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  • Shattering Hamlet's Mirror: Theatre and Reality by Marvin Carlson
  • Elizabeth E. Tavares
Shattering Hamlet's Mirror: Theatre and Reality. By Marvin Carlson. U of Michigan P, 2016. Cloth $60.00, 145 pages.

In his recent monograph, Marvin Carlson develops the premise first established in The Haunted Stage: Theatre as Memory Machine (2003): that theatre capitalizes [End Page 144] on the memories of audiences to provide opportunities for meaning. The past lives of objects and the previous roles of actors ghost performances that follow. In this new monograph, Carlson argues that this hauntological feature is crucial when examining the tension between reality and imitation—a primary concern of modern and postmodern theatre. Using Hamlet's allusion to Socrates as an organizing conceit, each chapter considers the theatre's turn away from mimesis to the appropriation of the "real," including borrowing words, the body of the actor, the affordances of physical surroundings, the prop, and, eventually, the audience itself.

While at first blush a study of "utilizing real words from the real world" may seem too all-encompassing, the first chapter effectively traces the evolution of documentary theatre from the living newspapers of the Russian Revolution to twentieth-century testimonial dramas (21). Citing examples from an international range of directors, special attention is paid to the Wooster Group and Tectonic Theatre. The initial intent of borrowing "real" words was overtly political: Utilizing found materials, troupes shifted their interest to structures of power (27). Carlson deftly traces the historical expanse of this tendency toward social justice themes from survivor testimony plays to the current fashion for reproducing literal slices of banal speech.

Through two especially compelling examples, the second chapter considers how the body of the actor produces multiple levels of mediation between the "real" and stage worlds. Carlson argues that the nineteenth-century fascination with the celebrity female actor, particularly Sarah Bernhardt and Adelaide Ristori, was partly driven by a contrast between their stage and domestic lives. Contending that the on- and offstage actor produces a "feedback loop between life and theatre" (56), Carlson turns to the Wild West show where attendees were given to understand that "during the summer months [Wild Bill] Cody would return to the West to pursue his scouting to fight the Indians…and during the winter he would tour," which "provided a kind of authentication" (47). As in the borrowing of words, the borrowing of bodies was challenged by 1990s cultural theorists who argued it was impossible to present an uncompromised self if all identity was already a product of an acculturated set of codes. In response, a penchant for using nonactors has arisen and, by extension, so have concerns about exploitation.

In order to think about the history and connotations of non-traditional performance spaces that have been co-opted, chapter 3 draws on pre-modern performance traditions, such as the Easter liturgy, to demonstrate the ways in which postmodern "realist" strategies frequently seem to return to un-realist earlier ones. Like the testimony drama's borrowing of words, the borrowing of places produced a cross-cultural trope of the passion play, evident in Vienna, across Egypt, Jerusalem, and even contemporary religious re-enactments by the Mormon Church. Where these early performances attempted to capitalize on the religious connotations of a man-made site, by the eighteenth century, experiments by Goethe and Marie Antoinette desired to make contact with the "real" by moving into ostensibly untouched, pastoral locales. This gave way to nineteenth-century stagings, especially of William Shakespeare's plays, that attempted to reflect "with greater and greater realistic accuracy the locations indicated in the dramatic text"—live rabbits and mossy stage included (66). These strategies anticipated what the [End Page 145] 1980s would eventually label site-specific theatre, not to be confused with the "part hobby, part recreation" amateur tradition of historical re-enactment prevalent in the United States (74). In his transhistorical and transcultural exploration, Carlson demonstrates that popular site-specific performances, returning to theatricalizing man-made spaces such as the factory and warehouse, are strategies for co-opting the "real," rather than revealing a certain objective truth (77).

Chapter 4, on borrowing the pre-histories of props, is indebted to a...


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pp. 144-146
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