Model Materials

In Monday’s meeting of “The Problem of the Ground,” we explored the relation between human actor and human architecture, between the organic and the mechanical. We began with a trip to the Harvard Theater Collection (guided by Susan Halpert) to see Frederick Kiesler’s model for the Universal Theater. Our resident architect, Beth, helped answer some practical questions: yes, this building could have been constructed, though one would probably want to add exits. Martin compared the model to the manifesto, pointing out that both theater models and manifestos were ends in themselves (or thought experiments) rather than means to an end.

Kiesler's Universal Theater (courtesy of the Harvard Theater Collection)
Kiesler's Universal Theater (courtesy of the Harvard Theater Collection)

We then plunged into Oskar Schlemmer’s 1926 lecture on Bauhaus and theater (noting, too, the affinity between theaters and lecture halls, home of Futurist serate.) While our previous discussions of David Levine’s work focused on the actor’s interiority, Schlemmer considers the actor as a figure in (a preferably empty) space. As David had observed, the director is interested in creating a frame, which he uses to translate a three-dimensional space into a two-dimensional one. This fits nicely with Arnold Aronson’s articulation of the historical avant-garde’s making porous, or fragmenting, or ultimately eliminating, the theatrical frame. But rather than focus on the theatrical frame, in his manifesto Schlemmer devotes much of his attention to the abstracted or grotesque frame of the human body, rendered in full two-dimensionality by the camera's clinical gaze.

Does Schlemmer turn the body into a machine? Bauhaus costumes eliminate facial expressions and hands, reducing the human figure to an assemblage of mechanically perfect limbs. We wondered what representations would fail in this context. Gender? Curves and silhouettes are all we have to go by. The disabled body? All the structures are standing; nobody is crumpled on the ground. But by the same token, Schlemmer’s grotesque figures present something of the organic, the comically repulsive, the ugly. Schlemmer and other historical avant-gardes saw the human body as a problem to be solved. This could be attempted either with a mechanical conception of the body as a wind-up clock, or better yet, by eliminating the human body altogether, leaving an empty and purely mechanical stage able to do without the perfect human machinist. Others, like Meyerhold, took up a biomechanical conception of the body as an engine, perfectly Taylored to avoid waste, and able to act as master of both body and setting. As Martin concluded, many today still ask whether Taylorism is possible on stage.

While the historical avant-gardes made models for the theater of the future, Mike Pearson's contemporary and site-specific performance art theatricalizes the past history of Welsh landscapes, regrounding us firmly in "Locations of Theater." Check back soon for more on Mike and Heike Roms' visit to the Mellon School.

See also: Matthew Franks