- Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History by Kara Reilly
Recently published books on automata (self-moving machines designed to mimic living beings) have elucidated the significance of these fascinating objects from the perspectives of the history of science and technology, intellectual history, and cultural history. Kara Reilly’s new study of the topic makes a fresh contribution by looking at automata in terms of theatrical performance both literally, in the sense of an entity that appears onstage, and figuratively, as a descriptive representation of humanity in written texts. The book does not provide a continuous history of automata as theatrical objects, nor does it restrict itself to a comprehensive analysis of a single episode in that history. Rather, the author presents illuminating discussions [End Page 971] of the object’s appearance in five different historical contexts. As it is explained in the introduction to the book, this strategy is deployed to illustrate “historical breakages,” as described by Michel de Certeau, in which meanings attached to certain objects, ideas, and events sometimes undergo radical and unexpected changes. One of the book’s central topics is the automaton’s capacity for the mimicry of life and the complicated role it played, as such a mimetic machine, in the perennial Western debate on the relationship between nature and art.
The first chapter deals with the role of the automaton in the history of iconoclasm, focusing in particular on the negative emotional reaction the object aroused among Christian theologians and activists, from Augustine of Hippo onward, who were wary of idolatry. Reilly recounts the fate of the sixteenth-century Rood of Grace, an image of Jesus that could mechanically move its head and facial features, that was destroyed by English Reformers. The second chapter moves to the seventeenth century, when Descartes and other mechanistic thinkers described the human body as an automaton designed by God that was joined with the immaterial soul, an idea that found a receptive audience in that machine-obsessed age. Reilly also provides a good account of actual hydraulic automata in royal gardens that inspired Descartes. The third chapter begins with a description of the remarkable mechanical theater at the Schloss Hellbrunn Palace Gardens in Salzburg, Austria, which features many moving figures of townspeople working at their tasks. Their performances, and those of eighteenth-century works by Jacques de Vaucanson and Pierre Jaquet-Droz, provide vivid illustrations of Reilly’s argument that the early modern period saw the transformation of automata from “aristocrats to autocrats.” The fourth chapter deals with fictional automata of the nineteenth century, beginning with Olympia from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story “Der Sandmann.” Through her expertise in theater history and theory, Reilly presents enlightening accounts of theatrical works that were inspired by the Hoffmann story, as well as of highly original productions of the works onstage. The last chapter discusses Karel Čapek’s 1920 play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), starting with an insightful analysis of the work itself, which is followed by a discussion of the play’s reception in different countries and its impact on the broader modernist culture.
Reilly’s episodic presentation of the automaton as an object of theatrical performance is an important contribution to our historical understanding. As she points out in the introduction, the issues it raises—both the hopes and the fears—about the mechanical reproduction of life and nature are very much alive in contemporary debates on cyberculture. The book unfurls vivid and often entertaining illustrations of the myriad emotional reactions that were aroused by these self-moving, life-imitating objects throughout the centuries of Western culture’s struggle with its own [End Page 972] identity. While the topics covered in the first three chapters have been discussed in several recent works on automata, Reilly provides a number of original insights into the topic in the last two chapters dealing with theatrical adaptations and interpretations of the automaton in the modern era. Beyond the consideration of the object as a technological and...