1) Closing the theaters in a time of plague is nothing new. Nor is it new for that closing to occasion alternative kinds of performance: in the frame story of Boccaccio’s Decameron, people tell stories to pass the time in lockdown; and it is thanks to closed theaters that Shakespeare composed his long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Entirely new is the continued operation of theater-houses in a virtual space, as if to assure us that they are not truly shuttered. This has felt like both a closing and an opening: online platforms have made theater more widely available than ever. Certainly the geography of theater attendance has changed, with a trip to New York or London no longer necessary to satisfy one’s appetite. The ability to see plays streamed from both cities in the same day introduces a new erasure of locality in theatergoing, a plethora of websites comprising a single new cyber-district. Financial barriers have also largely been lifted, with even the most exorbitantly priced Broadway performances now brought within reach: Hamilton is now available for a $6.99 monthly subscription to the streaming service Disney+, a fitting home for a show remarking on race in a way roughly as edgy and hard-hitting as the animated film Pocahontas (1995). Access in these respects has never felt more equal.
2) A production may be streamed as a recording of a pre-pandemic performance. We encounter a recording as an historical artifact, and as such our experience is one of loss. Yet, as is typical of historical artifacts, events of our moment can lend fresh intensity, as with the Wooster Group’s streaming of its 2017 record-album interpretation Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons, a keen reminder of the deep roots of state-sanctioned brutalization of Black Americans, and one that speaks to a present of rising opposition to police violence and the carceral system. Even so, the experience of loss remains palpable. Loss in part because we are reminded of the absence of the sizeable community of workers devoted to making performance happen: keepers of wardrobes and tickets, sound technicians and ushers. Gone is our encounter with this society in miniature, and the beauty of its single will devoted to an ephemeral experience. Recorded plays now try to reproduce that ephemerality with limited streaming times. But the viewer knows full well those limits are artificial: there are no material constraints demanding a run of one week instead of three months. Why should the Metropolitan Opera stream a free offering for a single day? To sell subscriptions to its streaming service. The event of performance has been replaced by the enticement of advertising. That the recordings exist at all, as though they have been waiting for this opportunity to displace the theater worker, is a reminder of the fundamental hostility between the recording and the stage. Online broadcasts of recordings document and reproduce that hostility as much as they keep our memory of the stage alive.
3) As with so much else, live performance has also taken to Zoom, particularly for those kinds of performance catering to a niche audience. In this way the smaller company, which did not or could not store up its treasures in high-quality video, satisfies its devotees—Red Bull Theater can continue to offer The Witch of Edmonton or The Revenger’s Tragedy to that tiny fragment of humanity obsessed with the drama of Jacobean England. A Zoom reading is a mode of performance unto itself. There is no pretense of reproducing the stage. If viewers have been allotted video windows, the divide between performer and audience is flattened in intriguing ways: a simple click on “gallery view” instantly democratizes the two, and allows the viewer to engage in one of the oldest traditions of theatergoing, scrutinizing fellow audience members. As performances, Zoom readings are necessarily shabby. Any actor will be keenly aware of this, and so one senses that performing has displaced performance: one is witnessing a performer’s irrepressible need to perform, detached from the desire to be part of a performance with ambitions of success. Zoom theater cannot flop because it knows in advance that it is incapable of being a hit.
4) There is a purity to the irrepressible impulse to perform. At the same time, a Zoom performance of a part remains only an individual performance of a part—that is, a part without a whole. This may be the core of its inevitable failure as theater. All of the unspoken communication between actors so fundamental to living performance has been hobbled—on Zoom one can’t even tell with whom a person is trying to make eye contact. Here, too, the experience of the performer approximates that of the viewer. The performer’s itch is but one instantiation of the human need for creative expression and common endeavor that every audience member also feels, and feels to have been marred in some way by the pandemic. Gallery view may offer an image of community and collective experience, but it is only an image, and one offering little distraction from the realities of isolation. The Zoom performance thus captures a collective desire, and collective failure, to break free of the limits of a platform now ineluctably associated with the isolation of lockdown.
5) In spite of all this, one is buoyed by witnessing, in the face of the hardships and uncertainties imposed by a global pandemic, what feels like a widespread and unprecedented turn to the arts, which have strongly asserted their role as antidote to the bleakness of human existence. But it is the spontaneous and unmediated kind of performance that has seemed best to serve that function, when an apartment balcony becomes a stage, be it that of an opera singer in Milan, or of neighbors performing Shakespeare in London. Theater’s injection of embodied art into a dehumanizing environment here seems most poignant. In the midst of the fear and isolation of a global lockdown, impromptu performance offers a glimpse of our capacity to produce and enjoy beauty in our darkest hour. And that is not an inconsiderable source of human connection and solidarity.
6) The satisfactions of online performance lack this immediacy. As recordings, they hark back to a past when the theaters were open. As Zoom sessions, they reassure us that actors and directors still exist and that we will at some point in the future return to pre-pandemic pleasures. Neither of these amounts to the eventhood, the singular embodied presence that is the special province of theatrical performance. We might go further. Online theater may be fulfilling theater’s role as a bellwether of human culture and society in that its geographical rearrangements, its detachment from locale, are those of a middle class that was already being squeezed out of major world cities. Whatever shape the city takes after the pandemic, it will be less defined by the daily commute and more by the telecommute, speeding the exodus of middle-class families and the infiltration of absentee, super-wealthy property holders. The city that remains will be even more starkly divided between billionaires and an impoverished underclass, and so become fertile ground for increased, and increasingly segregationist, policing. And yet that middle class dropping its commute and fleeing the city will find the time and space of true leisure to be ever more absent. As Foucault recognized in Discipline and Punish, plagues are times when power imposes disciplinary mechanisms and subdivides itself “in a regular, uninterrupted way even to the ultimate determination of the individual.” Zoom has become an implement of a new order: it has sped the trend toward transferring all human activity—work, recreation, social contact—into bits and bytes surveilled and monetized. In our post-pandemic life, remembered fear of contagion and disorder will sustain the disciplinary projects now taking root. For Foucault, the literary response to the disciplinary mechanisms of plague is the festival, “suspended laws, lifted prohibitions, the frenzy of passing time, bodies mingling together.” Theater comprising that kind of literary act cannot take place in a recording or Zoom session.
7) And yet the benefits of streamed performance mean that it is here to stay. The question is whether it can produce new forms of theater vibrant in their own right—can there be an online avant-garde?—or whether it will provide a safe space for dissemination of the white and bourgeois values of the theater industry. The technology question thus ought to take place alongside a larger interrogation of relationships between theatrical form, access, politics, and economics. Many involved in theater seem to hope for a rebirth that has purged corrupt elements of the old order, as recent responses to a Times questionnaire suggest, whether that involves restructuring the economics of the theater system, or a push toward community-based theater, or a more fluid relationship between stage and street. One of the most thoughtful of the New York companies, the New York Theatre Workshop, has taken the current moment as an occasion to support a group of instigators seeking to “to imagine work in our present moment that creates community within the given circumstances of social distancing, celebrates the liveness that is inherent in a theatrical experience, and examines the relationship between theatre, distance, and technology.” The statement is compelling precisely because it is tentative and uncertain: we cannot know what a living theater looks like right now. The city of the pandemic and the city of anti-racist protest each in its own way calls for the creation of spaces for the free expression and free movement of human voices and bodies. Making bodies present through performance—be it melodious or cacophonic, beautiful or grotesque—becomes in this way a vital and deeply political form of resistance to the emerging plague order.
Feisal G. Mohamed is a professor of English at Yale University. His latest book is Sovereignty: Seventeenth-Century England and the Making of the Modern Political Imaginary (Oxford, 2020).
Graphic by Bianca Ibarlucea.