- Sound Studies: Theories of the Material Voice
The aural aspect of performance has emerged as a unique topic for theatre research at a time of technological advancement, providing a distinctive entry point for historical analysis while raising important theoretical questions about recording, reproduction, the interplay of live and recorded sound onstage, and the act of listening itself. The three books reviewed here offer insights into some of the issues defining this emerging field, even as they propose new resources and new directions for conducting further research.
Until relatively recently, “sound studies” as a research focus has been a minor grace note in the composition of theatre studies.1 Robert Hamilton Ball might be said to have [End Page 445] sounded the bellwether when he wrote an article titled “The Shakespeare Film as Record: Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree” sixty years ago.2 In it, Ball acknowledges the difficulty of reconstructing what historical audiences saw and heard. In his pre-Internet era, historians combed libraries and archives for prompt books, drawings, photographs, musical scores, light plots, reviews, criticism, and letters, but there was not much available beyond blocking schematics that indicated movement, facial expressions, gestures, or—rarely—reflections on the actual sound of an actor’s voice. According to Ball, “[w]e know very little about what Garrick’s Lear, Kean’s Othello or Booth’s Hamlet were really like. The more closely we approach our own time, of course, the more we have to go on” (227). Looking to motion pictures for answers, a modern historian like Ball acknowledged the value of such technology, as remarkable then in the decades before streaming video and YouTube as it is now.
Despite the promising efforts of Ball and others who added film records to the theatrical archive, scholars have lacked a critical framework sufficient to elevate sound as a discipline in theatre scholarship to the level at which it could make a contribution to the field. This is not to say that scholars have not recognized the importance of sound to the history of the art form; although theatre is a place for seeing, it is also a place for listening. And how an audience attends to the mise en scène depends upon factors like sound reproduction, reinforcement, acoustics, dramaturgy, and production processes and effects. Thus at a time when theatre production is being transformed by rapid advances in sound technology, we should not be surprised to find those advances resonating in theatre scholarship, especially given theoretical developments in sound, voice, and meaning over the past half century. As the books under review here attest, the time is now right for revisiting theatre history and reevaluating performance theory and criticism from the perspective of aurality, in order to address the traditional dimensions of voice and other agents involved in sound transmission and reception. The three books in this review do just that, intersecting at key points, while framing sound studies in remarkably different ways.
Andrew Kimbrough’s Dramatic Theories of Voice in the Twentieth Century is an exceptional book, presenting philosophical and scientific theories of voice in an approach that is both accessible to young scholars and useful to those already familiar with its source texts. Kimbrough combines excerpts and analyses of those source texts in a single comprehensive treatment of the voice that reveals critical insights into the topic, making it much more than a survey. Hoping to “distill and articulate the theories of voice generated in twentieth-century philosophic and scientific discourses as well as dramatic theory and theatre practice” (2), Kimbrough provides a series of concise essays expounding on core ideas across disciplines.
His organizational strategy is to pair chapters covering the theories of influential philosophers or linguists, with companion chapters that contextualize those theories in relation to theatre practice. After an overview of the evolution...