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  • Theatre Squared:Theatre History in the Age of Media
  • Sarah Bay-Cheng (bio)

Recordings deal with concepts through which the past is reevaluated, and they concern notions about the future which will ultimately question even the validity of evaluation.

—Glenn Gould, "The Prospects of Recording"

In 1964, Canadian pianist Glenn Gould quit live performance in favor of perfecting recordings of his performances. In an essay published two years later, "The Prospects of Recording" (1966), Gould explained his decision by predicting that in the next century, the live concert would reach "extinction." Far from a lamentable course of events, Gould embraced the end of the live performance as the opportunity for "a more cogent experience [of music] than is now possible" (47). The end of the live concert may never come, but Gould's comments are eerily prescient of contemporary performance and its reliance on recording technology: first film, then video, and, more recently, digital recording. Much attention has been paid to the impact of these technologies on live theatre production and reception, but little criticism to date has considered the impact of recording technology on theatre history, on the archive in the making. And yet, moving images on screens have become a dominant, arguably the dominant, mode of viewing throughout our increasingly mediatized culture. From portable DVD players to video iPods to cellular phones, modern culture communicates onscreen. This essay is a preliminary consideration of the impact of recording technology on the study of theatre history, and a proposal for a critical means for assessing the phenomenon and effect of recorded, or mediated, theatre. "Mediated theatre" may be broadly defined as any theatrical performance originally created for live performance (that is, live actors in visual proximity to a live audience, although this distinction is hardly absolute) and subsequently recorded onto any visually reproducible medium, including film, videotape, or digital formats, presented as two-dimensional moving images on screens.

There is a danger, of course, in too broadly grouping various recording technologies. Variations in recording processes (collaborative, individual), apparatuses (celluloid, analog videotape, digital devices), and receptions (public projections, private viewings) have discrete histories, methods, and results, not to mention very different modes of viewing in social, economic, and cultural contexts. While undoubtedly distinct, these media share certain characteristics of image construction, conventions of time and space, and mutual reliance on screens that we may usefully juxtapose against embodied performance in the theatre. At the risk of oversimplifying, then, I would like to introduce a discussion of mediated theatre, broadly construed, for the purposes of understanding the process of capturing live performance in moving images, and the methods by which these images within the frame of the screen—the theatre squared—can be used in theatre history analysis and teaching.

The Rise of Mediated Theatre

Perhaps the most obvious influence of visual-recording technology on theatre history is the emergence and growth of the moving-image archive, an expanding collection of mediated-performance representations that includes film, television broadcasts, rehearsal videotapes, documentaries, [End Page 37] and digitally recorded productions. These collections are diverse, including institutional collections in libraries as well as private video and film collections. The professional organization, the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), asserts that such an archive will eventually provide the same archival value as textual artifacts currently do. According to the AMIA web site (, "[a]s our culture is increasingly shaped by visual images in the digital age, historians may soon rely on moving images as much as on the printed word to understand 21st-century culture."

Within theatre studies, the use of videos is already widespread. Drama anthologies, for example, increasingly list not only examples of further reading, but also video resources for plays within them.1 Many theatre and performance classes—from Shakespeare to contemporary performance art—use videos to illustrate aspects of theatre performance. Given the limitations of theatre productions in many locations, mediated theatre is often the best way to expose students to a range of performance traditions, styles, and genres. Even within a major theatre city, one cannot always ensure access to a Greek tragedy, a Restoration play, and Bunraku puppetry in the course of a single term, so video...


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