>The Role of Performance, The Roll of Print

>Marshall McLuhan saw a certain affinity between Shakespeare’s time and our own. Both times, argued McLuhan, represented periods of transition in the status of print media. Of course, Shakespeare and we stand on opposite ends of the spectrum. What for his time was a growing acquaintance with print must be for ours a mounting estrangement. Which transition will prove more bitter? And for whom?

For McLuhan, our alignment with print media meant a transition into linear thinking patterns. Patterns which favor logical order, cause and effect, and individual attention. It shifted the function of words, too. Literate culture shifted “from the notion of words as resonant, live, active natural forces to the notion of words as ‘meaning’ or ‘significance’ for minds” (McLuhan, from his book The Gutenberg Galaxy, excerpted in The Essential McLuhan, 1995, Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, eds., p. 114). It was probably with this mental and cultural realignment that Shakespeare was actively participating. McLuhan sees many of his plays as direct interaction with the themes of a new lifestyle influenced by print. (See his brief discussion of King Lear on pp. 108-109).

McLuhan continues: “Aquinas considered that neither Socrates nor Our Lord committed there teaching to writing because the kind of interplay of minds that is in teaching is not possible by means of writing” (p. 119). It seems to be this resonant and active character of language and interaction that performance to this day attempts to recapture.

Performance is, by definition, ephemeral. A video recording of a theatrical production does not constitute a performance. It is only in the immediate and fleeting interaction of artist and audience that we experience performance. It is an art form which cannot be captured and retain its status as Art. The oral tradition, in which performance plays a key role, demands the acceptance of a passing beauty. The tradition of visual media, including print, makes no such concession. Indeed, it is partially its physical permanence, its capability to speak to our own time and the next, which qualifies visual art as Art.

What role does performance play in what McLuhan considers our postliterate society? Some people go to plays, still, I suppose. More likely, they go to rock shows. Rock shows are almost entirely nonliterate. I don’t see written music as playing a large part in the creative process of most rock and roll bands. Even lyrics fail to gain any real status in print. They are entirely aural within the context of performance, and in CD distribution appear only occasionally in tiny print in the liner notes. In fact, the pervasiveness of the (authentic or faked) photo reprint of the “original” handwritten lyrics of rock artists suggests, often written on napkins, scraps of paper, the back of a receipt, suggest their negligible status as written material, even for the artists themselves. With the rise of online music distribution, written lyrics are available online in several places, but have lost almost entirely any official status.

Knowing the lyrics is a different story. And of course written lyrics help with that, on a mass scale. However, most people learn lyrics to songs by listening to them often, and rarely by studying the written lyrics. (Consider the humorous stereotype: a person finds that they have been singing the lyrics wrong all these years. They shout, “Oh, is that what they’re saying?”) Personally, I find that reading the lyrics, especially while listening to the music, detracts significantly from the beauty of the experience. It can make the lyrics more difficult to internalize. It feels false, like I’m trying to hard to gain information from something that has it’s home in emotion.

I like to characterize Performance as an especially tactile artform. In a performance, there is a limit to our concept of mediation. That is, mediation seems limited, though it may not actually be. What mediates a modern performance of Hamlet? The sound system, which is perhaps the most technologically advanced medium of modern theater, projects the performers’ voices and is a very literal and limited mechanical extension of their capacity to speak. Make up and electric lighting play a similar role for their capacity to be seen, which in itself is an interesting necessity that is absent from almost all other art. It might be said that in performance, makeup and light play the same role in mediation that for television and film requires an entire technological apparatus.

And architecture plays a key role in the mediation of Performance. Benjamin, in the Artwork Essay, considers our reception of architecture to be especially tactile. In Performance, it is largely architecture which provides the boundary line (such as there is one) between Artist and audience. David Byrne gives a TED Talk regarding live music’s relationship to architecture. He discusses the ways in which changes in architecture, essentially changes in potential venues and the accompanying shifts in acoustics, influence the choices that musicians make about how to create. The same could be said for any performance, which must inevitably be fit to the space in which it will be experienced. Architecture also plays a part in the auditory reception of the audience. It can even help to determine their expectations of the performance. One does not expect the same sort of performance at The 40 Watt as one might expect at Hodgson Concert Hall. For the philharmonic and the rock band to arbitrarily switch venues would create quite a stir. We as audience interact with the architectural environment of the performance in very specific ways. The same can be said for the performers.

I feel like in the case of live performances even those things we see in front of us (that is, those things we experience primarily visually) must be considered differently in that they are stricken through with the tactile. Performers, with their wigs, their make up, their costumes, are all a jumble of texture; the sets are simply architectural elements; the electrical lighting only serves to heighten this effect. The voices we hear are real human voices (we recognize them as such, even when amplified electronically, because of their immediate relationship to the performer we see in front of us); when Claudius storms offstage, we can feel his footsteps reverberate into our seats. This might be the reason that the experience of ‘watching’ a performance and watching a video of a performance differ so drastically. The video has been stripped of the tactile.

What relationship exists between rock lyrics and playtexts?


About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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