Christopher Grobe

Assistant Professor, Amherst College

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Being Onstage, ‘Subconsciously’: The Telephone and Realist Acting

Panel on "Media and the Unconscious" (MLA 2016; Austin, TX)

There’s a truism in Hollywood that “telephone scenes” draw from actors their very greatest performances. Decades earlier, though, theatergoers were convinced of the exact same principle. “Perhaps it is easier to act with a telephone than a man,” one theater critic mused. There may be some truth in this statement, however glib it may at first have been. Telephones—or rather the strange, one-sided conversations they occasioned--were the training wheels that stabilized many an actor’s first wobbly attempts at realism.  As one actress of the period attests, listening on the phone taught her to exist “subconsciously” onstage.

Surveying the history of the telephone’s incorporation into theater, I will show how the telephone’s invisible reach became a living metaphor for the depth of the human psyche. I will pay special attention to Nikolai Evreinov’s short play “The Theater of the Soul,” which imagines one man’s psyche as three figures fighting to speak to him on the phone. The length of a telephone wire—here, quite literally—was considered the distance between a person and his “subconscious” self. More typical “telephone scenes” merely flip Evreinov's scenario, leaving us to imagine—not just the other conversationalist—but the whole “theater of the soul” playing out a mere wire’s length away.

copyright 2015, Christopher Grobe