Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History (Some Notes)

For me, the July 4 weekend marks the halfway point for the summer — if it’s not the chronological center of the summer, it is the time when I look at the number of weeks before fall classes start, and look at the list of things I had hoped to accomplish for the summer, and reassess.

I’m doing great on the family time, and the lawn looks about as good as it ever does (which is to say it’s not the worst in the neighborhood), I’ve almost finished watching a 16-hour YouTube playthrough of Alice: Madness Returns, and I kind of had a lost weekend designing a steampunk airship in Blender 3D. But I’ve got an overdue library book that I keep forgetting to make time to read.

My kids are very active in the summer library reading programs, and this afternoon, while my daughter was reading The Borrowers Afield, she asked me to sit with her and read. I pulled out a library copy of Kara Reilly’s Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History. Not exactly light reading, but my dissertation covered images of technology and machinery in early 20th century American drama, and in fact, Reilly even quotes me at one point, and I am thinking of updating for publication an conference paper I wrote on the John Henry folktale, so I was feeling motivated to do a little work reading.

The word “automaton” was the preferred term for “a life-like mechanized representation of a human,” mostly for aesthetic purposes, until Carek Kapek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) introduced, in literature, the concept of the robot as worker (indeed, “robotnik” is the Czech word for “worker,” specifically referring to drudgery).

Insights from Reilly so far:

  • As part of the funeral for Julius Caesar, a “wax effigy” of the assassinated emperor was displayed to the crowd; realistic-looking wounds, dripping with blood, whipped the masses into a vengeful frenzy.
  • Mechanized moving statues were part of Egyptian religious culture, though Augustine did not think highly of them.
  • The medieval church, which used icons and statues as tools to teach the faith to the mostly illiterate public, also made use of moving statues — the “Rood of Grace” was a particularly noteworthy example. (I just updated the Wikipedia page with some of what I learned.)
  • Albertus Magnus reportedly worked on an automaton for decades; when he showed it to Thomas Aquinas, Aquinas flew into a rage and destroyed it. (Awkward.)
  • Protestant Iconoclasts (reformers who smashed Cathoic art (paintings of religious figures, stained glass windows, and statues that they considered idolatrous) insisted that only the written word had the moral authority to represent religious figures. The paradigm shift they sparked, away from images and towards words, lasted until the rise of movies and TV in the 20th Century.
  • Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale – which features a statue that magically comes to life, resurrecting the woman whose likeness the statue presented — features a debate between characters advocating Nature vs. Art; moving statues uncomfortably bridge this gap. (Elsewhere, Reilly talks about the “uncanny,” but here she’s still laying the groundwork.)
  • Reilley provides many examples of Renaissance plays and masques in which actors portray statues that come to life — and one instance in which courtiers in a masque portrayed statues.
  • The religious impulse to represent the divine does not disappear, but is transferred into secular context (in England, at any rate… in Catholic Europe, this religious tradition continued.)