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Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Andromaque: Audio Descrption in the Seventeenth Century

I have been teaching French literature to undergraduates for 15 years or so but I rarely venture any further back than 1789: I am a dix-neuviemiste at heart but am equally at home teaching twentieth-century fiction and film. So this year it was quite a shock to find myself down to lecture on Racine's seventeenth-century drama Andromaque as part of one of our new first-year courses. As a prose specialist I'm not used to studying plays and I sat down to read it last night rather nervously. What if I couldn't get my head round the complexities of Racine's text? How could I possibly teach the play to students if I couldn't understand it myself?

I emerged a few hours later completely in awe of Racine's tragedy. The plot was gripping, the language was both compelling and beautiful and the whole thing was much easier to follow than I had been expecting. This blog is not the place to indulge in a detailed assessment of the play but there is one aspect of Racine's drama which particularly appealed to me. Unlike almost all the playwrights I have come across, Racine uses hardly any stage directions. Instead, it is the characters themselves who announce the action as it happens. So, in Act IV, Secne 2, Andromaque's line: 'C'est Hermione. Allons fuyons sa violence' (Here is Hermione, let us flee her violence), announces both Hermione's entrance and Andromaque's exit. French drama specialist Joe Harris tells me that this intriguing technique has its roots in the practicalities of seventeenth-century staging. Racine's plays were first performed not in theatres but in badly lit real tennis courts where most of the audience would struggle to see what was happening on the narrow and distant stage. So Racine built verbal prompts into his plays as both a set of cues for the actors, and a set of clues for the audience. What I like most about this early modern predecessor of audio description is the way that it does not take sight for granted. Our modern occulocentric world is obsessed with the primacy of vision. It would never occur to modern playwrights that spectators might have difficulty seeing what is happening on stage. Audio description is an extra feature which is added after the fact (if indeed it is added at all). It is not considered an integral part of the work (although perhaps it should be). But Racine's way of having his characters announce their own and others' entrances and exits makes the play equally accessible to blind and sighted audiences (as well as to blind and sighted actors). By verbalising movement in this way, Racine creates a properly multi-sensory experience which modern playwrights would do well to learn from. I wonder how different plays (and films) would be if they were conceived with the blind in mind from the start.

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