Play for Today: Digital Archive as Theatre

In her book, Computers as Theatre, Brenda Laurel attempts, though a ‘poetics of human-computer activity’, to provide designers of websites (and other interactive media), with ‘a conceptual framework and a vocabulary that are strongly focused on human experience.’[1] According to Laurel:

Buried within us in our deepest playful instincts, and surrounding us in the cultural conventions of theatre, film and narrative are the most profound and intimate sources of knowledge about interactive representations. A central task is to bring those resources to the fore and to begin to use them in the design of interactive systems.[2]

In her focus on human experience in relation to digital design, Laurel echoes Jaron Lanier when he writes about the importance of the human-centred approach to computer science. Laurel’s central thesis is that computers and interactive design are, fundamentally, theatrical, performative and the latest instance of a medium where audiences can engage meaningfully with representations. Just as, for example, the theatre of Shakespeare (which allowed far more interaction between actors and audience members in the Early Modern period than it does today), provides us with characters and a space (a playhouse) for thinking through complex ideas, so computers, in the twenty-first century, are providing us with that space for thought.[3]

Through creating ‘interactive representations’ we effectively enter the world of imagination and the ‘circle’ of game and play that has been described by Johan Huizinga.   As Laurel writes:

The impulse to create interactive representations, as exemplified by human-computer activities, is only the most recent manifestation of the age-old desire to make what we imagine palpable – our insatiable need to exercise our intellect, judgment and spirit in contexts, situations, and even personae that are different from our everyday lives.[4]

That impulse is what drove Shakespeare to write thirty-seven plays for the theatre and his ‘interactive representations’ are, of course, his characters. Shakespeare used the past as a way of understanding the present and the play was the medium in which he could articulate the concerns and anxieties of Elizabethan and Jacobean society in order to connect with his audience. The past and the present clashed on Shakespeare’s stage, just like they do in any digital archive that is made up of historical artefacts.

This suggests to me, then, the appropriateness of using Shakespeare illustrations as the focal point of my own project, the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, and as a way of investigating the implications surrounding the creation of a digital archive. In many ways, I am using these illustrations as the primary means to think about present day concerns and anxieties we might have, as scholars, about digital technology. Not only that, but if, as Laurel argues, we should understand computers as a technology that is inherently theatrical, then what could be more suitable to reveal this, than 3000 illustrations of Shakespeare’s plays? We can even ask the question: are these Victorian Shakespeare editions themselves theatrical? Is there something dramatic and performative about the interaction between word and image in these books? Is the book itself a kind of stage where the illustrator is playing the role of director? My answer to all these questions is ‘yes’ and that is why I call these illustrated editions ‘Iconoplays’.

Etymologically, ‘icon’ means ‘image, figure, representation’ and this is what the illustrated plays contain: visual representations of Shakespeare’s characters and scenes.[5] What I also find appealing about this term is the other meanings that are appropriate for this project: icon can also mean a digital representation of something on a computer screen. In fact, it is the Graphical User Interface (GUI) that differentiates the modern computer in the popular imagination from the old mainframe machines of the first few decades of computing. By visually representing on screen, in the form of icons, programmes, documents, and other files, the icon can be seen to be acting as a pictorial synecdoche: a simple visualisation that stands in for part of a far more complex whole. The Microsoft Word icon, for example, is a simple ‘W’, but when a user clicks on it the computer will begin to load the vast amounts of computer code that make up that programme. But ‘icon’ can also mean a ‘person or thing worthy of veneration’.[6] And this is how Shakespeare’s characters were seen in the Victorian period and in our own: they tell us universal truths about the human condition, we are told time and time again.[7] The characters are no longer embedded in the plays they once inhabited but have broken free of the page: their meanings circulate freely within culture and they have become shorthand (just as an icon on a computer screen is a graphical shorthand for an entire computer programme or file) for certain characteristics of human behaviour: a deep thinking male is often described as being like Hamlet; a powerful female politician is like Lady Macbeth; while a jovial old man is seen as being ‘Falstaffian’. Shakespeare’s characters are icons and the Iconoplay is a play about and containing icons. It is also a description of the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, which is itself a playful digital exploration of Shakespearean icons and their pictorial relationship to each other in a hypermedia environment.

The hypermedia environment I have created with VISA is, I hope, intuitive, user-friendly, and at its heart is the philosophy that good digital design is human-orientated. It is a resource that is at once both scholarly and aimed at a wide audience. As Laurel goes on to argue:

Designing human-computer experience isn’t about building a better desktop. It’s about creating imaginary worlds that have a special relationship to reality  – worlds in which we can extend, amplify, and enrich our own capacities to  think, feel, and act.[8]

In a strange way, I do feel with VISA that I have generated a new imaginary world. Before I created this archive it did not exist, and now, obviously, it does. It has its own laws (functionality, navigation, general way of working) and its own consistent visual aesthetic. Importantly, however, I also feel that it extends, amplifies and enriches our own capacities to think, feel and act. Certainly, the creation process of the archive has enriched me in all these ways that Laurel describes and I hope the users of VISA find it as equally valuable.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word ‘VISA’ is from the ‘Modern Latin charta visa “verified paper,” literally “paper that has been seen,” from fem. past participle of Latin videre “to see” … Earlier visé (1810), from French past participle of viser “to examine, view.”’[9] Both readings are appropriate for my archive. VISA contains 3500 thousand pieces of ‘paper’ that have been seen by many people from the Victorian era up until the day that these Shakespeare editions got placed in rare books libraries. The ‘paper’ has also been seen and ‘verified’ by me, in my role as digitiser. I have, effectively, verified these illustrations and as a result included them in the archive. Furthermore, ‘visa’ also means ‘to examine, view’ and this is exactly what I want users of the archive to do: to see and examine images verified by me so that they can then generate new knowledges by using these materials. The Theatre is also a place where we go to view things. This analogy, then, places me as a kind of director who has chosen and verified his actors (the illustrations) and given them their roles through tags, categories and metadata. It is possible to envision the digital archive as a new kind of performance space and dramatic environment for the twenty-first century where the work of artists and scholars is slowly converging.

The idea that a digital archive, especially a visual digital archive, is like a theatre helps us better to understand that digital archives are the result of many (often very subjective) decisions that are taken by a ‘director’ in order to reach an audience, decisions that result in an interaction between user/archive or audience/performer. A digital archive is performative to the extent that it allows this interaction to take place. In this way, using a digital archive is very similar to the play going experience. An audience member enters the theatre with certain expectations: if they are seeing a comedy, they expect to laugh; if they are seeing a tragedy, they expect to be emotionally moved. The same is true when we use a digital archive: we hope that certain expectations will be met and fulfilled. By reconfiguring our understanding of digital archives in this way (as a performance), we begin to de-mythologise them and, effectively, make them more human and more interesting.

— Michael John Goodman

[1] Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre (Boston: Addison-Wesley, 1993), pp. xix; xxi.

[2] Laurel, Computers as Theatre, p. 21.

[3] See, for example, Andrew Gurr, Playgoing in Shakespeare’s London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

[4] Laurel, Computers as Theatre, p. 30.

[5] Oxford English Dictionary [online], ‘Icon’, <; [accessed 6 April 2016].

[6] Oxford English Dictionary [online], ‘Icon’, <; [accessed 6 April 2016].

[7] See, for example, Kiernan Ryan, Shakespeare (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1989), p. 5.

[8] Laurel, Computers as Theatre, p. 32.

[9] Online Etymology Dictionary, ‘VISA’, <; [accessed 6 April 2016].

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