Daniel A. Novak’s article, “Caught in the Act: Photography on the Victorian Stage" is Editor’s Choice for Victorian Studies newest issue and can now be read for free at JSTOR.
Below, Daniel elaborates on what happens when a medium conceived out of the desire to freeze time in the form of a tangible object is not only performed on stage, but also rendered fundamentally performative.
On stage, a man stands over the lifeless body of an enslaved black man he has just murdered, reading a letter. The stage directions note that “he remains nearly motionless under the focus of the camera” (149). Moments later, another man discovers the corpse and, in a fit of grief, smashes the camera. Holding the body in his arms, he too remains motionless, this time for the traditional freeze-frame “tableau” of melodrama. This familiar scene from Dion Boucicault’s play The Octoroon (1859; 1861) sets up the climactic intervention of photographic technology in the play. Salem Scudder discovers the “self-developed” photographic plate still in his destroyed camera and wields it as an unimpeachable witness that saves the Native American Wahnotee from lynching and proves Jacob M’Closky’s guilt. Scudder proclaims, “The eye of the Eternal was on you--the blessed sun in heaven, that, looking down, struck upon this plate the image of the deed. Here you are, in the very attitude of your crime!...[T]he apparatus can’t lie” (163).
In this play, photography’s revolutionary realism stems from its status as a technology of non-intervention, one that produces an image without an author or even an operator. Scudder’s mechanically impossible “self-developing” plate offers a version of Henry Fox Talbot’s “Pencil of Nature” on steroids. Boucicault emphasizes the difference between the mediums of theater and photography, making visible a tension between a technology designed to freeze and preserve time and a form defined by its ephemerality and motion—a tension that still animates critical discussions of stage and page, recording and performing. This distinction is central to the way the play defines photographic and theatrical epistemologies. The ability to permanently immobilize and record M’Closky’s on-stage pose makes possible a form of otherwise elusive knowledge and equally elusive justice.
And yet, rather than driving the two art forms further apart, both the scenes in which M’Closky and Wahnotee freeze in place as well as Scudder’s description of the incriminating image bring photography and theatre closer. Not only do characters posing for photographs on stage invoke and comment on the “pictures” and “tableaux” of melodrama and tableau vivant, but these theatrical forms also influenced photographic aesthetics. More broadly, Victorian audiences would not have seen photography and theater as mutually exclusive epistemologies. Indeed, theater and photography were linked historically, theoretically, and economically from photography’s earliest days. The studio was patterned after the proscenium stage, sitters routinely donned costumes and used props, and photographs advertised plays and actors. Home-theatricals served as occasions for the taking of photographs. Almost all of Julia Margaret Cameron’s photographs had their origins in home theatricals. In turn, theater was influenced by photography. Boucicault himself noted that audiences wanted “the actual, the contemporaneous, the photographic” (qtd. in Daly 18).
Because The Octoroon is the best known nineteenth-century play featuring photography, it dominates accounts of Victorian photography and theater. Yet, unlike Boucicault’s play, the majority of plays that focus on photography or photographers from the 1850s to the end of the century do not present the relationship between photography and theater as conflicted or incompatible. Instead, in the ten plays I examine, rather than a fixed image of a moment, photography is itself an ephemeral process—one that routinely goes wrong and fails to produce a photograph at all. For example, in A Photographic Fix (1865) the photographer is unable to “fix” his images and is visited by unhappy clients after their photographs fade within a day. Rather than focusing on an objective product produced by a passionless machine, these plays foreground an often deceptive interaction between human beings. At the same time, these plays explicitly figure the visual work of theater as a kind of photography, while representing practicing photographers as actors, frauds, and Lotharios. The 1879 farce A Camera Obscura takes this literally in the case of its fraudulent photographer and sexual predator named “Lothario Spooner.”
In aligning photography with theater, these plays also self-reflexively comment on theatrical ephemerality. Boucicault implicitly joins photography and melodramatic posing by describing M’Closky as captured in the “attitude” of his crime, but plays and popular music-hall songs also simultaneously mock the outlandish poses of both the photographic studio and the Victorian stage. The hit musical Belle of New York (1898) depicted members of an acting troupe striking “attitudes” for the benefit of a newspaper flash-photographer while narrating their own actions and poses. In A Dream: Binks’s Photographic Gallery (1883), rather than attempt to record and fix identity, the photographer claims that he has a “patented” frame that “can make that person look like any other person I choose” (67). In the end, the photographic studio is itself a short-lived theatrical illusion, dissolving in the final section titled “TRANSFORMATION,” borrowing self-consciously from pantomime and taking us back to the comfortable domestic setting of the first act.
Taken together, these plays challenge some basic assumptions of photographic theory. As Geoffrey Batchen has argued, the photographic imaginary is broadly defined by the freezing and recording of a moment in time; photography “began” in earnest not with the camera obscura or the invention of light-sensitive materials, but with the fixing of the image. As Henry Fox Talbot put it, “the most transitory of things, a shadow…may be fixed for ever in the position which it seemed only destined for a single instant to occupy” (40). Yet in many of the plays I examine, photography is associated with “transitory” movement, with theatrical processes and interactions, and with the failure fix theatrical shadows. Moreover, if the promise of photography is its objective depiction of a single slice of time (what Roland Barthes calls photography’s “that-has-been-there”), and if its threat is visual violence, panoptic surveillance, and objectification, then in these plays both the promise and threat are by turns laughable and ineffectual. Victorian theater offers a counterintuitive theory of photography bearing little resemblance to the semiotic, epistemological, representational, and even visual questions with which it is most associated. Remediating photography on stage helps us see it not just as a medium, object, or technology, but also as an interaction, a process, and an “act” in the broadest sense of the term.
Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill, 1981.
Batchen, Geoffrey. Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997.
Boucicault, Dion. The Octoroon. Plays by Dion Boucicault. Ed. Peter Thomson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984. 133-70.
Childs, Nathaniel and Willie Edouin. A Dream: Binks’s Photographic Gallery. 1883. Lord Chamberlain’s Collection, British Library. Add MS 53297 K
Daly, Nicholas. Literature, Technology, and Modernity 1860-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004.
Hay, Frederic. A Photographic Fix: an Original Farce in One Act. London: Lacy, 1866. 1-18
Morton, Hugh and Gustave Kerker. The Belle of New York: A Musical Comedy in Two Acts. Lord Chamberlain’s Collection, British Library. Add MS 53657 E
Talbot, Henry Fox. “Some Account of the Art of Photogenic Drawing.” Photographic Theory: An Historical Anthology. Ed. Andrew E. Hershberger. Wiley-Blackwell. 2014.
Daniel A Novak is Associate Professor of English at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Realism, Photography, and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge UP, 2008), and co-editor with James Catano of Masculinity Lessons: Rethinking Men's and Women's Studies (Johns Hopkins UP, 2011). He is currently at work on two book projects: "Victoria's Accursed Race" analyzes nineteenth-century representations of the Cagots, an ethnic group of mysterious origins and indeterminate race, while "Specters of Wilde" examines the beginning of Wilde studies in the early twentieth century.
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