportunity for actors to show off their ability to manage several layers of subtext and psychology colliding with their physical performance.  No wonder we've wanted so persistently to share the stage with telephones.

copyright 2015, Christopher Grobe