On the Tyranny of Verisimilitude
The theater of the late 19th and early 20th century is replete with stories of daring theater managers trying to outdo each other by creating vast technical marvels; impresarios were doing all kinds of outlandish things, like building giant treadmills onstage so that they could stage Ben-Hur’s chariot race, or whole butcher shops so that the audience could appreciate the smell of meat.
Part of this, I think, was the rise of the photograph: every year, chemists and Kodak were coming closer and closer to a precise rendition of exactly what the eye could see.
And, naturally, this led to film.
I like to read accounts of early films, of people that flipped out about the train that was driving towards the camera, thinking that it was going to hit them. You and I look at a film like that now, and there’s no way we’d flinch. But you and I are conditioned to see things that look exactly like real things, but are only images of real things. We’ve had years of experience ignoring the actual reality for the perceived reality.
In 1904, things were probably a little tighter. More precisely, it was easier to exceed the audience’s expectations of realness–to make something more real-looking than they had ever seen before (despite having spent their entire lives looking at real things). There’s a discrepancy, I suppose, between seeing things that seem real, and seeing things that are real, and I suspect this has to do a lot with the environment. The reality of a train on a train track is nothing spectacular, because this is naturally where you’d expect to find a train. The reality of a train in a dimly-lit motion picture house is altogether more remarkable.
If art is, as I suggested, the practice of putting together unexpectedness, then it stands to reason that triggering the “realness” sensors in the audience under circumstances in which the perceived object should not be real ought to be a really good kind of art. Certainly, a really spectacular kind of art, and spectacle is as valid a purpose as any when composing.
The problem with it is that verisimilitude is what I am referring to as a “third domain” aesthetic technique, rather than a “first domain.” The difference is this: first domain techniques are expections created and upset specifically according to the internal elements of the play. Third domain techniques are expectations created and upset according to a priori knowledge or experience (obviously there is some overlap; the categories are rough).
The problem with third domain techniques is acclimation. We are not impressed with the special effects in, say, Modern Times–or, at least, not as impressed as folks in the 30s were–because we’re already conditioned to expect a higher degree of verisimilitude in our movies. The “realness” of Modern Times isn’t surprising (except, ironically, in the cases in which we are surprised by how real it is considering that it’s from the 30s, as though our expectations have somehow made a full circle).
So, the problem with verisimilitude is that it’s doomed to failure, especially in the theater.
Here is why: first of all, to obtain a high degree of verisimilitude, it must be universal. That is, you can make a surrealist piece by having three or four surreal incidents, distributed through it’s length–but you cannot make a “real-seeming” piece unless all elements of the piece seem real. So, “tyranny”–once you’ve decided on verisimilitude, you’re stuck with it.
But, worse, as technology advanced over the last hundred years, different elements were made more real-seeming, and so demanded that everything else be made more realistic in order to compensate. You probably don’t remember this, but there was a time when films were “expressionist”–that is, they didn’t look the way real things do, they looked the way we feel about them. It didn’t last, because verisimilitude wouldn’t permit it.
It is, in fact, even worse in the theater. I think that, aesthetically, you can look at film as being the culmination of a process that had long been lurking in the theater: the need to astound expectations with the unlikely appearance of complete realism. Film soon entirely outstripped the theater’s capacity for real-ness, and left many of those old, poor managers destitute.
The problem is that, because verisimilitude is inherently tyrannical, it is also impossible to achieve in the theater. There is no practical way to accomodate set changes, to build new floors every night, to hide the ropes and wires and rolling flats that make a play up, to keep the audience from seeing the overhead lights.
On the one hand, you’d think this would be depressing. But on the other hand, it’s actually liberating. Once you’ve recognize that it’s impossible to recreate reality onstage, you’re free to stop trying. And once you’ve discarded the device of titillation-through-real-ness, you can explore what the audience gives you in terms of “conditional realness”–that is, it’s not that the audience is fooled into believing something is real, but rather that they permit themselves to address it as though it were real, within the context of the play. The threshold for this is much lower–in some cases, in fact, astonishingly low–and consequently the power for expression far exceeds that of film, which is not permitted to portray anything that it cannot portray with utter real-ness.