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Making More of Mechane

by John H. Lienhard

Roger, I'll answer your question by telling you about the night I got to watch a dress rehearsal of the Houston Grand Opera's Samson and Delilah. A small army on the main floor was armed with lap boards, soft reading lamps, TV screens, and cameras. I might've been in NASA's mission control.

Young women with head mikes and clipboards, softly cuing and correcting what they saw — a huge communications web still visible. All that would be gone the next evening. Delilah's harsh and pasty makeup in the first scene is put right in the second. Now she's lovely, as the great beehive of cooperative technology whispers under the pianissimos.

In all my life as an engineer, this is as technically dense a world as I've seen. The musical instruments took thousands of years to evolve. Each violin, each flute, is a memorial to untold human ingenuity. The music itself is much more than Saint-Saens's brilliance. It reflects thousands of years or Darwinian selection among tonal systems and rhythmic schemes.

Roger Kaza has talked about how opera has shaped vocal technique, set design, and theatrical devices for centuries. Mathematical acoustics had to evolve for 150 years before it could produce this hall. The communications electronics are state-of-the-art. Over 200 musical athletes and high-level technicians work within it. An NBA game, or a shuttle launch, seems simple by comparison.

Now smoldering Delilah sings to Samson: "My beauty is in vain." Of course it's not vain at all. Samson doesn't have a chance. He's transfixed by her guile. And we're transfixed by the guile, and the passion, of this army working in millisecond precision to tell us how her treachery takes Samson down

Tomorrow, the house will be full. Gone, the shadowy directors, prompters and cables! The audience will be carried up into the wild doomed Temple of Dagon. Tomorrow, only Samson's pain and his dying triumph will remain visible. But when we'd reached that point this evening, I'd completely suspended my disbelief. I'd entirely forgotten that all this magic was man-made.

This wasn't deus ex machina — well, unless you fault the Bible for giving Samson back his strength. This was simply fulfilling the mission of theater, which is to explore ideas through heightened story-telling. But, like movie special effects we have seen it go to the point of overwhelming the story.

In any case, a large branch of the history of technology underlies the path Mechane has travelled from Greece to Inigo Jones to this — and beyond. So let me tell you of another adventure with machinery in theater — another experience with a play in the making. This time it was a technical rehearsal of the Ibsen play, When We Dead Awaken.

It'd been a bad day from the get-go. I'd gotten up on the wrong side of the bed and was not yet ready for one of Ibsen's cold northern dissections of human shortcomings. But this one had a wrinkle. Texas artist Robert Wilson adapted and directed it. And he imposed his own running commentary on both Ibsen and on the human condition.

The play is about an old artist and his young wife. He is frozen emotionally. She craves to live life fully. The artist's old lover, who once inspired his greatest work, shows up. She's now as damaged as he is. An avalanche finally certifies their living death by killing them both (perhaps that was Ibsen's dues ex machina). The young wife happily runs off with a wild man from the mountains.

All that is pure Ibsen. For him, death is the major part of what we call life. Wilson has determined to find his own thread of human redemption in all this. So he poured high tech on Ibsen's angst. If the characters are dead, it's because they'd let themselves become mechanical.

Okay, he makes machines of them. They move like robots. An eerie sound track mocks their clever words. They sit in chairs that move about the stage with their own volition. The chairs are more expressive than Ibsen's dialogue. The set is cold and Nordic — glacial and alpine. The images are overpowering.

Between acts the players come out to do soft-shoe song and dance. They poke fun at life, love, and the pursuit of happiness. By the time we're done, we get the simple message. Art heals. Art sees the beauty — and the humor — that will always mock misery.

The theatre people told us this was the most complex hi-tech production they've ever tried. I believe it. I saw miles of cable, computers, and dozens of technicians handling sound and light boards. It was an adventure in sight and sound. They tinker and adjust the machinery of art. After four hours, they're only half done and I flee into the Houston sunshine. I'm still having trouble with his story of death and loss.

But a real artist doesn't finish working on us in one viewing. Wilson's wild hi-tech images linger: the shimmering wet rocks, a stream made of moving light, the unending flow of unearthly sound. The images play with my own dark mood just as they play with Ibsen's. They remind me that human creativity finds the comedy — even the glory — beneath human unhappiness. Wilson has gleefully turned Ibsen into a work of both art and technology. And he's helped to set us straight along the way.

Just as the play has evolved for two and a half millennia, and opera has evolved for four centuries, hi-technology continues to evolve in its storytelling role. Wilson was a step along the way just as the movie Avatar was — or the movie Metropolis, 82 years before it. Technology feels its way in our theatrical media. And it constantly leaves us richer through its ongoing experiments.


The Samson and Delilah technical rehearsal was done by the Houston Grand Opera in early April of 1990. I saw the technical rehearsal of When From Dead We Waken at the Houston's Alley Theater in mid-May, 1991 Robert Wilson adapted Henrick Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken from an English version by Robert Brustein. The song and dance between acts includes stuff like this:

Love is ...

It's the strangest, the strongest, the shortest the longest
The doggonedest feelin' ever.
It's the greatest, the queerest, the stay-way-come-nearest,
The doggonedest feelin' ever.

Song by Charles "Honi" Coles
(Ibsen had to taste better after Wilson had salted and peppered him so.)

See this article, written in anticipation of Wilson's Alley Theater production of the Ibsen play.