Rough Magic

The Royal Shakespeare Company have been working with Intel and Imaginarium Studios on a new production of The Tempest that uses technology to blur the line between reality and the digital. This piece briefly explores why The Tempest has been so attractive to film-makers over the past century.

On 28th December 1895 Georges Méliès, a Parisian magician, sat in amazement at what he was witnessing.[1] He was attending a demonstration of the Lumière brother’s new invention: the cinématographe. It was a machine that allowed both the recording and the projection of moving images. In a darkened room at the Salon des Indien, the audience were transfixed, especially Méliès, who instantly saw the potential of this new machine: ‘We were positively stupefied. I immediately said “That’s the thing for me…an extraordinary trick!”’ The films that were projected onto a makeshift screen can only be described as short documentaries – workers leaving a factory, a locomotive arriving at a station – but Méliès recognised the creative and imaginative potential of this new medium.[2] He would eventually go on to use cinema he said ‘not for the servile reproduction of nature, but for its spectacular expression of artistic and creative ideas of all kinds.’[3] Soon after, Méliès built his own camera and the world’s first film studio and set about making his own idiosyncratic films which would incorporate special effects with traditional theatre techniques that evoked a ‘dreamlike atmosphere’[4] and an ‘unreal world wholly obedient to the whims of the imagination’.[5] Through cinema Méliès had, like Shakespeare’s Prospero three hundred years earlier, created and discovered his own ‘rough magic’.[6]

Prospero’s Art, similarly to Méliès cinema, relies on spectacle; the power of the imagination and the wondrous interplay between illusion and reality. In The Tempest there are, as Keith Sturgess points out, five instances of a ‘spectacular coup de theatre’: The eponymous Tempest that Prospero conjures up in Act I. Scene ii. and the consequent shipwreck, Miranda’s first meeting with Ferdinand in the same scene, the vanishing banquet in III.iii., the masque that Prospero creates to celebrate the union of Miranda and Ferdinand in IV.i., and finally the chess game in V.i. where Ferdinand is revealed to his father, Alonso, to be alive.[7] Alonso, having experienced the strangeness of the island in the course of the afternoon’s events, is wary that the person before him is his son and makes the comment ‘If this prove/to be a vision of the island, one dear son/Shall I twice lose’ (V.i.179-181). Alonso is right to be cautious because the island is full of visions that cannot be trusted. As Sturgess suggests, The Tempest is an ‘experiment in meta-theatre, the whole play explores the baffling territory marked out by “magic”, “illusion” and “trick”’.[8] These are all elements that make The Tempest not just a fascinating play  but are also why Shakespeare’s final masterpiece is so appropriate for adaptation by film-makers.

Further enhancing (and complicating) The Tempest’s appeal to film-makers is the romantic tradition of aligning Prospero and his ‘potent art’ with that of Shakespeare and his art as a playwright. The play was first performed in 1611 at ‘Whithall before ye kinges Maiestie’[9] and has been seen as Shakespeare’s ‘farewell’ to the stage.[10] Although Shakespeare would go on to write another two plays in collaboration with John Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII, The Tempest has the distinction of being Shakespeare’s last solo play before he retired to Stratford. It is, of course, tempting to see The Tempest in the light of Shakespeare’s biography because some of Prospero’s most beautiful and compelling speeches gain an additional sense of pathos and resonance from the connection:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud – capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall disolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep…

(IV.i.148- 158)

It has often been commented upon that this speech is Shakespeare as Prospero remarking upon the impermanence of life, but I read it as Shakespeare commenting upon the impermanence and temporality of the theatre. The most obvious line that resonates with this metatextual meaning is ‘the great globe itself/Yea all which it inherit, shall disolve…’ Shakespeare, if we are to read the speech in this way, is saddened that all his work in the theatre (the great globe) will leave ‘not a rack [mist/fog] behind’. It is evidence, if any were needed, that Shakespeare intended his plays to be performed and not read. It also explains why Shakespeare put so much care into publishing his poems (which clearly were meant to be read) as opposed to the apparent lack of interest he displayed in publishing his plays. But the intriguing aspect of this speech is that Shakespeare is implicitly longing for, in his most visually spectacular play, a device like the Lumière brother’s cinématographe that would allow him to record his ‘insubstantial pageant’ before it had ‘faded’. One can only imagine Shakespeare’s reaction if he was at the Salon des Indien on that December night in 1895. By choosing to film The Tempest directors, then, are placing themselves within a peculiar artistic dialogue involving themselves, Shakespeare and Prospero.

Forbidden Planet (1956), uses The Tempest as a means of exploring post world war two anxieties regarding the use of the atomic bomb and the responsibilities that come with advanced technology. The film, as well, is hugely technologically innovative featuring the first ever all electronic soundtrack on film and a powerful use of special effects. In a world that was divided between the communism of the Soviet Union and the capitalism of the United States, Forbidden Planet provides us with a fascinating portrait of global ideological tensions in the mid 1950s. Derek Jarman’s The Tempest (1979) is a masterpiece of avant-garde, low budget film-making. Jarman, who became an outspoken activist for gay rights in the 1980s, subtly explores the homoerotic tensions that he perceives as being inherent in the play to create, perhaps, the most artistically interesting of all cinematic adaptations of The Tempest. Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), meanwhile, is both visually and conceptually daring, challenging us to question the idea of the ‘author.’ To a greater or lesser degree both Forbidden Planet and Jarman’s The Tempest do this too, because these directors or film studios treat The Tempest as a tabula rasa – a blank canvas – where they can express and project their own preoccupations on to screen.

The art of film and theatre are analogous to Prospero’s ‘rough magic’. One would think that if the original cinematic magician, Georges Méliès, could see what these directors have done – including the new RSC production – using the techniques he developed in the early part of the twentieth century he might yet again find himself commenting once more about cinema being an ‘extraordinary trick!’

– Michael Goodman

[1] For brief discussions on Georges Méliès, see David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: an Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), pp. 157-158, pp. 246, 402; Louis Giannetti, Understanding Movies (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999), p. 135, pp. 307-308. For a marvellous overview of Méliès artistic work and technique, see Elizabeth Ezra, French Film Directors: Georges Méliès (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002).

[2] Elizabeth Ezra, French Film Directors: Georges Méliès, p. 12.

[3]Ibid., p. 14.

[4] Louis Giannetti, Understanding Movies, p. 307.

[5] David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art, p. 15.

[6] William Shakespeare, The Tempest, V.i.50, edited by Virginia Mason Vaughan and Alden T. Vaughan (London: Thomas Nelson, 1999). All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.

[7] Keith Sturgess, Jacobean Private Theatre: Shakespeare at Blackfriars  (London: Routledge, 1987), p. 80.

[8] Ibid., p. 73.

[9] Alden T. Vaughan and Virginia Mason Vaughan, ‘Introduction’, in The Tempest, pp. 1-138 (p. 6).

[10]For example, see Patrick M. Murphy, ‘Interpreting The Tempest: A History of Its Readings’, in The Tempest: Critical Essays, edited by Patrick M. Murphy (London: Routledge, 2001), pp. 3-72.

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