Steam Radio: On Theatre’s Thin Air

Steam Radio: On Theatre’s Thin Air

Steven Connor

A paper given at the London Theatre Seminar, 27 October 2003

A mouth that has no moisture and no breath
Breathless mouths may summon

Being but a mouthful of air I am content to perish
I am but a mouthful of sweet air

There is a venerable tradition that emphasises the airiness of theatre; seeing actors as ghostly shades, able to be dissipated by a puff of wind, and the braggart business that transpires upon the stage as gust and bluster, so much hot air. Like Hamlet, the chameleon actor lives on air, promise-crammed (III.ii, 107). At one end of the continuum might be King Lear, in which the modulations of air participate in and are seen as a rich and varied correlative to the action, at the other end, Beckett’s Breath, which stages the interval of life as a simple act of breath and thereby shows the elemental incidence of breath to the stage.

I am going to suggest that the air is among the most important of the unacknowledged frames or material contexts for what goes on, or as they say in the North, ‘comes off’ in the theatre. Air is in one sense literally the raw material of theatre; the inert, unshaped reserve of matter that is shaped into utterance. Actors take to the air, take it up, make it move. The round and hollow ‘O’ of the theatre, the great globe itself, may be at once a world, a throat, or a slipknot of the lips; in the framing of that ‘o’, and the oohs and aahs, the gales of laughter, or the boos and hisses, that are supposed to answer it from the auditorium, the air is formed into those smoke-rings that are the temporal form of performance. But something has happened, and is still happening to the air in theatre. I will say in fact that the substance and the salience of air in theatre come to notice especially because theatre habitually evacuates the air, attempts to substitute a kind of air conditioning for the condition of air that it must always inhabit.

The Vulgarity of Air

Theatre has become liable to look down on the air. Classic theatre, proper theatre, knows its place, which is precisely upright, planted foursquare on the stage, striving against the pull of earth, but also drawing Antaeus-like from it. Theatre that occupies the mid-air, attempts to occupy itself with it, is vulgar, showy, popular, parodic, parasitic. Kleist found in the puppet show a kind of grace that living actors could never attain, deriving from the fact that string-puppets merely skirt or brush the ground, rather than being planted on it. His arguments seduce precisely because the predominating opinion is still that ungrounded performance of this kind is ersatz, infantile or untrustworthy. The same kind of lightness of being is on display in shadow-theatre and in cartoons. The interaction of live actors and animated figures in Who Killed Roger Rabbit? posed a problem for the movie’s sound-design: what would toons sound like if you bashed or brushed up against them? The answer hit on was that they would thud and boom like balloons. The violence of cartoons comes not just from the sadistic recognition you can do anything you like to creatures whose life is merely imputed, but also from the desire to compensate, with the violence of volume, impact and screamingly garish colour, for the fundamental airiness of animation. Hence, the most famous invention of the cartoon, the principle that, if you run off the edge of a cliff, you will remain suspended in mid-air, legs furiously whirling, until you look down and acknowledge your situation. In the cartoon, to fall requires a conscious consent or exercise of the will

Many of the most meretricious forms into which theatre can decline and against which it consequently struggles, are characterised by disrespect for the dignity of the ground and the lust to inhabit the air; tumblers, acrobats, human cannonballs, high-wire acts, stiltwalkers trapeze artists, even fandancers and ballondancers. Yeats recognised this in the last poems in which he sought to identify his work, not only with the sluttish low-life ‘where all the ladders start,/The foul rag and bone shop of the heart’, but also the strutting ‘high talk’ of popular show:

Processions that lack high stilts have nothing that catches the eye…

Because piebald ponies, led bears, caged lions, make but poor shows
Because children demand Daddy-long-legs upon his timber toes
Because women in the upper storeys demand a face at the pane
That patching old heels they may shriek, I take to chisel and plane. (‘High Talk’)

Juggling, which has come to mean the art of keeping things suspended in the air, is a narrowing of reference of a word that, well into the seventeenth century, referred to a range of magical practices, employing both ‘natural magic’ and less legitimate kinds of sorcery, for creating illusion or cozening the senses. In that juggling involves not just the tossing of objects in the air, but also the raising of spirits, juggling is in this sense almost a code-word for theatre itself. It is appropriate that it should derive from Latin jocare, which also gives us the lexical series – jeu, jest, joke – all related to the word ‘play'; for the theatre, it has often been feared, is no more than a flatulent jeu d’esprits. Until the arrival of cinema, legitimate theatre had its work cut out to keep all this stuntwork in its place, namely in the theatres devoted to spectacle, like the Adelphi and Sadlers Wells and, later on, the music hall. Circus, which for so long provided a safety valve for this kind of thing, is characterised not just by the fact that much of what occurs in it occurs in mid-air, but also by the pneumatic nature of its very setting. What is a big top but a kind of balloon, a tethered Zeppelin, inflated especially for the performance, and let down when it is time to move on? Disney’s Dumbo shows a fine, instinctive intuition of the fundamental lightness of circus, despite all the clowning and pratfalls; for its central conceit is of aerated weight, in an elephant who learns to fly by flapping his outsize ears.

One might note here the striking parallels between ships – which, if not sustained by air, are at least propelled by it – and the theatres. Plays and sea-voyages both take place on boards, or decks, surmounted in both cases by rigs. Greek nautical engineers are credited with the invention of the mast-and-boom apparatus known as the machina which allowed the entrance of the gods from above and the language of stage rigging still has many correlations with nautical terms (White 1997). Prospero closes The Tempest by calling on the audience to provide him with a favourable following wind for his journey back to Milan: ‘Gentle breath of yours my sails/Must fill, or else my project fails’ (Epilogue, 11-12)


Part of what is embarrassing (or, under certain circumstances, invigorating), about popular forms of theatre, is that they are so flamboyant – flaming, pyrotechnic, pyromorphic. And theatre is characterised by an extraordinary institutionalised pyrophobia. A kind of dignity can always be conferred upon an amateur production, no matter how clumsy, tawdry and tantrum-threatened it may be, by the visit of the local fire officer, who will suck his teeth at the combustible curtains made from bedspreads, and reduce any possibility of profit by insisting on gangways and unblocked doors. In my day, the fire-officer’s attendance would always be followed by demands that the canvas flats and fabrics of the set be soused in fire-retardant washes. Along with the conspicuous adoption of theatre talk, like the tarry argot affected by Guildford landlubbers on their Thames cruisers, the worry about fire and the ritual of fireproofing is one of the ways in which amateur productions could attain guild status.

Not, of course, that the history of theatre does not provide plenty of grounds for serious concern about fire. Ever since the mythical burning of the Globe on the night of June 29th 1613, when the wadding from a cannon got lodged in the thatch during a performance of Henry VIII, the fear of fire has been structural in theatre. This was followed by the burning of Alleyn’s Fortune Theatre in Golden Lane in 1621 and the Blackfriars Theatre on the premonitory date of November 5, 1623. Drury Lane, built 1662, was burnt down in 1672. The Haymarket Opera-House was destroyed by fire in 1789. The French Opera House in Paris was burnt down in 1763, and rebuilt on the same spot, only to give a repeat performance on 8 June 1781 (Hemmings 1991, 237). Astley’s Amphitheatre was burnt down twice in 1794 and 1803. Covent Garden was destroyed by fire September 20, 1808, followed only a few months later by the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in February 1809. (Authentic Account 1809, 37). Perhaps the worst fire of the nineteenth century was that which claimed the lives of hundreds of people – perhaps as many as 400 – in the Paris Opéra-Comique in 1887 (Hemmings 1991, 244-5). The fact that so many theatres have been burnt down and rebuilt on the same spot, is almost a metaphor for the permanence-in-impermanence of the theatre itself, as it nightly rises from the ashes of the previous night’s performance.

The introduction of gas added risks to the theatre, with the result that the nineteenth century was the most combustible in theatrical history. A book-length report on the fire services of the US in 1858 included a chapter listing some theatres destroyed by fire, extending from the burning of Pompey’s celebrated theatre at Pompeii in AD 250 through some fifty examples up to the time of writing (Dana 1858, 348-57). Another writer, who, as the producer of a new patent instant-release door, had something to gain from not underestimating the degree of the danger, claimed that there had been fifty-four fire alarms in theatres during 1890. He warned that playgoers were either staying away from theatres because of the fear of fire, or going there only in the utmost trepidation: ‘Even when the playgoer ventures hither, he is always on the alert; his fear is such, that at any unusual noise, or even at the sight of a fireman casually entering, his first thought is to escape, although the danger may be merely imaginary’ (Résuche 1891, 9). I do like that ‘fireman, casually entering’, though this in fact refers to a common practice in the nineteenth century that was actually designed to reassure audiences. The fear of fire in theatres does indeed seem to have been felt by many audiences. F.W.J. Hemmings writes that, during the late nineteenth century, ‘the nightmare horror of being roasted alive inside a darkened theatre, choked by smoke and stumbling over fallen corpses, with the hellish flames flickering ever nearer, was to trouble the mind of even the most fanatic theatregoer’ (Hemmings 1991, 248). Thieves in France created mayhem with false shouts of fire, assisted by the smell of burning produced by white phosphorus thrown on to the stage (Hemmings 1991, 241).

That fire was sometimes thought of as a natural outcome for the profligacy and corruption of theatre, like the spontaneous combustion of Krook in Dickens’s Bleak House, is suggested by the fact that one mournful account of the burning of the Richmond theatre was issued bound together with an antitheatrical tract by ‘Penevolus’, which condemned the theatre as the seat of infection and corruption: ‘The very air suffers by their impurities, and they almost pronounce the plague’ (Particular Account 41) it growled. Another pamphlet produced in 1812 hinted darkly that the Richmond fire was a punishment for the iniquities of the American slave system (Remarks 1812). But the immolation of theatre does not reliably put paid to it, since the cancellation of the performance by fire was sometimes made up for by the thrilling supplementary, and of course, free, spectacle afforded by the burning of the theatre itself. Sheridan went to watch the watch the last hours of the Theatre Royal with the Duke of York: ‘Finding it impossible, by any human exertions, to subdue the relentless fury of the flames, they proceeded to the Hummums, and from the leads contemplated the spectacle with the most pungent sensations and ineffectual wishes.’ (Authentic Account 1809, 19)

Fire is the sign and effect of some deeper disturbance of the relations between stage or performance-space and audience space. Stages are defended, after all by ‘pits’, commonly used, not only to keep animals safely apart from their spectators, but also as firebreaks. (A trench is dug in Book XI of the Odyssey, in order both to summon shades from the underworld, and, one assumes, to keep them at a distance.) Fire often came from the stage, since the source of conflagration was regularly found to be the flies, that hidden lung or breathing space above the stage, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as scenery became more elaborate and as the stage became increasingly hot because of the many naked flames employed in the theatre. The flammable combination of fire and fabric made this truly a time of arson and old lace. A chandelier set the scenery on the flies on fire during a performance in Richmond, Virginia on Boxing Day 1811, and the theatre was subsequently burnt to the ground. (Particular Account 1812). A burning torch set light to one of the bandes d’air or sky pieces in the Gaité theatre in Paris in 1835 (Hemmings 1991, 238), while burning scenery dropped from the flies was also the cause of the disastrous fire in the Exeter theatre in September 1887 (Anderson 2002, 76-7). Performers were particularly at risk. A ballerina called Emma Livry set her skirt on fire after swirling too close to the gas-jets in the footlights at the Paris Opéra in 1862, and took six months to die from her burns. (Hemmings 1991, 243).

The safety curtain was introduced during the eighteenth century to defend against the danger of fire. Experiments with crankable safety curtains began in the French theatre in 1756 in the new theatre at Lyons (Hemmings 1991 242). At the opening of the Covent Garden theatre in 1733, the audience were reassured in the Prologue that:

Our pile is rock, more durable than brass,
Our decorations gossamer and gas;
The very ravages of fire we scout,
For we have here herewith to put it out,
In ample reservoirs, our firm reliance,
Whose streams set conflagration at defiance;
Consume the scenes, your safety still is certain,
Presto – for proof, let down the iron curtain. (Remarks 1812, 32)

The safety curtain proved no defence against the burning of the theatre in 1808. I know I am not alone in wondering who is supposed to be made safe by the safety curtain that is routinely winched down during the interval in all traditional theatres. We may know that it is the audience who are supposed to be at risk from the hot air released on stage along with all the flimsily combustible fabric of the sets and costume, but it is hard to restrain the suspicion that it is also there to protect the cast from the more inflammatory kinds of audience response. And, now I come to think of it, the strangest, the stagiest thing about the safety curtain is the very pretence it requires that the stage is thereby sealed off from the auditorium, when everyone knows that the theatre is drilled full of apertures, trapdoors and back-passages. What the safety curtain makes safe is a certain fantasy of absolutely articulable space. The theatrical partition provided Churchill with his metaphor when he first spoke of the Iron Curtain dissevering post-War Europe.

And why a ‘curtain’, when the thing is so self-evidently not a curtain at all, but a metal grille or sheet? Perhaps the reference to the fabric which traditionally divides the action from the audience is intended to import an even more emphatic disavowal of the fabrics and textiles which traditionally marked off action from audience, as well as different areas of space within the action. A certain style of modern theatre advertises its sleek modernity by its repudiation of fabrics, in favour of more stripped, architectonic forms, brazenly advertising themselves as what they are. The theatre of fabric is a flimsy, tawdry, affair, full of the coy come-on, and hinting at the bordello (the contempt for the flock wallpaper of the Indian restaurant comes out of this theatrical history of discredited fabric). When I think of stage curtains, I always think of Eric Morecambe’s routine of desperate, buffeting fumbles, as he tried to find the gap through which to make his entrance. For all its fragility and lightness, it is always dangerous to tangle with curtains, a danger that the performer will be revealed himself as nothing but a kind of patchwork. While formally dividing the space of the action from that of the audience, the curtain phenomenally registers, through its fluttering vulnerability to air-currents, the fact that this space is subject to the same air, the same unsettled weather.

This background of apprehension about the possibility of fire makes the appearance of actual combustible actions on stage particularly thrilling. And yet, stage combustions are nearly always botched, paltry, unsatisfactory kinds of thing. Perhaps this is because they have to be. Nowadays, there are no real fireworks on stage, because fire can never really be allowed to work; staged fire must always misfire. There is, for example, something oddly, voluptuously wrong about the gunshots called for in so many popular and successful plays. Guns always sound too loud, too abrupt, and yet also too tinny and too fake, in the theatre, which is one of the reasons, perhaps, that sound cinema would be driven to invent the reverberating whine of the gunshot. There was a period in which, no matter how damply enclosed the space in which you fired a gun in the cinema, it had to sound as though the shot were ricocheting down a ravine or gulch, whatever a gulch is when it’s at home. I used to own a toy rifle that had a spring mechanism in it which imitated this echo. Early cinema celebrated its release from the inhibitions and disappointments of the theatre by means of the depiction of fires and explosions, a joyous obsession which lasts to the present day. Where fire and explosion threaten the very fabric of theatre, cinema can expose itself and its viewers to them without threat. As a result, cinema has continued to expend a huge amount of its resources on the staging of explosions. There is a constitutive link between the kind of reflexivity on display in Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and the fascination with disintegration in the final sequence of his Zabriskie Point (1970). In both cases, cinema confronts and survives and thrives on the dissolution of the stage, the frame, the setting, the apparatus of viewing, of which fire is the great enemy in the theatre.

But to return to the stage. What happens when a gun is fired on stage? Either there is no smoke, which is itself risibly implausible, or there is, which is the source of a different kind of trouble. Smoke is a worry because of its sheer unpredictability, an unpredictability that is always there when the air is invoked or acknowledged. And smoke on stage always takes too long to clear For minutes or more after a gunshot, of the lighting of cigarette, the actors will have lost their audience, who will have switched off from what is being said in order to concentrate on the slow, blue, seducing loops of the dissipating smoke. Smoke makes visible the air, revealing it as the antagonist of illusion. Smoke is never realistic or life-like. In life, which is to say, in cinema, smoke is disposed of once its job is done. On the stage, smoke is not so easily ushered off, but hangs, drifts, not just laterally across the stage, but across the footlights too. The worst of smoke is, of course, that you continue to smell it, long after it is no longer visible. Like the light from a distant star, the smoke from a crime of passion in Act I is only just starting to tingle in your nostrils by the middle of Act 2. It is for this reason that only the worst kind of bungler writes a scene which ends with a gunshot. For to do so means that the next scene, which may well need to be set in an interrogation cell or courtroom, will be contaminated by the haze from the last. So the danger of smoke is really that of anachronism, which muddles the geological, layer-cake time of stage-play, in which one thing follows and displaces another, with a kind of nebular time, in which nothing is ever neatly on cue or over and done with, and one thing follows another by becoming part of it. The aesthetic menace of fire in the theatre is, precisely, ‘no smoke with fire’, but, rather, ‘no fire without smoke’.

Smoke is an important sign of and reason for the vulgarity of air. Smoke – the puff of smoke in which the genie appears in the pantomime, the ankle-hugging clouds of dry ice in naff rock opera – is as much part of the vulgarity of popular performance as Peter Pan aeronautics or show-off backflipping. For, unless one resorts to noisy smoke extraction processes, smoke will always find a way to drift across and thereby dissolve the ontological divide between actors and audience, curling beneath and round the safety curtain. Brecht thought that audiences should be encouraged to smoke in the theatre, to encourage a contemplative attitude in them and to resist the narcosis of spectacle. One might imagine that forcing the actors to perform in an atmosphere made up of the smoke blown at them by the audience would also play a large part in deflating their pumped-up authority.

Smoke is a discloser of air, just as fabric is an amplifier of it. The clean air act that theatre has progressively become means that audiences are exposed less often to the sort of impure or commingled air represented by smoke. In all of this, the contrast with mediaeval and early modern drama is very clear. Fire was a frequent and active element in this drama. Illumination was provided by candles, torches, rushlights and cressets, which not only made the light of the stage less powerful and controllable than gas or electric light, but also meant that light itself was palpable rather than just the transparent means for making other things visible. Light was as fluctuant as air, and the time of the performance became what Bachelard called the ‘igneous time’ of candlelight, making the metatheatrical snuffing of Macbeth’s ‘Out, out, brief candle’ (V.v, 30) much more than a rhetorical twitch. Only gradually did it become possible to remove light sources from the scene they were making visible. The association between light and combustion meant that when smokeless light could be achieved the effect was much prized. Leoni di Somi recommended in the 1560s the use of mirrors and concealed saying that ‘here we obtain light without smoke – a great consideration (Dialogues of Leoni di Somi, quoted Butterworth 1998, 65).

The fact that almost all artificial light sources were produced by some form of combustion also meant that light was odorous; the convention of lighting the stage with torches in daylight performances to indicate a nocturnal scene must thus have given darkness its characteristic smell. In fact, smells were not just thought of as byproducts: substances like camphor, pitch and sulphur, whose primary uses were to produce effects of light and flame, were also employed specifically for their olfactory appeal.

Philip Butterworth (1998) has shown how prominent smoke and fire were in the medieval and Tudor theatre, and how prominent pyrotechnics were in the pageants, spectacles and entertainments that formed a continuum with theatre, his work thus disclosing an unexpectedly close link between the theatrical arts and the specialised skills of Her Majesty’s Gunners. A particularly prized effect was the englobing of actors, usually those playing devils, in flames; this was achieved by impregnating their costumes with ‘aqua ardente’, or burning water, in fact alcohol mixed with colouring powders, the vapour of which would, at least in theory, burn without consuming the costume which acted as its wick or reservoir. Fire was employed to heighten two effects in particular. The first was to show flames emanating from hell mouth in mystery plays – the Coventry Drapers’ Accounts record regular payments to individuals ‘for kepying of fyer at hell mothe’ (Butterworth 1998, 83). The second principal use of fire was to billow from the mouths of dragons. These two occasions for stage fire mark the mixed or median condition of the air, which is both above the earth, from which fire and smoke billow, and below the sky, which is the element to which the dragon belongs. Much ingenuity went into suspending dragon-figures from wires so that they should appear to fly (Butterworth 1998, 87-90). Butterworth also quotes a remarkable passage from a witness to the preparations for the meeting of Henry VIII and Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520:

Here mention must be made of a singular circumstance, namely the appearance in the air of a great salamander or dragon, artificially constructed; it was four fathoms long, and seemed to be filled with fire, very horrible and terrible. It seemed to come from the direction of Ardres. Many were greatly frightened thereby, thinking that it must be a comet or some monster or portent. (Butterworth 1998, 10)

The identification of the dragon and the salamander is instructive, for the salamander not only inhabits fire as its element, it seems also to be made of it. So theatrical dragons would not only breathe fire, but also routinely be consumed by it. The air of the theatre was not a uniform space or resource, but was in continuous transformation, as though in confirmation of the doctrine of Anaximenes that the air is the origin of all the other elements; mixed with water, it manifests itself as steam; with earth, it is seen as smoke; and, as fire, it represents the air visibly consuming itself. Air was itself seen as intermediary, a mixture and meeting of the thick fogs and smokes and miasmas emanating from and returned to the earth, and the pure ethereal upper air. Macbeth’s witches figure the religious and moral suspensions of the play in terms of a hovering, even as their toil and trouble at the cauldron is producing the elements of which they chant: ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair/Hover through the fog and filthy air’ (I.i, 13-14).

Werner Habicht (1990) has made out in Shakespeare’s plays a pattern of reference to two kinds of air which correspond to this distinction between the upper and the lower. Theatre provides the laboratory of their meeting and compounding; the congested, corrupted air of the playhouse, transformed into the airy forms and higher illusions of art. When Cleopatra imagines her own theatrical display, captured and on show in Rome, her horror is at being enfolded in the audience’s breath as much as at being exposed to their gaze: ‘In their thick breaths,/Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded,/And forc’d to drink their vapour’ (V.ii 211-13). Cleopatra’s words make reference to a common joke about the knee-weakening wafts of pong from the pit which actors had to confront, reminding us that air goes in more than one direction. Air was never inert in the early modern world, especially not stale air, which was believed to have a role in forming monsters of imagination. Habicht describes a kind of theatrical meteorology in the Shakespearean playhouse, in which the sweet and wholesome air of the playwright’s invention meets and contends with the foul, but equally generative air of the groundlings, as though in a kind of occluded front:

Sensitizing his audience to the “thickness” of the air that prevails in the playhouse, and also to its troubling influence on the minds of the characters in a play, is, then, one of Shakespeare’s devices that contribute to generating and conveying the illusion of an oppressive atmosphere of corruption, and of infected fantasies emerging from it, whether or not the latter take the visible shape of ghosts or bloody daggers (Habicht 1990, 306-7).

This tradition of theatrical thick air survives in the more grotesque and extravagant kinds of eighteenth and nineteenth-century entertainment, in which, not only the dalliance with air, but also playing with fire, was prominent. One might instance the career of Ivan Ivanitz Chabert, the ‘Human Salamander’, whose heyday was during the 1820s. His most well-known act involved him entering a blazing oven holding two raw steaks in his hand, emerging some time later unharmed, but the steaks perfectly cooked (‘Like the martyrs of old’, punned one contemporary poetic celebration of Chabert’s art, ‘He is bound to the steak’.) Nineteenth-century popular theatre also featured Signora Josephine Girardelli, ‘The Fire-proof lady’, who held redhot iron bars and cooked an egg in boiling oil held in her hands, along with numerous ‘Fire Kings’ and other incombustible performers (Jay 1987, 239-73).

The theatrical entertainments of the medieval and early modern periods not only inhabited the air, they consciously and conspicuously worked it. The air of the this theatre was palpable, perturbed, dynamic, animated, moralistic, metamorphic, populous, portentous, ‘pendulous’ (Lear III.iv, 49), agonistic and heterogeneous. The controlled or conditioned air of the modern theatre that emerged through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is homogenous, transparent, inert, enclosed, invariant, indifferent and invisible. The air becomes palpable only in occasional spasms of spectacle (tumblers employed to jizz up The Tempest, that kind of thing), or in its residual ghostings, like the drift of smoke, or the chaotic flutter of a page or ribbon falling to the floor. At these moments, it seems as though theatre might still be able to take place in the air, rather than, as is usually the case, the air being taken up by theatre.

Artificial Respiration

The rise of the professional theatre across Europe was secured by means of fixed abode. Drama got to be theatre when it went indoors. As walls went up around the playing space and finally the lid got put on theatre, theatre was able to carve itself out from spectacle and pageant. Acoustics were able to trump atmospherics, and the word to win out over the weather. This claustration produces a kind of dephlogistication, or apnoea. It might appear as though none of what I am saying can apply in the same way to open-air performance. I have two defences against this. One is that although such performance is indeed open to the air, exposed, as we say, to the elements, its air can never be wholly open. The theatre at Epidaurus is, as Michel Serres has fancied it, a giant ear, or sound trap (Serres 1998, 107). The act and fact of performance always involves a hemming in, or taking up of the air. Performance must always mark out a space, a magical circle of fire, a hovel on the heath, within which an artificial climate of artistry and attentiveness may be constituted.

Of course, it is not true that theatre is entirely breathless, in the sense suggested by Derrida’s reading of Artaud (1978). There is another sense in which modern theatre is suffused with air, namely in the words which have become its principal form of currency. We can see this imaged in the displaced meteorology of Lear’s heath scene. Evoking the howlings of the ‘enmity of th’air’ (II.iv, 243), Lear demonstrates that he does not have to raise his voice to be heard above the storm, because he has the storm in his voice. The apparatus used to generate the antagonistic sound of the weather is in fact a doubling of the wind machine that is his own voice. Indeed, one may think of the whole of theatre as this kind of wind machine, or artificial lung. The most important fact about the air in the theatre is that it is circulated – drawn on, drawn in, shaped, expelled, diffused. Air in the theatre circulates between the abstract condition of mere availability, and the animation and the form it is given through the choreographed collective breathings of the actors.

The condition that Luce Irigaray (1999) has called the ‘forgetting of air’ has been accompanied and concealed for the last couple of centuries by an extraordinary mysticism of the breath. Not surprisingly, acting and performing are areas in which this mysticism has flourished. I say not surprisingly because I want to be able to take it as a given that acting and the theatrical condition are at bottom a kind of atrocity. It is no surprise that the idea of performance provokes such terror, horror, rage and uneasy hilarity, nor is it a surprise that the practice of theatre should depend so much upon superstition and the occult, or that a very large part of what is thought of as theatrical technique should consist of mystique. Of no area of actorly experience is this more true than the vicissitudes of the breath. No aspect of the physical experience is more made over to desperate propitiatory magic, as the operations of the breath. A large component of stage fright is the loss of control of the breath; under conditions of theatrical panic, one is both out of breath and surfeited with it, as one threatens to expire amid one’s hyperventilation.

It would be absurd to suggest that there are no benefits for those who use their voices professionally, actors, speakers and singers, in paying attention to the processes of breathing. There is no doubt that there is such a thing as bad or pathological breathing, or that breathing exercises can be of great use not just for respiratory complaints, but also for the control of anxiety and depression. But my interest is in the vast exaggeration of the powers of the breath, and the secondary powers that are believed to come from mastering it. Breath is important to the theatre not just in a narrow technical sense, but also because of the close association between breath and power. Since everything that lives appears to breathe, breath is regarded as having the power to give life. Breath enacts the fantasy of power over death, and the power of self-ownership and therefore self-transformation. There is no bodily symbol more alluring for the one so helplessly exposed and vulnerable as the actor. In a sense, breath control is an allegory of the condition of the actor. Nearly all the time, breathing is natural, spontaneous and unconscious. The actor’s awareness and conscious regulation of his breath are enactments of his agonisedly prohibited being.

It is relatively easy to show that much of what passes for the science or therapy of the breath is pitiful or contemptible fantasy. But there is a twist here. For simply pointing out the fantasy of power involved in breathing neither registers nor puts paid to the power of the fantasy which drives the fantasy of breath-power.

Many of the fantasies associated with the breath emphasise the taking in of vital substance in the act of what is, tellingly enough, called inspiration. Since the isolation of oxygen and nitrous oxide described in Joseph Priestley’s Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (1775), and the establishment in 1799 of the Bristol Pneumatic Institution by Thomas Beddoes and Humphrey Davy, writer after writer has announced the discovery that the conditions of modern life were leading to oxygen-starvation. The intoxicating effects of nitrous oxide were ascribed by some to the oxygen in the compound. George Catlin (1861) led a campaign through the nineteenth century to discourage the pernicious practice of breathing through the mouth, to which a terrifying range of evil consequences were ascribed. Exercises designed to encourage deep breathing were described on all sides.

The Victorian cult of ventilation encouraged some extraordinary aggrandisments of the power of the breath. The Swedenborgian homeopathist and anti-vaccination campaigner John James Garth Wilkinson wrote of what he called ‘the empire of the respiration’ as a bodily power of self-transcendence:

[W]hen we rise into motion, and the will comes forth… a limb of air becomes steel, runs vigorously down to our toes and fingers. The skin is braced so tight, that the muscles threaten to start through it, and the will in the same manner menaces to bare itself by throwing off the muscles. The clothes and the body fly out like concentric planetary rings in a rapid vortex. The man becomes more and more of air; he ceases to lie, he ceases to sit, he ceases to stand, and, like an elastic sphere bounding upon a point, the ball of his foot is his only contact with the ground. This is the extreme effect of the aeration of his limbs. He has become a bird for that moment, and can then fly through difficulties, which are the atmosphere of these great actions of the lungs. (Wilkinson, p. 100, quoted Robinson, 17)

Over the next century and a half there would be dozens who claimed to have hit upon new and previously unsuspected methods of breathing. Mme. M.A. Carlisle, the author of a handy booklet entitledKeep Breathing, blamed unenthusiastic breathing for lassitude and the collapse of the human frame. In those who have forgotten the deep breathing which is automatic in children, dire consequences can be expected: ’ The blood is starved for want of oxygen, the muscles of the body become enfeebled, and joy goes out of living’ (Carlisle 39). Her book is staged as a series of admonitory dialogues:

A. – Well-filled lungs are powerful to prevent curvature of the spine, especially in young children; they support and uplift the chest, and are, in fact, the “greatest actors” in the drama of a human life.
Q. – It would be very careless, then, to breathe wrongly, after knowing this?
A. – It would be worse than careless; it would be culpable. (Carlisle, 10)

The condition of breath deprivation is so unpleasant and frightening, and the effects of restoring depleted levels of oxygen by flooding the lungs with air so pleasant and relieving that it is scarcely be a source of surprise that mystics, medics, theologians and other body-fantasists should have idealised the action of the inbreath, attributing to it spiritual powers which match and extend its physiological importance.

What is less easy to understand straight away is the idealisation of the opposite action of the breath, the expiration of the exhausted air. Indeed, one can say that the mystification of the breath is characterised by this inverse respiratory logic. Of course, it is just as much a relief to expel carbon dioxide as it is to take in oxygen, and one can be asphyxiated by failing to breathe out just as easily as by failing to take a breath. But expiration is excremental rather than incremental, and, although certain powers are ascribed to bodily products (think of the sight-restoring effects of Christ’s spittle), one does not in general find other excremental actions giving rise to such extensive systems of symbolism as the waste products of respiration. ‘Breathe on me, breath of God’ goes the English hymn, neatly summarising the Christian assimilation of a notion of the divinely-creative outbreath of the deity to the Stoic doctrine of the pneuma or creative principle running through the universe. Obviously, only a divinity can breath life into the nostrils of his creatures; the action of artificial respiration performed by humans is effective only in stimulating the lapsed breathing response; if carried on too long, blowing carbon dioxide into the lungs of a victim already near to death from asphyxiation or suffocation is strongly contraindicated.

There are two other reasons why the outbreath might have come to be regarded as holy or sacred. The first is that the most important social as opposed to mechanical action in which the breath participates is in speech. The positive action of producing words, and the fantasy that it encourages that in so doing one is populating the world with embodied ideas, feelings and conceptions, takes place during the action of breathing out. All the modulations of spoken language are nothing more than modifications of the stream of air expired from the lungs, which is arrested, channelled, overlaid with mucous membrane, amplified by the resonance of pharynx, nose and mouth. Speech is a prolongation and complication of breath.

The second reason for the sacredness of the outbreath arises from this first. Given the unavoidable implication of the breath in the symbolic action of speaking, it is not surprising that respiratory actions should be apt to supply metaphorical enactments of the content of speech as well as the mechanical conditions for its production. Hence the range of mimetic effects favoured by a certain school of thought which centres on the performative dimension of speech; angry or aggressive utterances may employ the violent compression of air in hissing sibilants, or premonitory bombs of plosive sounds. The prevalence of the sigh in poetry and public speech, as emblematised in that most theatrical word ‘oh’, seems to bring together loss and retention. In the sigh, the breath passes from the body, as the beloved or lamented object is lost; yet the sigh ‘gives breathing to one’s purpose’, and, in creating a sound picture of one’s feeling of loss, partially assuages it. Hence the common mixture of yearning and onanistic self-satisfaction in the sigh. Voicing the breath seems to be a way of keeping it for oneself, even as it is given out. Speech relates particularly to the performative condition or, as some would prefer, predicament, in that it involves a kind of hungering of the air; a putting of the air to work; a making do with air.

I have suggested that there is something structurally apnoeic about theatre. Now I want to suggest that there is a link between the metaphorical rarefaction of the air in the theatre and the actual condition of mild oxygen starvation which is its dominant physiological mode. This link between theatre and the outbreath – the fact that, as we might say, the theatre is always on the point of giving out – is itself implicated in much of what is thought and said about the inspiration of theatre, or its infusion with a kind of higher air.

Poets, mediums and, insofar as they are vulnerable to their attentions, actors, have been much enamoured of the condition of partial apnoea. This can take mild and harmless forms, which can be seen as spiritual versions of the more drastic kinds of pleasure reaped from breath restriction to be found among erotic asphyxophiliacs. But they can also develop into full-blown (just the opposite really) fantasies of a higher, more spiritual breath, or second wind. Emmanuel Swedenborg characterised the action of the outbreath as a communion with the soul, a detoxification, or breathing out of the lower being.

If we carefully attend to profound thoughts we shall find that when we draw breath a host of ideas rush from beneath, as through an open door, into the sphere of thought; whereas when we hold the breath and slowly let it out we doubly keep it the whole in the tenor of our thought and communicate, as it were, with the higher faculty of the Soul…Holding back the breath is equivalent to having intercourse with the Soul; drawing it amounts to intercourse with the body (Swedenborg, quoted Crookall 197, 14)

Swedenborg claimed, like many another mystic, to have developed a way of living, not on thin air, but on something finer, more tenuously ethereal still.

I noticed that there was a tacit respiration, scarcely sensible, about which it was given afterwards to think, and then to write. In this way for many years from infancy, I was introduced into such breathings, especially through speculation, in which the ordinary breathing subsided, otherwise no intense speculation of truth can be given. Then afterwards, when heaven was opened, so that I spoke with spirits, I breathed so completely in this way that I did not take a common breath for a space of an hour, only just enough air being drawn to enable me to think. (Swedenborg, quoted Crookall 1997, 14)

David Crookall’s Psychic Breathing multiplies examples of mediums, mystics and yogis who lived the same fantasy of a life freed from the vulgar and tedious necessity of drawing breath. A belief in the powers of carbon dioxide, or ‘carbonic acid’ as it was once commonly known, is often to be found among mediums. Eileen J. Garrett describes a life lived among visions of auras and airy gossamer-like extrusions. She saw ‘the floating surround of all living organisms…as though it were a breathing outer lung. ..I knew then that these surrounds were sustained and kept in shape not by the breathing of oxygen but of carbonic acid gas’ (Garrett 1939, 91).

Theatre seems to literalise the medium’s fantasy of a series of lives formed of expirations, or exhaust fumes. Theatre exists more and more in the fantasy of an exhaustless reserve of air which can be breathed out without ever having to be breathed in. Theatre is one long expiration, and the dissolution spoken of by Prospero is in fact its fundamental condition: ‘these our actors,/As I foretold you, were all spirits, and/Are melted into air, thin air’ (Tempest IV.i, 181-3). No more telling example of this effacement of air is the horror of the line ending; the stopping of the breath at the end of one line and the hauling in of new air for the next. The device that smoothes this transition is known as enjambement, but the legwork involved might just as aptly be known as empneument, breathwork, the work of the breath that theatre works to make invisible, inaudible and inoperative.

Ventriloquism becomes the representative art of the theatre. In my Dumbstruck (2000) I tried to show how the art of conjuring voices out of thin air, which was often incredibly alleged to be practiseden plein air, achieved its modern form, a theatrically interesting form, only when it came indoors. This process brought with it an a focus upon the ventriloquist’s body, especially the body of his breath. Rather than summoning spirits in the air, he drew the entire space of the theatre into the theatre of his breath. How-To-Do-It books for budding ventriloquists emphasise, not trickery, but athletic art, not guile but physique. More than anything else, it is necessary to be able to disguise your respiration, by taking large, surreptitious gulps, which are then released, in a slow, equally indiscernible fizzle. Women were not thought to have the pulmonary power necessary for ventriloquism, since they breathed with their chests rather than their magic diaphragms. Ventriloquism is the image of the theatre made into the image of a single, variegated expiration. The superstitious ban on mingling speech with the inbreath is evident in the earlier belief that ventriloquism was practised by speaking during inspiration. It will be said at some point in the career of all great ventriloquists, that they were capable of speaking, not just alternately, but simultaneously with their dummies. The fact that theatre still for the most part obeys the one-at-a-time rule when it comes to dialogue (the choreographing of interruption and overlap in a play like Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls being a rule-disclosing anomaly) is an indication of how theatre remains an art of the distributed or orchestrated breath, rather than an art of the air, the nature of which, as we have seen in the case of smoke, is to mix and mingle. The synchronised breathing of which actors and directors dream, in which whole audiences can be induced to hold and release their breaths in time with the actors, is the enlargement of that anthropomorphic making over of air into collective breath. Carbon dioxide used to be known as fixed air: by the end of the show, when every particle of air has been used up and rebreathed, the air has become entirely fixed into breath.

Breath is the raw material of theatre, providing the fuel for all the words and action that transpire and are respired upon the stage. But, for all its functional centrality and its prominence in the training of actors and performers, the work of voice training aims to efface the breath, or rather to ensure that it is all put to work, leaving no unconsumed residue, in the form of the wheeze, the gasp, the grunt, the whistle. Dickens makes the breath emblematically audible in the wheezing, bronchial lisping of the low but honest circus-proprietor Sleary in Hard Times: ‘People mutht be amuthed, thquire’. Of course, the breath is abundantly heard in the theatre, but not as breath. Every sigh, hiss, cough, gurgle and death-rattle has been turned into something legible, audible, as though saying its name out loud, or supplied with its own subtitle or speech-bubble. Theatre is made of breath, but it is a breath that must neither catch its breath, nor waste it, lest the wasting condition of the breath become apparent. Here, in other words far too late, is the right place to acknowledge the starting point of these reflections on theatrical air, in a series of conversations with Nick Ridout about breathing in theatre, and in particular the arresting comment he once made to me: that the only time you ever see an actor breathe on stage is when he is dead.

I have said that the artificial respiration of the theatre begins with its establishment as interiority, of spatial enclosure, or sealing up of the air. This is assisted by another of the very strong fantasies attaching to the exercise or control of the breath of the breath. Disciplines of breathing from many different religious and psychiatric traditions represent the action of breathing, and especially of breathing out, as conducive to higher states of balance, composure, harmony, connectedness, freedom and presence. The merely random, ragged and disorganised breath of ordinary life is made to seem intolerably brutish. There is a strong connection between these many guides to breathing and the question of bodily orientation. Breath imagery techniques encourage their users to imagine their breath extending throughout their beings, as though the body were a kind of balloon, or windsock, and one could, by gathering one’s normally dispersed powers of concentration, direct the invigorating airstream right into one’s fingernails. The Hindu traditions of pranayama emphasise the directions of the different breaths that are believed to inhabit the body. The prana, located in the nostrils and the head, moves upwards (or is inbreath); the apana, involved in expiration and excretion and finding its point of focus in the anus, moves downwards; the udana, associated with the throat and actions of eructation, belches forth or goes upwards; the samana, associated with digestion and the belly, translates gross elements into more subtle ones and distributes them outwards through the whole body; and vyana, which supports and underlies both prana and apana – the body as a whole, moves in all directions at once (Ewing 1901, 13, 57). To these griddings of the body, we must add the theories of left and right-handed breath characteristic of Swara Yoga, the adherents of which are instructed in an elaborate system of opposites and connections arising from differential nostril dominance.

Whatever else all this breath imagination does, it establishes the breath as something amenable to vision, recruiting it to the eye and the spaces it requisitions and commands. The professional superstitions attaching to the different registers of the voice, which refer them to different sources or locations in the body – chest voice, head voice, and so on, and, most of all what Hollis Huston has called the ‘fabulous character’ of the diaphragm (Huston 1984, 200) – belong to the same cast of thought.

All of this depends upon the making out of a lived truth, which is to say an imaginary truth; namely that the body is itself a precinct or theatre of air. (Theatre means a seeing, which is to say a blindness to the air that all acts of seeing must use to see through.) All of this involves a forgetting or setting aside of the condition of the air, which will not easily consent to be centred, contained or made present. Air has substance, but not shape or place or orientation, no permanent up and down, no inside or outside. Its nature is to tie orientated space in non-existent knots.

All this may sound as though I am working my way up to some Artaudian protest against the stolen body, the parole soufflée, or spirited-away breath and blood of theatre. I do not wish to be thought to want this. The point is not to insufflate theatre, relieving its shallow breathing and drooping posture with invigorating drafts of circus and acrobatics, and I propose no return to some putatively burly,basso-profondo open-air time of theatre. If anything, just the opposite. If I am interested in the firetrap theatre of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it is not because I see this as a richer, riskier time, but rather because it suggests a kind of raggedness, a short-windedness that the most advanced disciplines of the breath in the theatre have never been able to shrug off. The theatre is live art, not because it breathes the breath of life, but because it is subject to chronic fatigue, always short of breath, since this is what breathing means. In an era of electro-magnetic virtuosity, theatre can still be, cannot but continue in some sort to be, broken-winded – a kind of steam radio.


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