- Liveness:Phelan, Auslander, and After
Live-cast and recorded theatre (LCRT) such as National Theatre Live has expanded rapidly into a major industry since its launch in 2009. In academic terms, this development has been discussed predominantly in the context of audience demographics. The development merits, however, a reassessment of the liveness debate launched with the seminal contributions by Peggy Phelan’s 1993 book Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, and Philip Auslander’s 1999 study Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. Auslander argues that before mediatization in the forms of sound recording and film, all audiences encountered performance in a mode that we now call “live.” However, that term was not yet relevant then, because it makes sense only in relation to an opposite, such as the “mediatized.”1 In this sense, the live does not precede the mediatized and cannot claim superiority because it came first.2 Once the live emerges as a category of experience, in opposition to the mediatized, those people who are representatives of the live in production or reception contexts develop an anxiety about the perceived threat that the live is allegedly exposed to from the mediatized.3 They address that anxiety by attributing higher value to the live by arguing that it is real, whereas the mediatized is not real.4 An alternative is the attempt to make the live as alike to the mediatized as possible.5 In that case, those who favor the live over the mediatized seek to recreate a mediatized image in a live setting, thus invoking our nostalgia for “what we assumed was the immediate.”6 For this response to anxiety, Auslander refers to the helicopter in Miss Saigon as a prominent example.7 Another is the suggestion that a live recording is somehow better than a studio recording.8
Auslander rejects the arguments developed by those in favor of the live when they feel threatened by mediatization. The live, he argues, is not first and therefore stronger. The claim that the live is real and that the mediatized is unreal, Auslander argues, does not work because the mediatized is just as much a human experience as the live. Auslander also rejects the implication of the higher value of the live recording over the studio recording in terms of the problematic semantics: “This [End Page 69] expression is an oxymoron (how can something be both recorded and live?) but is another concept we now accept without question.”9 In an article reflecting on the first edition of Auslander’s book, Martin Barker had argued that audiences experience live performance “as if it had elements of uniqueness.”10 This argument was strongly developed by Phelan.11 In the second edition of his book, Auslander responds to Barker, suggesting that the audience’s hope that a live performance is unique is an illusion. Auslander refers to Barker’s qualification that for a live performance of a theatre production to be successful, a performance needs to be such that the “actual variations are probably minimal and insignificant.”12 In the same vein, Auslander denies that live performance functions to bring performers and spectators into an experience of community. Instead, he suggests that the nature of performance is founded on difference, separation, and fragmentation that exclude unity. Auslander refers to the failed attempts by Grotowski and Boal to achieve such desired unity.13 He questions the need for a spectator to be present in the same space as the performance to enjoy the experience of watching a performance,14 and ultimately concedes only that live performance may afford social prestige to the spectator who can boast to have been present at a live event which carries the value of being memorable by peers.15 Live and mediatized, Auslander concludes, are not ontological opposites, but rather cultural and historical contingencies define their opposition.16
Despite the fact that Auslander, in his writing about liveness, brought what Barker called a “deep pessimism” to the debate about liveness,17 many critics continue the discussion of the nature of liveness. For example, Reason has addressed the concerns about documentation in relation to live performance.18 In the context of her argument relating...