It’s a truism of working with historic drama that you can never really recreate the experiences of the past, for performers or audiences. In recent readings for The Vital Spark, I came across a comment about the way that encores used to involve a performer singing a favourite song over and over again, because there were no other chances to hear it. As someone who plays songs on loop for hours, or days, while I’m working on a project, or to learn the lyrics, as someone who used to hit rewind and play on cassettes dozens of times in a row, this struck me as a window into how truly foreign the past is. Leaving aside the philosophical questions of performative ephemerality, this is one of those vastly profound differences between the experience of the modern world and that of the past. I cannot conceive of life without my recordings or videos, yet for most of history, every performance happened once, and never again.
For the actors, this might not have mattered tremendously; if they were performing the same show for several nights or weeks at a run, the experience probably closely resembled that of today: each one is different, but in an ideal world they are as close to identical as possible. Perhaps for musicians it offered a different challenge: every song would have to ‘stick’ from the very beginning; there would be no room for a piece to grow on you over time or through replaying. Certainly for the audience it must have been very different from today. The only chances you ever had to experience a performer’s gifts were right there, for that little space of time. No recording to take home at the end of the night, no album to learn before going to the gig, no television special where you might pick up some familiarity with the material. And if you particularly loved some aspect of a performance, it could only ever live in your memory. Moreover, the experience could only be shared with those who were also there; you couldn’t simply pass over the earphones and say, “you’ve got to hear this.” Maybe you’d take home favourite songs to sing with your family, or some of a comic’s jokes would make it into your own conversation. I have to wonder if this created a different kind of memory- not just of the thing itself, but the actual human mechanism for mental recording, a capability that we, with our ability to record the entire world electronically, have lost. (Could anyone today repeat the feats of Homer, reciting his epics?)
I wonder if it created a secondary, private round of performances. Did people go home to friends and family who hadn’t been there and, in trying to explain what they’d seen, end up acting out their favourite parts of the performance? Did they ever do it as a way of keeping that memory alive? Most recordings, audio or film, are not made as a document for posterity. They are made because we understand that someone who has experienced a performance might like to see or hear it again, or because we know that there are those who would like to be there in person but can’t. But before the twentieth century, to miss a performance was to miss it forever, and to see it again you had to be there again- and could only do so for the length of the run. Surely that must have created a unique emotional connection, for we hold in different value those things which are limited.
And surely, too, something has been lost to us with the illusion, however inaccurate, that we can capture a performance forever, to be replayed as many times as we choose. This is one aspect of historic drama that we can’t even approach recreating, because we know that the world is full of options for ‘capturing’ the event for infinite encores. This is the opposite of the side of me that obsessively records, photographs, and collects. I’m not sure I could give that up. But these thoughts will certainly give me pause the next time a show is about to go up and a find myself setting up the tripod.