- Visuality in the Theatre: The Locus of Looking
Sixteen years have elapsed since W. J. T. Mitchell suggested that contemporary culture was undergoing a "pictorial turn," a shift in its dominant mode from language and text to image and icon. The burgeoning academic interest in "visual culture" since then has clearly substantiated Mitchell's claim, as has even the most cursory investigation of global culture itself. "Design" has become a fetish, cell phones have turned us all into amateur photographers, and virtually all artistic media has become more self-consciously visual, including the theatre. Oddly, amidst all of the cross-disciplinary attention given visual culture for the past decade, there has been no book-length study devoted solely to the investigation of vision in the theatre until now. Maaike Bleeker's Visuality in the Theatre is a welcome and long-overdue contribution.
"Vision," of course, is a broad and multi-verse topic, and Bleeker wisely limits her project to "visuality," which she defines as "the distinct historical manifestations of visual experience" (1). To put it somewhat simplistically, her concern is primarily with visual semiotics and ideology—the image as text—rather than, say, uncovering the visual dynamics unique to live performance (as has been done with photography and cinema) or tracing the historical evolution of theatrical spectacle. She is intent on debunking the notion that looking is a neutral act, that the objects of sight are apprehended immanently and objectively, and that the seer can ever occupy a disembodied and therefore nonsubjective vantage point. This is well-trod ground, but Bleeker usefully explores these ideas vis-à-vis the theatre, and persuasively argues that postdramatic theatre has "retheatricalized" the stage and thereby exposed the unconsciously complicit relationship between what is seen and the spectator who sees it. (Bleeker, however, substitutes the term "seer" for "spectator" in order to denote the activity of the former and the passivity of the latter.) Although under-articulated, Bleeker's implicit argument is that "theatricality"—the theatre's ability to draw attention to its (visual) means of production—provides an optimal means of demonstrating the complex psychological and ideological operation of seeing. She does, however, offer an important caveat: that the postdramatic theatre, despite its ability to deconstruct received modes of seeing, brings us no closer to seeing a stage object as the "thing in itself" than did the dramatic theatre.
All of these ideas are set out succinctly in the introductory chapter, and what follows is not so much a series of theatrical case studies to provide much-needed illustration (although it is that), as a series of chapters that gloss the theoretical discourse that undergirds these ideas, augmented by examples from a particular performance selected for each chapter. It is a difference of emphasis, but an important one, as some of the analyses and even descriptions of the performances themselves seem underdeveloped or vague. On the other hand, the explication of the theoretical material is clear and precise, and Bleeker is never content to rely on a well-known theoretical construct—Lacan's mirror stage, for example—without providing a thorough examination of its reception and critical permutations. She is careful never to miss a step in walking the reader through the theoretical tangle that comprises her subject, as in her second chapter "Step Inside!," which moves deliberately from the early modern notion of perspective to the semiotic function of deixis, through speech acts in the field of vision, on to visual focalization as a narrative function, and finally to the use of focalization either to absorb the seer in the theatrical event or, conversely, distance the seer from it. If the journey can sometimes seem long (the above paraphrase excludes all the small or substeps along the way), in this case it thoroughly articulates two points important to her overall argument: that every theatrical event manufactures a certain mode of address that either conforms to the seer's acculturated and comfortable mode of vision or else critically confronts it; and that a reworked notion of "perspective" can...