- The Spectator and the Spectacle: Audiences in Modernity and Postmodernity
Dennis Kennedy’s The Spectator and the Spectacle is ambiguous with respect to genre: it is neither a collection of essays nor a through-written book, but something in between. Kennedy uses this approach to his advantage as he examines the relationship between performances and audiences in a wide variety of cultural practices that includes theatre, tourism, sport, festivals, gambling, television game shows, and religious ritual from the nineteenth to the twenty-first centuries. The book’s structure allows him to suggest significant connections among these disparate events without forcing them to conform to a single theoretical model.
Kennedy is well known for his work on Shakespeare, which often focuses on contemporary production, and this work forms the basis for the book’s four central chapters. In this section, Kennedy first examines the political valences of Shakespearean production in Europe and Britain during the Cold War, contrasting the often Brechtian political critique of Continental directors with the existentialist approach, influenced by Jan Kott’s now seldom-mentioned Shakespeare Our Contemporary, that is more prevalent in the United Kingdom.
The next chapter begins with a discussion of “The Tourist as Spectator” and weaves a subtle analogy between the historical distance that characterizes our relationship to Shakespeare and the interplay of self and other in tourism. This analogy becomes literal when Kennedy turns to the reconstructed Globe Theatre, which is both an historical reconstruction and a tourist attraction. Kennedy extends the notion of touristic appropriation in his next chapter, on intercultural Shakespeare, where he suggests that inter cultural theatre, in its quest for universals, ends up distancing itself from its audiences by drawing on cultural referents of which they have no significant experience, thus turning them into cultural tourists.
The chapter on tourism presents one of the book’s main themes: to put it simply, spectators ultimately decide what the spectacle means, and their understanding of it is often at odds with what those in control wish them to see, feel, and think. At the restored Globe, for example, spectators “refuse to take the heritage business solemnly, refuse to stand quietly and listen [End Page 421] carefully; they are not bothered by the claims of authenticity and even manage to disregard the proscriptions of the ushers. In the midst of a commodified experience, they refuse to be commodified” (114). Kennedy reiterates this idea later in the book when talking about the audience for sports. He brings out some provocative parallels among tourism, sports, and the experience of historical simulations. Like the spectators at the Globe, sports fans “create, in a public forum and communally, a meaning and experience directly out of spectation, separate from the text of the game or the meanings assigned to it by the media or official agencies” (170).
This agon between spectators and the officials who seek to dictate the nature and meaning of their experience to them is a trope that cuts across the disparate cultural and historical contexts Kennedy investigates, always with an eye toward identifying instances in which situations designed to shape audience behaviour actually provide opportunities for audiences to exert their own volition. In a chapter on “The Aroused Spectator,” he sees such an instance in television game shows. Acknowledging that “some of my readers [may] find the manufactured passion [of such shows] repulsive,” he goes on to say, “[W]hatever else one may think of The Price is Right, it is an astonishing display of spectator agency . . .” (187).
Kennedy takes on a number of shibboleths besides interculturalism. In a chapter on theatrical modernism, he examines the paradox that the very innovations naturalist and symbolist directors employed at the turn of the twentieth century to open their audiences’ eyes only made the audiences want to close them more tightly. The next chapter, on the avant-garde, describes the overtly disdainful attitude that theatrical experimentalists took to audiences they considered to be “like children who needed to be led” (53). Both discussions are bracing correctives to the...