Friday, 2 October 2009

Duck Egg Meccano and David Copperfield: ancient theatre and modern magic.

Duck Egg Meccano, that is how I have heard the latin phrase deus ex machina pronounced by someone. More properly the classical Greek should be used theos apo mechanes. Both mean the ‘god from the machine.’ That is a phrase which has taken on a whole range of subtleties during the last two and a half thousand years but in Athens of the fifth century BC it was, quite simply, a wooden crane that held an actor, usually playing a god, aloft in the air above the performance area as if floating or flying.

It could be described as a very basic, crude and simple version of ‘stage levitation’ with little in common with the more sophisticated and mystifying methods of a magician who performs levitation or flying on stage. It also seems that there was no attempt to hide the method used from the audience and the extent of its use in ancient Greek drama is debatable. It is supposed that the audience’s attitude may have quickly become somewhat jaded towards its use or possible overuse and Aristophanes made fun of the device in his comedy Peace as a reference to its use in Euripides’ play Bellerophon.

It is interesting to note that in its early phase of use the mechane was a novelty. Its use was mostly at the end of a play as part of the denouement to the story. Some modern commentators view its use as a means of resolving matters when the writer had put a character in a sticky situation and did not know how to extricate him from it. However another view by Oliver Taplin, which reads the texts more carefully, shows that the main issues raised in the plays are concluded prior to the appearance of any use of the theos apo mechanes. It is therefore possible that for its early use, it provided a spectacle as a grand finale to a play.

This possibility has not been given as much discussion as perhaps it deserves. The reason is that mentions of the mechane in near or post contemporary writings are negative but we should bear in mind that they were written when its use and function had lost its popularity and it had become a theatrical cliché.

Modern performers face a similar dilemma regarding stage effects or even magic effects. Way back in 1994 David Copperfield performed at Earl’s Court in London and part of the act was him ‘flying.’ This might not sound a big deal because most magicians can perform levitation tricks of one sort or another. The thinktank behind Copperfield’s act added a bit extra. In an age when most audiences can speculate as to how a levitation trick might be done, Copperfield got into a large clear Perspex cabinet, had the lid put on and then floated inside the cabinet.

It was a touch used to confound those who thought they had correctly surmised the method behind it all. It was an important touch in an age when audiences know quite a bit about the workings of magical performances - because without a moment of that feeling of ‘okay, I’m not sure how that was done’ an illusion is not only not much of an illusion but the word magic loses its lustre in connection with it. If the method was made obvious or explained during the performance then a great deal of the entertainment value would be diminished or more probably simply cease to exist. It would be no more entertaining than watching someone swing across the stage on a thick rope like Tarzan and daring to call it magic or interesting. Who would go to see the next performance? That is a question that is to be asked of the ancient Greek mechane.

When the mechane was first used at the end of a tragedy, despite all its workings being on display, it was probably a surprise and a wonder for the audience. The same might not be able to be said after the same ancient Athenian audience had seen a whole load of plays end with the same spectacle over a few days during the annual dramatic festival. Oliver Taplin suggests that in the early use of the mechane most of the device was in plain view of the audience because a skene (a background building used as scenery) may not yet have been built. The moment the audience saw what we would call stagehands start to work the mechane, they would know what was coming. It would be as enjoyable as going to a three or four day dramatic festival of whodunits where in every single play ‘the butler did it.’

If it had been possible to add some mystery to how the mechane worked, rather like in modern magical acts which also continually reinvent the presentation of levitation, it may have maintained a better reputation for longer in relation to ancient Greek drama. It was impossible to do so however. The Greek dramatic festivals were a sort of community project. There were no professional actors. Each year, ordinary Athenian citizens were chosen to participate in staging the plays. There was no opportunity for professional secrets and there was no attempt to hide the mechane or its workings.

While the mechane was no mystery to ancient Athenians, it has provided a mystery for modern scholars. Apart from the debate on when and if the mechane was actually used in this or that play, a bigger puzzle is the design of the mechane itself. Modern works on the subject describe it as a wooden crane with a system of pulleys. It is not entirely a satisfactory suggestion (based on details from writers from after the period in question). I have not read of any modern engineering recreation which achieves the feats the mechane may have been used for in some plays – such as lifting a chorus of twelve to fifteen people into the air (a weight of about one ton) and swinging them onto the performance area, a horse being presented as the flying Pegasus, a chariot with riders, Medea in a chariot pulled by two dragons and so on.

I do not know for sure, but the puzzle of how the mechane would achieve such feats without breaking could be what inspires scholars to prefer interpretations of the ancient Greek theatre that do not involve the use of the mechane – hence the debate on when and if the mechane was actually used in this or that play. For me, that shows the mechane had potential for use in mystifying an audience. After all, consider the position that modern scholars are in; they have had the end effect described to them, the performance, but are at a loss to be specific about the method and the mechanism used. Saying a wooden crane with pulleys was involved is as vague as saying that you can build a cabinet by sawing wood or saying that a card trick is done by sleight of hand. It does not really tell you how it is done.

We are therefore not in a position to truly gauge its limitations in a useful way. We cannot, based on our present day designs of a wooden crane with pulleys as interpretations of a mechane, believe that a mechane could lift and move over a ton in weight (a chorus of fifteen people). However, I am not aware of the suggestion having been put forward of three mechane lifting five people each. Or five mechane lifting three people each. Or that the modern designs put forward for the mechane may not have any resemblance to the ancient mechane, which may have been able to lift and move a tad more weight than ours. It is one levitation trick where the real secret, the design of the mechane, was and remains known only to ancient Greek theatres and their audiences.

[Here are the books which helped inspire the above discussion: The Greek Theater and its Drama by Roy C. Flickinger, The Theatre of Dionysus in Athens by A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens by A. Pickard-Cambridge, Greek Scenic Conventions in the Fifth Century BC by Peter Arnott, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus by Oliver Taplin.]

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