The frontal set-up of the proscenium arch now marks a central point of debate regarding the nature of representation within the theatre. The proscenium’s frontal architectural form seems to leave little room for discussion as it detaches the spectator from the performance through the employment of the fourth wall. This lack of discussion has repeatedly been blamed for the reestablishment of traditional bourgeois values and hegemonic sign-systems within the theatre. (Heuvel 1992) Hence, the 20thcentury was more than happy to embrace the multitude of theatrical innovations as new staging concepts stirred away from the ‘antiquity’ of the proscenium arch, moving into a new and exciting artistic terrain that involved theatre in the round, environmental theatre, etc. (Heuvel 1992) These innovations celebrated the theatre as an interactiveexperiencebetween the actors and the audience, liberating the stage from the ‘dull’ frontal viewing that the proscenium arch had seemed to chain itself to. Representation within these emerging theatre styles evolved into a state of ‘experiencing the image’ rather than merely ‘viewing it’ and the audience was now able to play an active role, allowing them to interact/question the sign systems on stage.
Oddly enough, the proscenium still seems to be the most common form of staging within our Western theatre culture. Realistic, Epic, and the Post-modern Theatre of Images mark three of the most historically significant genre’s within the theatrical movement, yet, these three styles predominantly employ the proscenium arch as a theatre space. Their regressive use of this staging has at times been considered reactionary, leading to anxieties about a backlash within the theatrical movement. While for some, the use of the proscenium may signify an artistic backlash, I would argue that the proscenium has undergone a crucial range of adaptations; signifying the constantevolutionof representation within the theatre. Through a discussion regarding the development of the proscenium arch within the genre’s of Realistic, Epic, and post-modern theatre, we can see how this staging has been able to manipulate its frontal frame as it, often successfully, responds to our constantly changing environment.
Realistic theatre seems to have catalysed some of the strongest concerns regarding the proscenium arch. This genre of theatre has usually been in favour of the proscenium, creating an ‘invisible’ frame to duplicate ‘real-life’ portraits on stage.
(Russell 1976) The proscenium allows for a level of control unlike any other. Its basic end-stage design restricts the spectator’s angles of vision; offering a static backdrop which allows for intricate details within the set design. Aesthetically, these traditional realistic productions were obviously quite beautiful; portraying ‘real life’ pictures which the audience could absorb from a protected distance. Yet, the ‘absorption’ of these performances became a dangerous process as Realistic theatre was bound by the text of ‘the well-made play’. A text which, quite clearly, reinstated bourgeois hegemonic principles. (Russell 1976)
The attacks which have plagued Realistic theatre are a result of theconjunctionof the proscenium arch set-up with the well-made play. The well-made play seemed to revolve around issues of class, using characters that were framed as being ‘real’. These characters were “symbols , believable human beings, and stereotypes who might appear in a boulevard melodrama.” (Russell 1976: 154) They were basically symbols of bourgeois value, which, due to the frontal nature of the proscenium arch, could only be absorbed (rather than questioned) by the spectator. Hence, rather than putting the full-blame on the proscenium arch, I would earlier agree with theorist Michael Vanden Heuvel who notes that it was this specific combination of text and performance which resulted in hegemonic backlash. As Heuvel notes, realist theatre can be “defined in terms of the suspect coincidence between its own representations of reality, on one hand, and the network of discourses […] that the dominant culture already proposes and assumes as its reality.” (Heuvel 1992: 48)
Yet, in this day and age many performance makers have been able to successfully revive Realist theatre, allowing it’s genre, as well as the proscenium arch, to evolve and adjust itself to our contemporary mindset. This has mainly been occurring through the revival of the play text, rather than the actual set-up of the proscenium. A clear example of this could be Tom Stoppard’s adaptation ofHamlet. Stoppard’s playRosencrantz and Guildenstern are Deadeffectively revives the themes portrayed inHamlet, manipulating them to fit the contemporary notions and questions regarding existentialist life. This text, though derived from a ‘realist’ play, could be staged in a proscenium and still encourage a high level of theoretical discussion, simultaneously embracing certain characteristics of Realist theatre.