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Related: audience - bread and circuses - entertainment - performance - show - sensationalism - sword and sandal films - hyperreality

Key text: Society of the Spectacle (1967) - Guy Debord

Pollice Verso (1872) - Jean-Léon Gérôme
photo sourced here.


In general spectacle refers to an event that is memorable for the appearance it creates. While some literary critics and philosophers in the 20th century have offered a theory of "the spectacle" as a mode by which capitalism subordinates everyday experience (see, for example, Situationalism), the term "spectacle" has also been a term of art in theater dating from the 17th century in English drama.

Low and high culture
"Spectacle" operates in two contexts simultaneously. On the one hand, it refers to high culture (drama, movies) performances where the draw for an audience is the impressive visual accomplishment. On the other hand, it refers to low cultural shows operating in a folk environment. These can range from the freak show to folk drama to tablieau and beast-plays. The two worlds have always interacted to a lesser or greater degree, with the folks spectacle often being rewritten into a literary spectacle, whether for humor (e.g. The Mechanicals with their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream) or not (e.g. the serious treatment of the folk Everyman).

Low and high culture mingled in the spectacle as long as folk productions of spectacle were possible. In the 17th century in England, popular spectacles of the playhouse would be adapted into spectacles for the fair, and in the 18th century fair shows and pantomimes would be adapted to the playhouse stage. In the 19th century, theaters moved farther from folk cultural spectacles and began to develop stand-alone seasonal plays that were centered on a spectacular piece. However, in the 20th century, with the invention of movie theaters, folk festivals were unable to create or recreate the spectacles on film, and the theaters themselves were soon unable to replicate the spectaculars of films. Although film adaptation would occasionally begin with the old, folk mythological narrative material, the movie that resulted would be distributed out to all audiences, thus destroying the audience and source of folk spectacle.

The Hollywood Spectacular
When the zoetrope and nickelodeon technology first appeared, the earliest films were spectacles. Thomas Edison advertised his productions as things that people had never seen before. The actual Eifel Tower, actual American Indians in a simulated attack, and even celebrated beauty queens were the subjects and reasons for film. Louis Lumiere's film of a train pulling into a station in 1895 was a sensation because it gave an object of gaze, of spectacle that audiences would never have experienced otherwise (for the camera was in front of the train, and the train appeared to be coming directly at the viewer). --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spectacle [Aug 2005]

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