Lately I have watched the professional video recording of the theatrical piece The Phantom of the Opera: the 25th Anniversary edition of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s classical musical, taking place in the Royal Albert Hall. Since this is one of few theatrical pieces that have been professionally filmed, the recording is well-known within the theatre community and has gained a massive following over the years. Many fans prefer the recording’s cast over others and agree on this particular performance being the ‘ultimate’ The Phantom of the Opera.
But this raises some questions: is it possible for a recording of a live performance to be the ultimate performance? Or, to go even further, can and should the ultimate performance exist in the first place?
According to Walter Benjamin’s definition of the aura of a work of art—“its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be”┼— Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” lluminations. Ed. H. Arendt. New York, Schocken, (1969) —play recordings┼For the sake of simplicity, the word 'play’ is in this essay used synonymously with 'theatre piece’ (any piece playing in a theatre). cannot do what the performance┼To avoid logical errors, this essay defines the word ‘performance’ as the live iteration/execution of the work. can: the aura of the work would have faded, since a recording cannot capture the live quality and physical and spatial presence that a play has.
In addition to that, it is by definition impossible for a recording and a performance—or, a movie and a play—to be synonymous. The movie captures the performance, the play is the performance. Without a live execution, the play does not exist. The movie on the other hand only uses the performance as a source to construct the movie. After the performances (the acting on set) are over, the movie lives on, whereas the play ends when the live performance ends.
To go even further, a play is not just one performance, but consists of many performances. After all, the play is performed multiple times and therefore creates multiple iterations (or: realities).
Admittedly, the movie too constructs its identity from multiple realities, but movie and play differ in execution. The movie is constructed out of many performances—multiple takes are needed in order to distill the ultimate performance—and afterwards presented as one performance (or: one reality).┼Jean Baudrillard defines such a reality as a hyperreality, “produced from a radiating synthesis of combinatory models in a hyperspace without atmosphere.” Or, as Benjamin said: “The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. [...] [The picture] of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law.”┼— Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” lluminations. Ed. H. Arendt. New York, Schocken, (1969)
The play, on the other hand, is constructed and presented by repetition—here defined as both ‘practice’ and ‘the repeating’. It is practice that prepares the performers for the performance, and ‘the repeating’ that is the actual performance. In other words, the repeating is the play. Hence the identity of the play changes with every repetition: the identity of the play is shaped by its very nature of change. “Repetition both deepens and hollows out the experience,”┼Joseph Chaikin, Notes on Acting Time and Repetition (New York: Drama Book Specialists/Publishers, 1974) —as Joseph Chaikin, an American actor, director and playwright, said—and therefore repetition makes the play a fluid concept.
In Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard stated: “To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have. [...] Dissimulating leaves the principle of reality intact: the difference is always clear, it is simply masked, whereas simulation threatens the difference between [...] the ‘real’ and the 'imaginary.’”┼— Jean Baudrillard. 1994. Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. Applying this parable to our subject, the movie can be seen as a simulation and a play can be seen as a dissimulation. A movie pretends to present reality, whereas in fact the presented reality does not exist. In the theatre one is well aware of the reality in which the performance takes place, yet ‘masks’ this reality (with costumes, scenery, scenic transitions etc.) to imitate something else. Therefore one could state all different iterations of the play are still rooted in one reality: the play therefore does consists of just one reality.
However, Chaikin had a different view on the matter: “In former times acting simply meant putting on a disguise. When you took off the disguise, there was the old face under it. Now it’s clear that the wearing of the disguise changes the person. As he takes the disguise off, his face is changed from having worn it. The stage performance informs the life performance and is informed by it.”┼— Joseph Chaikin, The Presence of the Actor (New York, NY: Theatre Communications Group, 1993) Chaikin states that the play cannot exist without deforming the reality it takes place in. In other words, the play can never be based on one reality, for every performance changes that reality. The reality is fluid, therefore the play is fluid.
Besides, even if the play would present just one reality, still its identity would be flexible, because its value/meaning is. One could say the audience’s perception creates the work of art, for perception changes the value/meaning of the artwork. Therefore every viewing generates a unique evaluation. Thus the identity of a play, in this way, can fundamentally not be static.
Concluding, the recording can never substitute the ‘ultimate’ performance. Besides, defining one ‘ultimate’ theatrical performance is possible nor desirable, for this would mean defining a work of art as being static. And no work of art can and should ever be static: it should grow and move and change—for only such art will eventually change us.
© Merle Findhammer.