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Seeing Things: literature and the visual

Peter Vernon

Seeing Things and Being Seen: Distorted Scopic Regimes in Some Modern Plays

Ewa Keblowska-Lawniczak

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1A belief in the nobility of sight constitutes one of the most powerful myths of Western philosophy and culture. The dominant scholarly reception of the Hellenic heritage provided further arguments for the recognition of the hegemonic visual angle. The persistent conviction that the master sense is associated with the eye stands in opposition to the Hebraic privilege granted to the ear and the modern hierarchy of senses placing sight behind hearing and touch (Jay, 1994, 34-35). The Hellenic philosophical tradition marked its influence also on the Christian doctrine which resulted in what modern media studies call transcodification of references from the aural code into those of the visual and hence the Gospel of Saint John says, "God is Light" The use of light in medieval and later sacred art, notably architecture, has been extensively researched. The Cartesian verdict raising sight to" the most comprehensive and the noblest "not only confirmed its dominant position but also pointed to the ensuing implications spelled out by the philosopher himself, "there is no doubt that the inventions which serve to augment its [the eye’s] power are among the most useful that there can be" (Descartes, 1965, 65). To conclude, the primacy of the eye finds support in both sacred and profane sanctions: in religion, culture and politics. Sight becomes an equivalent of knowledge, power and authority to the extent that blindness, the prerogative of prophetic figures, is often interpreted as an alternative sight, the eye of the mind or of the gods, or other metastructures.

2The rule of the eye produces a definite scopic regime or regimes within which the viewer and the object viewing are involved, and their positions are defined optically, aesthetically and politically. Thus, historically, the changing shape of theatres and their auditoria corresponds to the alternative scopic regimes. To the spectacles visually most appealing belong the seventeenth-century masks of Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones. Their popularity infected numerous royal courts, resulting in imperial, Roman-like shows involving sea battles and fireworks. Although music, beside the most sophisticated visual effects, was essential in those shows, the acoustics of the actual theatre interiors did not correspond to the correct point of sight where the emperor was seated. The careful positioning of the noblest viewer reveals that preference was given to ocularcentrism, with emphasis on perfect visuality rather than on accurate reception of the text. Moreover, the coherent employment of Albertian perspective required a precise and highly restrictive usage of the scopic regime so that a single spectator would be privileged. This organisation of the auditorium, a cultural cognitive map, for which the king remains in the centre, suppresses the preceding medieval polyvalence related, among other things, to the tradition of simultaneous setting preserved in several Elizabethan plays for example, those of John Lyly. Modern theatre interiors often allow for spatial and hence scopic experiments. Suspending the great divide of the moat and the tradition of box theatres, directors readily erase subsequent architectonic inside/outside frames of the foyer, of the theatre building, the garden or park, and transplant theatre productions into entirely different spatial realities of malls, factories or prisons.

3It is not indispensable, however, to provide a production with extreme staging conditions in order to expose the audience to a new scopic organization. David Carrier distinguishes four established structural relationships between the beholder and the work of art, which function independently of the interior hosting the actual artefact (Carrier, 1986, 6). The first type of relationship sets the onlooker before the work, offering to the spectator a position outside, which Michael Ann Holly associates with the Western idea of knowledge and taking up a position "on the outside, to be something other" (Holly, 1995, 82). Paradoxically, an extension of the Albertian concept may result in an embodiment of the observer’s gaze within the network of the scopic regime and raise a claim that his/her knowledge (and reflection on the system) is prefigured by the system itself The second relationship distinguished by Carrier assumes that the beholder sees the work and the work looks back, so that both agents engage in an endless exchange not knowing whether they are seen or seeing and, finally, observe themselves being observed by the artist. Numerous analyses of Edouard Manet’s Olympia and Las Meninas of Velasquez point to this system. A case of particular interest to the present study is René Magritte’s False Mirror in which the floating eye turns upon the viewer, the rival "I", changing the beholder into representation (Holly, 1995, 85). In addition, the work of art may still (type three) absorb the spectator and (type four) elide the observer whereby both modes erase any vestige of the artist’s or onlooker’s presence. Only the first option strives to preserve the otherness of the beholder, maintaining its pseudoneutral stance-the remaining structures reveal a politics of vision. The four variants, described by Carrier and Holly, assume a relative stability of the beholder. Therefore, this generally static taxonomy might be appended by a case of temporalized viewing, forcing the beholder to change his position by walking and assuming a variety of viewing angles deprived of the universality and authority associated with the immobilized gaze. This option admits, more readily, textuality to compliment the visual appreciation of an artefact or theatrical production.

4By analogy to the legitimising verbal grand narrative one may propound a rival but corresponding metadiscourse of the visual, technically related to Alberti’s concept and Carrier’s first proposition. The dissolution of this "grand narrative" would involve questions concerning liminal visuality and the hyperreal with a mapping that precedes the territory as well as rudimentary endeavours to place the viewer before, on the boundary of, or within the artefact. In this context visual imagery, even if orally transmitted, may take part in constructing a scopic regime, a setting-actual or imagined-which is no longer a backdrop but a theatrical landscape, a cultural pattern which either follows the visual grand narrative or dislocates the hitherto respected boundaries of foreground/background, visual/aural coding, human/nonhuman, of character as essence or pattern. Such true "landscaping" of the theatre leads, according to Elinor Fuchs, to a new allegorisis of postmodern "conceptual" performance where the spectators must leave the comfortable position of the other, become intellectual interpreters and even physical organizers and participants (Fuchs, 50).

  • 1 Originally, the present paper included also references to The Invention of Love. However, brevity b (...)

5The following part of the present study will focus on four plays written by Tom Stoppard over a considerable period of time but exemplifying the various types in which visuality becomes meaningful as a subject participating in the discussion on, or within, the discourse which Martin Jay describes as the denigration of vision in twentieth-century philosophy. The first play to be considered is Artist Descending a Staircase, a radio play, first transmitted in 1972. However odd it may appear to open a discussion on visuality with a radio play, the comedy thematically dramatises the dilemmas of ocularcentrism and their ensuing consequences. After Magritte, performed two years earlier, does not provide such a comprehensive survey of the problematics but focuses instead on the coexistence of tangential worlds governed by different principles affecting visuality. For both plays an introduction is provided by the cover of La Révolution surréaliste, nol5 with a photomontage of Magritte’s painting framed by portraits of the Surrealists with closed eyes. Arcadia (1993) is a mental landscape play that, despite experiments, needs no real park to attain the effect of its palimpsestic structure and dislocated viewers.1

6The Artist commences a series of flashbacks with a peculiar tableau pointing to the liminality of senses, both visual and aural. The metatheatricality of a tableau or dumb show normally consists in constructing a difference discernible in coding. Excluding the aural and retaining the visual effectuates a clear sense of distance. A radio play, with its narrowed spectrum of coding, has limited choice between sound and silence. And so the ideal Beauchamp construes for his art is clearly liminal and consists of layers or loops of silence. This cerebral frame opening and closing the play is contextualized by the palindromic structure in which "here and now" reflects what the inset deems to be ideal and almost attainable. Behind is the history of more or less conservative avant-garde with the dramatically and politically climactic year, 1914. Blind and almost dumb or deaf as the addressed audience, we are left with the sense of touch, smell and taste-a bitter reduction reminiscent of Ben Jonson’s Volpone, or the Fox.

  • 2 All the quotations from Artist Descending the Staircase come from the 1973 edition which includes a (...)

7Most studies of The Artist concentrate on the identity of the Stoppardian characters. At their best, Martello becomes Marcel and Beauchamp is read as Duchamp. However, there is little consistency or proof to corroborate this proposition. On the contrary, there is more of what Marcel calls "will" (The Artist, 15)2 to prevent the proposition from decomposing. Martello, the author of, among other things, the beautiful woman rendered according to the text of the Song of Solomon, the Dalesque scarecrow-like edible sculpture of Sophie and "the Cripple" created in the aftermath of World War I. The last example recalls the fragmented bodies of Hans Bellmer (e.g. La Poupée) and Max Ernst, mentioned in a "decomposed" manner in another part of the play. The association with Duchamp is one of the numerous examples of hypallage. We do not hear what we ought to hear, e. g. a name, and so the critics recognize what we are supposed to hear, visually, in the text. Flashback three (1922) contains further reflections on names where the artists admit that they do not hear their own nicknames but see them (31). However, Sophie’s aural interpretation of "Banjo" is erroneous and in the case of "Mouse" it turns out fatal. For her nicknames should be "touching" (31). One can only wonder about the sense of taste with "Biscuit," Beauchamp’s nickname.

  • 3 Crammer refers to the often quoted writings of Olivier Hourcade, 1912.

8The method of hypallage pervades the whole play and is anchored in Duchamp’s criticism of the Cubist project, by 1912 fixed and immobile in its neo-Kantian pursuit of essential truth. Charles A. Crammer comments on the philosophical futility of their endeavours to define "conception" (1997).3 Rejecting perspective and the falsehood of optics, in their anti-retinal zest, the Cubists find corroboration of the visual in the sense of touch (285-86). The resulting confusion in which "sensible truth" stands for "essence" amounts to philosophical blunder deserving the artist’s ironic laughter. Duchamp expressed his criticism in the composition entitled Why Not Sneeze Rrose Sélavy? In flashback two we hear that Donner is the author of the "Birdcage", a popular nickname for Duchamp’s provocative readymade. Crammer analyses the implied experience of "truth" which follows the Cubist logic: visual perception is not confirmed by tactile experience and thus the two codes prove disjunctive by offering different interpretations. What is more important, according to Crammer, touch corrects the very conceptual error revealing the triviality and traditionally mimetic status of the ceramic cubes and thus the absence of any conception (287).

9The opening analysis of recorded aural material involves several cases of hypallage. Martello’s aural entrance, "coming in" (13), is misinterpreted by Beauchamp, the conceptualist, as physical appearance. Trying to arrive at "essential truth" in the course of his experiments, Beauchamp persistently resorts to other sense-oriented descriptions: "lassoing my material", "trawling" (13), "packing linen into trunks.... Fold, fold" (14). Martello’s offer to "help [...] clear up this mess" is referred to Donner’s body rather than to legal advice and spiritual support (15). Ironically, the most decisively anti-retinal of the three figures proves to show little awareness, except a gnawing but inexplicable dissatisfaction, of the disparity among interpretations offered by particular senses, and thus the immateriality of the concept.

  • 4 Elissa S. Guralnick suggests that the sculpture is more reminiscent of Salvadore Dali's Ruby Lips ( (...)

10The most obviously hypallage-obsessed parts of Stoppard’s comedy are flashbacks two and three. The former includes a reference to the "Birdcage" as well as the scene of tasting the sugar "Venus de Milo" (25) complemented by samples of edible art such as the salty "Le Penseur" and pizza pies raised to the level of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (26). Martello’s dream amounts to a unique juxtaposition: "And not just classical!-your own pieces, reproduced indelibly yet edibly" (26). The edible bust of Sophie, with the exception of artificial pearl-like teeth, closes the list.4 This almost exclusively anti-retinal art is to be tasted and, literally, consumed. For his art, Martello demands respect, status, as well as classical permanence ("indelible") and universality but, at the same time, defines reception as a decomposing, digestive process. "Beauty will be edible or it will be not" is Salvador Dali’s travesty of André Breton’s declaration. However, Dali associated the creative process-not the reception-with the digestive, ingestion, consumption and excretion (Cf. Spector, 1997, 115). Thus the noble sense of sight both for the artist and the beholder is replaced by sensations, whatever they might be, coming from the guts.

  • 5 The spheres are seen as separate indeed, but there is also speculation on the supposed damage of th (...)

11The blind Sophie extensively employs the complexities of hypallage reading. Deprived of sight, she resorts to the remaining senses, epitomizing, as it were, the muse of anti-retinal art par-excellence. She insists on sitting on the "look-out" at the window in order to hear what is going on in the street. She hears the texture and quality of cloth (serge) and distinguishes the cornflower by its smell (30). Sunshine is either an idea to be thought about or accessible as a touch on her face (31). As in Duchamp’s ironic "Birdcage" the Cubist theory fails to reveal the essence of objects (the truth), providing access to fragmentary knowledge only. The immobile Sophie errs totally more than once: first, her individual embodied sight proves deceptive in recognizing the beloved artist, as the institution of star-crossed lovers belongs to the past; second, she does not hear Mouse’s exit and her attempt to move ends fatally. Sophie’s persistent use of transcoding the pictorial hypallage, tempts her to leave the hitherto occupied position on the look-out, by the Cartesian window beyond which things happen, letting her remain a safe beholder, the other. Defenestration shatters the pane and destroys Sophie’s audience-like prerogatives. In The Large Glass (by Duchamp) entitled The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelor, even (1915-23) the spheres of the bride and the bachelors are separate.5 The Bride’s (also Sophie’s) movement destroys the Glass composition by adding the following snapshot to the temporal photographic succession.

12A major discussion on ocularcentric versus anti-retinal art, including the respective scopic regimes they sponsor, concentrates around Donner, the diseased artist, supposedly murdered by Martello, the scandalizer and mental acrobat (16). For Beauchamp, Martello’s crime, although too realistic and melodramatic, is justifiable on artistic grounds as another "scandal" (16), which calls for further explanation. Donner’s "deescalation" (51) parallels Sophie’s "defenestration" and refers the audience to Duchamp’s famous Nude Descending the Staircase. The artistic justification of both deaths is double. On the one hand, it is a farewell to the Artist and Art as defined within the ocularcentric scopic regime-presumably Academic-but it is also the birth of a new artistic order on the other. The scandalous Nude brings the Academic art of the act off the pedestal by undermining several principles. The hitherto immobile, posed and screened nakedness presented to the students’s gaze as an object of artistic imitation, appears, now, in a series of photographic multiangular snapshots introducing movement, not posed, and stripping off-stage, as it were, and therefore obscene.

  • 6 The cognitive exercise concerns the essence of the object, the truth and not merely external likene (...)

13Donner is an artist consciously representing the universal, classical ideal of art and therefore, Leonardo-like, he is overwhelmed by his life’s work, the truly academic portrait of Sophie, which is a cognitive exercise at the same time.6 His death, however ludicrous, follows the completion of his work and is caused by Donner’s attempt to save the impeccable artistic silence of Beauchamp’s loops. The closing quotation - "As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods: they kill us for their sport" (54)-referring us to the world of King Lear, confirms the artistic justification of Donner’s death. The Gods are the new artists with their world of game and hazard, and absence of divine sanction or providential protection. The new art turns the decomposing body of the diseased artist into a readymade, supposedly of Martello’s making, i. e. an object transposed from the continuum of reality into the fixed condition of the art-image by a moment of isolation, or selection or an object isolated "within the succession of temporality" (Krauss, 1987, 205-206). It is the dialogue between Martello and Beauchamp that transforms their companion into this readymade so that the justification of its newly artistic, dehumanised status relies on the added textual interpretation and is thus anti-retinal. Martin Jay points explicitly to the conscious visual indifference of readymades (Jay, 1989, 161). Donner is then reduced to some mess at the bottom of the staircase in the primarily artistic dialogue of the artist’s flatmates who fail to show any "human" feelings, as if they were inscribed into the bachelor part of the Large Glass.

14Donner’s artistic creed stands in opposition to Beauchamp’s attempts to liberate the visual image from the limitations of visual art (36) and to Martello’s fear of naturalism potentially fettering the painter’s imagination. The cerebral sophistication advocated by Beauchamp amounts to "rubbish" (19), "a small intellectual idea, the kind of notion that might occur to a man in his bath and be forgotten in the business of drying between his toes" (19-20). Indeed, Marcel Duchamp, explicitly and in his artistic provocations, expressed doubts in the philosophical value of the Cubists’ statements. The avant-garde is for Donner "that child’s garden of easy victories" (19), an early stage in every individual’s maturation process. He is engaged in the challenging task of rendering "what the eye sees" (19). The monocular perspective of the disembodied eye embraces and locates the artist who participates in transcendental visuality grossly misinterpreted by the anti-retinal experiments: "Well, I have never seen a naked woman sitting about a garden with a unicorn eating the roses" (Beauchamp’s remark, 19).

15P. Adams Sitney associates fading away allusions to Greek mythology (Venus de Milo) and their replacement by invocations of Romantic and Germanic vestiges with the growing importance of visuality in modernism. Unicorns and a pixie appear instead of the Phoenix and the Styx (Sitney, 1990, 10). The woman with the unicorn is found in myths, but her most famous rendering is at Cluny where the fabulous cycle of tapestries entitled A Mon Seul Désir depicts the beloved lady with a unicorn and celebrates sensuality in all its six shapes. Stoppard’s play mentions the Pre-Raphaelites whose interest in medieval aesthetics, especially colour, is a commonplace. The modernist desire for a Gesamtkunstwerk of sensuality is inscribed in the artist’s name and tastes. Donner is the god of thunder and lightening from the Wagnerian The Ring of the Nibelung music drama whose fourth part bears the title The Descent of the Gods and the whole of the operatic project is often associated with the introduction of electric light-unlimited visuality-into theatre houses. Like Wilhelm Richard Wagner’s, Donner’s favourite music, which he keeps whistling to Beauchamp’s detriment, is Ludwig van Beethoven’s fifth symphony (15). The The Ring of the Nibelung spectacle finds inspiration in the sixth, seventh and ninth symphonies.

16The ocularcentric and anti-retinal art addresses different audiences. Donner’s art is for "Everyman [...] because every man is an initiate of that particular mystery" (20) while Beauchamp’s initiates form a less universal and therefore less numerous club. Still, by analogy, they demand faith and divine standards (24). The ocularcentric audience has definite expectations and demands "certain kinds of insight" (20) the artist considers his duty to capture. The "new gods" of art find their primary task in the commercial need to "capture the radio station" (20). Their art requires launching and other prosthetic, also textual, frames justifying its opacity with artistic bent (21), rather than the God-given talent demanding no explanation. Despite the use of hypailage and the theme of artistic experiment, Tom Stoppard’s play proves to be a relatively pure radio play. It starts with Donner’s death, marking the end of academic art and the transparency of the ocularcentric. However, instead of going foreward it moves backwards withdrawing from the potential challenge of implementing an entirely new scopic regime. Which of the senses is the audience supposed to apply in order to appreciate Beauchamp’s art? Perhaps the beholder should investigate the concept itself, the idea Stoppard borrows from Beauchamp’s "eluding" (20) the public, i.e. escaping it by the use of a trick.. Carrier as the fourth, non-Albertian, variant, which promotes the elision of the spectators’ presence, defines this idea itself. The private, not public, status of radio drama enhances the option in which listening is like eavesdropping or looking over somebody’s shoulder. Both options, as in Duchamp’s experiments, dislocate the privileged and masterly position of the audience.

17Another play showing Stoppard’s engagement in visual, and thus philosophical and aesthetic issues, is After Magritte. The very title of this comedy (or farce) acknowledges the author’s indebtedness to the painter whose London (1969) exhibition, appended with Suzi Gablik’s Catalogue (Gablik, 1969), precedes the theatrical project. As noticed by Keir Elam, the "after" has also a purely chronological sense within the play where the Harrises’ visit to the exhibition of Magritte’s art "contaminates" their perception (Elam, 1984, 471). Moreover, the play is crowded with objects borrowed from Magritte’s paintings: the ironing board, the man in waders, voyeurs looking into rooms, bowler hats, apples, tubas, etc. Harris adds even the lexical item inscribing his full name on a dusty lamp shade (13) saying, as it were, "This is (not) Reginald William Harris" and, indeed, the signature becomes the object of the teacher-inspector Foot’s investigation (25). Iconographically, "after" is more than a pseudo-quotation and suggests similitude.

18Discussing the visual regime of After Magritte, it is necessary to resort to the two key terms of similitude and resemblance, as they seem to account for the puzzling visual effects in which Stoppard’s play shares. The term similitude appears in Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things and is then used in his 1982 essay on Magritte, This Is Not a Pipe, although the author himself hesitated as to its adequacy suggesting "similarity" and "likeness" as more precise concepts (Foucault, 1982, 6). The example of The Human Condition with the overflowing canvas erases the difference between the inner and the outer. With the anchoring reference gone, lost also is the dichotomy between illusion and reality, copy and model, signifier and signified, language and image. This collapse enhances the circulation of simulacra, twin and almost twin images which Lisa K. Lipinski believes to proliferate in Magritte’s art rhizomatically (Lipinski, 1995, 219). Stoppard’s carefully staged opening scene provides a collage of simulacra, twin images with their halfbrothers and half-sisters in Magritte’s canvases found in the exhibition hall and not in any "reality". The twins develop in a series, having neither beginning nor end, easily followed in one direction or another, obeying no hierarchy and propagating from small differences (Cf. Lipinski, 1995, 225). Electric bulbs which travel from the central lamp to the table lamp, and to the bathroom until they are indistinguishable, govern the movement of the opening and meet with the "gaze" (10) and "starring" (15) of the police constable Holmes whose position is most marginal and therefore it is to him, first of all, that the spectacle appears "bizarre" (24). For those involved the activities are performed in a matter-of-fact manner, which includes the later use of Harris as a mannequin, one of the surrealist props (39 ff.): "Harris: The activities in this room today have, broadly speaking, been of mundane and domestic nature bordering on a cliché. Police Constable Holmes obviously has an imagination as fervid and treacherous as your own" (44, my emphasis). In the context of the exhibition it is not original. Indeed, surrealism is rather repetitive, forming strings of images and words where either the pictorial or the linguistic, without significant distinction, becomes their basis: (1) turtle, mandolin, crocodile leather bag, bagpipes and gourd; (2) plug, pluck; (3) yashmak, shaving foam, beard etc. Similitude prevents the construction of any hierarchy, either linguistic or visual, and thus encourages intra-pictorial focus.

19The second term, resemblance, is more problematic, especially when formulated by Foucault, if judged on the basis of his unfinished correspondence with Magritte (Jay, 1986, 175-204). Levi Silvano, pointing to an interpretative divergence between the painter and the philosopher, defines Magritte’s concept of resemblance as an "intervention of deliberate ideation" where "the mind does not just respond to an extant relationship [...] but operates as the motive force which is responsible for bringing about a state of relatedness". Ideation then becomes a process of "objectifying a correlativity instilled into otherwise monadic phenomena by analytical and subjective gaze" (Silvano, 1990, 53). In opposition to Foucault’s resemblance producing copies, Magritte’s broadens the spectrum of visibility and visuality by adding a tangential vision-a contingent visualisation whose ambition was to produce what Silvano calls l’ordre de la ressemblance effectuating in an unforeseen organisation of the familiar world (Silvano, 1990, 54). Having visited the exhibition, the Harrises feel liberated from the conventional cognisance governed by history, language and status and, their spontaneous lucidity liberated, they revalue and reorganise the surrounding, accidentally encountered, phenomena. Each of them, using their "subjective analytical gaze", concocts a different post-Magrittian image, a genuine simulacrum of what Tom Stoppard, the author, initiated, overwhelmed by the same after-Magritte syndrome. The reports of individual members of the family, all of them being eye-witnesses, are contingent, tangential visions. Thelma sees a young, crippled footballer with a yashmack or shaving foam on his face, dressed in a West Bromwich Albion football shirt. He is holding a football or bagpipes under one arm and an ivory cane in the other hand. Harris produces the vision of a bearded blind chap-possibly a "street arab" - in striped pyjamas with a tortoise (a lute or a mandolin) under his arm. The Mother is waved good-bye by an individual playing hopscotch and dressed in a loose-fitting gabardine of a convicted fellow with a surgical mask and dark glasses, carrying a cricket bat and a handbag. Inspector Foot’s witness gives evidence to some criminal presence embodied by the inspector himself. Finally, it is revealed that the criminal model, the reference, does not exist and Foot acknowledges that in his vision of robbery he "overreached" himself in the circumstances (43) since no robbery, such as the one logically deduced, has ever taken place. Neither is there such a minstrel troupe performing at any theatre. In producing his tangential vision Inspector Foot creates a coherent cause-effect-obsessed story without reference-neither beginning nor ending. Following the suggestion of other visionaries the Inspector is surveying himself: "Harris: [...] You wish to inspect your foot, Inspector?"(43) But even in the final monologue of anagnorisis he finds it difficult to admit that balance is possible without "seeing" (44).

20The closing tableau absorbs him into another Magrittian composition where he stands bare-foot, with sunglasses on, eating a banana. Ponsonby Place, where Foot and his first witness live and the Harrises park their car before they visit the exhibition, turns out to be a magic and contagious place affecting everybody’s visuality. Vision as a sign of empiricism or rationality is carefully eliminated throughout the play. Gazing (14), methodical and eagle-eyed (28), seeing with one's own eyes (19) and a desire for photographic rendering (21) as discovery of truth prove futile. The reasonable (18) leap unavoidably to hasty conclusions; probability is reduced to nonsense finding the best documented likeness between a football and a Christmas pudding or Whitaker’s Almanac (19). Foot’s exegesis, a reconstruction based on the evidence of an eye-witness, provides an example of perfect logic leading to surreal visuality. Both Lipinski and Foucault agree that Magritte leaves the viewer in a quandary where the observer cannot distinguish between words and images as neither is given priority and therefore prevents the beholder from being both an authoritative reader and a viewer (Foucault, 1982, 37; Lipinski, 220). For Foucault "the old pyramid of perspective is no more than a molehill about to cave in."(Foucault, 1982, 37). The addressed audience are the former visitors to Magritte’s exhibition, familiar with The Mirror of the World, where the beholder is absorbed into the canvas by the reversed perspective and thus his privileged otherness is shattered. The eye of Police Constable Holmes absorbs the theatre audience and encourages producing their own analytic, tangible visions. To conclude, the bizarre show both on stage and off-stage, and in the audience becomes "representation" without referent. Being seen transforms the audience into simulacra.

21Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, a later and visually complex comedy of ideas, excels in creating a landscape collage by juxtaposing fragments from various garden studies. These dispersed descriptions account for diverse ideas, concepts and controversies personified by the gardens themselves. Inevitably, these references lead to further textual and visual layers such as the Horatian tradition, mythology, specific paintings as well as impressions and real or fake sketches brought from travels. Finding and uncovering buried designs is sponsored by archaeological and scholarly pursuits while the architectural, mechanical and scientific endeavours attempt to impose, give measure and decisiveness. Following the proposition of J. Hillis Miller, such a landscape can become a "generative prosopopoeia"(Miller, 1995, 25) not only for the epic but also for drama and theatre. If landscape is treated as such a complex generative rhetorical figure, its characters become also figures borrowing or arising from this linguistic and visual construct. The landscape so defined is no longer subservient in relation to character, i. e. it does not function as a backdrop in the process of establishing their selfhood. This is definitely not in line with the Aristotelian hierarchy. The common thingness of landscapes and plays effaces any sense of contradiction between nature and culture, stationary features and human figures, or visual phenomena and language (Fuchs, 94). Such a rhizomatic arrangement of words and images is present already in Magritte’s art and, here, the annihilation of traditional oppositions encourages a different mode of viewing, a dispersed scopic regime.

22Performing landscape entails what Fuchs calls a "landscape response". The concept seems intelligible when applied to Barrie Wexler’s Tamara where the consumerist visual regime totally reorganises the physical staging conditions. The literally mobile spectatorship is entirely diffused and the Cartesian subject non-existent. The scene, comparable to a shopping facility, becomes multifocal. The darting, diffuse and heterogeneous gaze is fragmented by being allotted to individual consumers whose aleatory discoveries lead them from one "department" to another. The distance /difference between stage and audience is collapsed and neither the eye nor the ear is able to embrace the landscape-like mise-en-scène. Although most productions of Arcadia do not encourage physical mobility on the part of the audience the play does engender a new, diffused, scopic regime.

23In the course of watching the play we discover that new designs, replacing the original Italian garden, undermine the commonplace seventeenth-century association of knowledge with vision. The unity of the Seeing Eye and the Seeing Intellect, questioned earlier by Descartes, undergoes a final split. And thus the spectator enters a room whose eyeswindows are already blind and even the single, open French window is metaphorically obscured (Stoppard, 1993,16). Chloe’s assuring "I bet" is dissociated from "I see". Moreover, if one analyses the location of hermitages, according to contemporary designs, the marquee becomes a poor excuse. The house does not comply with the designs favoured by politically-oriented residences. Therefore the foreground for viewers disappears and so does the centrally placed window customarily overlooking the central alley or the avenue terminated in an obelisk or other "eye-trap". The long-ranging perspective inspected by the immobile eye is now blinded and short-sightedness becomes a privilege. By defining Croome Court or Sidley Park as a typically English park of the time Stoppard provokes the spectator to assume this generalising longdistance perspective just to "watch" the audience stumble over this surprise. The relation between the house and the landscape the playwright ushers appears to follow Richard Payne Knight’s suggestions from the 1805 Inquiry, rather than from the earlier The Landscape (1794), where he resolved that "few persons ever look for compositions when within doors. It is in walks or rides through parks, gardens or pleasure grounds that they are allowed to and become subjects of conversation" (Hussey, 1927, 181). And as Christopher Hussey notes in his early study on the picturesque: "Consequently, the seating of the house in the landscape became more important than framing of the landscape from the house. To make a house a picturesque adjunct to a scene became the chief object of architecture and gardening" (Hussey, 1927, 181). Thus Chloe’s inability to see the hermitage from ‘here’ is a more important anticipatory message then just a temporarily installed obstacle of the marquee which is more likely to afflict with blindness the spectators and unaware visitors, like Bernhard Nightingale. The subsequent alterations of the park reverse the hitherto functioning scopic regime.

24Arcadias landscape problematizes the "correct" place of viewing as defined in terms of linear perspective theory. Eighteenth century criticism itself does not question the theory of perspective (DeBolla, 1989a, 187). Therefore the disruptive statements the spectators discover in Stoppard’s comedy derive partly from the palindromic walks into the twentieth century where the new physics and computer science provide markers of further change. The late eighteenth-century confusion derives from aesthetic theory rather than science, even if the two appear in Stoppard’s play as interrelated. Consequently, the curtained windows at Croome Court do not openly challenge mathematical rules but their blindness prevents from establishing the true Point of Sight both the figures already in landscape and the spectators who enter the landscape. The trope based on the Albertian scheme claims that the best plane of representation is transparent and compared to "a window through which the viewer looks on to the real world." (DeBolla, 1989a, 195). The result the artist/viewer attains is a framed landscape with firm boundaries R.P. Knight rejects in his Inquiry and Stoppard in his landscape play. The disappearance of the former Point of Sight suspends the theory legislating both the acts of viewing and the position of the viewer.

25Perspective restricts the viewing subject to the proper place by defining the authorised position, i.e. socially accepted, as well as authorial, which implies participation in the author’s insights and authority. Both positions exclude private viewing. A character seated in the correct viewing point becomes the privileged although limited focaliser the spectators can trust or whose position they can assume themselves. Evidently, Chloe is not a privileged focaliser, the subject, and her pastoral name denotes the short-sightedness of a textual shepherdess figure placed in the already picturesque landscape. In order to see anything, Chloe has to move, temporalising thus the viewing experience by walking (DeBolla, 1989a, 207), a procedure advertised also by R.P. Knight. The requirement of taking a walk leads to truly polyvalent points of view (DeBolla, 1989b, 198), and a plurality of relations between the viewing subject and the object of sight, no longer supervised by the general perspectival legislature. As opposed to the playful but precisely rule-governed anamorphosis, true polyvalence leads further on to a liberation and privatisation of the viewing experience.

26The liberation of viewing derives from the growing impact of the variously motivated and defined concept of the "private" on garden and architecture. Privacy renders the function of representation with its concomitant openness and a perspective-oriented garden type redundant. The domain remains open to the owner. With the liberation from controlled visuality, the new mode of viewing and visiting requires a guide either in the form of the Switzers employed in Wörlitz (1794) or a printed Ambulator, i.e. a text.

27The new protocols of seeing, i. e. reading the landscape, are revealed to the theatrical spectators from the very beginning. The grand narrative lost, the garden and the play offer a palimpsest of viewpoints, a collection of things/inscriptions turning the place into a museum "brought home in the luggage from the grand tour" (25). Hence the collection comprises a "landskip" architect, views stolen from the paintings of Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin, Salvator Rosa’s renderings of Italian landscapes, Mrs Ann Radcliffe’s and Horace Walpole’s, as well as Virgil’s, literary landscapes. With the play unfolding, the collection grows both off-and on-stage with the table displaying more and more objects relating both to the past and to the present. Apart from paintings and literary works, the collection includes also follies. Lady Croom’s remark on the lesson in folly being worth two in wisdom, which precedes the discussion of landscape improvements, anticipates her regret concerning the loss of the gazebo whose original function was to provide a place from where one could see and look at the view. This point of correct and beautiful sight allowed for the gaze, the long and steady look of the immobile eye constituting the landscape. For these particular reasons the gazebo is the first pavilion to be affected by Mr Noakes’ improvements. Thomasina announces the change: ‘Mrs Chater was discovered in carnal embrace in the gazebo’: the enunciation betrays genuine surprise and according to Septimus is simply "absurd" (2). The absurdity consists in the fact that the point of correct sight becomes the object of viewing in the manner the country house becomes an adjunct to the picturesque landscape. Mr Noakes, here obviously the voyeur and not the authorised visionary, sees the pair through his spyglass while taking measurements in the garden. The irreversibility of changes in visuality is confirmed by the later discovery of Lady Croom and Lord Byron in the gazebo-at this point no longer a surprise (36). The unauthorised or even illicit character of Noakes’s voyeuristic activity is emphasised by his use of the spyglass, a small telescope. Finally, the hermitage, replacing the gazebo, signals a total reversal of visual relations.

28The eighteenth-century idea of landscape as literary text is originally Brownian. Hannah More’s letter provides an accurate illustration of this peculiar bend: "He told me he compared his art to literary composition. Now there, said he [...] I make a comma, and there, pointing to another part [...] a parenthesis-now a full stop, and then I begin another subject" (Hussey, 138). Thus looking and reading become an inseparable aspect of late eighteenth-century art of landscaping and so they share the cultural, social and physical environments distinguished by the landscape garden, the country house and the exhibition of pictures (DeBolla, 1998a, 282). Stoppard borrows this eighteenth-century concept of landscape and introduces it to his twentieth-century theatre inducing the spectators to accept the proposed scopic and textual field.

29The palimpsest-like scopic regime introduced by Tom Stoppard into his Arcadia suspends the once dominant protocols of ocularcentrism and perspectival unity by introducing catoptric visuality, a combination of gaze and glance, placing both actors, figures personifying the textualized landscape, and spectators on the stage, within the premises of the constituted mental mapping, in the double roles of those who see/watch and are seen/watched. The garden-in-process invites actors/spectators as enfranchised interpreters walking with the Ambulator/Programme, almost an exemplary spectator and guide for the eye. Perception in Arcadia consists in watching and reading in our private compendium of the recalled text the landscape evokes. No public reading/guiding focaliser is provided by the landscape itself. Even the author secures a place for himself within the premises of the garden.

  • 7 The subject of a comically decomposing character appears rather early in a radio play The Dissoluti (...)

30The crisis of ocularcentrism with its ensuing consequences, often perceived as forms of distortion, and the rise of new post-perspective viewing protocols provide the subject of Tom Stoppard’s comedies of ideas. The Artist commences the discussion concerning avant-garde concepts and endeavours, whose goal is the liberation of visuality from its supposed post-Cartesian and Albertian constraints. Within the limitations of the Cubists’ statements, the play mobilises the viewing point or points, none being the "correct", of the beholder and the artist, which turns out metaphorically and artistically suicidal, especially when referred to the still present (nostalgically recalled by Donner) ocularcentric scopic regime. As opposed to the dislocating and eliding scopic experiments of the early radio play, After Magritte introduces a visual regime undermining the autonomy of the viewer and the artist by questioning the referentiality of art in general. Such an annihilation of conceptual barriers between audience and stage, this prevailingly intra-pictorial organisation to be fully developed in Arcadia, enhances the physically and/or mentally constructed landscape play whose idiom shows preference for patterns, rather than characters, and imposes subjective taste and pleasure-oriented mobility on the viewer. Engaged in looking and compulsory reading, the beholder, inflicted with shortsightedness, becomes a visitor to the labyrinthine museum of texts and images. This leads to a dissolution of subjectivity7 and thus to the final decomposition of the ocularcentric character concept, now promoting patterns and posing, which dislocates the only remaining certainty, i. e. the subjective integrity of the focalising viewer.


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1 Originally, the present paper included also references to The Invention of Love. However, brevity being virtue, these were removed. In The Invention we watch the decomposition of one of the cornerstones of ocularcentrism, the Western concept of the humanist subject rendered, in visual terms, as a monument to a worthy life.

2 All the quotations from Artist Descending the Staircase come from the 1973 edition which includes also Where Are They Now.

3 Crammer refers to the often quoted writings of Olivier Hourcade, 1912.

4 Elissa S. Guralnick suggests that the sculpture is more reminiscent of Salvadore Dali's Ruby Lips (Guralnick, 1996, 43). However, one might also refer to the mannerist sources, e. g. Arcimboldo, and the fruit portraits.

5 The spheres are seen as separate indeed, but there is also speculation on the supposed damage of the glass, which might have been a purposeful artistic provocation (Cf. Piotrowski, 1996, 151, and Krauss, 1987,203-206).

6 The cognitive exercise concerns the essence of the object, the truth and not merely external likeness. Therefore, Donner finds Beauchamp's remarks on getting the likeness right or the nipples wrong irritating (53).

7 The subject of a comically decomposing character appears rather early in a radio play The Dissolution of Dominic Booti (transmitted in 1964) but a full-blown version of the project materialised much later in The Invention of Love (staged in 1997) where the visual analogues of the (auto) biographical play point to the loss of, as well as desire for, the absent integrity.


Director of Evening Studies and Deputy Director of the English Department at Wroclaw University, Poland.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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