Irene Eynat-Confino


In an era of fake news and deep fake news, unexpected pandemics and shattered liberties, and fragile hopes and bewildering obstacles, what does the notion of authenticity in performing arts mean? What is perennial and what is fugitive in our so-called aesthetic certainties? Is an actor in an eighteenth-century attire – wig and white face included – sipping with a straw from a plastic cup authentic? Is the huge Dagon statue splitting in two in Samson et Dalila at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2018 authentic? Do the moving gigantic clown head and oversize hands that dominate the playing space in Rigoletto at the Bergenz Festival in 2019 add to the production’s authenticity? Is the setting of The Play that Goes Wrong authentic?1

Authenticity is by definition a notion that provides more questions than answers. While these answers are instable, they constitute variations on a basic core: truthfulness and faithfulness. Authenticity denotes truthfulness to something that is considered true by consensus – though the notion of true is also questionable. It also implies a faithfulness to a certain object, a faithfulness that has been implicitly and commonly agreed on. The notion of authenticity is limited to a well-defined referent, be it real or imagined, while it is also consensual and open to debate. But what is considered real or imagined by the designer, the audience, the director, or by all? Authenticity is neither wide ranging nor all encompassing. The huge Dagon statue may be faithful to one of the many images of the Dagon god, the gigantic clown head to Rigoletto’s occupation (or to his cerebral preoccupations), and the oversize hands to the directors’ and designer’s belief (and the audience’s?) that people are manipulated by unseen forces. And the setting of the play that goes wrong is truthful to the endangering physical conditions where actors may have sometimes to work.

The quest for authenticity designates an attempt to recapture and reexamine lived-through or imagined experience, an attempt stemming from the day-to-day reality that we now live in. Authenticity in its many forms is the indisputable tie between the performance and its audience. In the past, authenticity came variously under the guise of such terms as verisimilitude, truth, or nature and different styles such as romanticism, realism, naturalism, symbolism, expressionism, and even dada and surrealism sought to embody and express it. Scenography today, with its ever-growing use of multimedia technologies and surrealist and expressionist techniques, is openly assuming its role as a representation – not a copy -- of real life while it also generates new unexpected feelings and physical sensations in the audience. Indeed, it offers a genuine, lived-through, mental and sensorial experience that invariably produces a wow effect.2  Visuality strives now to be the main vehicle of signification. Traditional vehicles like dramatic texts, musical scores, or the performer’s movement and acting are blatantly overshadowed -- literally and metaphorically – by visual effects such as oversize bodies, unusual textures, video projections, or the interplay of color, light and darkness. The wow effect has turned an emotional state into an unavoidable and widely celebrated aesthetic tenet. Within this newly created universe, authenticity to day-to-day life is hard to detect, excluding a truthfulness to one’s bewilderment when one is faced with the unforeseen. Is this a pervasive but transient trend or will it stay? 

This issue of our journal displays different approaches to the notion of authenticity in performing arts and explores the use of scenography to convey contemporary attitudes to old myths, productions, and plays. Ming Chen evaluates the notion of authenticity and its manifestation in creating space in performing arts, while Filipa Malva examines the role of color and light in the representation of the myth of the Garden of Eden in a contemporary production. Natalie Rewa studies the active narrative function of design elements in relation to orchestral and choreographic sequences in Michael Levine’s design for the Ring Cycle. Tom Lewy presents the director’s approach to authenticity and the import of revived productions in modern theatre. Authenticity is also explored in different forms of theatre, as Valerie Lucas examines its expression in a site-specific performance and Vera Velemanova in apartment theatre. In a joint effort, Julia Listengarten, Vandy Wood, and Megan Alrutz review the production of a Brecht play and the attempt to achieve an authenticity that may be of interest to a present day audience. Dominika Larionow investigates in what way the Polish national theatre has given expression to the audience’s notion of authenticity under different political regimes.

The different approaches to authenticity in performing arts, expressed by these studies, reflect not only the problematics of this notion but also the attitudes that are prevalent today regarding the socio-cultural and political role of performing arts. Hopefully, once the lure of novelty wears down, the current overpowering visual technologies will regain their place as one among the many elements of performing arts and leave an equal if not a dominant place to the performer, enabling the audience to find authenticity in the performance and connect with it. Remember André Antoine’s slice of blood-dripping meat on the stage of Théâtre Antoine in Paris? Perhaps the current scenographic wow effect is similarly temporary. Perhaps it may give rise to a new form of performing arts, a theatre of moving objects where the quest for authenticity would be not only fruitless but also superfluous.

N o t e s

  1. The 2012 play was written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields, members of the Mischief Theatre Company, and won a Laurence Olivier Award in 2015.back
  2. See also my “Performance Space and Designed Authenticity: From a Non Sequitur to a Real Make-Believe?” in Theatre Arts Journal: Studies in Scenography and Performance 3:1 (Fall 2015)back


Dr. Irene Eynat-Confino, from Tel-Aviv University, 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 has published on Gordon Craig, Adolphe Appia, Oscar Wilde, Yeats, Cocteau, Beckett, and Ansky. 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