Irene Eynat-Confino


It is under the heading “The True Hamlet” that we find a reproduction of a wood engraving, followed by these comments:

For me this is “Hamlet” far more than all the Hamlets I have seen upon the stage. The crown is a trifling inaccuracy, but, after all, how shall we know that Hamlet is regal if he wears no crown? In what a gracious way he sleeps, knowing how far off is Doomsday. The by-play of the supers, too, how hushed it is; they are suiting the action to the word, and the word is “Repose.” Outside in the courtyard and in the other rooms maybe the Dramatis Personae are acting to the top of their bent. How entrancing that we cannot hear them; how reassuring to know that we shall never see them!1

The author is no other than Gordon Craig and the piece was written in 1908, not long after he settled down in Florence. The engraving, which Craig dated as of the sixteenth century, bears the inscription “Audientia. Re Salumun” and depicts King Salomon reclining on a couch. The figure of the king occurs again on a second plane on the right, seated at a desk and writing in a book, while courtiers occupy a receding third plane. This blocking of the characters emphasizes not only the high rank of the royal figure but also the process that preceded the act of writing. First the King meditated on his couch, then he put down in writing the fruit of his meditations. However, the real subject of the engraving was of secondary importance to Craig. What appealed to him was the representation of a high rank male figure lost in his thoughts, a figure that was not a man of action but a man of ideas. For Craig, ideas mattered; factual details, accurate or inaccurate, counted only as long as they could serve as visual stimuli that suggested ideas and provoked emotions. Indeed, the wood engraving prompted Craig to express his own ideas about the representation on stage of an iconic figure of the theatre, Hamlet.

That same year, in his article “In a Restaurant,” Craig discussed the effective transposition to the stage not of a scene taken from a wood engraving but of a real-life scene that he had witnessed. He was aware of the impression that the scene created, “a strong one,” and believed that it was generated by two ideas (which were, in their turn, prompted by the visual spectacle he witnessed), “the idea of the eaters and their feeding,” and “the idea of the servers and their service.” 2 How could he “transport on to the stage” the scene and “produce” the same intense impression that he had felt? He proposed not a minutely mimetic reproduction but an “imaginative and impressionistic treatment” that would create “a strangely suggestive vision, all vague, yet clear enough to those who have eyes and senses to understand.”3 Such a vision, rooted in sensory perceptions and engendered by them, would owe its powerful affect on the audience to the ease of recognition of certain visual signs as well as to the intellectual and emotional stimuli embedded in them. Like other symbolist artists, Craig believed in a universal “truth” that manifested itself in particular situations-- as his essays on the durable and the perishable theatre show--but he did not linger on a philosophical elaboration of this notion. “The Drama, the Durable Drama, must deal with Truth (or Reality, if you prefer at first so to call it) and not with fantastic things,” Craig suggested in his essay “A Durable Theatre”.4 And, pondering briefly on the meaning of Truth in a footnote, he added: “Truth. But what is Truth? Shall we waste three more centuries trying to find an answer to this idiotic question? Would it not be better to get along with our work, and to work so hard at the preparation for the representation of the drama dealing [our emphasis] with truth that, when it arrives, we are ready?”5 The task of the theatre artist, the director and designer of the whole performance and its space, was to select the expressive means by which Truth would be represented and generated. As he had written not long before, “actuality, accuracy of detail, is useless upon the stage.”6

More than one hundred years have passed and Craig’s approach still underlies current attitudes to representation in theatre. Terms have changed—in many instances “accuracy of detail” has been replaced by “analogue scenography”-- yet theatre performance is still faced with the same longstanding dilemma: how to represent real life experience within the constraints of a simulatory and artificially created environment. In the eighteenth century, the neo-classic quest for verisimilitude in performance space was gradually replaced by the quest for historically accurate settings and costumes (Voltaire, for example, insisted on such costumes for his plays). When this quest became more or less common practice in Western theatre by the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was turned into an aesthetic tenet by no other than Victor Hugo who, in his Preface to his play Cromwell (1827), counted the couleur locale [local color] or faithfulness to real-life time and place among the indisputable rules that theatre representation should obey. This faithfulness, required not only for the design of performance space but also for all other components of the performance such as speech and acting, would in its turn be reinforced by the naturalistic tenet to adhere to contemporary notions of “nature” and, later on, by the modernist endorsement of a selective expressivity that could offer multiple and often disputable degrees of truthfulness.

More recently, in the wake of postmodernism, post colonialism, and their aftermath, there has been a renewed interest in the notion of authenticity and various definitions of the term are presently at work in Western arts and humanities as well as in social sciences. Authenticity denotes now not only the true to life but also all that is trustworthy, credible, and reliable; moreover, it consensually embodies the pinnacle of positive values to be attained in ethics as well as in art. But is authenticity possible in an openly make-believe medium? Is the notion of authenticity applicable to theatre, where make-believe is a sine qua non condition? Should theatre representation strive to achieve authenticity? Should theatre be faithful to the spirit of a written text—Craig’s notion of Truth--or to the written text itself, and to what extent? Should theatre representation be faithful to a historical period? In the absence of a definitive written text, should historical accuracy be observed? These are only a few of the critical questions that challenge the designer and the director who wish to achieve authenticity in their work. The relevance of these questions becomes much more acute when we remember that for Sartre, a philosopher and a playwright, the existentialist comprehension of authenticity was based on the belief that truthfulness and faithfulness to one’s ideas and values, as well as to given facts, were the basic rule of conduct for every human being. Yet Sartre made a clear distinction between art and real life and did not try to apply his philosophical tenets to his playwriting. Plays like Huis Clos [No Exit] (1944), Les Mains Sales [Dirty Hands] (1948), or le Diable et le Bon Dieu [The Devil and the Good Lord] (1951) demonstrate that Sartre was faithful to his ethical and political ideas in delineating the characters’ ideological makeup but preferred dramatic consistency to historical accuracy or experienced reality.

Indeed, faithfulness to real-life time and place lends credibility to performance space, unless it is voided by other components of the performance. As Bruce Baugh has already noted, the audience recognizes objects whose existence belongs to empirical reality and bestows on them the property of authenticity even within the limits of an artistic, simulatory experience. 7 So, for example, in heritage tourism-- – a real-life enterprise where reconstructed past occupies center stage-- it is the audience’s notion of authenticity that determines and confirms the rightness of ideas about things.8 The same cultural phenomenon occurs in theatre. The scenographer and the director who strive to be faithful to time and place embrace contemporary prevailing notions of authenticity in order to ensure an easy communication with the audience, seeking to reinforce the credibility of the performance as a whole. Whether fully or partially carried out, the intensity of the impact of historical accuracy on the audience depends on the symbolic value of the analogue and/or digital objects employed in the design as well as on technological and financial resources. Consequently, the visual indicators of authenticity pertain to a certain notion of “real” that is supposedly common to the theatre artists and the audience. Consensual and culturally determined, these indicators induce notions, beliefs, recollections, feelings, and sensations that attach to the object or objects perceived the property of authenticity: authentic costumes, authentic hair dress, authentic stove and authentic pots and pans. These indicators function as semiotic signs or visual anchors that prompt recognition and activate personal attitudes, framing and determining audience reception and response just as they do at a real-life reconstructed ghost town.9 However, authenticity may often serve as a manipulative tool that validates an ideological agenda and only too often the image of the past represented on stage by help of selected replicas is none but the image of an imagined past. This was the case, for instance, with the revival of the Kabuki theatre in Japan, a revival that was due not to the sudden love of a forgotten art but to nationalistic ends, as Barbara E. Thornbury has so aptly demonstrated.10

If many theatre productions are considered today authentic, without being strictly faithful to real-life time and place or to a written text, it is because they generate in the audience a certain affective state, a certain feeling that persists in spite of the make-believe apparatus that has provoked it. In this instance, a feeling of “truth” is being experienced, and the label of “authenticity” is extended from an individually experienced cognitive and affective state to the performance as a whole. This state of feeling and the process that engenders it is best illustrated by David A. B. Murray in his study of the transposition of a novel to the stage via the filter of “authenticity” in 1991 in Martinique.11 The novel was Jacques Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la Rosée [Masters of the Dew], published in 1947, several years after the Haitian author’s death. The ensuing production aimed at being faithful both to the novel and to reality—not to the reality of the fictional characters depicted in the novel but to the reality that these characters would have experienced if they were real human beings living in a real socio-cultural environment similar to the one portrayed in the book. In Murray’s words, the director sought to remain faithful to the spirit of the book. Attending day by day the whole process of theatrical conversion, Murray could watch the director and the performers struggling not only to understand the notion of authenticity as a condition that they experienced in their daily life but as a condition that they wanted to embody and achieve in the final theatrical product. For the theatrical performance to achieve authenticity, the performers and their director tried at first to reproduce onstage the would-be real life of the characters, according to the narrative of the novel. However, as Murray was soon to discover, the notion of authenticity was not only open for interpretation according to each of the actors’ socio-cultural background, but it was also a matter of one’s set of beliefs. For each of the performers, as for the director, the real-life referent of authenticity was different, unstable, and was often questioned by the others. In addition, the reproduction of the novel’s “reality” through the filter of empirical reality soon clashed not only with the director’s artistic aspirations but also with the performers’ urge to give vent to their own creativity. Accuracy in acting (the mimetic reproduction of real-life gestures and actions) was revealed to be unconvincing and was therefore dropped out and so was the realistic setting. Finally, the performance adopted a non-realistic narrative frame and generated, both in the audience and in the team, a feeling of authenticity by being faithful to the ideas and values— Craig’s Truth!— conveyed by the novel, since the whole team had arrived at the conclusion that “theatre was the space in which imagination and creativity took centre stage.”12 Truth—as finally agreed on by the whole team under the guidance of the director—was suggested by the mediation of theatre and its materials and, significantly, the Craigian “trifling inaccuracy” did not prevent it from reaching the audience. Authenticity was achieved not by faithfulness to the events, characters, and locale of the novel but by the enriching aesthetic and emotional experience that the performance succeeded to create for the audience. It was this experience, lived-through by both the team and the audience, that was unanimously appraised as authentic, though it was distinct not only from their empirical daily life but from other aesthetic experiences as well. As Murray shows, the authenticity achieved was the result of a consensual creative process, reached by a gradual change in the artists’ attitude and their comprehension that the notion of authenticity is perceived, achieved, and experienced in theatre differently from daily life or another artistic medium. The director of the Martinique production was aware that she was creating “a verisimilitude, something approaching [our emphasis] ‘real’ that would also be congenial towards an audience’s sensibilities.”13

The Martinique production offers a clear sample of the representation process that precedes current theatre productions that openly state their wish to offer an authentic or true to life vision and are perceived as authentic by the audience. Several aspects of this artistic process of generating authenticity should be emphasized. First, authenticity is a socially agreed upon construct, in real life as in theatre.14 In order to be achieved, the notion of authenticity has to be agreed upon not only by the theatre artists (director, designers and performers) but by the audience as well. Second, in the design of performance space, authenticity has to be visually recognized as something “true” or “faithful” to real life experience. And third, notwithstanding its indissoluble link to visual recognition, the authentic object must possess a certain distinctiveness that lends it its unique cognitive and affective power, its primacy and authority. In theatre, as in other artistic media, it is a certain idiosyncratic feature that marks an object as authentic, credible, and persuasive.

To achieve authenticity, the performance space designer has apparently an easy task: suffice it to be easily recognizable, or so it seems, and the visual designed object—setting, prop, costume, lighting, projection, etc.--will be certified as authentic. However, in order to be authentic, an object that belongs to performance space has yet to be distinct from daily life, and it is in this respect that the designer’s creativity is put to test. However, even when faithfulness to time and place is present, the reconstructed object never carries the same meanings as its real life referent. Uprooted from its real-life context, the reconstructed object in performance space is forcefully imbedded in an artificially constructed frame and complies with different aesthetic and socio-cultural dictates, be they those of the designer, the director, the performer, the audience, or the book-keeper. Moreover, the reconstructed object may be constantly invested with new significations, and its semiotic and affective power may also shift from performance to performance. Even if the sword that Hamlet handles while fighting with Laertes is a faithful replica of a thirteenth-century old Danish sword, it carries with it not only the character’s, the designer’s and the director’s ideological agenda together with the so-called objective import of a certain historical time and place as well as the shifting personal agenda of the viewer in the audience. In performance space, a rose is never only a rose.

A special case is offered by site specific productions. So, for example, framed by a real-life site that served now as a “natural locus” for the events represented, Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s Life is a Dream (1634) was performed in 2006 by the National Theatre of Ghent at the Ruhr Triennale, directed by Johan Simons. The play, a dramatic reflection on the conflict between predestination and free will, was performed in the unused machine hall of a coal mine in Gladbeck, Germany. The disparate elements of the site mirrored the non-narrative line of the performance and framed it, thereby conveying the notion and evoking the feeling of a different reality, perhaps a dream. The performers and the elements of the settings were placed at a big distance one from another, while the walls and the ceiling of the huge hall created the impression of a huge cage where objects and humans were both trapped and lost. The notion of dream was enhanced by the movement of performers and elements of the setting, a movement that dictated both the rhythm of the performance and the intricate process of audience perception. The audience could view the performance from one angle only. As the performance lasted two long hours and the movement was non-realistic, the overall impression was that of a world apart, the world of a dark dream where man was at pains to move, to touch, and to act; a dehumanized world, dominated by the cold steel of machinery. If the notion of authenticity of the dream was generated, it was engendered by the movement of the performers; they created a make-believe reality that conveyed both the idea and the feeling of a real-life experience, that of a dream or a nightmare. The performance space served first as a semiotic sign and, second, as a sensorial stimulus. In this latter capacity, it triggered a synaesthetic perception: the visualized dark space and the coldness emanating from the metal pieces of machinery combined with a threatening feeling inspired by the huge dimensions of the dark machine hall and the overwhelming feeling of doom inspired by the blackness of the walls. This special site offered the director a ready-made object, an alternate space in which to project the ideas, feelings, and beliefs inspired by the written text of the play. If authenticity was achieved, it was embedded and embodied in the emotional and sensorial experience that the audience was induced into. This expressive authenticity was faithful not to a historic time and place but to the artistic medium and its materials. In this selected performance space, the director, the performers, and the designer succeeded to generate in the audience a real lived-through distinctive experience by means of an oxymoron, a real make believe. Is a site-specific performance more authentic because the real life performance space is directly relevant to the dramatic action? In the present case, the answer was affirmative.

A different use of a pre-determined space is offered by the Catalan theatre company La Fura dels Baus in its proclaimed quest for authenticity. Paradoxically, it is the choice of a site where representation of a particular place and time is completely denied that, according to Sharon Feldman, lends authenticity to its performances. So, for instance, the settings for their production of Noun (1990), included “an enormous square of scaffolding, suspended high above the heads of the spectators, who remained below and moved about freely,” and disparate but recognizable elements taken from urban scene like pieces of machinery or recycled industrial rubbish. 15 Together, the components of the performance space generated a feeling of authenticity that was invoked not by faithfulness to a well defined place but faithfulness to the feeling that such visual elements generate in everyday life. In other words, the feeling and notion of authenticity were engendered not only by the disparate huge technological elements suspended above but also by the audience’s familiarity with the multiple cultural connotations they evoked and their daily experience when faced with such elements. The performance space acted as a newly created dynamic force that produced feelings and ideas on its own, sometimes complementing those generated by the rest of the performance components and sometimes running parallel to them. While the performance was of course make-believe, the feelings aroused by it were perceived as authentic.

But the use of performance space in La Fura’s productions in the name of authenticity raises the question whether the notion of authenticity in performing arts, as it is widely understood, is not abused in order to promote what has been widely recognized as dramatically outstanding large scale productions. On the other hand, these productions offer an excellent example of the slippage of the term “authenticity” in current performance space design, a slippage from a certain quality attributed to the represented object in space to its impact on the viewer, from a mimetic reality to a potential, acceptable one. No matter if the object is a replica or not, a three dimensional body or a projected one, so long as its image creates a feeling of authenticity. Even when this image is not familiar to the audience and has no referent in its daily life, it still has the power to elicit a feeling and notion of authenticity, provided that it is presented as such by an authority in the field. Lyn Voskuil, in her study of the sensation drama in mid nineteenth-century England, dwells on the “widespread attraction to authenticity—and the vicarious thrills” that this kind of drama provided. 16 As she demonstrates, part of this attraction was prompted not by the possible encounter with a recognizable object but by the much publicized information that the object offered for view was distinctively apart and at the same time dangerous and harmless. In the Martinican case, just as at the mid nineteenth-century sensation drama or at La Fura’s productions, authenticity is a negotiated notion that comes into being only with the full consent of the audience. This consent can be obtained by historical accuracy as well as by other stylistic choices that employ the emotive and cognitive impact of the visual signs in order to generate the feeling and notion of authenticity. If illusionistic scenery prides itself not for being authentic but for creating the illusion of an authentic time and place, non-illusionistic scenery may pride itself for creating a feeling of authenticity and imparting the notion of authenticity by means of meaningful visual images, analog or digital, three dimensional or two-dimensional.

Today, Craig’s “trifling inaccuracy” in representation has become a major, dominant inaccuracy that often involves “fantastic things” in order to elicit the feeling and notion of truthfulness by help of contemporary technology. Both for the spectator and for the performer, the sensory and imaginative appeal of the performance space blurs the divide between the aesthetic make believe and the real lived-through experience, turning the theatrical moment into a one-of-a kind event whose power cannot be denied, an integral part of one’s real life.

Is this kind of “authentic” experience a newcomer on the performing arts stage? Not quite. What is new in current appreciation of performing arts and their expression of what is perceived as “Truth” or authentic is the shift from the prominent role accorded to the represented object in space to that of the viewer and his aesthetic experience. In other words, the spotlight has shifted from a designed performance space that openly sought to reproduce as closely as possible a lived-through experience to a designed space intended to suggest that experience – and this was the teaching of no other than Craig in his works and writings long ago. Though our contemporary performance space designer would take advantage of all the improvements of current technology, his technique is still the same, that is, the use of make-believe in order to suggest or “represent” Truth. Yes, we are still looking for the answer to Craig’s question: "Truth. But what is Truth?” though the means have changed.


N o t e s

  1. Craig, Edward Gordon. “The True Hamlet,” The Theatre Advancing (Rpt. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1947), 152-153.[back]
  2. Craig, “In a Restaurant,” ibid, 143.[back]
  3. Ibid., 148.[back]
  4. Craig, “A Durable Theatre,” ibid., 12-13.[back]
  5. Ibid., 21-22.[back]
  6. Craig, “The Artists of the Theatre of the Future” (1907), in On the Art of the Theatre (London: Heinemann, 1968), 27.[back]
  7. Baugh, Bruce. “Authenticity Revisited,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 46 (1988) 4: 477-487.[back]
  8. See Reisinger, Yvette, and Carol J. Steiner, “Reconceptualizing Object Authenticity,” Annals of Tourism Research, 33 (2006), 65-86.[back]
  9. See Dydia Delyser, “Authenticity on the Ground: Engaging the Past in a California Ghost Town,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 89:4(1999), 602-632.[back]
  10. Thornbury, Barbara E., “Restoring sn Imagined Past: The National Theatre and the Question of Authenticity in Kabuki.” Asian Theatre Journal, 19 (2002) 1, 161-183.[back]
  11. Murray, David A. B., “The Work of Authenticity: Making Haitian Peasants in Martinican Theatre,” The Australian Journal of Anthropology, IX (1988) 2: 179-193.[back]
  12. Ibid., 190.[back]
  13. Murray, 190.[back]
  14. See also Richard A.Peterson, “In Search of Authenticity,” Journal of Management Studies, 42 (2005) 5: 1083-1098.[back]
  15. Feldman, Sharon G., “Scenes from the Contemporary Barcelona Stage: La Fura dels Baus’s Aspiration to the Authentic,” Theatre Journal, 50:4(1998), 462.[back]
  16. Voskuil, Lynn M., “Feeling Public: Sensation Theatre, Commodity Culture, and the Victorian Public Sphere,” Victorian Studies, 44:2(Winter 2002), 245.[back]


Irène Eynat-Confino is the author of Beyond the Mask: Gordon Craig, Movement, and the Actor (1987) and On the Uses of the Fantastic in Modern Theatre: Cocteau, Oedipus, and the Monster (2008), and the co-editor of Space and the Postmodern Stage (2000) and Patronage, Spectacle, and the Stage (2006). She served as a Member of the Executive Committee of the International Federation of Theatre Research (FIRT/IFTR) and as a Convener of its Scenography Working Group, and was a Research Fellow of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. She is the Editor of Theatre Arts Journal: Studies in Scenography and Performance.