McCready on Shtutin (2019)

Shtutin, Leo. Spatiality and Subjecthood in Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Maeterlinck, and Jarry: Between Page and Stage, Oxford UP, 2019, pp. 266, ISBN 978-0-19-882185-4

Leo Shtutin’s ambitious monograph places Mallarmé, Apollinaire, Maeterlinck, and Jarry in conversation with one another in order “to explore the crises of representation and epistemology that dominate the fin-de-siècle” (193). He argues that, in various ways, these authors all challenged the norms of readership and spectatorship. “The fin-de-siècle,” he writes, “rejects not only the fixed imaginary witness produced by the Renaissance rationalization of perspective, but also its epistemological progeny, Descartes’s unitary, disembodied observer, resulting in a partial enmeshing of subject and space, self and world, spectator and spectacle, somewhat reminiscent … of the medieval period” (10). Using theoretical sources drawn from psychology, anthropology, and film studies, among others, he examines the ways in which his four authors break through the conventions of both page and stage to lay the groundwork for modernist and even post-modern aesthetics.

Shtutin’s contention that Mallarmé and Apollinaire “compel us to acknowledge the corporeality of reading by ‘thickening’ the interface between reader and book, by rendering newly perceptible the very processes of (embodied) readerly perception” (80) is well supported by his analyses of the Calligrammes, Un coup de dés, Igitur, and other poems. His readings of the Ubu plays and Maeterlinck's early one-act plays Les Aveugles, L'Intruse, and Intérieur are equally strong and point out many of the innovations Jarry and Maeterlinck brought to the late nineteenth-century stage. He shows convincingly how Maeterlinck was undermining the conventions of the stage, inching the drama towards the rejection of the dramatic illusion. Jarry, of course, was already there, with a provocatively self-conscious theatricality that sought inspiration from theater's Dionysian rather than Apollonian tradition.

Shtutin makes a convincing case that reading is not merely an intellectual exercise but a bodily practice, and he demonstrates the ways in which Mallarmé and Apollinaire create the conditions in their poems for an experience of reading grounded not in the abstract intellect but in the body of the reader. This is an important insight in itself, without a comparison to theater. Shtutin goes wrong, I think, when he asserts “that reading is no less bodily a process and experience than spectatorship” (4). In order to justify this claim, Shtutin defines theatrical spectatorship very narrowly as late nineteenth century, Naturalist, fourth-wall drama and distort what that mode of spectatorship accomplished. Antoine certainly wished to perfect the dramatic illusion in his Naturalist stage sets and to focus the attention of the spectator on the stage by dimming the houselights and lighting the stage from above. Does it follow that in doing so, his audience became so many sets of floating eyes no longer aware of the bodies to which they were attached? Could we not just as easily argue that darkness and silence in the hall amplifies every cough and fidget, every laugh and every whisper, intensifying the bodily experience of the spectator? Moreover, Shtutin describes a theater that, in my view, does not exist, when he calls it a “carefully regulated, hermetic environment … sealed off from the disorder and unpredictability of the world” (83). In this instance, and others, Shtutin overlooks the presence of the bodies of actors to make his case; the fact that actors' memoirs almost universally include anecdotes about the unpredictability of performance would seem to belie this claim.

Shtutin astutely analyzes the ways in which Maeterlinck and especially Jarry were reacting against the Naturalist stage, and he is right to identify the Naturalist stage as at once the apogee and the swan song of a theater based on the dramatic illusion. But it should also be noted that the Naturalist stage, as conceived by Antoine, was itself a very recent reaction against the limitations of the commercial theater. They explored different aesthetic directions, but Maeterlinck and Jarry's efforts were, in my view, much more a continuation of the art theater movement born at Antoine's Théâtre Libre than a reaction against it.

Shtutin relies heavily on Artaud, who, following Jarry, would reject late nineteenth-century stage conventions, including the dramatic illusion, to pursue his total theater, an experience meant to overwhelm the spectator's senses and in so doing to reconstitute the group of disparate audience members as a community. Shtutin asserts that “the proscenium arch is as much architectural feature as physical manifestation of an epistemology rooted in the assumption that subject and object are separable and autonomous” (3). Artaud's theater certainly seems to support this claim: his abandonment of the proscenium, like everything else in the theater of cruelty, aimed at the dissolution of boundaries. But Shtutin fails to contend with Brecht, a figure, it must be said, whose influence has been much broader and more lasting than Artaud’s, and whose theater challenges Shtutin’s premise. Reacting to the same crisis of representation and finding some of the same solutions as Artaud, including the rejection of the dramatic illusion and theater in the round, Brecht took the theater in an entirely different direction from Artuad’s. His “epic theater” was meant to keep the spectator at a distance, engaged first and foremost intellectually with the drama. Subject and object remain, in Brecht, separable and autonomous despite the lack of a proscenium arch. This criticism aside, Shtutin's book is a worthy effort from a scholar who offers an original take on the fin de siècle.