- Getting on with Things: The Currency of Objects in Theatre and Performance Studies
Whether viewed as prosthesis, prop, puppet, performing object, analog technology, scriptive thing, or vibrant matter, the “thing” vexes theatre and performance scholars. Are performatic things active or passive, vibrant or inert?1 Can stage objects morph into subjects and vice versa, as Jiřrí Veltruský conjectured in his landmark 1940 article “Man and Object in the Theater”? Do objects become things when they thwart our intentions or when they invite us to dance?2 Either way, doesn’t “thingification” obtain once any object performs? [End Page 673] A chair placed on the stage acquires semiotic air quotes and becomes the sign “chair” (or “throne” or “majesty”); it is both itself and other than itself, a consubstantiation that has troubled thinkers from Plato onwards. And according to theatre phenomenology, the stage object is a site of disclosure as well as reference: an empirical, sensory presence that transcends mere signification.3
Since the structuralist critics collectively known as the Prague School began brilliantly theorizing stage objects in the 1930s, our ongoing engagement with them has conscripted a veritable arsenal of approaches, among them Marxism, feminism, Prague structuralism, semiotics, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, new historicism, cultural materialism, and queer studies. More recently, affordance theory, object-oriented ontology (OOO), thing theory, posthumanism, actor-network theory (ANT), and new materialisms have joined the fray. Interestingly, affect studies remains largely untapped by object theorists to date, perhaps because for at least some affect theorists, as in psychoanalytic theory, other people can be “objects.”4
Four key recent shifts in the theoretical fortunes of the material object stand out. First, the nondescript object has become a charged, willful “thing”—less an object than a particular subject–object relation (thing theory). Second, and in tension with the first, Kant’s constitutive subject–object binary has become an object–object relationship unmoored from subjectivity, thereby decentering the human sphere (object-oriented ontology; posthumanism).5 Third, as vibrant if not protoplasmic matter, productive objects are found to exhibit various kinds of agency in their own right (new materialisms). Fourth, considered as nodes within networks, nonhuman actants blur the distinction among discrete, causal agents and their effects (actor-network theory). Applied to stage objects, all four perspectives reject the Prague School doctrine of semiotization whereby an object is “de-realized” so as to become telltale sign, symptom, or fetish.6 They also largely bypass psychoanalytic theory, including D. W. Winnicott’s underutilized concepts of transitional objects and potential space.7
No longer consigned to the prop-bin of history, objects have seized the limelight. This has been especially true in Renaissance studies, as collections like Subject and Object in Renaissance Culture (1996) and Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama (2006) attest.8 [End Page 674] In Jonathan Gil Harris’s words, “[f]or a growing number of Renaissance and Shakespeare scholars, the play is no longer the thing: the thing is the thing” (Untimely Matter 1). The same can be said of theatre and performance studies more generally, for the thing has performed something of a theoretical putsch (remember “the body”?). Having moved from signs to ghosts to the real, we are, it seems, increasingly in thrall to objects.
The books under discussion here parse the hegemony of the thing in different ways. Harris’s Untimely Matter in the Time of Shakespeare argues that physical objects on Shakespeare’s stage embodied theories of matter that confound synchronicity. Barbara Hodgdon’s Shakespeare, Performance and the Archive revives post-performance remains in the theatre of the critic’s imagination. Kara Reilly’s collection Theatre, Performance and Analogue Technology explores how various analog technologies, including things, have historically shaped performance practice. Most radically, Performing Objects and Theatrical...