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Reviewed by:
Arnold Aronson. Looking into the Abyss: Essays on Scenography. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. Pp. x + 236, illustrated. $65 (Hb); 424.95 (Pb).

This collection of essays by Arnold Aronson is organized in two parts: a series of thematic essays on issues of contemporary scenographic interest, followed by a selection of case studies examining scenographic challenges, such as the scenography of Chekhov, the work and approach of companies such as the Wooster Group, and the work of individual artists such as Joseph Urban, Richard Foreman, David Rockwell, and George Tsypin.

With the exception of a short introduction and conclusion, all of the essays have been delivered over the last fifteen years at international conferences that ranged from the challengingly scholarly to popular theatre festivals and to gatherings of scenographers and theatre technicians. On such occasions, Aronson is a fine speaker, who judiciously crafts an argument with great care and steady precision. The thematic essays confront the predictable issues of the space and place of performance and the quest for a contemporary architecture of theatre. He considers the effects of new technologies both upon scenographic [End Page 142] aesthetics and upon dramaturgy and also examines the interactions of mediatized ingredients within performance practice. The essays are thoughtful and judicious, although they (perhaps inevitably) raise more questions than they resolve.

In many ways, this is both the strength and weakness of the book. As is the case with many conference presentations, these essays act as provocation and as spurs to discussion and thought. Rarely, for example, do they answer or debate their own questions: that, after all, is the function of the conference. The central and recurring theme that serves as the core of Aronson's argument concerns the nature and extent of cultural change represented by the impact of new technologies and globalization. I looked in vain for an essay that, as it were, sat back and rose to its own provocation. For example, the conclusion to his essay, "One Hundred Years of Stage Lighting," might well have served as the starting point for a detailed examination of contemporary performance lighting: "[t]he unmotivated, the inorganic, and the dis-unified that were unintentional hallmarks of nineteenth-century lighting are now the aesthetic realities of light in the contemporary world" (36).

In one way or another, each of the essays faces up to a profound sense of difference between the audiences and cultures of the earlier twentieth century and the postmodern condition(s) of the last few decades. Aronson's clarion call to recognize the enormousness of this difference hangs in the air like the applause that invariably greets his conference contributions. In his essay on "(Sceno)Graphic Style," he raises the intriguing issue of the synergies between the graphic chic of international motorcar or fashion advertisements and contemporary performance aesthetics – for example, those of Richard Foreman or Robert Wilson. But it is a provocation thrown into a pond, without the detailed examination of the ripples that one knows (frustratingly) that Aronson is eminently suited to undertake. Time and again I felt that there was a book, or at least a much longer study, trying to get out of these tantalizing reformulations of the same basic questions. For example, he concludes the essay on "Technology and Dramaturgical Development" with the following:

if all Western Drama of the last six hundred years or so has evolved out of or in response to neoclassical precepts, we might say that the neoclassic era lasted until only a few years ago. What we are entering into now might be termed "neomedievalism." But whereas the original was driven by theological ideas, this movement owes its genesis and form to technology that has refashioned the neoclassical worldview.

(80)

The intriguing conjunction of this sense of a "neomedievalism" alongside a refashioning and refunctioning of scenographic and performance aesthetics through technology might well have formed the substance rather than the conclusion to an essay. [End Page 143]

Throughout the essays, therefore, there is a tendency to repeat the theme of traumatic cultural change. Aronson sees himself reflecting upon scenography (and performance) at, or close to, a focal point in its history and...

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