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Reviewed by:
  • Stage Presence
  • Erika Rundle
Stage Presence. By Jane Goodall. New York: Routledge, 2008; pp. vii + 223. $34.00 paper.

"Presence" is often assumed to be an inherently theatrical phenomenon, not just because the stage is so often its platform and the performer its channel, but because it portends transformation—signaling, in the words of actor Simon Callow, "not disguise, but the revelation of alternative possibilities" (quoted in Goodall, 172). Performance scholar Jane Goodall (who is, intriguingly, the author of a series of crime thrillers) began her research on this absorbing topic in a previous volume, Performance and Evolution in the Age of Darwin (2002), which examined the influence of nineteenth-century evolutionary theories on popular performance cultures in London, Paris, and New York. This earlier work anticipated many of the themes in her current book by emphasizing the way performance alters human "being," subjecting it to the productive transferences that allow us to adapt and evolve.

Stage Presence appeared on the scene shortly after the publication of Joseph Roach's complementary study, It (2007), which Goodall praises as a "subtle and probing" meditation on what she calls "the 'x'-factor in the actor's art" —that "nameless quality [that] escalates the cultural values associated with performance" (17). Goodall distinguishes her concerns from Roach's by taking issue with longstanding "claims that [presence] is somehow 'untel-lable' [despite] the set of terms associated with it": charisma, genius, magnetism, attraction, electricity, radiance (18). One of the great strengths of Stage Presence is the way Goodall tempers the entrenched mystification surrounding her subject with a broad yet detailed historical approach—from the "hieratic and archaic resonances" (2) of the Eleusinian mysteries all the way to the "gunpowder apparition" (188) of the Sex Pistols's Johnny Rotten—revealing the phenomenon of stage presence as mutable and dynamic, as much a product of social construction as spiritual cachet. In chapters that concentrate on parsing the "poetics of presence in the Western tradition" (20), Goodall alternates theoretical discussions with case studies to illuminate how scientific, aesthetic, and political strategies align at certain points in history to determine ideas of presence and absence.

Chapter 1, "The Supreme Attribute," launches Goodall's overarching argument that "presence is a coalescence of energy, mystery, and discipline" (19), a claim to which she returns throughout the book. Theories of energy, especially as they apply to the actor's craft, must describe a force that is "at once scientific and uncanny, a matter of both technique and mystique" (20). While this energy may have "metaphysical" connotations that lend to its mystery, it is also "associated with the practical work of performance and performance training" in which discipline is paramount. Building off Eugenio Barba's ideas about energy and the stage, Goodall finds unity for this seeming paradox in "the ways … theatre tends to convert presence as a state (and status) of being into presence as an act" (20).

Quoting from a diverse group of ancient and modern artists and critics (Plotinus, Friedrich Nietzsche, Marlon Brando, Jerzy Grotowski, and Norman Mailer appear in short order), Goodall goes on to lay out the overlapping pleasures and risks that inhere in stage presence and its offstage corollary, charisma. Charismatic figures, she argues, have characteristically fallen into two variant types: the dignitary and the magus. Paul Robeson is an example of the former, a "noble man identifiable by manners, speech, and bearing" (8); Adolf Hitler, Goodall suggests, was a modern version of the latter, harboring destructive forces under the guise of rational discourse. Using these examples, she deftly illustrates how charisma can "eat into the personality" or, worse, "generate a level of public excitement" (51) that leads to hysteria.

This argument deepens in the second and third chapters, "Drawing Power" and "Mesmerism," where Goodall explores the occult sources of presence. Like electricity and magnetism, she argues, presence is an unseen mover, a mobile energy that gains expression in a receptive consciousness, or the instrument of a disciplined body. But "is the actor an agent or a mere conduit? A mesmerist or a hypnotic subject?" wonders Goodall (187). If stage presence is not a cognate of talent, self-conjured by virtuosic performers (and epitomized by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-332X
Print ISSN
0192-2882
Pages
pp. 342-343
Launched on MUSE
2009-10-15
Open Access
No
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