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Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History.

Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History

Kara Reilly

Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

50 [pounds sterling], hb., 220 pp., 20 ill.

ISBN 9780230232020

Mechanically mobile representations of human beings have recurred in western culture since ancient times. Kara Reilly traces instances of this ranging from the English Reformation to twentieth-century modernism. The story begins with an argument that icons abolished by religious reformation resurfaced as moving statues in early-modern gardens or theatre (the statue in Ben Jonson's Sejanus, or, perhaps differently, the pretend statue in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale). Rene Descartes, we're told, developed his philosophy partly as a result of watching hydraulic automata and, 150 years or so later, aristocrats brought up on mechanical philosophy flirted with automata as an ideal of civility and power. The nineteenth-century movement from Gothicism to psychoanalysis produces the image of beautiful woman as threatening automaton, leading to another anxiety about the exploited in the form of alienated workers developing potency as robots in Karel Capek's R. U. R (1920).

The book's method is "trans-historical", operating rhizomatically and abjuring "master narratives" and structuring binaries (10). But there is a kind of master narrative at work, where the modern turn towards automaton-anxiety is attributed to industrialisation. Binaries also crop up throughout, constraining, for example, the account of iconoclasm. These historiographic wobbles are accompanied by psychoanalytic ones: we hear that the fetish fails within the fantastic, because it "provokes uncanniness" (117), but then that Arthur Saint-Leon, Charles Nuitter and Leo Delibes's Coppelia has to do with women as "sexual objects to fetishize and as uncanny objects to fear" (141), as if the fetish doesn't actually fail. Is this a sort of fetishizing of fetish? Automata, Reilly contends, work through "onto-epistemic mimesis" (6): to look at mechanised simulacra provokes a new way of knowing and being. Rather heavily worked early on this proposition fades from view later, perhaps because it's a bit difficult to reconcile with the operation of fetish.

In short, these fascinating automata deserve a more searching apparatus and perhaps an additional narrative: despite references to links between automaton and trained performer, there's no overall argument about them. But the dancer could be said to be "mechanised" by training. Here we encounter a slippage deep in the story, between mechanised representations of humans and the human capacity for physical behaviour that seems "mechanised". The latter includes not only dancers but well-drilled soldiers and workers, the alienated robots, perhaps, of R. U. R. Or not. Contemporary with R. U. R is the Bolshevik fascination with the aesthetics of productive labour. Thus in the agitprop sketch Tempo Tempo by the Prolet Buhne (1930) the same highly rhythmic work is bad under capitalism but, within Soviet productivity, good. It all begs for some dialectical thinking: otherwise the linking of aesthetics, automisation and social organisation fails its material by being too, so to speak, mechanical.
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Author:Shepherd, Simon
Publication:Theatre Notebook
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 1, 2012
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