What makes automata so fascinating and why does this phenomenon recur so often on stage throughout Western theatre history? Kara Reilly addresses these questions in her first book, Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History. Following Walter Benjamin's concept of monad, Reilly employs historiography to study automata, that is, "automated moving figures of animals and human beings," [End Page 150] as objects that offer insights into specific historical periods and their dominant ideologies (1). Her scope is transhistorical, and she traces the transmission of ideas through different historical times as part of a continuum rather than a progressive linear transmission. In this vein, in different time periods, automata reflected certain social anxieties such as the tensions between art and nature, the role of the elite in power and the existence of social strata, the place of women in the public sphere, or the political claims of the European working class at the beginning of the twentieth century. Reilly convincingly argues that mechanized spectacle is a precursor of our contemporary digital culture.
As the title indicates, the book begins with a discussion of mimesis and its genealogy, rightly stating that understanding mimesis merely as representation is a limited perspective. For Reilly, to study the ways in which mimesis plays out in automata is to reflect on the onto-epistemic effects that they had/have on people who saw/see them. "Onto-epistemic mimesis applies to the way mimesis or representation directly shapes ideas about reality through ways of being (ontology), or ways of knowing (epistemology)" (7). Reilly reflects precisely on onto-epistemic mimesis and its relationship to political power. Given that mimesis can not only change audience's perceptions but also mobilize their emotions, Reilly astutely argues that it acts like a force that shapes reality rather than merely copying it. Ultimately, says Reilly, the way we understand mimesis shifts over time to reflect our anxieties regarding the nature of reality.
Chapter one examines the Iconoclast movement of the English Protestant Reformation and its push to banish visual representations of religious figures and scenes due to the fear that copying nature was an affront to God's work. Despite the efforts to banish these images, the impulse to represent was never erased, according to Reilly. Instead it recirculated throughout culture and its employment of automata, not only in secular theatre, but also in other forms of public performance such as court masques, pleasure gardens, and the cabinets of curiosity, which contained "useful and fantastic objects" as a popular past-time for the European elite (32). Reilly suggests that "the desire to represent God that once informed religious art transforms into a desire to make meaning in the world through aesthetic representation" (47).
The following chapters attempt to illustrate how this mimetic impulse has worked since the Reformation by analyzing examples of automata from different European countries. Although inspiring as a way to look at history and the circulation of specific worldviews, Reilly fails to support completely her focus shift from England to the rest of Europe, where the Protestant Reformation and consequent iconoclast movements in religious representation might have been different. In this vein, chapter two reflects on the ways in which seventeenth-century perceptions of automata paralleled the view of nature as a perfect machine. Under the influence of Descartes' mechanical philosophy, which originated in the [End Page 151] Scientific Revolution, the artificial and the natural were synonymous and both of them responded to causality, logics, and rationality. Reilly offers a compelling example of this ideology in her reading of the Strasbourg Cathedral Church, which serves as a metaphor for the ways in which mechanical philosophy understands the functioning of the cosmos.
Chapter three describes how the eighteenth-century elite adopted the legacy of mechanical philosophy to justify its position in the social order, of which the Schloss Hellbrunn mechanical theatre in Salzburg is a good example. In the theatre, puppets represent the different components of the social strata, and the relationships between them serve as a metaphor of a...