Frontal Staging

May 26th, 2010 § 0 comments § permalink

That’s the best equivalent I can find for la frontalité, a term used by Benjamin Lazar, Vincent Dumestre, and others involved in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme production to describe one aspect, and not the least interesting one, of their reconstruction of Molière’s staging. It’s one of those terms that sounds straightforwardly descriptive in French, but impossibly abstract and academic (or else vaguely lascivious) in English.

In the early years of the last century, the view was nearly universal among “advanced” theatre practitioners that the proscenium had to be abandoned in favor of a thrust, half-round, full-round, or other more three-dimensional type of stage. Frontal staging reverses all that, but it goes much farther. It aims to restore, not the 19th century proscenium, but a more drastically flattened stage picture in which the actors are nearly always facing the audience, even when they are addressing other characters on stage, and where, because the playing area lacks depth and because candle footlights are the only lighting,* they are kept as far forward as possible.

No doubt a lot could be, and has been said about frontality in terms of cultural semiotics or what have you. The term originated in art history, apparently, to characterize ancient Egyptian and Near Eastern art in which the figures depicted always face the viewer, in whole or in part. The head, for instance, might be in profile, while the torso faces full on. According to one scholar, frontality is especially characteristic of courtly and ceremonious societies. That would certainly fit with its appearance in the France of Louis XIV. But what interests me, and appears to interest the creators of the BG production about it is not its origin but its theatrical possibilities. It’s one of those cases where severely constraining one’s options can free the imagination.

Look at that opening scene with M. Jourdain again, where he is having his robe put on, then taken off, then put on again. He stands center-stage, facing the audience, arms held out like a statue, and he and his enormous robe, flanked by the two servants holding it for him, seem to take up the entire stage. That’s all you need to bring out the comic essence of the scene. How much irrelevant business has probably been expended on it in the past!

A somewhat special aspect of the frontal approach is how it interacts with candle lighting and heavy makeup. In the absence of lighting that can track them, as Lazar explains, the actors have to become aware of and responsible for lighting effects themselves. Simply moving closer to the lights or away from them can change facial appearance dramatically, quite apart from the quality of candlelight itself, which is a subject of its own.

Finally, what’s nice about frontal staging is that it looks good. Or it can. It encourages an awareness of the total stage tableau at every moment, and exploits two-dimensionality in the same way that painting does. That’s also no doubt part of the reason the video, which I’ve still only seen parts of, looks so good. But that’s its own subject too. I’ll have more to say on that soon (I’ve ordered the DVD, and should have it in a few days).

*addendum: not quite accurate; there are also candles in chandeliers, which can be raised and lowered.

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