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Edinburgh Critical Studies in Modernism, Drama and Performance

The Speech-Gesture Complex

Modernism, Theatre, Cinema

Anthony Paraskeva
the speech-gesture complex
Edinburgh Critical Studies in Modernism, Drama and Performance
Series Editor: Olga Taxidou

Editorial Board:

Penny Farfan (University of Calgary); Robert Leach (formerly of Edinburgh

and Birmingham Universities); Ben Levitas (Goldsmiths, University of
London); John London (Goldsmiths, University of London); Laura Marcus
(University of Oxford); Marjorie Perloff (University of Stanford); Kirsten
Shepherd-Barr (University of Oxford); Alexandra Smith (University of

Edinburgh Critical Studies in Modernism, Drama and Performance addresses

the somewhat neglected areas of drama and performance within Modernist
Studies, and is in many ways conceived of in response to a number of intel-
lectual and institutional shifts that have taken place over the past 10 to 15
years. On the one hand, Modernist Studies has moved considerably from the
strictly literary approaches, to encompass engagements with the everyday,
the body, the political, while also extending its geopolitical reach. On the
other hand, Performance Studies itself could be seen as acquiring a distinct
epistemology and methodology within Modernism. Indeed, the autonomy of
Performance as a distinct aesthetic trope is sometimes located at the exciting
intersections between genres and media; intersections that this series sets out
to explore within the more general modernist concerns about the relationships
between textuality, visuality and embodiment. This series locates the theoreti-
cal, methodological and pedagogical contours of Performance Studies within
the formal, aesthetic and political concerns of Modernism. It claims that the
‘linguistic turn’ within Modernism is always shadowed and accompanied by
an equally formative ‘performance / performative turn’. It aims to highlight the
significance of performance for the general study of modernism by bringing
together two fields of scholarly research which have traditionally remained
quite distinct – performance / theatre studies and Modernism. In turn this
emphasis will inflect and help to re-conceptualise our understanding of both
performance studies and modernist studies. And in doing so, the series will
initiate new conversations between scholars, theatre and performance artists
and students.
Modernism, Theatre, Cinema

Anthony Paraskeva
© Anthony Paraskeva, 2013

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Acknowledgements vi

Introduction 1
 Kafka’s Amerika: The Aesthetics and Politics of Incompletion 1
  Unstable Categories: Naturalist and Modernist Performance Style 14
  Performative Absence and Mechanical Reproduction 18
  Theatre, Cinema and the Universal Language of Gesture 26
1 James Joyce 38
  ‘our sad want of signs’: Imperceptible Gestures in Ibsen and Joyce 38
 Paralysis and Spectatorship: Henry James, Eleanora Duse, Yeats
 and Dubliners43
  Slips of the Hand in Exiles 55
 ‘In the beginning was the gest’: ‘Circe’, Early Cinema and the ‘Art
  of Gestures’ 64
2 Wyndham Lewis 88
  The Clown and the Über-Marionette in Enemy of the Stars 88
  The Childermass: Lewis vs Chaplin in the Afterlife 100
 The Politics of Gesture: The Bailiff, Hitler and the Society of the
 Spectacle 110
3 The Transition to Sound 132
  Nabokov, Lewis and Garbo 132
  Late Modernism and the Resistance to Sound 148
4 Samuel Beckett 162
  Hand-writing in Nacht und Träume 162
  The Politics of Depersonalisation in Catastrophe 167

Bibliography 172
Index 192

I am indebted to Jesus College, Cambridge, and to the University of Dundee

for their support.
I would like to thank the following for guidance, criticism, advice and
inspiration: Ian Patterson, Olga Taxidou, Scott Klein, Tom Jones, Keston
Sutherland, Andrea Brady, Laura McMahon, Morris Beja, Paul Edwards,
Jeremy Hardingham, Chris Goode, Jonny Liron, Mischa Twitchin, Jim
Stewart, Mark Blanco, Sean Bonney, Jeremy Prynne and Stephen Rodefer.
Drew Milne offered challenging criticism and advice as my PhD supervisor.
David Trotter read full drafts of my chapters on Joyce and Lewis, and my
introduction on modernism and cinema in general, on his arrival in Cambridge
in 2003.
I am grateful to Jackie Jones, Rebecca Mackenzie, James Dale and all at
Edinburgh University Press for their generous assistance and commitment to
the project. I would also like to thank the BFI Archive, the Beckett International
Foundation at Reading, and colleagues at Dundee, in particular, Chris Murray,
Keith Williams, Matthew Jarron and Brian Hoyle, for assistance, information
and support. The Carnegie Trust of the Universities of Scotland generously
provided a research grant that helped in the final stages of the book.
Earlier versions of chapters on Joyce, Lewis and cinema have appeared in
Forum for Modern Language Studies, 43:2 (July, 2007), Bloomsday 100: The
19th International James Joyce Symposium CD-ROM (Hyperfecto/James
Joyce Centre, 2005), and Bloomsday 100: Re-Readings of Ulysses (Florida
University Press, 2009). The publishers are gratefully acknowledged. Thanks
are due to The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust for granting permission to
quote from published works by Lewis.
I would like to thank my parents for their immense forbearance and support.
My greatest debt is to Adam Piette, whose support and example encouraged
me to keep going.


Kafka’s Amerika: The Aesthetics and Politics of Incompletion

The following study of the relations between language and gesture, and the
representation of gesture in writing and performance, begins with the premise
that spoken utterance occurs within a non-verbal context of visible bodily
signals, which often serve to complicate the utterance either by reinforcing
the speech-act or displaying a conflicting intention. In Kafka’s Amerika, when
Uncle Jacob explains to the ship’s crew why Karl Rossmann’s parents turned
him out, what he says is complicated by the gesture he performs:
‘For he was’, Uncle Jacob went on, rocking himself a little on the bamboo
cane which was braced in front of him, a gesture that actually succeeded
in deprecating any unnecessary solemnity which otherwise must have
characterised his statement, ‘for he was seduced by a maidservant [. . .] It
is far from my wishes to offend my nephew by using the word “seduced”,
but it is difficult to find another and equally suitable word.’1
The lightness of tone in Jacob’s gesture with the cane undermines the ‘unneces-
sary solemnity’ which is otherwise unavoidable in what he is socially permit-
ted to express in speech. The bending cane suggests Karl’s bending will before
the maid’s seduction; it draws attention to the cane’s phallic aspect; and it
reiterates the element of punishment, the proverbial caning, which greeted
Karl’s lapse. The gesture is a gentle comic flourish, arguing for sympathy

the speech-gesture complex

with Karl’s youthful indiscretion by emphasising an essentially unserious tone

through which the story is then related and judgement passed.
Jacob’s speech-act is determined by a gestural framework which complicates
the illocutionary force of the utterance. Illocutionary force, as put forward
by J. L. Austin and developed by John Searle, describes the intentional status
of an utterance in ordinary language use; an illocutionary act, or the perfor-
mance of an intention which seeks to exert a certain force or influence in a
discursive situation, might include, for instance, imperatives, promises or
warnings. However, the deduction of a speaker’s intentions can be hidden or
complicated by a gesture, resulting in infelicities or cross-purposes. Linguistic
exchanges are grounded in the occasion of their utterance, but this occasion is
not only a linguistic condition, of the kind put forward by Austin and Searle:
non-verbal contexts, gestures (however slight), the overall kinesic continuum
in which speech occurs, determine and can serve to complicate, even contradict
a speech-act. Austin mentions semiotic gestures – ‘we can for example warn or
order or appoint or give or protest or apologise by non-verbal means and these
are illocutionary acts’ – although his focus on ordinary language use overlooks
potential tensions between utterance and kinesic signal: gestures are only ever
regarded as ‘accompaniments of the utterance’.2
If the gesture does not support the speech which it accompanies, it becomes
difficult to distinguish between, for instance, degrees of sincerity or irony.
After Jacob has related the story, Karl turns round ‘to read from the gentle-
men’s faces the impression the story had made’ (p. 34). Austin calls the lis-
tener’s recognition of the speaker’s intentions the ‘securing of uptake’,3 though
Karl observes that ‘none of them laughed, all were listening patiently and seri-
ously’, except the stoker, ‘who now smiled at Karl, though very faintly’ (p. 34).
Laughter is suppressed as an uptake here because the explicit seriousness of the
spoken utterance demands an equivalent response. The subtle Chaplinesque
flourish with the cane is a gestural ‘implicature’, a term coined by Paul Grice
to describe a tacit agreement between speaker and hearer which allows for
ruptures in linguistic convention, in order to imply an alternative meaning
from the one explicitly stated; although Grice, like Austin and Searle, does
not extend its application beyond exclusively verbalised or spoken exchange.4
Jacob’s gesture asks the audience to make an inference at odds with the tone
of the verbal utterance. Decorum prevents an explicit statement of the innu-
endo, though it is implied by an illocutionary context which is not exclusively
speech-based. The impression of withheld laughter contributes to the overall
sense of continued cooperation in the illocutionary exchange.
Austin, Searle and Grice are primarily concerned with ordinary language
use, where gestures do conventionally support the intentional status of a
spoken utterance, each potentially reinforcing the meaning of the other. These
gestures must be seen to be understood, and seen together with speech. But


the visuality which gesture requires can never be adequately or unequivocally

represented in literature. Writing cannot notate or represent without equivo-
cation the exact visible form of a gesture. This translation from the visible to
the verbal leaves gestures prone to multi-angled perspectives, and amplifies the
potential for a gesture to complicate the illocutionary force of an utterance. In
Amerika, Kafka frequently qualifies a main gestural clause in a sentence with a
subordinate clause which serves to unclarify the overall speech-act:

‘No’, shouted Karl, stamping his foot, ‘that isn’t true!’ Delmarche sur-
veyed him with his lips pursed in mockery, as if there were many things
he could divulge. (p. 196)
‘Don’t you worry’ said Robinson, shutting his eyes and shaking his head,
as if shaking off all Karl’s possible worries. (p. 222)

Kafka’s translator, Edwin Muir elides the difference between the subjunc-
tive, ‘als könne’, in the first example, and the clause of purpose, ‘um . . .
abzuwehren’,5 in the second, although the effect is similar in both: the subor-
dinate clauses ambiguate where they might otherwise be expected to clarify.
In the first instance, the pursed lips iconically exhibit a cessation or sealing
off, though as a metaphoric gesture, they suggest the reverse, an excess of
speech, ‘as if there were many things he could divulge’. In the second example,
Robinson ‘shaking off all Karl’s possible worries’ occurs as an iconic gesture:
Karl’s worries are accumulated particles of waste to be shaken off; although
emblematically, shaking one’s head signifies negation or discouragement, and
in this sense is at odds with Robinson telling Karl ‘not to worry’. Writing
cannot conventionally indicate the co-occurrence of speech and gesture, it
can only present them sequentially, in separate clauses, and this limitation
allows for a split in the mutual co-expressiveness of speech and gesture. The
subordinate clauses make vague the communicative exchange as an intentional
act, preventing the hermeneutic clarity which can distinguish unequivocally
between what was intended by the gesture, and what it was taken to mean by
Karl; between the narrator’s and Karl’s perspective; and between the gesture
as an overseen visual occurrence and the gesture as viewed through Karl’s
eyes. It is hard to tell to whom the act of interpretation belongs; the gesture’s
denotation is caught between the intentional conditions of the speech-act, and
what Karl sees, and between the sayable element and the visible, performative
The diegetic ambiguities Kafka’s gestures invoke in the eyes of their interlocu-
tors frequently correlate with the technical problem for the reader in precisely
determining the form and intentions of a reported gesture. Any fictional or
written speech-act happens outside the reader’s perceptual fields, and the overall
situation is constructed implicitly, often through inferring deictic features which

the speech-gesture complex

are not always clarified. Walter Benjamin’s description of the parabolic quality
in Kafka’s stories, that ‘one has to find one’s way in them circumspectly, cau-
tiously and warily’,6 is also the lead character Karl Rossmann’s challenge in
determining what a gesture denotes, even though the gesture as given often
refuses a single explanation, as for instance: ‘Karl handed the candle to the
servant, who merely nodded to him, though it was impossible to say whether
the nod was deliberate or whether it was caused by his stroking his beard with
his hand’ (p. 78). The opacity of the servant’s intention in his gesture, aside
from its diegetic observation, foregrounds the essential visuality of the utter-
ance, but the candle provides insufficient illumination, so Karl cannot accu-
rately register the movement. The obscurity of the gesture, as observed by Karl,
corresponds with its imperceptibility before the eyes of the reader, who must
rely on the narrator’s textual description. It is partially opaque both to Karl and
to the reader. This twofold uncertainty allows the gesture to unfold into multi-
ple connotations. Karl’s and the narrator’s interpretive response is ‘impossible
to say’, a symptom of the inherent i­ndeterminacy in any textual representation
of an iconographic expressive utterance.
The effect of mismatch, where gesture undermines the assertions and
­certainties of speech, is generated by foregrounding the opacity of the perform-
ative situation in which the scene is enacted. What emerges from the reading of
these gestures in Kafka is a tension between the textual and the performative.
In one view, the body functions semiotically as a text to be read. Karl finds his
uncle and Mr Pollunder ‘reclining somewhat monosyllabically [einsilbig] in
two easy chairs’ (p. 54); at the Nature Theatre: ‘the head of the bureau turned
with open mouth upon his clerk, but the clerk made a definite gesture with
his hand, said: “Engaged”, and at once entered the decision in his book’ (p.
256). It is not clear whether the clerk uttered the word ‘engaged’ or whether
he ‘said’ as much with his hand. The recurrent failure to invoke visuality for
the purpose of clarifying a speech-act is an aspect, in Kafka and in the other
modernist writers and artists I consider, of their extended reflection on the con-
comitant failure of language to describe the undocumentable immediacy and
presence of the body. Writing cannot represent the visual form of gesture, and
gesture cannot use the categories of discursive language to signify and convey
meaning. Kafka thematises a non-symbolic performative fluidity, in excess
of the speech-act in its written form, unfixing the text’s propensity to reduce
gestures to codified signs and the body to the status of a readable document.
The foregrounding of this contradiction between the sayable, textual element
and the visible, performative element is what I call the speech-gesture complex.
It was Walter Benjamin who first suggested the fundamental significance
of non-symbolic gestures in Kafka: ‘Kafka’s entire work constitutes a code of
gestures which surely had no definite symbolic meaning for the author from
the outset.’ 7 My book develops, modifies and extends Benjamin’s gestural


aesthetic, as derived from his readings of Kafka and Brecht, and is framed by
a sense that the performative dimension of gestures always potentially over-
reaches the text’s capacity to document them. By delineating the category of
the speech-gesture complex, I extend Benjamin’s aesthetic and the category of
the performative gesture into a wider study of modernism, a field in which the
category of the performative gesture has been relatively neglected. This is sur-
prising given the explicit and striking recurrence and naming of gesture in lit-
erature, theatre and cinema, from Stephen Dedalus’s view that gesture ‘would
be a universal language’,8 quoted by Eisenstein in the epigraph to his essay, ‘A
Course in Treatment’,9 to Brecht’s gestus, and Beckett’s ‘speech-gesture com-
plexes’,10 a phrase he uses in a letter to Alan Schneider during a production
of Happy Days in 1961 to describe the dual function of the resources of body
and speech. By attending to the tensions between text and gesture, and explor-
ing the field of indeterminacy generated through this intermedial turbulence, I
trace the trajectory of a complex tradition, from Ibsen to late Beckett, in which
performative gesture plays a profoundly constitutive role.
The critical and theoretical paradigms which have determined the shape
of literary modernism, from New Criticism to poststructuralism, have over-
whelmingly tended to concentrate on the function of text, and the body as text,
and have consequently overlooked gesture and the more general category of
performance. As James Harding puts it, ‘textuality [. . .] has become perhaps
the most pervasive of the analytical paradigms’.11 Derrida’s account of the
deconstructive turn – ‘the moment when language invaded the universal prob-
lematic, the moment when, in the absence of a centre or origin, everything
became discourse’12 – is an exemplary instance of the all-pervasive dominance
of discursive paradigms. Literary critics and theorists predominantly regard
drama from Ibsen to Beckett as textual artefacts within an exclusively liter-
ary context, and by extension neglect the fundamental implications of non-
discursive performative situations. As Olga Taxidou observes in her recent
study, Modernism and Performance, ‘the concept of performance remained
[. . .] stubbornly ignored in canonical readings of literary Modernism’.13 Elin
Diamond similarly observes that modernist drama is ‘nearly absent from
current scholarship investigating the times, spaces and practices of Western
modernity and modernism’ and has been ‘excluded from the received canons
of modernism’.14
The difficulty in verbally describing a highly nuanced kinaesthetic, non-­
discursive enactment is an aspect of the continued dominance of the textual
paradigm, inherited from literary criticism, in theatre semiotics and film studies.
Patrice Pavis, for instance, understands the theatre actor’s performance as a
sign within a semiotic system, a series of codes to be read within a performance
text.15 In film studies, the actor is ordinarily regarded as an element of the mise
en scène, part of a structure of readable signs: as Peter Kramer notes, aside from

the speech-gesture complex

key works by James Naremore and Carole Zucker,16 performance studies in

film is a ‘still limited area of scholarship’.17 The inbuilt resistance of perfor-
mance to textuality, its lack of a conventional lexicon, means that accounts of
performance are always necessarily incomplete; yet the prevailing dominance
of the textual paradigm tends to obscure and erase the fluid, uncategorisable
presence of the actor, whose gestures cannot simply be reduced to a form
of writing. By emphasising the effect of the presence of the actor, and the
attendant proliferation of gestures which elude semiotic categories, my study
re-examines the network of assumptions which has relegated gesture to an
ancillary status in literary modernism. By seeking to apply the category of
performance style – which James Naremore defines as ‘what the performer
does in addition to the actions/functions she or he performs in the plot and
the lines she or he is given to say’18 – to texts which are not always in them-
selves oriented towards visible performative incarnation, I demonstrate how
this incompletion, this dialectic of torn halves between the visible and the
sayable, productively generates an openness and fluidity which, in my account,
becomes the key signature of the speech-gesture complex. The resistance of the
speech-gesture complex to textuality requires a paradigm which goes beyond
the long-established habits of critics to reduce the body to text.
My own account is partly situated within the milieu of a recent revival of
Benjamin’s gestural aesthetic in philosophy (Giorgio Agamben), theatre studies
(Martin Puchner) and cultural theory (Andrew Hewitt) which foregrounds the
conceptual problems in the relation between non-symbolic gestures and sym-
bolic, discursive language. Giorgio Agamben has recently sought to reclaim
the Benjaminian concept of gesture as potentially open and undecipherable,
beginning his brief but suggestive remarks on gesture by citing Benjamin’s
view of Kafka’s writing, that it ‘constitutes a code of gestures which surely had
no definite symbolic meaning’.19 For Agamben, gesture ‘is not an absolutely
nonlinguistic element but, rather, something closely tied to language’; gesture
and language are interlaced with each other, but gesture is rather a discrepancy
within language and operates beyond the conventions of linguistic expression.
It is neither a decipherable sign or hieroglyph nor elemental uncodified bodily
presence; it speaks by unbinding the relation between speech and expression:
‘gesture is not so much a prelinguistic content as, so to speak, the other side
of language, the muteness inherent in humankind’s very capacity for language,
its speechless dwelling in language’; gesture is ‘always the gesture of being at a
loss in language’.20 As Agamben observes, there is a dialectic at work between
gesture and language: they are in one aspect divided but conjoined, but there
is an incommensurability between the two forms of expression which cannot
be reduced to a straightforward unity of purely linguistic expression. This dis-
crepancy between speech and gesture, where gesture often stands in for a failed
speech-act, or speech registers a failed gesture is an aspect, in my account, of


the speech-gesture complex. The writers I investigate were acutely aware that
to document a gesture is also to register the failure of language to document
gesture. A body cannot be read, a gesture cannot be written, without distorting
its signifying force.

For Agamben, the problematic status of gesture’s discrepancy in its relation to

language is historical. Citing the physiological studies of Gilles de la Tourette
in the 1880s, and his mass observation studies of widespread involuntary
muscle movements amongst the bourgeoisie, Agamben argues that ‘by the end
of the nineteenth century, the Western bourgeoisie had definitely lost its ges-
tures’. The twentieth century is immediately preceded by ‘a generalized catas-
trophe of the sphere of gestures’,21 and this crisis of gesture, by his reckoning,
paradoxically serves to mark a gestural turn in the twentieth century:
an epoch that has lost its gestures is, by the same token, obsessed by them.
And when the age became aware of its loss (too late!) it began its hasty
attempt to recuperate its lost gestures in extremis. Isadora Duncan and
Diaghilev’s ballets, Proust’s novel, Rilke and Pascoli’s great Jugendstil
poetry, and, finally, in the most exemplary fashion, silent film—all these
trace the magic circle in which humanity tried to evoke for the last time
what it was soon to lose irretrievably.22
Agamben’s claim about the ‘lost gestures’ of the bourgeoisie is unsupported
by evidence aside from the shallow focus on the historical significance of
Tourette’s studies, though my own account concurs with the general aspect of
his claim, that the end of the nineteenth century does indeed initiate a historical
paradigm shift in the representation and enactment of gesture across literature,
performance and film. In my argument, the gestures of the Western bourgeoisie
were not lost, but rather regained a new prominence in the era of cinema – its
first public projections coinciding with Tourette’s diagnosis – and undergo
both catastrophe and dialectical insurgence during modernist literature and
theatre’s critical reaction to cinematic performance. The constant renewal
and development of gesture’s relation to speech is conceived within a complex
network of intermedial exchange, from cinema’s emergence in the early mod-
ernist period to Beckett’s late drama.
This is a view which is not shared by literary and cultural history, which has
emphasised, on the whole, interiority and speech-based discourse. It is a view
which falls short of modernism’s rethinking of the novel in terms of performa-
tivity and embodied experience. For an alternative account to the novel as
primarily inward-looking, one must turn to theatrical and performance theory.
Martin Puchner’s illuminating study of the anti-theatrical tendency in modern-
ism, Stage Fright: Modernism, Anti-Theatricality and Drama, has sought to
recover the category of theatre, previously neglected within literary studies, to

the speech-gesture complex

demonstrate modernism’s supposed resistance to theatricality. Puchner surveys

theories of antitheatricality, from Nietzsche to Michael Fried, to show how
literature’s resistance to theatrical mimesis – to the liveness and contingency of
the theatrical event, and in particular, the idiosyncratic presence of the actor
– generates a new form, the modernist closet drama, which ‘seeks to interrupt
and break apart any possibility for either an actual or an imaginary stage’. My
study of the speech-gesture complex in modernism complements and elabo-
rates Puchner’s Benjaminian view that the category of gesture ‘leads directly
to the contentious relation between text and theatre’, a relation overlooked
both by performance theorists averse to text, and by literary critics with little
interest in performance. Where Puchner is primarily concerned to demonstrate
how the modernist closet drama serves to ‘de-theatricalize the act of reading
drama’23 by enfolding the spatial and mimetic aspects of the stage into textual
diegesis, my performative close readings of the speech-gesture complex show
how the familiar view of modernist autonomy and immanence is undermined
by a performative excess which cannot be enfolded into the diegesis, a failure
which modernist writers thematise, and which opens out possibilities unavail-
able either to text or stage.
Puchner’s argument originates, like my own, in Benjamin’s idea of theatre
as not limited to the stage, but also spilling over into the novel. As Benjamin
notes, Kafka ‘tried to derive such a meaning’ from his ‘code of gestures’ by
placing them in ‘ever-changing contexts and experimental groupings. The
theatre is the logical place for such groupings.’24 In my argument, the constant
thematisation of the imperceptibility and multiple significations of gesture
within performative situations is an aspect of deep and complex thinking
about the performance of actors in both theatre and cinema. Kafka’s height-
ened attention to gesture’s power to undermine not only speech but also the
power of language to represent speech, is closely informed, as it is in the work
of other modernist writers, by critical observation of particular actors. By
closely focusing on the performative gestures of the actor, I explore a series of
relations between writers and actors overlooked in previous studies of modern-
ism, from Eleanora Duse and James Joyce, to Chaplin and Wyndham Lewis,
Greta Garbo and both Lewis and Nabokov.
During the composition of Amerika between 1911 and 1914, Kafka
immersed himself in both live and recorded performance. As Evelyn Torton
Beck has demonstrated, Kafka paid frequent visits to the Yiddish theatre while
writing Amerika throughout 1911 and 1912,25 which he extensively recounts
in his diaries and letters to Felice: ‘the entire Yiddish theatre is beautiful; last
year I went to these performances about 20 times and to the German theatre
perhaps not at all’.26 These wandering Yiddish actors showed Kafka a per-
formance style in which ‘[the actor’s] gesture was his speech and after that
his significant glaring was his expression’:27 the elevation of theatrical gesture


to a significance above speech significantly informs the writing of gestures in

Amerika, which often read like a series of instructions for actors in an absent or
perpetually deferred performance. For Kafka, this absorption in the embodied
performance of particular actors powerfully asserts the importance of physical,
nonverbal expression as much as refinements of consciousness. Kafka’s letters
and diaries between 1911 and 1914 contain extensive descriptions of the per-
formances he witnessed, with a particular focus on the gestures of actors. For
instance, after seeing the Yiddish play Der Meshumed at the Café Savoy, he
writes of the ‘long-drawn forward movement’ of an actress, ‘raising and lower-
ing extended arms in a calm rhythm, bringing the palms close to the temples
and taking care not to touch them’. Later he describes an actress ‘shrugging
her shoulder and twisting her back as though she were being bitten by fleas’.28
These frequent and detailed accounts of the performative gestures of actors
accumulate into a repertoire from which he draws in the writing of his fiction.
Most of Kafka’s several letters to Felice on theatre contain evaluations of the
performances given by actors. He fosters an intense friendship with one of the
travelling Yiddish actors, Yitskhok Levi, of whom he thinks ‘incessantly’ and
with whom he corresponded for years after Levi left Prague. He tells Felice in
November 1912 that he ‘could talk to [her] endlessly’ about actors, but that
his own extensive written account of them falls short of the meaning held by
an actor’s ‘presence’: ‘the actors by their presence always convince me to my
horror that most of what I’ve written about them until now is false’.29 This
distinction between the actors’ visible ‘presence’ and his mediated, reflective
account further testifies to his profound sense of the incapacity of language to
adequately describe embodied performance. Written indications cannot repre-
sent the element of visuality, or embodied spectatorship, and yet they confer
upon gestures the properties of language they would otherwise lack. Kafka’s
characters observe gestures without the intuition of physique and space which
speaker and listener both occupy, and this deprivation frequently intensifies
the act of interpretation.
Andrew Hewitt has set forth a useful critical paradigm based on performa-
tivity rather than textuality in his engaging recent study of twentieth-century
dance, Social Choreography: Ideology as Performance in Dance. In his analy-
sis of twentieth-century dance, Hewitt identifies a productive tension between
performative gestures and language; the open-endedness of performance
militates against the textual document, and resists the process of interpretation
which seeks to naturalise writing as the ‘hegemonic medium for the produc-
tion of meaning’30 by imposing a predetermined structure of discourse upon
fluid material and perceptual elements antithetical to textual containment. In
this view, performance and language each challenge, modify and distort the
other by their respective means of enactment and representation. My own
study shares Hewitt’s dissatisfaction with the tendency in literary and cultural

the speech-gesture complex

studies to reduce the body to text, and by extension to regard gestures straight-
forwardly as a form of writing. His view that ‘the critical challenge is to marry
text-based analysis to the analysis of performance’ by refusing to reduce per-
formative phenomena to ‘the status of document’31 is useful for my considera-
tions of modernist writing: the sense of the irreducibility of gestures to textual
documents, in my account, fundamentally animates the concerns of modern-
ist writers for whom gesture and language are neither reciprocal nor self-­
continuous, but which generate instead a turbulence and non-identity which
opens potentials unavailable to either performance or writing in isolation.
As non-verbal events, gestures lack the systematic fixity of speech, its easy
transferability between spoken and written language. When the nonverbal
immediacy of a gesture is described in writing, it is removed from its origi-
nal kinaesthetic, non-discursive perceptual context. This allows gestures –
­including hand gestures, which are the most prominent and expressive, but
also facial expressions and styles of physical movement or locomotion – as
represented in writing, to take on connotations which the original, signified
gesture might have clarified beyond equivocation. Textual absence and visible
presence are interlaced with one another, each constantly referring to the
other, each clarifying and obscuring the other. By unbinding the representative
relations between text and performance, the speech-gesture complex allows
both functions to revive and activate their powers of signification precisely by
deferring to the other’s function. The text is not only what is sayable and the
performance is not only what is visible. According to this model, speech and
gesture remain partially indeterminate, divided, never fully defined or finished.
For Benjamin, Kafka’s world is a ‘World Theatre’, and his characters always
to an extent behave as though they were performing, or rather rehearsing for a
performance which never arrives:
each gesture is an event, a drama unto itself. The stage on which this
drama takes place is the World Theatre which opens up toward heaven
[. . .] Kafka tears open the sky behind every gesture, while the gesture
remains the decisive thing.32
Karl Rossman struggles throughout Amerika to sharpen and refine his inter-
pretation of gestures, until he reaches the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, ‘the
biggest theatre in the world’, and ‘almost without limit’. Gestures in this
respect are charged with the heightened significance of theatricality, they are
‘too powerful for our accustomed surroundings and break out into wider
areas’.33 When Karl finally arrives at the Nature Theatre, what he most desires
is instruction in how to perform certain gestures without dissimulation: his
desire to learn gestures is also Kafka’s desire, through the observation of per-
forming bodies, to learn to write gestures. What Karl and Kafka learn is that
the gesture is never decisive, never completed. Karl rehearses for a performance


which is never presented in its finished form, while Kafka overtly declares the
novel’s performative openness, its summoning of presence effects which resist
enclosure and documentation, by leaving the account of the Nature Theatre’s
performance in the final chapter unfinished.
The silent reading of Kafka’s gestures invokes the language of stage
­directions, but it leaves their illocutions unfinished, and the perceptible ges-
tures absent from view. Gestures in Amerika are circumscribed by a double
operation ordinarily peculiar to performance scripts, which make simultane-
ous reference to textual and performative elements. Stage directions in perfor-
mance scripts thematise the relation between text and body in their function as
instructions for an actor, suggesting a performance style which in a novelistic
pseudo-stage direction is always imperceptible. They serve to mediate between
textual and performative fictions, and are intended both to be read and embod-
ied in performance. A gesture in a performance script is an imperative which
gives instruction to an actor to enact a style of movement; it is bound towards
the stage, where the spoken utterance is inseparable from the movements of
the actor’s body: as Keir Elam observes, a stage direction requires ‘the inter-
vention of the actor’s body in the completion of its meanings’.34 Neither script
nor icon, stage directions maintain a tension between semiotic readability and
embodied materiality; a textual gesture points to an absent phenomenological
space, and in the immediate presence of a performed gesture, refers back to an
absent linguistic instruction. While a playscript remains insufficient and unful-
filled on the page, the force of Kafka’s gestures in Amerika – and in the work
of the other writers under scrutiny in this book – resides in this insufficiency,
an aspect of the writing’s performative openness, its gestural theatricality
which resists final enclosure. The inhabitants of Amerika behave as though
they were actors obeying the imperatives of a stage direction. At the same time,
Karl strives to imagine gestural variants and inferences as a reader, as though
he were unable to observe them. The dialectical absence, on the one hand, of
visibility in speech, and on the other, of language in gesture, represents the
torn half of a pre-lapsarian World Theatre. The German title of Kafka’s novel,
Der Verschollene, translates as ‘The Man Who Disappeared’; the ideal World
Theatre for the people of Amerika is a world disappeared from view.
When Karl finds himself before the staff manager of the Nature Theatre,
he hesitates about his engagement as an actor because he is too much himself
(p. 260), unlike the speaker in Kafka’s short piece ‘A Report to an Academy’,
who ‘imitated people because I was looking for a way out, and for no other
reason’.35 Karl remarks in his interview with the theatre managers: ‘I don’t
know whether I’m capable of being an actor. But I shall do my best and
try to carry out all my instructions’ (p. 260). The emphasis on carrying out
‘instructions’ foregrounds the enactment of an imperative, as distinct from an
expressive action. An actor’s body, as Keir Elam notes, ‘acquires its mimetic

the speech-gesture complex

and representational powers by becoming something other than itself’.36 Yet

in the Nature Theatre, as Benjamin notes, ‘all that is expected is the ability of
the applicants to play themselves’, and paradoxically ‘it is no longer within
the realm of possibility that they could, if necessary, be what they claim to
be’.37 The applicants for the Nature Theatre are rigidly entrapped by a slavish
dependence on instructions which foreclose potentiality by demanding that
they must be themselves and nothing else. The applicants are refused the open-
ness and possibility of a thematised relation between actor and role, a hallmark
of modernist theatre as exemplified by Brecht; they are entrapped in a model
of theatricality which slavishly imitates textual directions. As Samuel Weber
suggests, this limiting of potentiality through theatre in Amerika also has
political implications: the Nature Theatre is ‘a placement agency for temporary
workers’, and it is not clear whether they are paid for their labour. The exclu-
sion of a thematised potentiality between text and performance acquires, in the
final sections of the novel, a quasi-fascist rigidity: Weber notes of the setting
of the theatre before the applicants are taken by train to Oklahoma, that the
‘stadiums, racetracks, and precipitous transports by train, leaving barely time
to pack one’s luggage, have assumed a sinister significance that was hardly
obvious in 1916’.38
In the methodology I propose, the thematised relation between the visible
and the sayable short-circuits both pure performative openness and textual
autonomy. As a category for elucidating the intermediality of writing and
performance, the completion of the speech-gesture complex is always partially
deferred either to its performative or textual form. It is a means rather than
an end, occupying a mid-way zone of open potential resistant to final closure.
This presupposition moves beyond the familiar view of modernist autonomy
and immanence towards a performative paradigm which emphasises incom-
pletion and a perpetually deferred endpoint, either of performance which never
becomes text, or text never realised in performance. It is an aesthetic of incom-
pletion which also has political implications, and in this respect my study
expands and develops the relations between gesture and political potentiality
envisaged in Agamben’s model. In his discussion on dance, Agamben remarks
that ‘what is relayed to human beings in gestures is not the sphere of an end in
itself but rather the sphere of a pure and endless mediality’. Gesture transcends
both the category of a means in view of an end, and of an end which has dis-
solved its means; it remains ‘unsublated in any purposive action: an excess of
potentiality’. In philosophical terms, gesture comes to stand for conceptual flu-
idity as against the fixed, immovable form: an idea is not ‘an immobile arche-
type as common interpretations would have it, but rather a constellation in
which phenomena arrange themselves in a gesture’.39 The potential in a gesture
is not exhausted either by purposive action or by reification in an artefact;
gesture opens out into a zone of potentiality which carries with it an ethical


and political dimension. As Agamben puts it: ‘Politics is the sphere of pure
means, that is, of the absolute and complete gesturality of human beings.’40
Hewitt proposes a comparable model based on the idea of rehearsal: the
medial character of dance makes visible the process of working out or rehears-
ing social possibilities, as distinct from the discursive model which views
dance as ‘enclosed and reified in an artifact [. . .] itself the finished product
of a process rather than a dynamically cohering social force’. By emphasising
performative process rather than the finished aesthetic object, Hewitt strives to
reverse the depoliticisation of a dominant strain in writing about dance either
in terms of quasi-metaphysical immanence removed from the sociohistorical,
or as reification within a discursive formulation. This resistance to categories
of text and discourse also, in this view, threatens ‘an ideological move that sees
all physical embodiment as the pre-scripted playing out of determinant social
discourses’.41 An aesthetic of performance which cannot simply be described in
discursive terms is also a politics which resists a totalised pre-scripted determi-
nation. The vital significance of process as distinct from artefact also animates
my own study, which reads key works by Joyce, Lewis, Nabokov and Beckett
not as the familiar autonomous, self-enclosed works of canonical modern-
ism, but rather as rehearsals towards a never-to-be finished performance. By
moving beyond the textual paradigm, my readings of the aesthetics and politics
of modernism are framed by a performativity which foregrounds the rehearsal
of possibilities ordinarily dissolved in textual critique.
As Benjamin suggests, the double aspect of the visible and sayable, or reada-
bility and spectatorship, is a crucial aspect of the open potential and alternative
social possibilities in Brechtian political theatre: ‘ “to make gestures quotable”
is the actor’s most important achievement; he must be able to space his gestures
as the compositor produces spaced type’.42 Brechtian gestures are quotable,
they refer back to the past but are also potentially open to a future reality. As
Samuel Weber puts it, ‘citability means recalling the past as the possibility of a
future that would be different from the present’: in this respect, the Brechtian
stage ‘is a place where potentialities are tried out, rather than realities enacted
or performed’.43 Brecht defines the gestus, which includes both speech and
gesture, as the ‘attitudes which people adopt towards one another, wherever
they are socio-historically significant’ and the ‘mimetic and gestural expression
of the social relationship prevailing between people of a given period’. A gestus
is a composite representation of behaviour which defines a person from outside
himself, indicating social status and the relation of the person to institutions
in order to critique and potentially transform those institutions. The actor
stands aside from his role in order to comment on what is happening to him,
as though he were incorporating the consultation of the playscript during the
performance,44 enabling the audience to engage in active critical readership,
as distinct from mere passive spectating. The unresolved contradictions in the

the speech-gesture complex

speech-gesture complex again serve to mark rehearsal and openness rather

than immanence and enclosure.
The alienation of speech from gesture, and of text from performance,
prompts the actor to observe and comment upon ‘his own movements’, a
method which Brecht derived from gestural theatre, particularly the Chinese
theatre and Meyerhold. Kafka’s Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, as Benjamin
observes, also ‘harks back to the Chinese theatre, which is a gestic theatre [. . .]
dissolving happenings into their gestic components’.45 Kafka’s pseudo-stage
directions, informed by his meticulous attention to the movements of actors,
his stylised, alienated version of de-contextualised melodrama, foreshadows
the Brechtian gestus: as Benjamin remarks, Kafka ‘could understand things
only in the form of a gestus’. Brecht himself remarks that Kafka ‘anticipated
certain forms of this alienation’, and of ‘men being alienated from them-
selves’,46 although he does not explicitly relate Kafka’s idea of movement to
his own distanciation or alienation effect. The performative openness between
actor and role are the outcome of what Brecht calls the ‘alienation of the text’,
or the performance of quotation, in which the actor shows, narrates or quotes
his character. A vantage point is generated for the actor from which he may
survey and critique the behaviour of his character, as distinct from the appli-
cants to Kafka’s Nature Theatre, who are ‘excluded from the realm of possibil-
ity’ precisely by having to ‘play themselves’.

Unstable Categories: Naturalist and Modernist Performance Style

By investigating the problematics of gesture’s relation to speech, my study
seeks to reconfigure modernism’s relation to performance. But the relentless
aspect-shifts between the visible and the sayable gesture, each referring to the
other in a process which perpetually defers completion, permits the category
of the speech-gesture complex a fluidity which potentially extends to writing
and performance not exclusively in the modernist tradition. The articulation
of these tensions between text and performance, and between language and
visibility, in Kafka’s novel and in anti-naturalist theatre, is a defining feature
of the speech-gesture complex, though it is not exclusive to anti-naturalism.
Brecht defines naturalism as ‘a complete fusion of character and role’,47 and
speaks of naturalism’s tendency to concentrate on dialogue at the expense
of gestures and movement.48 Although Brecht was compelled to dismiss
Ibsenite naturalism to advance his project – ‘works by such people as Ibsen
and Strindberg remain important historical documents, but they no longer
move anybody. A modern spectator can’t learn anything from them’49 – I
would argue, contrary to Brecht’s position, that the speech-gesture complex in
Ibsen, particularly as refracted through early twentieth-century prose fiction,
crucially serves to destabilise the categories of naturalism and modernism.
Brecht’s critique of naturalism’s naïve mimeticism, and its conviction in the


power of language to represent reality is undermined by the inability of lan-

guage, tacitly acknowledged in naturalist writing, to represent the visuality of
a gesture. As I explore in Chapter 1, the resulting speech-acts in Ibsen, who
reinvents the textual stage direction, and the readings of Ibsen’s gestures in the
prose fiction and drama of Henry James and Joyce, and the performance style
of Eleanora Duse, yield to an open-ended, never fully defined zone of poten-
tiality. These are terms which unexpectedly apply also to naturalism as well
as modernism, and suggest a way out of the still dominant familiar deadlock
between the two categories.
The theatricality and performative turn in early twentieth-century prose
fiction, its summoning of the experience of reading a play, or witnessing a per-
formance, developed in response to the novelistic plays of naturalism and their
density of visual description.50 In theatre before Ibsen, the written text con-
tained only spoken lines for actors to learn. Between 1850 and 1880, as Elin
Diamond observes, the text ‘was always a patchwork; actors usually worked
from “sides”, texts containing only their lines’.51 The American copyright
bill in 1891 helped introduce the notion of the integrity of the playtext; the
detailed study of the text then becomes a key feature of theatre’s turn towards
naturalism, with its heightened readings of character history and motivation.
By this point, at the height of Ibsen’s prominence, the text also included intri-
cate stage directions accompanying, but often contradicting the dialogue. But
the familiar notion that naturalist performance is ‘subordinated to the primacy
of the text’52 is undermined if the text itself cannot adequately represent spatial
relations and non-verbal expression.
An overwhelming consensus since the late 1950s, and the advent of what
Fredric Jameson calls the ‘ideology of modernism’, has defined realism or natu-
ralism as straightforwardly mimetic, and therefore formally conservative, and
modernism as linguistically autonomous, indeterminate and self-reflexive. Elin
Diamond’s assessment of Brechtian theatre exemplifies this view:
With Brechtian hindsight we know that realism, more than any other
form of theater representation, mystifies the process of theatrical signifi-
cation. Because it naturalizes the relation between character and actor,
setting and world, realism operates in concert with ideology. And because
it depends on, insists on a stability of reference, an objective world that is
the source and guarantor of knowledge, realism surreptitiously reinforces
(even if it argues with) the arrangements of that world.53
According to Diamond, realism’s naïve, naturalised relations between lan-
guage and reality, actor and character, confirms the existing social, political
and economic patterns of the world, and consequently reinforces the ideology
of the ruling class, which in this light appears inevitable and unchangeable.
Brechtian modernism, on the other hand, seeks to challenge the same ideology

the speech-gesture complex

through a politics of form which seeks to emphasise the ever shifting contin-
gencies of setting and world, thus enabling the imagination of alternative social
and political worlds. My argument in Chapter 1 challenges this essentialist
view by exploring Joyce’s interest in a naturalist rather than modernist tradi-
tion of performance style, and how this specific cultural and historical engage-
ment allowed him to articulate a politics of resistance to English colonialism
and Irish nationalism, and what he regarded as a reactionary Irish Revivalism,
as principally embodied in Yeats’s modernist theatre experiments.
My argument builds on recent studies by Toril Moi and Olga Taxidou
which have reconfigured the oppositional terms of naturalism and modernism
in relation to performance. Moi demonstrates that there is ‘no fundamental
opposition’ between the two categories, by exploring aspects of Ibsen which
are commonly regarded as modernist, such as meta-theatricality and his attack
on idealism: ‘Realism – the representation of reality in writing and art – is
neither modernism’s opposite nor its historically necessary predecessor. If any
one entity occupies that position, it is idealism.’54 I wish to extend this per-
spective by emphasising the crucial opacity and indeterminacy of Ibsen’s stage
directions, and their effect on Joyce. I argue that gestures in Dubliners, which
often resemble stage directions in naturalist drama, testify to his reading of
playscripts, but also to his prolific theatre-going, during which he developed an
infatuation with the slight movements of the Italian actress Eleanora Duse. His
relation to performance culture in general has been neglected in Joyce scholar-
ship, while his fascination with Duse has been comprehensively overlooked.
I also uncover the politics of Joyce’s small-scale naturalist gestures, as partly
derived from Ibsen, by amplifying the contrast with the histrionic, ritualised
Yeatsian gesture. Yeats’s theatre belongs to the tradition of modernist experi-
ment, with its tendency to abstraction, its Eastern-influenced styles of gesture,
and its resistance to illusion and mimesis. Joyce’s resistance to Yeatsian
Revivalism overturns the conventional distinctions between a politically pro-
gressive modernism and an ideologically conservative naturalism. By thematis-
ing the split process of reading and spectating, Joyce discovers in naturalism
a means to define a divided colonial consciousness open to potentiality and
caught between unresolvable contradictions.
Olga Taxidou’s recent study of modernism and performance ‘treats
­naturalism [. . .] as an integral part of modernist theatre and not simply as
the movement against which modernism and the avant-garde are reacting’.55
Taxidou argues that the aesthetics and politics of the Brechtian tradition of
modernism, which includes figures such as Eisenstein, Artaud, Meyerhold,
Gordon Craig and Yeats, and which sought to mechanise the body through
abstraction and estrangement, ‘interlocks and overlaps’ with the ‘empathy and
identification’ of naturalism. The high level of interpretation required by the
density of textual information in Ibsen and Strindberg led to the rise in impor-


tance of the theatre director in both traditions. André Antoine and Aurélien
Lugné-Poë, the first major directors of naturalism, both made their mark
through productions of Ibsen: the contrasting styles of Antoine’s fourth wall
approach and Lugné-Poë’s stylised, anti-naturalist aesthetic, which influenced
Meyerhold – in Chapter 1, I discuss their versions of Fernand Crommelynck’s
Le Cocu, which played alongside Joyce’s Exiles – suggest a widely divergent
consensus on the performative possibilities of Ibsen’s playtexts. While Lugné-
Poë’s approach is developed by Meyerhold, Antoine’s psychological acting is
taken up by Stanislavski. As Taxidou notes, ‘these two schools need not be
read as antithetical’; there are, for instance, external, distancing elements in
Stanislavski’s emphasis on the actor’s ability to comment on as well as inhabit
his role. His experimental, abstract 1911 Moscow production of Hamlet, a
collaboration with Edward Gordon Craig, further attests to the historical
interconnectedness between the two schools.
Taxidou’s exploration of the ‘radical potential of Naturalism’,56 its con-
nection to the political and democratic movements of the time, particularly
to an emergent feminism, places it in the tradition of radical, politicised art
which supported and helped instigate real social change. The impact of Ibsen
was far reaching, both on turn of the century feminism, on the suffragettes,
and on representations of a newly articulate female consciousness, through
key actors such as Ellen Terry, Elizabeth Robins and Eleanora Duse. In its
time, naturalism’s reinvention of theatrical conventions, together with its
passionate concern for social injustice and the need for social change, placed
it firmly in the avant-garde. My argument extends this challenge to familiar
arguments about naturalist conservatism by re-examining the supposed for-
mally pre-modernist elements in playscripts, and their absorption into prose
fiction. The conventional view of naturalist technique as interior, motive-
based, character-driven mimesis, closely informed by psychoanalysis’s claims
to seek out the root cause of behaviour is complicated, in my view, by the
speech-gesture complex, which leaves those motives ultimately opaque and
indeterminate. In this respect, my argument returns naturalism back to Zola’s
original, anti-mimetic notion that ‘it would be absurd to suppose that one can
transfer nature to the stage [. . .] We are forced into conventions, and must
accept a more or less complete illusion of reality’,57 and to the idea of theatre
as an ‘art form of signing, not of mimetic copying’.58 By revealing those signs
in naturalism as often complex, unreadable and indeterminate, my argument
demonstrates the falsity of a straightforward antithesis between the categories
of naturalism and modernism.
Joyce’s thinking about the contradictions of the naturalist gesture directly
inspired the key figures of modernist literature, theatre and film. For Wyndham
Lewis, Joycean naturalism, by negative counterforce, defines modernism’s anti-
mimetic style. In Chapter 2, I reconfigure the rivalry in experimental daring

the speech-gesture complex

between Joyce and Lewis in terms of an agonistic struggle between the opposed
but mutually imbricated performance styles of naturalism and modernism, as
articulated in Lewis’s unperformable playtext, Enemy of the Stars. I situate
the play, which is rarely discussed as a performance text, in proximity to the
modernist performance culture and depersonalised gestures of Maeterlinck,
Symons, Yeats, Gordon Craig and Brecht. By recasting the opposition between
Joyce and Lewis using the performative paradigm, I show their crucial rivalry
in an unfamiliar light, and by doing so – given the centrality of both writers to
canonical modernism, as Scott Klein has demonstrated59 – I rewrite the rela-
tion of modernism and performance in general. Brecht’s theatre of gesture,
founded upon the critical dialectic between the actor’s relation to the text
and its enactment in performance, mirrors Lewis’s distinctions between, as he
puts it, ‘ “players” and “livers” ’,60 and his thematisation of the split process
of text and performance, speech and gesture, which resolves against fixed
forms in favour of fluid potentialities and short-circuits the mesmeric effect
of performative mimesis. Rejection of Joycean naturalism – what he calls the
‘very nightmare of the naturalistic method’61 – and his surprising allegiance to
Brechtian dramaturgy connects with my rarely made challenge to the view of
Lewis as a fascist, despite his polemics of the early 1930s.

Performative Absence and Mechanical Reproduction

The speech-gesture complex in Kafka is shaped by his thinking about the rela-
tions between the presence of actors – the sheer undocumentable visibility of
their gestures – and his own mediated account of their performance, an effort
which he regarded as inadequate. Kafka is registering, as I have demonstrated,
not only his own incapacity but also that of language in general to adequately
describe embodied performance: it pivots around his thinking about the figure
of the actor, not just in theatre, but also in the new medium of the cinema. The
dialectic between theatrical presence and textual absence in the speech-gesture
complex, and the resultant aesthetic of incompletion, in Kafka and in other
modernist writers, is further complicated by their thinking about the histori-
cal emergence of the film actor, who shares properties both of presence and
Once again, Benjamin was the first to recognise the profound implications of
film’s challenge to the unmediated presence of the actor in theatre. In his essay
on Brecht, he describes the staccato shocks of Epic theatre as ‘like pictures in a
film’;62 the frozen intervals between action, the interruption of happenings, the
quotable gesture each partly derives from film’s mediation of presence through
representation. Film’s mechanical reproduction challenges the auratic pres-
ence of the actor, its power of presence before a live audience, and it breaks
up the actor’s performance into disjecta membra. In my methodology, theatre,
cinema and writing are unavoidably intermedial, each responding to and


drawing from the other’s power. Film presents the visuality of gestures, as does
theatre, but like writing, it lacks theatre’s presence and it gives gestures a textu-
ality by allowing them to be edited and placed within a narrative structure. The
written gesture lacks both visuality and presence, yet this apparent weakness
instils in writing a desire to absorb and appropriate the resources of both kinds
of performance. This energy, striving to make reference to performative media
which always remain absent, drives the constant oscillation between presence
and absence in the speech-gesture complex. The figure of the actor, whether
present in theatre or absent in film, is, in this reckoning, of central importance.
In a letter to Max Brod which describes a performance of Hamlet at the
Deutsches Theater in November 1910, Kafka remarks on the doubling process
between actor and role:
Max, I have seen a Hamlet performance, or rather heard Bassermann.
For whole quarter-hours I actually had another person’s physiognomy;
from time to time I had to turn away from the stage toward an empty box
to bring myself back to order.63
The alienation between actor and role is experienced mimetically by Kafka;
the distinction between having ‘seen’ Hamlet and having ‘heard’ Bassermann
suggests a process akin to Brecht’s ‘alienation of the text’. The same actor is
mentioned by Kafka two and a half years later, during the composition of the
final chapters of Amerika, in a letter to Felice dated 4 March 1913. Illustrating
his own recurrent sense of physiognomic alterity, he recounts a visit to the
cinema earlier that evening. In the foyer, he notices a poster of a film called The
Other, an adaptation of a play starring Albert Bassermann, a German actor
who performed with Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theater Berlin from
1909–15, and who later starred in von Sternberg’s Shanghai Gesture (1941),
Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) and Powell and Pressburger’s The
Red Shoes (1948). Observing Bassermann’s transformation into a reproduc-
ible image, Kafka experiences a lack of coincidence between the subject and
the film-image. The estrangement between the intentionality of actor and
character in live theatre is intolerably magnified, in Kafka’s eyes, when the
actor is not himself present before an audience, and when he is deprived of
his voice. Kafka anticipates a view, later confirmed when he sees the film, that
Bassermann has ‘allowed himself to be used, at least in this piece, for some-
thing that is not worthy of him’; he is ‘excluded from any influence’ on the
film; he has surrendered his body to ‘old-fashioned cinematic devices’.64 Even
by 1913, cinema had fixed certain events as routine, generic spectacle, and
Kafka’s knowledge of these routines testifies to the frequency of his visits to the
cinema. His response elucidates an acute sense of the dissociation of conscious-
ness from physical identity.
Kafka identifies, to the total exclusion of the actor’s ‘influence’ over his own

the speech-gesture complex

image, a phenomenological condition peculiar to the film actor. Benjamin

clarifies this distinction in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction’: ‘what matters is that the part is acted not for an audience
but for a mechanical contrivance’. Performing for the camera, the film actor
forgoes an aura indistinguishable from his physical presence:
the film actor feels as if in exile – exile not only from the stage but
also from himself. [. . .] his body loses corporeality, it evaporates, it is
deprived of reality, life, voice [. . .] in order to be changed into a mute
Kafka observes in this metamorphosis, from living person into ‘mute image’, a
loss of corporeal identity, as though Bassermann were unable to transmit his
signature-tune as an actor. Towards the end of his letter, he has to reassure
himself, and Felice, that ‘after completion of the film Bassermann goes home
as Bassermann and no one else’; the letter ends with an unfulfillable request,
since he is only writing a letter: ‘good night, dearest. May I kiss you, may I
embrace the real body?’ Kafka’s anxiety about the difference between fictive
and real bodies is crystallised in the difference between the presence of the
live actor before an audience, and the mechanical flicker of the absent film
Hanns Zischler has collected useful evidence,66 without supplying an inter-
pretation, concerning, in Kafka’s own words, his ‘lengthy and numerous visits
to the cinema’. Kafka’s remarks on silent cinema, which occur between 1908
and 1913, coincide with his preoccupation with the Yiddish theatre of gesture
and the main composition of Amerika. These remarks develop a complex atti-
tude to cinematic performance. On the one hand, his excursions are related
with exuberant joy, as he writes to Elsa Taussig, Max Brod’s then fiancée: ‘for
we are so happy to have done the things that are absolutely necessary (obvi-
ously they have to happen right away, or else how could we keep ourselves
alive for the cinematograph)’.67 Yet these inclinations are counter-balanced
with analogies between the radical dissociation of consciousness from identity,
as observed in Bassermann’s film, and his own sense of corporeal alienation.
The juxtaposition of visits to the cinema with an incapacity for corporeal
experience suggests a deprivation of identity akin to the self-exile of the actor
before the camera:
I don’t keep a diary at all, I wouldn’t know what for; nothing happens to
me to stir my inmost self. This applies even if I weep, as I did yesterday
in a cinematographic theatre in Verona. I am capable of enjoying human
relationships, but not of experiencing them.68
Zischler suggests the possibility that Kafka took the title of his novel from a
film, announced in July 1912 by the German distributor Gaumont, bearing


the same title, Der Verschollene, but he qualifies the similarity, remarking that
Kafka ‘provides not a single hint that he drew on certain images or scenes for
his writing’ and that ‘he wanted to keep these images out of his prose’.69 The
fact that Kafka hardly mentions specific films excludes, for Zischler, the pos-
sibility of a palpable influence on his prose fiction. Yet contrary to these nega-
tive claims, and in light of Kafka’s heightened reaction to filmed performance,
the detachment of intention from bodily volition peculiar to gestures in film, I
would argue, informs the sense of Karl being trapped in a nightmare vision of
America and forced to go through the motions against his will. Kafka allowed
his extensive cinema-going to enrich his fantasy version of a country he never
visited in person.
In the scene in chapter 7, when he is chased through the streets by a police-
man, Karl is locked into and must lend his reluctant body to the template of an
early genre film, the chase comedy:
‘Stop him!’ The policeman shouted down the long, almost empty street,
and shouting this cry at regular intervals set out after Karl at an easy
run which showed both great strength and practice [. . .] the policeman
[. . .] kept pointing his baton at him as he ran a parallel course, keeping
shrewdly to the smooth pavement. (p. 199)
This extended routine alludes to the style of the cinema’s predominant nar-
rative genre between 1903 and 1906.70 Max Brod makes note of a visit with
Kafka to the Omnia Pathé cinema in Paris on 10 September 1911, a cinema
which ‘stood at the centre of so many of our enjoyments’. Pathé’s films were
distributed across Europe and the US, and Brod’s reference to ‘so many of our
enjoyments’ suggests the familiarity he and Kafka likely shared with Pathé’s
comedies. The policeman’s pursuit of Karl resembles such Pathé films as
Ferdinand Zecca’s The Policemen’s Little Run (1907), in which two policemen
give chase up and down cobbled streets, pointing their batons as they run their
course with the same gesture as Kafka’s policeman. This was a commonplace
routine to which Kafka and Brod were well accustomed; in his account of the
programme they saw at the Omnia Pathé, Brod remarks on the ‘usual revolver
shots, chases, fisticuffs’ (my emphasis).71 As Karl puts on a ‘faster spurt’, he
experiences a delusionary moment in which he ‘scarcely recognises his own
name’: ‘someone gently called him by name – he thought it was a delusion at
first, for there had been a ringing in his ears all the time’ (p. 199). Karl finds
himself unable to recognise his style of movement as his own, his body runs
away with him and he merely obeys the demands of the role he is given to
play, in this instance, a routine from a chase film. This anguish is Kafka’s fic-
tionalised version of his critique of Bassermann in The Other. The conversion
of bodily presence into flickering image drives a wedge between the body that
expresses a first-person idea of action, and the body that is the subject matter

the speech-gesture complex

of a third-personal apparatus. Gesture becomes text, and this is a source of

profound unease and a recurrent sense of bodily estrangement.
The chase genre established itself between 1901 and 1904, just before cin-
ema’s transition into narrative continuity between 1904 and 1907, with British
films like James Williamson’s Stop Thief! (1901) and Alf Collins’s The Runaway
Match (1903), and the American company Biograph’s The Maniac Chase and
Personal (1904),72 from which the earliest Pathé chase film, Dix femmes pour
un mari (1905) derives. In the same year, Pathé sets up the first global distri-
bution network, and opens its first cinema – visited by Kafka in 1911 – the
Omnia Pathé in Paris on 15 December 1906, which initiates the rapid expan-
sion of purpose-built cinemas across Europe and the US.73 Around 1911–12,
companies such as Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios – their first release in
September 1912 was a split-reel called The Water Nymph – begin to challenge
the dominance of Pathé comedy films. Sennett himself readily acknowledged
the influence and importance of the Pathé films on his own chase comedies.
Kafka wrote the chase sequence during the release and distribution of Sennett’s
first comedies. The first Keystone Cops chase sequences – The Bangville Police
(1913) and In the Clutches of the Gang (1914) – are exactly contemporary
with Kafka’s writing of the scene. It is not only the American location, and the
‘second policeman [. . .] blowing his whistle, obviously fresh and undwindled’
(p. 200), which suggest Kafka’s encounter with these early Keystone routines.
The violent slapstick after the chase between Karl, Robinson and Delamarche
recalls the cruel assaults on the body in knockabout early Keystone. Routines
depicting ‘roundhouse punches to the face [. . .] stumbling, falling, tripping,
bumping one’s head, twirling and falling after a missed punch’74 inform scenes
in which ‘Karl drove his fist against Robinson’s chin’ and Robinson ‘punched
him in the belly’ (p. 221), or slightly later when Karl ‘seized the broad collar
of Delamarches’s dressing-gown, jerked it upwards, then pulled it still farther
over’ (p. 234).
As Douglas Riblet indicates, the emergence of the Keystone Cops and their
trademark routines were a response to large-scale institutional changes and
the rising centrality of the star system in industrial film production. This com-
merce between the ‘extra filmic star image and the fictional role’ begins to
entrench itself in American film production between 1909 and 1914.75 The
Keystone Cops were a defining instance of a phenomenon which achieves an
end-point of fulfilment with Charlie Chaplin. Against a background gener-
ated by the Keystone Cops, Chaplin forges the unmistakable template of his
Tramp persona, which, as Michael North argues, gradually begins to appear
‘independent of the actor playing the role’, as though Chaplin were merely
doubling up for the Tramp.76 Kafka begins writing Amerika in 1911, reworks
it between late 1912 and 1914 and abandons it in 1915 or 1916. As Parker
Tyler notes, ‘the date of publication of the first chapter of Amerika is 1913,


the year that Chaplin [began] making comedies for Mack Sennett’.77 Chaplin
emerges a year later as the Tramp in Kid Auto Races at Venice: the birth of his
trademark star-persona, which soon acquired its own automatic life, overlaps
with Karl’s chase scene.
These constant reciprocal transformations between literature, theatre and
film, and between the sayable and the visible, generate a culture of experimen-
tal modernism which thrives on representational hybridity. Kafka’s Amerika
coincides with and anticipates a modernist culture of performance in film and
theatre which elevates the alienation of gesture from intentionality, or actor
from role, to the highest dramaturgical form. For Adorno, Kafka should be
understood in the context of film, rather than theatre: his written gestures are
‘the last, disappearing textual links to silent film (which, not coincidentally,
disappeared nearly simultaneously with Kafka’s death)’. Adorno’s sense of cin-
ema’s Kafkaesque, or Chaplinesque ‘ambiguity of gesture’78 potentially hinges
on film’s capacity, like writing, to fix gestures, while alienating the audience
from the auratic presence those gestures summon.
The proposition that cinema, and technology in general, has exerted a
powerful influence on the international culture of modernism and its hybrid
modes of representation is now generally accepted within modernist studies,
and has been steadily developing across a number of connected works. The
resurgence in studies on film and literature by, for instance, Laura Marcus and
Susan McCabe79 has advanced and refined a long-established but forgotten
tradition which dates from Virginia Woolf’s 1926 essay ‘The Cinema’, and
the avant-garde journal Close Up,80 through influential work by Alan Spiegel
and Stephen Heath in the 1970s. These detailed investigations have provided
a useful framework for my own cross-cutting and superimposition of three
separate fields, and my argument that the relations between speech and gesture
in literary, theatrical and cinematic performance is a primary shaping influence
on modernist literary form.
Laura Marcus’s work in the field of modernism and cinema is longstand-
ing, from her editing and commentary of the avant-garde journal Close Up,
to her monumental recent study, The Tenth Muse: Writing about Cinema in
the Modernist Period, a book which is central to the resurgence of cinema and
modernism. Marcus examines the relations between technology and literature,
and the shaping influence of early film commentaries, the culture of periodi-
cals and film societies on writers such as H. G. Wells, Rudyard Kipling, D. H.
Lawrence, Joyce, H. D. and Woolf; her account of the impact of cinema on
Woolf – the way her ‘eyeless’ prose, particularly in the ‘Time Passes’ section
of To the Lighthouse, echoes her sense of cinema’s capacity to perceive objects
in the absence of a human observer – has been highly influential. McCabe’s
Cinematic Modernism has convincingly demonstrated the fundamental influ-
ence of European avant-garde film on the poetry of H. D., Williams, Stein

the speech-gesture complex

and Moore: Soviet, Dada and Surrealist film, she argues, offered poets a
new vocabulary to enable thinking about bodily experience and sensation,
and crystallised cultural debates about modernity’s dissociation of sensibil-
ity as manifest in experimental psychology. By reading modernist poetry in
light of the techniques of cinema, McCabe crystallises the relations between
modernist poetry, which ‘gained new angles, line-breaks, asymmetries, and
synapses, shifting within and through the very technologies that disoriented
the relationship of the human body’, and the ‘splintering and dynamic’81 cel-
lular structure of filmic montage. In this respect, cinematic montage influences
both the techniques of parallel action and simultaneity in Eliot and Pound, and
the hysteric, feminised body, whose jarring discontinuities are embedded in
the writing of Gertrude Stein. By providing fresh and original readings of the
ocular crisis and fragmented bodily discontinuities, McCabe has helped initi-
ate a reorientation in the interdisciplinary study of literature, film and psycho­
analysis. David Trotter’s Cinema and Modernism builds on this shift towards
medial convergence by drawing extensively on pioneering film scholarship of
early cinema. Trotter proposes an understanding of both film and literature
as sharing a concern with the idea of an automatic, or non-human reproduc-
tion of the world. In contradistinction to McCabe’s study, Trotter argues for
a move away from transferable, montage-based relations between film and
writing, privileging instead the idea of the photographical neutrality of the
mechanical recording process. Cinema’s capacity to reproduce the world, to
make it present precisely by allowing, in the words of Stanley Cavell, ‘the audi-
ence to be mechanically absent’82 unexpectedly parallels the idea of modernist
impersonality and automatism.
These books are sharply focused on the cinema effect in modernism, and
develop earlier studies on the wider impact of technology in general on sensory
perception and literary form by Tim Armstrong, Michael North and Sara
Danius.83 These earlier works yielded a rich understanding of the inseparabil-
ity of technologies from modernist aesthetics and literary form, articulating the
second industrial revolution’s profound impact on modernism’s refashioning
of perceptual and epistemic habits of eye and ear. North amply demonstrates
how literature incorporated techniques derived from photographic media,
including cinema, while Armstrong and Danius trace ‘the technologically
mediated crisis of the senses’84 in modernist culture by widening the perspec-
tive of the social and historical conditions of literature to include, in addition
to cinema, the technologies of sensory prosthesis, advertising, photography,
chronophotography, the radio, the telephone and electricity. The advent of
new technologies of perception and the resulting perceptual crisis is indissocia-
ble, in this view, from the representational problems in modernist aesthetics.
My study distinguishes itself from these studies of film, technology and mod-
ernism by adopting the performative paradigm – placing the question of the


performative gesture at the centre of the debate – and by negotiating between

the overlaps and often fraught, competing relations between literature, theatre
and cinema. I extend, reassess and critique existing studies by delineating,
through the category of the speech-gesture complex, a complicated three-way
exchange between the three media. Trotter and McCabe tend to concentrate
on film form rather than performance style. Trotter’s model of impersonal
automatism overlooks acts of authorship and the technique of camera place-
ment and editing, even in primitive films, and by focusing on the mechanical
act of recording, obscures the business of performative gestures. By re-situating
film and modernism in relation to performance culture, and refocusing acts of
reading and spectatorship which turn a blind eye to the many-angled versions
and contradictions of the body in writing and performance, I widen the scope
of the debate to include theatre as well as film and literature.
The performative body in modernist theatre, I argue, both resists and is
hugely influenced by the new optical perception and the style of gesture in
silent cinema. A powerful dialectic between the two forms, in turn, forces a
corresponding reaction in literary modernism. While theatre is partly defined
by the loss of its audience to cinema, film and literature are in turn defined
by their envy of theatre’s power of auratic presence. Cinema emerges from
theatre by transforming presence into mediated technological representation,
eliminating the auratic presence of the actor and bringing it closer to writing;
yet it remains haunted by theatre, and by the representation of performa-
tive body which originates in theatre. Literature becomes a scribe to the new
iconography of performance, and the rivalry between theatre’s presence and
film’s auratic absence; it develops a complex of its own, the sense of its own
incapacity to write the performative gesture, which compels it to absorb the
heterogeneous, visual and performative elements of its rival media. My cat-
egory of the speech-gesture complex is a fluid means to negotiate the constant
convergence and influx of medial functions, of the visibility and material pres-
ence in theatre and cinema, as against the imaginative absences in literature,
which foregrounds its incapacity to write gesture without renouncing its desire
for visibility or material presence.
The constellation of Kafka, Brecht, Meyerhold, Benjamin, Adorno,
Eisenstein and Chaplin is a primary instance of this symbiotic interchange
between dramaturgy, cinema and writing. Meyerhold insisted that ‘the skill of
Biomechanics can be acquired from a study of Chaplin’, from the way in which
he ‘deploys his body in space to maximum effect’,85 and Brecht’s notion of the
gestus, by his own admission, was inspired by Chaplin and his ‘gestic way of
performing’.86 Brecht perceived in Chaplin’s non-psychological, physical style,
and the explicit separation between actor and role, a kinship with his own epic
theatre project.87 In his notebooks, he lists a series of observations under the
heading ‘V-Effects of Chaplin’ which became ‘a major factor in the economy

the speech-gesture complex

of expression that he later developed with the notion of gestic acting in the epic
Benjamin’s definition of the cinematic close-up as revealing ‘entirely new
structural formations of the subject’ and of introducing an ‘unconscious
optics’89 rewrites the Brechtian V-effect for the camera, although the V-effect
had itself travelled over from Chaplin and the Russian formalist account of
defamiliarisation in filmed behaviour: ‘ “Verfremdungseffekt” is a translation
of the Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky’s phrase “priem ostrannenija”, “device
for making strange”.’90 Fredric Jameson notes the influence on Brecht’s theory
of ‘any number of visits to Berlin by Soviet modernists like Eisenstein [. . .] Like
Eisenstein’s montage, it permitted him to organise and coordinate a great many
distinct features of his theatrical practice and aesthetic’.91 Eisenstein’s dialecti-
cal optics and his theoretical outline for a ‘conflict of motives’ between ‘purely
verbal utterance’ and the ‘gesture of bodily movement’,92 itself a response
to the impact of reading Joyce, is fundamental to Brechtian theatre. Brecht
advises that ‘it is conceivable that other kinds of writer, such as playwrights or
novelists, may for the moment be able to work in a more cinematic way than
the film people’;93 it is possible he had Joyce in mind here, as he does when
he mentions ‘the Verfremdungseffekt in Ulysses’, and of how Joyce ‘alienates
both the way of representing (mainly through the frequent and rapid changes)
and the events’.94 Brecht’s application of his theatrical effect to Joyce, in con-
junction with Eisenstein’s parallel application of film theory – ‘it has been
left to James Joyce to develop in literature the depictive line of the Japanese
hieroglyph’95 – seeks to transform visual fields into readable ‘signatures’ (p. 31:
2) as Stephen Dedalus puts it, in light of the conflicts between the textual and
performative body.

Theatre, Cinema and the Universal Language of Gesture

The history of silent cinema is also a history of cinema’s fraught and complex
relation to theatre. Kafka wrote the gestic chase sequence during cinema’s his-
torical transition from theatrical perception to the systematisation of editing
techniques and camera positions, which brought film language closer to the
mobility of focal points found in nineteenth-century prose fiction. The split
between slapstick routine and subjective reflection, and between consciousness
and identity is emphasised by presenting the routine Karl is forced to inhabit as
external to him, as though it were happening to someone else – a figure being
pursued in an American chase comedy – but also through his introceptive focal
point: Karl has ‘to think first and attend to his running only in the intervals
between weighing possibilities and making decisions’ (p. 199). The earliest
films, such as the first chase films between 1901 and 1905, as Noël Burch
argues, maintain the ‘externality of the spectator’,96 and historically precede
the perceptual and physiological orientation of the spectator. This technique,


cinema’s mode of classical narration, emerged between 1907 and 1912 with
the standardisation, primarily by D. W. Griffith, of the system of continuity
editing, parallel cuts and the shot-reverse-shot, or the convention whereby the
eyelines of characters are matched along an unseen 180-degree axis.97
Subjective focal points began to be written into cinema in films such as
Griffith’s The Primal Call (1911), in which each of the two characters looks
off-screen to the other, alternate cuts showing what each character sees, and
Arthur Mackey’s The Loafer (1911), in which the camera again alternates
viewpoints to encourage the spectator’s identification with the character’s
point of view, which is also the view of the camera.98 Keystone comedies began
to demonstrate a primitive spectator-subject identification in the use of reverse-
angle cross-cutting from pursuer to pursued, a method Mack Sennett learnt
from working at Biograph with Griffith.99 These techniques – incipient in
Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The Kleptomaniac (1905), and
Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) and Gold Is Not All (1910) – were refined
in films such as Thomas Ince’s The Bargain (1914) and DeMille’s The Cheat
(1915), and finally codified into the standardised classical system by 1916.
The dialectic between the two kinds of spectatorship, of the external, overseen
event, and the subjective identification in the view through Karl’s eyes, inflects
Kafka’s chase sequence. Karl momentarily acquires a double status, at once
spectator and subject, conscious of inhabiting a gestural identity, a narrato-
rial vantage point, which is external to him. The scene generates a dialectic in
which the unified, tableau dimension of the performative body in theatre, and
early film, is pitched against the technique of spectator-subject identification,
incipient in cinema around 1910–12. Film language or textuality sets itself up
in opposition to the theatricality of the performative body.
This alteration in camera technique and editing parallels the shift in perfor-
mance from a histrionic, melodramatic style of broad gestures, to one char-
acterised by naturalistic restraint, small-scale gestures, and a more detailed
observation of actions and reactions. Performance style in early film, before the
shift in technique as standardised by Griffith, derived from tableau gestures for
the stage: prior to 1910, film actors would gesticulate by standing centre stage
and facing front, as though playing to an auditorium. Standardised gestures,
inherited from acting manuals and handbooks for the stage,100 developed from
the idea that ‘the natural size of the human body should be the unchanging
unit of measurement’.101 One of the key influences on this performance style,
as James Naremore and Roberta Pearson observe, was François Delsarte, a
theorist of gesture who ran his own theatrical academy in the mid- to late
nineteenth century. Delsarte standardised the various attempts, dating back to
the early eighteenth century, to select, classify and codify gestures according
to the principles of language. In the Delsarte system, any given gesture would
correspond to a given emotion. A gesture combines the symbolic properties of

the speech-gesture complex

language with the supposedly naturalised movements of the body. As his fol-
lowers put it, gestures were ‘symbols recognized as natural’; ‘each emotion had
its appropriate gesture and facial expression’.102 Delsarte’s prescriptive, formu-
laic, ostentatious poses, an aspect of a long tradition of codified pantomime,
was hugely influential on nineteenth-century European theatre, but also on
actors for stage and screen in America. Steele MacKaye, one of the most pow-
erful actor-managers of the late nineteenth century, established academies and
dramatic schools across the US which taught Delsarte’s Harmonic Gymnastics,
the ‘principal method of formal instruction for US actors between 1870 and
The restrained, naturalistic approach gradually modified the melodramatic
style by allowing a closer focus on small-scale gestures and emphasising, as
Louise Brooks – one of silent cinema’s most naturalistic actors – put it, ‘a new
quiet and subtle style of acting’.104 A complex web of shifting relations between
literature, theatre and cinema accompanies the shift from a semiotics of legible
gesture, where each gesture has a fixed meaning within a taxonomic system, to
psychology and restraint. On the one hand, Griffith’s Biograph films between
1908 and 1913 effectively translate the narrative techniques of the nineteenth-
century novel into the parallel editing and multiple focal points of film form.
When questioned on the use of the parallel cross-cut in After Many Years
(1908), Griffith replied: ‘doesn’t Dickens write that way? [. . .] these are picture
stories; not so different’.105 Eisenstein argues that ‘the concept of film language
was born’ when film began acknowledging ‘the traditions and methodology
of literature’. In his essay ‘Dickens, Griffith and the Film Today’, Eisenstein
cites the primary instance of Griffith, who defined and defended his pioneer-
ing experiments in montage cross-cutting and multiple focal points by ‘calling
on Dickens as witness’.106 But the shift towards the new style also mimics the
movement in theatre from melodrama to naturalism. Griffith imported the per-
formance style of Ibsenite naturalism into a cinematic acting style which was
until then dominated by Delsarte’s melodramatic, semiotic style.107
Film historians tend to emphasise the turning point in the shift from primi-
tive to classical narration as being marked by the rejection of theatricality, of
the primitive style, with its uniform frontality and long shot tableau perspec-
tives, its emphasis on exhibitionism, and its reliance on live elements such as
film lecturers, music and the variety format. But the new invisible style of clas-
sical narration, despite eliminating those elements of liveness, is indissociable
from a new performance style directly imported from naturalist theatre, as
Griffith – who started his career acting in Ibsen plays – often acknowledged.
The emergence of restrained naturalistic gestures, which gradually replaced
the codified system as derived from Delsarte, involved a movement away from
denotative semiotics towards performative enactment. Pearson names the
naturalistic style the ‘verisimilar code’, a code which ‘abandoned the conven-


tional gestures, replacing them with gestures coded by cultural expectations

about how particular characters in particular situations might behave in real
life’.108 Gestures in the verisimilar code, tailored to the particular psychology
of the individual character, became less easily assimilable to general discursive
categories or taxonomies. Performative fluidity, as derived from theatrical nat-
uralism, replaces textual denotation precisely at the moment when film form
begins dissembling the body into cellular sequences, initiating a widespread
view of silent cinema as a universal language.
Acting style and film technique are intimately connected, and the relation
pivots around various notions of film form and performative gesture as a uni-
versal language. As Laura Marcus demonstrates in The Tenth Muse, the idea
of the hieroglyph provides a significant context for understanding the links
between divergent figures in literature, film and psychoanalysis. Modernism’s
fascination with the hieroglyph, as Marcus argues, parallels the writing of
film theorists and makers for whom ‘the equation made between cinema and
writing was particularly marked’ and ‘connected not only to representations
of speech and writing but also to a language of the body’.109 Béla Balázs,
writing in 1924, remarks that ‘in the motion picture screens all over the world
we currently witness the development of the first international language: that
of facial expression and physical gestures’.110 For theorists and practition-
ers, the arrangement of shots either in the classical mode or as discontinuous
montage resembled a new form of universal language. Filmmakers across the
spectrum, from Hollywood to the European avant-garde, including Griffith,
the Soviets, Balázs, Abel Gance and Jean Epstein, concurred in their advoca-
tion of the syntactic reality of film. Lilian Gish echoed Griffith’s view that the
films they made together constituted ‘a new universal language’;111 in ‘The
ABCs of Cinema’, Blaise Cendrars celebrates the notion that the close-up and
the cutback are letters in a ‘new cinematic alphabet’;112 Vachel Lindsay in The
Art of the Moving Picture (1915), the first aesthetic study of cinema to be
published in the US, compares the hieroglyphic properties of film to ‘the inven-
tion of the picture-writing of the stone age’;113 Jean Epstein similarly describes
cinema as ‘a pictorial language, like the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt’.114 The
cinematic hieroglyph is an aspect not only of syntactic editing, but of the newly
acquired symbolic properties of the gesturing body.
As Marcus notes, silent film’s sense of itself as a language ‘anticipates the
“grammar” of film and semiotics, and Christian Metz’ early focus on film
writing is linked to the modernist fascination with ideographic and hiero-
glyphic languages, perceived to lie between word and image’.115 Explicit in the
work of the writers and makers I discuss is the idea of a hieroglyphic language
which conflates reading and perception; but this idea bears a complex, ambiva-
lent relation to the widespread claim that both film form and the performative
gesture represent a new form of ideographic expression. The conflation of

the speech-gesture complex

visual presence with textual system contains various radically unresolvable

contradictions. What held the critical imagination of modernist writers, I
would argue, is not the straightforward claims made for cinema as a new
hieroglyphic language, but rather the contradictions and ambiguities in those
claims. According to Christian Metz, silent cinema ‘liked to speak of cinema
as a kind of Esperanto’ in which ‘the image is like a word, the sequence like a
sentence, for a sequence is made up of images like a sentence of words’; but
the view that visual reality can be reconstituted as representation or writing
is an oversimplification. Cinema lacks the necessary ‘secondary articulation’
which would qualify it as a language.116 A characteristic of the film image is
the mimetic closeness of sign and referent, in contradistinction to the codified,
phonemic, combinatory units of language, which bear an arbitrary relation to
their referents. It is this phonemic capacity which gives language its ‘second-
ary articulation’ and which cinema’s immediacy and perceptibility lacks. The
claim for film form as a universal language is enabled only by the elision of
unresolvable contradictions between language and image, and between speech
and gesture.
The problematic claims made for a universal language parallel a contem-
porary interest in the origins of language in gesture, and in cinema’s retrieval
of gesture’s universalism and speech-like capacity. As Peter Sloterdijk argues,
‘This notion of a speechless language is as old as human communication, indeed
even older, its roots going back into the prehuman and the prerational, into the
sphere of animal sensing and orientation.’117 The Western interest in gesture
as a universal language is a long-established tradition, from Quintillian’s
Institutio Oratoria (ad 200), through to Bonifacio’s The Art of Signs (1616),
Bulwer’s Chirologia: or the Natural Language of the Hand (1644), Condillac’s
Essay on the Origins of Human Knowledge (1746) and Diderot’s Letter on the
Deaf and Dumb (1751).118 Wilhelm Wundt’s Elements of Folk Psychology,
first published in 1916, the same year as Saussure’s Cours de linguistique
générale, inaugurates the modern study of gesture with a theory of ‘the origin
of all signs in natural gesture-language, in movements of expression’.119 The
dominant strain in twentieth-century linguistics since Saussure has tended
to relegate expressive movement to an ancillary status in communicative
exchange. In Saussurean terms, syntax and meaning in language are generated
by differential relations between symbols which bear an arbitrary correspond-
ence with their non-linguistic referents. As a consequence of this emphasis,
it has often been taken as read that language and speech are interchangeable
terms, to the detriment of iconic forms of utterance. This tendency is reversed
in a theoretical tradition, beginning with Wilhelm Wundt, which seeks to
emphasise the significance of expressive, non-verbal movement in language.
Wundt’s interdisciplinary work, which cross-breeds anthropology, psychology
and philosophy, investigates the historical evolution of language, myth and


religion. In his discussion on the origins of language, Wundt aligns himself with
a long tradition of language scholarship, beginning with Giambattista Vico in
The New Science (1744), which foregrounds the view that spoken languages
originally developed from pre-lingual gestures.
Yet these long-standing ideas about the language of gesture, as with the
claims made for film as a universal language in the silent era, are fraught with
radically unresolvable contradictions. As Ray Birdwhistell, the founder of
kinesics – a detailed and rigorous practical investigation into communicative
body movement – has demonstrated, gesture is essentially context-dependent
on the accompanying speech-act.120 Kinesic signals such as those made by the
head, face or hands, he argues, are ‘incapable of standing alone’.121 Recent
work by the two leading researchers in the field, David McNeill and Adam
Kendon, have retained Birdwhistell’s close analysis of recurrent gestures, and
have developed more detailed and exacting methods which also show forth
kinesic structures, unlike language systems, as fluid and continuous, in which
the gesture’s illocution is dependent on the specific occasion and speech content
of an utterance. Unlike the conventions of speech, ‘gestures are not fixed’ and
are not ‘obliged to meet standards of form’. This allows a single gesture to
assume a number of denotations, to present a meaning determined to a large
part by the speaker’s intentions.122 In the narration of an event, for instance a
car crash, the speaker’s hand could represent the driver’s hand, the driver as a
whole, the pedestrian, the driver’s car, the other car, the road as it swerves or
the side of the building. These symbols are freely designated by the speaker:
gestures have too many non-linguistic properties to be susceptible to codifi-
cation or speech-based analysis. As with Birdwhistell, McNeill and Kendon
mitigate against the view of gesture as a universal language by ­demonstrating
its context-dependency on particular speech-acts.
The reduction of language and image into an artificial unity has wide-
ranging political implications, as Miriam Hansen and Andrew Hewitt have
argued. For Hansen, ‘the celebration of film as a new universal language ulti-
mately coincided in substance and ideology with the shift from primitive to
classical modes of narration and address’.123 My chapters on Joyce and Lewis
are indebted to Hansen’s view that the discourse of universality and language
which emerges during the standardisation of classical narration and the shift
towards the concept of a unified spectator-subject is an aspect of Hollywood’s
drive to subsume all distinctions of race, class and nationality into a homo-
geneous language: ‘the ideological objective of constructing a unified subject
of – and for – mass-cultural consumption, of integrating empirically diverse
audiences with this goal, was troped in the ambiguous celebration of film as a
new universal language’.124 Cinema could appeal to a broad range of society,
particularly immigrants unfamiliar with English, and could submerge class dis-
tinctions through nonverbal immediacy and narrative identification, fostering

the speech-gesture complex

‘the ambiguous myth of the human “community”‘;125 in fact, the codification

of film form, in Hansen’s penetrating critique, reduces all social differences to
a naturalised, bourgeois humanity, in order to unify a diverse population into
‘a more homogeneous nation of consumers’.126 Film’s universal language, by
extension, naturalises and legitimates capitalist consumer-culture, and in this
respect, I will argue, it bears comparison with the naturalised hegemony of
Anglo-Irish history and culture in Yeatsian Revivalism.
Hewitt’s analysis of the politics of the universal gesture as derived from
Delsarte, its attempt to naturalise the language of the ruling class, chimes with
Hansen’s critique of the universality of classical narration in film: in both
instances, the attempts to universalise or naturalise gestures by making the
body readable disguises the workings of an ideology which desires homogene-
ity and the assertion of hegemony through the erasure of difference. As Hewitt
argues, in his insightful critique of the nineteenth-century project ‘to subject
the body to a specific regime of legibility in continuance of an Enlightenment
hermeneutic tradition’, Delsarte’s project was ‘hugely influential at a time when
a newly emergent bourgeois class was eager to represent through its body, as
well as its possessions, its newly acquired status’. His system was widely taught
not only to actors, via acting academies set up by Steele MacKaye, but also
to public speakers and politicians and even in deportment classes for aspiring
genteel young ladies. These readable gestures effectively naturalised bourgeois
cultural hegemony ‘as a certain regimen of reading and writing, and “gesture”
would be the action wherein that regimen attempts to take on an apparently
transhistorical and natural form: it is my body, not my class, that speaks’.127 By
representing in coded gestures the language of a dominant class, its ascendency
becomes a condition as ‘natural’ as the human body.
Ulysses and Finnegans Wake cross and recross the boundaries between film
and theatre, isolated readership and collective spectatorship, theatrical histri-
onics and close-up gestures through Joyce’s thinking about the coincidence
between cinema’s new capacity to write the performative body, and what
Stephen Dedalus calls ‘the universal language’ of gesture (p. 353: 106). But
his advocacy of the non-codified naturalist gesture attests to his rejection of
fixed universal formulations. By foregrounding the double aspect of a speech-
gesture complex and refusing the straightforwardly denotative, semiotic aspect
of gestures, Joyce demonstrates his resistance to received codes and fixed forms
which were often signs of nationalism or authoritarianism. For Lewis, as with
Joyce, the idea of the universal language unavoidably naturalises the cultural
hegemony of the ruling class by reducing potentiality, heterogeneity and differ-
ence; but for Lewis, this tendency is most powerfully manifest in Hollywood
naturalism, in contradistinction to Joyce, who deployed Ibsenite naturalism as
a means to resist fixed universal formulations. In Lewis’s view, it was the newly
dominant form of Hollywood naturalism, together with the classical system,


with its unified spectator-subject, which had inherited universalism’s project

to unify a population into ‘a more homogeneous nation of consumers’.128 By
writing a form of ironised naturalist performance, Lewis short-circuits both
its claims to universalism and its nonverbal immediacy, divesting it of its
mimetic power, replacing it instead with a thematised relation between the
visible and the sayable, ironised distance and reflection, critical openness and
potentiality. By adopting a Brechtian method, I propose a radical re-reading
of The Childermass as a prophetic satire on the cultural-political methods
of fascism. I examine Lewis’s diagnosis of the danger in mass identification
when exploited for political ends, and the satire of a political reality which has
disappeared in its representations, by comparing the performance of mimesis
in The Childermass with films such as Gance’s Napoleon (1927), and Lang’s
Metropolis (1927) and Die Nibelungen (1924).
Lewis intensifies his critique of performative mimesis, spectacle and cin-
ematic cliché in the era of the talkies, during a period which coincides with
late modernism’s focus on ‘the contemporary “derealization” of reality, its
progressive replacement with simulacra and spectacles’.129 I argue that Lewis’s
ironised mimicry of classical realist style is an aspect of his sustained critique
of the cinematic apparatus in the age of the sound picture: standardised
naturalistic sound recording eliminates the critical dialectic of the speech-
gesture complex, and with it the sense of contradiction and fluid potential-
ity. In Chapter 3, I develop a comparison between two late modernist texts,
Wyndham Lewis’s The Revenge for Love (1937) and Vladimir Nabokov’s
Laughter in the Dark (1938). Both novels issue forth a critique of the syn-
chronised dialogue in early talkies, and both develop a critique of the figure of
Greta Garbo. Through their complex reaction to silent and talkie-era Garbo,
Nabokov and Lewis negotiate the terrain of late modernism’s ironised natural-
ism, and the culture of resistance to synchronised sound – exemplified in the
journal Close Up (1927–33), where the various contradictions of the universal
language argument constitute its most sustained, and problematic discourse –
by reimagining the speech-gesture complex in the era of the talkies. I trace a
complex network of relations between figures in literature, theatre and cinema,
including Joyce, Nabokov, Lewis, Beckett, Eisenstein, Meyerhold and Artaud,
for whom the lack of synchronised sound in silent film emphasised, through
its formal, abstract, anti-naturalist qualities, a performative style of gesture as
an alternative to proscenium arch theatricality and classical realism, whereas
sound forced cinema towards mimesis and shallow naturalism, restored the
primacy of theatrical dialogue and relegated gesture, no longer the central
means of expression, to a merely ancillary position.
The thematised relations between text and performance, speech and gesture
are central to Beckett’s practice as a writer-director. In 1936, Beckett writes
to Eisenstein and expresses a desire to work in the lost tradition of the silent

the speech-gesture complex

film; he finally makes a silent film in 1964, and again in 1982. I conclude
with an analysis of two late works which demonstrate the central tensions
and contradictions in Beckett’s drama, and of the speech-gesture complex in
general. By foregrounding the ambiguity and partial opacity of written ges-
tures, and the doubleness of the act of reading and spectating the play, Nacht
und Träume articulates a drive to textualise the body and endow gestures with
the properties of language, while Catastrophe presents an explicit challenge to
the modernist tendency to impose legibility on the body through a self-critique
of Beckett’s practice as a writer-director to formalise gestures within a self-
enclosed and immanent structure.

1. Kafka, Amerika, p. 34. All references are to this edition, and are included paren-
thetically within the text. This translation has been measured for inconsistencies
against the German edition of Der Verschollene (1927) in Gesammelte Werke, ed.
Max Brod (Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1953).
2. Austin, How to Do Things with Words, p. 119, p. 76.
3. Ibid. p. 117.
4. Grice, Studies in the Way of Words, pp. 24–5.
5. Kafka, Der Verschollene, p. 241, p. 271.
6. Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka’, Illuminations, p. 120.
7. Ibid. pp. 116–17.
8. Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler, p. 353: 106. All references are to this
edition, and are included parenthetically within the text.
9. Eisenstein, ‘A Course in Treatment’, Film Form, p. 89.
10. Letter to Alan Schneider, 17 August 1961, No Author Better Served, p. 95.
11. Harding, Contours of the Theatrical Avant-Garde, p. 2.
12. Derrida, Writing and Difference, p. 280.
13. Taxidou, Modernism and Performance, p. 8.
14. Diamond, ‘Modern Drama/Modernity’s Drama’, p. 4.
15. Pavis, Languages of the Stage, pp. 131–61.
16. Naremore, Acting in the Cinema; Zucker, Figures of Light.
17. Kramer and Lowell (eds), Screen Acting, p. 1.
18. Dyer, Stars, p. 151.
19. Quoted in Agamben, Potentialities, p. 80.
20. Ibid. pp. 77–8.
21. Agamben, Means Without End, p. 48.
22. Ibid. pp. 52–3.
23. Puchner, Stage Fright, p. 26.
24. Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka’, Illuminations, p. 117.
25. Beck, Kafka and the Yiddish Theater, p. 14.
26. 11 March 1912, Letters to Felice, quoted in Beck, Kafka and the Yiddish Theater,
p. 15.
27. Lifson, The Yiddish Theater in America, p. 138.
28. 5 October 1911 and 8 October 1911, The Diaries of Franz Kafka, p. 65, p. 70.
29. 3 November 1912, Letters to Felice, p. 37; 23 October 1911, Diaries of Franz
Kafka, p. 86.
30. Hewitt, Social Choreography, p. 9.
31. Ibid. p. 10.


32. Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka’, Illuminations, p. 117.

33. Ibid. p. 117.
34. Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, p. 130.
35. Kafka, ‘A Report to an Academy’, The Transformation and Other Stories, p. 194.
36. Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, p. 9.
37. Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka’, Illuminations, p. 121.
38. Weber, Theatricality as Medium, p. 95.
39. Agamben, Means Without End, pp. 57–8, p. 55.
40. Ibid. p. 57.
41. Hewitt, Social Choreography, p. 25, p. 13.
42. Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, p. 11.
43. Weber, Theatricality as Medium, pp. 45–6.
44. Brecht, ‘On the Use of Music in an Epic Theatre’ and ‘Short Description of a New
Technique of Acting’, Brecht on Theatre, p. 86, pp. 137–9.
45. Benjamin, ‘Franz Kafka’, Illuminations, p. 116.
46. Quoted in Benjamin, Understanding Brecht, p. 106.
47. Brecht, ‘From a Letter to an Actor’, Brecht on Theatre, p. 235.
48. Brecht, The Messingkauf Dialogues, p. 28.
49. Brecht, ‘Interview wtih an Exile’, Brecht on Theatre, p. 66.
50. For an account of the novelistic stage direction, see Williams, Drama from Ibsen
to Brecht, pp. 244–6.
51. Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis, p. 33.
52. Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, p. 21.
53. Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis, p. 4.
54. Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism, p. 67.
55. Taxidou, Modernism and Performance, p. xvi.
56. Ibid. p. 58, p. 51, p. 52, p. 58.
57. Émile Zola, ‘La Naturalisme au théâtre’ (1881), quoted in Taxidou, Modernism
and Performance, p. 46.
58. Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, p. 167
59. Klein, The Fictions of James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis.
60. Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, p. 174.
61. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 89.
62. Benjamin, ‘What Is Epic Theater?’, Illuminations, p. 149.
63. Letter to Max Brod, 9 December 1910, Letters to Friends, Family and Editors,
p. 69.
64. 4–5 March 1913, Letters to Felice, p. 239.
65. Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’,
Illuminations, pp. 222–3.
66. Zischler, Kafka Goes to the Movies.
67. 22 August 1908, Letter to Max Brod and 28 December 1908, Letter to Elsa
Taussig, Letters to Friends, Family and Editors, p. 44, p. 48.
68. 6 November 1913, Letters to Felice, p. 364.
69. Zischler, Kafka Goes to the Movies, pp. 57–8.
70. Crafton, ‘Pie and Chase’.
71. Max Brod, ‘Kinomatograph in Paris’ (1912), quoted in Zischler, Kafka Goes to
the Movies, p. 49.
72. Gunning, ‘The Non-Continuous Style of Early Film (1900–1906)’.
73. Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town, pp. 22–30.
74. Louvish, Keystone, p. 74.
75. Riblet, ‘The Keystone Film Company and the Historiography of Early Slapstick’,
p. 172, p. 174.

the speech-gesture complex

76. North, Reading 1922, p. 168.

77. Tyler, ‘Kafka’s and Chaplin’s “Amerika” ’, p. 300.
78. Adorno to Benjamin, 17 December 1934, The Complete Correspondence of
Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, p. 70.
79. Spiegel, Fiction and the Camera Eye; Heath, Questions of Cinema; Marcus, The
Tenth Muse; McCabe, Cinematic Modernism.
80. Woolf, ‘The Cinema’; Donald et al. (eds), Close Up, 1927–1933.
81. McCabe, Cinematic Modernism, p. 18, p. 21.
82. Cavell, The World Viewed, p. 25.
83. Armstrong, Modernism, Technology and the Body; Danius, The Senses of
Modernism; North, Camera Works.
84. Danius, The Senses of Modernism, p. 1.
85. Meyerhold, ‘Chaplin and Chaplinism’, Meyerhold on Theatre, p. 321.
86. Ewen, Bertolt Brecht, His Life, His Art and His Times, p. 232.
87. Brecht, ‘The Question of Criteria for Judging Acting’, Brecht on Theatre, p. 56.
88. Brecht, ‘Texts and Fragments on the Cinema’ and Silberman, note to ‘Less
Certainty!!!’ (1926), Brecht on Film and Radio, p. 10, p. 5.
89. Benjamin, ‘Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations, p. 230.
90. Willett, note to ‘Alienation Effects in Chinese Acting’, Brecht, Brecht on Theatre,
p. 99; see also Mitchell, ‘From Shklovsky to Brecht’, p. 81.
91. Jameson, Brecht and Method, p. 39.
92. Eisenstein, ‘A Dialectic Approach to Film Form’, Film Form, p. 53.
93. Brecht, ‘The Film, The Novel and Epic Theatre’, Brecht on Theatre, p. 48.
94. Brecht, ‘The Verfremdungseffekt in the Other Arts’, Brecht on Film and Radio,
p. 10.
95. Eisenstein, ‘The Cinematic Principle and the Ideogram’, Film Form, p. 35.
96. Burch, Life to Those Shadows, p. 164. See for instance Robert W. Paul’s The Waif
and the Wizard (1901); Edwin S. Porter’s Appointment by Telephone (1902),
Life of an American Fireman (1903), The Great Train Robbery (1903) and The
Kleptomaniac (1905); Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (1903); William
Haggar’s Charles Peace (1905).
97. Gunning, D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film, pp.
114–16. Important films by Griffith during this period include The Ingrate
(1908), A Corner in Wheat (1909), Gold Is Not All (1910) and The God Within
98. Salt, Film Style and Technology, p. 94.
99. Louvish, Keystone, p. 26.
100. For instance, Anon, The Art of Acting or Guide to the Stage.
101. Brewster and Jacobs, Theatre to Cinema, p. 8.
102. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures, p. 22.
103. Naremore, Acting in the Cinema, p. 53.
104. Brooks, Lulu in Hollywood, p. 61.
105. Griffith, When Movies Were Young, p. 66.
106. Eisenstein, ‘Through Theater to Cinema’ and ‘Dickens, Griffith and the Film
Today’, Film Form, p. 17, p. 205.
107. Gunning, ‘Weaving a Narrative Style’, pp. 11–25.
108. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures, p. 55.
109. Marcus, The Tenth Muse, p. 8, p. 10.
110. Balázs, ‘Visible Man’, Theory of the Film, p. 44.
111. Gish, The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me, p. 34.
112. North, Camera Works, p. 19.
113. Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture, p. 25.


114. Epstein, ‘On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie’, in Abel (ed.), French Film
Theory and Criticism, 1907–1939, vol. I, p. 315.
115. Marcus, The Tenth Muse, p. 9.
116. Metz, Film Language, p. 63, p. 51, p. 24.
117. Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, p. 139, quoted in Moore, Savage Theory,
p. 67.
118. For a survey of writing about gesture as language up to the nineteenth century, see
Kendon, Gesture, pp. 17–62.
119. Wundt, Elements of Folk Psychology, p. 58.
120. Birdwhistell’s first experiments began in 1952. For comprehensive selected work
on kinesics, see Birdwhistell, Kinesics and Context.
121. Ibid. p. 119.
122. McNeill, Hand and Mind; McNeill (ed.), Language and Gesture; Kendon,
‘Some Relationships between Body Motion and Speech’, pp. 177–210; Kendon,
‘Gesticulation and Speech’.
123. Hansen, Babel and Babylon, p. 79. On the advent of classical narration, see
Thompson, ‘The Formulation of the Classical Style, 1909–28’, in Bordwell,
Staiger and Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, pp. 155–251; Musser,
‘The Nickelodeon Era Begins’, pp. 4–11; Salt, Film Style and Technology.
124. Hansen, Babel and Babylon, p. 16.
125. Barthes, Mythologies, p. 100.
126. Hansen, Babel and Babylon, p. 86.
127. Hewitt, Social Choreography, pp. 79–80, p. 83.
128. Hansen, Babel and Babylon, p. 86.
129. Miller, Late Modernism, p. 44.



‘our sad want of signs’: Imperceptible Gestures in Ibsen and Joyce

He heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognised as his own,
insisting on the soul’s incurable loneliness. We cannot give ourselves, it
said: we are our own. The end of these discourses was that one night,
during which she had shown every sign of unusual excitement, Mrs.
Sinico caught up his hand passionately and pressed it to her cheek.1

Mrs. Sinico’s gesture breaches an unspoken decorum, between her and Duffy,
which rigorously occludes non-verbal expression. The moment precipitates
the end of the friendship; he does not visit her for a week, before they agree,
at his instigation, to break off all contact. Duffy is ever careful to give nothing
away, and his abhorrence of ‘physical or mental disorder’ (p. 120) singles out
unwarranted intrusions of non-verbal utterance; uneasily codified, physical
expression is prudently tidied away, and he expects Mrs. Sinico tactfully to
follow suit. He keeps bodily gestures at arm’s length, and this permits him
to disengage at will from the tensions and crises of the body, from which he
ends up living ‘at a little distance’ (p. 120), as though it belonged to someone
else. This enclosed ambit of self-spectatorship – he is constantly observing
himself from a vantage point, casting a cold eye on his own gestures – requires
the scaling down of potential uncertainties and latently active innuendos,
leaving narrow margins for possible cross-purposes and perplexed intentions.

james joyce

According to this plan of action, unknown quantities are kept to a minimum,

and this allows him to compose sentences ‘about himself containing a subject
in the third person and a predicate in the past tense’ (p. 120).
Mrs. Sinico has been careful until this point to hold herself back, allowing
Duffy to relate himself from a distance; a repressed impulse is given away
in her attempt to master the situation, though it is difficult to tell with any
certainty what kind of force she seeks to exert, whether the gesture is closely
integrated with anything she might have said, and if the movement is voluntary
or not. She presses his hand to her cheek ‘passionately’, but this does not exclu-
sively determine the act as sexual, merely affectionate or semi-religious: Duffy
is brooding to his confessor about the ‘soul’s incurable loneliness’ (p. 124).
The unreflective nature of her gesture – although by extension it is also his, as
it is his hand which is caught up – and the manifestation of a previously only
‘half-disclosed nature’ (p. 122), upsets Duffy’s equipoise by contradicting the
‘impersonal voice which he recognised as his own’. The force of the gesture
resides not in the specificity of its motive but along a shifting range of hints and
implied concealments. These unspoken ambiguities and potential mistransla-
tions of intention cut dead Duffy’s commitment.
The array of possible intentions as Mrs. Sinico catches his hand is beyond
what he is willing to consider, it would confuse the distinctions he draws
between his carefully mediated, narrated self in the past tense, and the unme-
diated, tactile aspects of a relational self affirmed in her gesture. Duffy would
rather she mutely spectate his meticulously ordered and narrated character:
‘he thought that in her eyes he would ascend to an angelical stature’ (p. 124).
Their friendship is based on the role he assigns her as his ‘confessor’ (p. 123),
and he keeps catching himself, during their most intimate moments, ‘listening
to the sound of his own voice’ (p. 124). To secure the uptake, Duffy would
have to avert his eyes from his third personal self and act through a relational
self in the present tense. His paralysis – until Mrs. Sinico’s death he does
not make a single gesture – is the result of a split between his intentionality,
which is always retrospectively inclined, and the repressed activity of his body,
which would place him in the here and now, as a first personal agent. This rift
between the spontaneity of the gesturing body and the detachment of narra-
tive voice is further emphasised in Duffy’s manuscript translation of a play,
Hauptmann’s Michael Kramer, ‘the stage directions of which were written
in purple ink’ (p. 119). By further emphasising their separation from the dia-
logue, Duffy carries over into his translation what he manifests in his own life,
the ‘distance he keeps from his own body’ through the reflective mediation of
a narrative voice – which has become the ‘strange impersonal voice he recog-
nised as his own’ – in the past tense.
In playscripts since the nineteenth century, for stage directions indicating
gesture, it is the present tense which indicates a movement preceding utterance,

the speech-gesture complex

or the participle form which signals movement made simultaneously with

utterance. Two separate examples from Ibsen illustrate this convention. In The
Doll’s House, when Helmer teases Nora that she is careless with money beside
his own sound domestic book-keeping, Nora answers back with a simultane-
ous speech-gesture complex in the participle form: ‘Nora: [laying her hand
on his mouth] Hush! How can you talk so horribly?’2 Her gesture is read by
Helmer as signifying mere childish affection. Once we learn about her secret
accounting having saved her husband from ruin, the participle gesture, in its
simultaneity, acquires a ventriloquial connotation: Nora silences her husband
in order to speak on his behalf. Helmer’s idea of marital relations, in which the
husband balances the books while his wife obediently trails behind, his blind-
ness as to Nora’s stewardship of their accounts, obstructs his capacity to read
the intention in his wife’s gesture. Nora conceals her intentions to preserve
Helmer’s idea of himself, which is also Mrs. Sinico’s attitude before Duffy’s
hand is caught up. In both instances, the intention in the woman’s gesture
violates an established prudence wherein all acts between them are determined
by the man.
Rebecca West in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm demonstrates her moral independ-
ence from Kroll by separating her gestures from what she says. This detach-
ment is signalled by the use of the present tense in the stage directions:
Rebecca: [Moves a little nearer] My dear Rector, you say that with such
a ring of sincerity that I cannot think there is any ill-feeling lurking in the
Kroll: Well, it would be only natural if you felt it painful to see a stranger
managing the household here at Rosmersholm.
[. . .]
Rebecca: But you have no such feeling? [Takes his hand]. Thanks, my
dear Rector; thank you again and again.
Kroll: How on earth did you get such an idea into your head?
Rebecca: [Shakes both his hands] Many thanks, how kind and good you
Kroll: [Gruffly] Am I?3
Rebecca’s ironic tone is not exclusively vocal. The poses she strikes towards
Kroll are outwardly amenable, although beside her faux-naïve declarations of
trust, they also imply a potential counterforce to Kroll’s threats and intimida-
tion. Rebecca knows she can match, with sheer force of integrity, the unscru-
pulous behaviour of Kroll – who, like Helmer and Duffy, anxiously turns a
blind eye to the unspoken meanings in a tactile gesture – simply by taking his
hands. Kroll’s and Helmer’s relational paralysis is also perceptual, just as it is
for Duffy, whose principle of bodily restraint prevents him from understand-
ing Mrs. Sinico’s hand movement: they cannot read the gesture as it happens.

james joyce

This interpretive blindness is reproduced in the reader’s attempt to imagine

and decipher the gesture.
The afternoon of the publication of William Archer’s translation of Ibsen’s
The Master Builder was for Joyce ‘an event’: he ‘stayed up that night to read
the play’.4 A required effort of any reading of the play, as distinct from seeing
it performed, is in imagining the shape of Hilda’s gestures. On the page, vistas
of implication open out, but they remain overdetermined, inscrutable, both to
Solness and to the reader:
Solness: No, I can’t make up my mind whether you mean all you say, or
are simply having a joke with me.
Hilda: [Smiles] Hoaxing you, perhaps? I, too?
The text does not – and as a playscript cannot – reveal the intentionality of
her smile, which could be played by an actor as either scornful or affectionate.
Much of the play’s tension is generated by efforts to detect what lies behind
as well as what is in a gesture; Solness’s attempt to fix Hilda in his gaze, to
deduce her intentions, is also the reader-spectator’s task in the absence of
narrative interiority. One of Hilda’s defining traits is her incessant changes
of tone in her physical attitude to Solness. When she speaks, her inten-
tions towards Solness are playful and affectionate, but they remain partially
obscured amidst ‘half suppressed’, or ‘half teasing’ smiles, ‘half-veiled’ looks
and an ‘indefinable expression’ in her gestures. Solness constantly follows her
with his eyes, and fixes his gaze ‘steadily upon her’, but he cannot see past
her theatrical insincerity to determine whether she is in earnest or jest. He
cannot ascertain her intentions because her gestures veil her speech with an
ironic playfulness, and often serve to contradict the tone and intentions in her
Solness: It’s the loveliest thing in the world, you say.
Hilda: [rises with vehemence, and makes a gesture of repulsion with
her hand] Yes, to be sure it is, castles in the air – they are so easy to
take refuge in. And so easy to build, too – [looks scornfully at him] –
­especially for the builders who have a – dizzy conscience.5
Hilda simultaneously agrees with Solness – ‘yes, to be sure it is’ – and betrays
a dangerous enmity in her scornful look, and the ‘gesture of repulsion with her
hand’. Solness is constantly bewildered by these illocutionary trick-leaps; his
incapacity to read the ways in which her gestures reveal latently active hostili-
ties precipitates his ruin. Solness’s hermeneutic lack is replicated in the silent
reading of stage directions which leave the gesture’s illocution unfinished.
Theatrical script requires ‘the intervention of the actor’s body in the comple-
tion of its meanings’.6 A stage direction, as an instruction to an actor,7 indi-
cates the inseparability of spoken utterance from the movements of an actor’s

the speech-gesture complex

body, but on the page, the gesture is imperceptible, constructed by inferring

qualities which remain implicit and liable to misreading.
Mrs. Sinico’s gesture, refracted through these examples from Ibsen play-
scripts, undergoes various perceptual aspect-shifts. In the overlaps between
these elisions of novelistic interiority and the phenomenology of theatrical
spectatorship, gestures in Dubliners testify to Joyce’s immersion, during the
period of its composition, in writing for the stage, especially Ibsen, and in spe-
cific performances of those texts. Since university, Joyce had planned to write a
play and regarded his novels and stories, from 1900 to at least 1909, as prepa-
ration.8 In 1900 he had already written his first play, A Brilliant Career; no
copy of this survives, though it was read by William Archer, who denounced it
as ‘wildly impossible’ for the stage.9 He delivered a paper entitled ‘Drama and
Life’ at University College, Dublin,10 and then published ‘Ibsen’s New Drama’
in the Fortnightly Review.11 The moment dated 23 April 1900 when Ibsen sent
Joyce a telegram, via William Archer, saluting him for his generous review,
according to Ellmann, ‘kick starts his career as a writer’.12 Joyce’s preoccupa-
tion with Ibsen is well documented, although these comparisons tend to focus
on thematic parallels with Exiles and Ulysses.13 The only extensive study of
Ibsen’s influence on Joyce concentrates on Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and
argues that there are ‘fewer hints of his allegiance to Ibsen in Dubliners’.14 Yet
during the composition of Dubliners between 1905 and 1907, Joyce’s con-
versation and intellectual focus was almost exclusively on dramatic writing,
and he partly regarded these stories as warm-up exercises for a grand coup de
Joyce’s main point of contact with Ibsen, according to Stanislaus, was
largely in the experience of reading him,16 although this view has established
an imbalance which overlooks his frequent theatre going, and subsequently
excludes Dubliners from any relation to the performance culture of its time.
Yet from as early as 1893, Joyce ‘went to the theatre as regularly as he could
afford it’. He watched plays by Strindberg, Yeats, Synge and Sudermann,
amongst others, and it was through reading and watching Ibsen on the stage
that he became ‘convinced of the importance of drama’.17 His translations of
Hauptmann’s Before Sunrise and Michael Kramer in 1901 began to reveal to
him the compositional significance of minute gestural behaviour: for instance,
Doctor Schimmelpfennig’s ‘habit of frequently stroking his beard, particu-
larly whenever he is inwardly agitated’, or ‘Loth, outwardly calm [who] toys
with the peel of an apple, and seems not to heed what is taking place’.18 Such
detailed textual consideration of small-scale physical events was cognate
with their eventual incarnation by actors, a view he reiterates on reading
Hauptmann’s Rosa Bernd: ‘I wonder if he acts well. His plays, when read,
leave an unsatisfying impression on the reader. Yet he must have the sense
of the stage well developed in him by now.’19 In Dubliners, a literary method

james joyce

which does not insist on intended meaning in moments of epiphany, prefer-

ring to show rather than tell those ‘slips, and little errors and gestures’,20 is
filtered, I will argue, through Joyce’s own experience of reading playscripts,
but also of watching actors perform those scripts in darkened rooms. His
writing of the body in speech occurs in the margins between narrative voice,
inflected by the central character, and a language of performance which fore-
shadows the explicitly performance-oriented Exiles and the ‘Circe’ chapter of
My account of Joyce’s compositional intent, his preoccupation with as yet
unfulfilled work for the stage, and with the phenomenology of performance,
seeks to modify a dominant strain of scholarship on Dubliners which concen-
trates exclusively on the principle of ‘narrative ventriloquism’,21 and how the
language of the characters inflects the narrative voice. Most extended com-
mentaries have emphasised and variously re-described an operative principle
which imperceptibly mingles interior speech with observable phenomena. The
tendency to ‘insert a character’s characteristic speech without quote marks into
the narrator’s discourse’22 is often either referred to as Kenner’s ‘Uncle Charles
Principle’23 or the ‘Benstock Principle’.24 Neutral prose, ostensibly providing a
cold description of physical phenomena, is gently invaded by the ‘paraphrased
thoughts’, as Bruce Avery puts it, of the central character, and this ‘double
voice’25 serves to distance and obscure the view of observable events, or the
manner in which those events might be spectated were they to occur on stage.
In my account, the persistent intervention of the characters’ own unspoken
verbal manner in the description of physical phenomena, and the consequent
exclusion of a disembodied narrator brings what Genette calls the ‘narrating
instance’26 back to the condition of embodied spectating. In the absence of a
narratorial yardstick, a heightened visual field is achieved by restricting focali-
sation to what the central character sees.

Paralysis and Spectatorship: Henry James, Eleanora Duse, Yeats

and Dubliners
In the examples above, gestures in prose fiction resemble a performed move-
ment seen on stage, or read in a stage direction: they are given without an
account of an intentional state other than what is observed by the spectator.
Joyce’s central characters, inhabiting the scenic space, yet so often detached
from the events around them, approach the condition of the theatrical spec-
tator. Observing speech and gesture as though from an auditorium, they are
unable to intervene to alter the course of events on stage. This ‘paralysis’27
– Joyce’s own word to describe his stories – is an aspect of their constricted,
inactive spectatorship. In The Prose of the World, Merleau-Ponty argues that
‘it is the experience that I make out of my hold on the world which makes me
capable of perceiving another myself, provided that in the interior of my world

the speech-gesture complex

there opens up a gesture resembling my own’.28 In other words, we apprehend

the illocution in a bodily gesture visually only because our own body gives us
common access to a physical world in which that gesture holds significance.
It is a form of embodied recognition, and depends on a capacity not merely to
watch but to participate. The disengagement of Joyce’s characters from their
surroundings consequently also disables their capacity to interpret gesture.
Incapable of movement, Joyce’s Dubliners also become incapable of reading
movement, like Lenehan in ‘Two Gallants’, who gets it wrong, observing
Corley and his female companion, when he tries ‘to read the result in their
walk’ (p. 64). In ‘A Little Cloud’, when Gallagher ‘in the act of drinking closed
one eye expressively over the rim of his glass’ (p. 88), it is as obtuse a gesture
for Chandler as it is for the reader, and signals a stark unfamiliarity between
them which acquires specific resonance if placed beside an identical gesture
in ‘Two Gallants’, where the friendship between the two companions is more
established: ‘ “well . . . tell me, Corley, I suppose you’ll be able to pull it off all
right, eh?” Corley closed one eye expressively as an answer’ (p. 55). Corley’s
gesture is an affirmative wink which he explicitly offers ‘as an answer’,
whereas Gallagher’s gesture, identically described, precedes a denial that he
will ever settle down with a wife, ‘No blooming fear of that’ (p. 89). The con-
tradiction makes the gesture difficult for Chandler to read, and the moment
precipitates the end of their encounter. Chandler’s paralysed speech-gesture
complex clouds both his view and the reader’s.
These instances of failed reciprocity occur without a narratorial perception
of their intentional states, and in this respect gestures in Dubliners significantly
diverge from speech-gesture complexes ordinarily found in nineteenth-century
and contemporary short prose fiction. Expressive physique in Maupassant –
whose short stories are often cited as an influence on Dubliners, and whom
Joyce described, during the writing of his own short stories, as ‘an excellent
writer’29 – usually signals a relatively smooth passage from a given intention to
its consequent movement:
Without anger, she took hold of this daring hand and kept moving it
away whenever he put it round her, but she felt no embarrassment at
this caress; it seemed something quite natural which she was resisting
just as naturally [. . .] She was feeling endless longings for happiness,
and sudden moods of tenderness, and intimations of a transcendent
poetic quality, and such a softening of her nerves and heart that she was
weeping – she did not know why. The young man was now pressing her
close to him; she was no longer pushing him away, nor did she even think
of doing so.30
Here, there is an ease of encounter, a heightened instinctual reciprocity; the
specular field is offered to a central observer aware of his own body ‘as the

james joyce

potentiality of that field’.31 Whereas the condition of paralysis which besets

Duffy, Chandler and Lenehan – the result of a self-deception which represses
or prevents the mutual cooperation of speech and gesture – is characterised by
an inability to engage with their present circumstances. This serves to remove
them from their dramatic surroundings and reduces them to passive spectators
rather than embodied participants. Lenehan’s voyeuristic isolation allows the
partial but empty fulfilment which the disengagement from his own body pre-
vents him from achieving:
when he reached the corner of Merrion Street he took his stand in the
shadow of a lamp, and brought out one of the cigarettes which he had
reserved and lit it. He leaned against the lamp-post and kept his gaze
fixed on the part from which he expected to see Corley and the young
woman return. (p. 63)
Lenehan stands, his gaze fixed, in ‘the shadow of the lamp’. Darkness, as
Stanton Garner observes, is a ‘pervasive extradramatic presence in the modern
theatre [. . .] establishing the playing space through its boundaries, it [. . .] guar-
antees the audience’s invisibility’.32 Lenehan, in varying degrees, always stands
in the shadows, even when he should be a participant, and this spectatorial
passivity obstructs him at once from fully perceiving and inhabiting the space.
Joyce observes an overlap between the reluctance of his Dubliners to inhabit
their own bodies and the situation of the spectator in the darkened auditorium.
As Merleau-Ponty puts it, ‘bodily space’ becomes ‘the darkness needed in the
theatre to show up the performance, the background of ­somnolence [. . .]
against which the gesture and its aim stand out’.33 The suppressed bodily pres-
ence of Joyce’s central observers, the disengagement of their bodies from their
dramatic surroundings, their passivities and voyeurism and tendencies to live
by proxy through the spectacle of others, all point towards a ­phenomenology
of bodily perception which is peculiarly spectatorial.
There are instructive parallels between the influence of naturalist perfor-
mance on Joyce, and Henry James’s transformative encounter with Ibsen,
together with his consequent failure as a playwright. As Michael Egan
argues, after attending the premiere of Hedda Gabler in 1891, James actively
began to support the difficult and controversial reception of Ibsen in London
theatre-land.34 His absorption was both textual, through his association with
William Archer, Ibsen’s translator, and performative, via his close relations
with the American actress Elizabeth Robins, one of Ibsen’s chief actors. In
1893, during the production of The Master Builder in which Robins starred,
‘he attended not only rehearsals but almost every performance – and Archer
records that thirty in all were given’. James, like Kafka and Joyce, had an acute
awareness of the practicalities of performance for the stage – ‘it is impossible
not to read [Ibsen] without perceiving that merely book in hand we but half

the speech-gesture complex

know him’35 – and of how this would inform his own plans for theatrical
James’s desperate struggle during 1890–5 for success in the theatre cul-
minates in the spectacular critical and commercial failure in 1895 of Guy
Domville, his Ibsenite play about a Catholic priest wrestling between his
religious calling and worldly affairs.36 As Joseph Litvak demonstrates, James
begins developing the scenic principle in The Tragic Muse (1890) – the sense
of unity of space, finite perspective, and the inability to ‘go behind’ the novel’s
central figure, the actress Miriam Sherringham – though it remains at this
stage only a ‘metaphor and ideal of theatrical representation’, not having
yet tightened into a principle of formal construction.37 After Guy Domville,
a traumatised James retires from the theatre and returns to the novel with a
renewed sense of dramatic method, partly learnt from Ibsen and his own deep
and sustained thinking about performance. In his work 1895–9, as his biogra-
pher Leon Edel demonstrates, he develops the renowned ‘scenic principle’ of
his novels as a reaction to his failure as a playwright. His fraught encounter
with the stage prompts a shift in his writing from interiority and authorial
intrusion to ‘scenic design: fiction conceived and executed in single-scene cap-
sules and rendered, so far as possible, according to a dramatic analogy with
all the objectivity, economy and visibility of the theatre’.38 Of the first novel he
completes after Guy Domville – The Spoils of Poynton – he remarks: ‘I mustn’t
interrupt it too much with elucidations or it will be interminable. IT MUST
BE AS STRAIGHT AS A PLAY – that is the only way to do it.’39 Here, and in
The Other House, What Maisie Knew and The Awkward Age, James’s writing
shifts from the narrative omniscience of the nineteenth-century novel, with its
privileged access to the minds of the characters, to the limited spatial perspec-
tives on events described as if through the eyes of a spectator in the theatre,
a technique partly derived, as with Joyce, from his experience of watching
actors performing in Ibsen. Ibsen’s influence bears his strongest imprint in
The Other House – as Egan observes, ‘unalloyed, undistilled and hawked
directly from the pages of Hedda Gabler and Rosmersholm’40 – but I would
argue that the influence is more paradoxical than Egan’s claims of an ‘unal-
loyed’ transference of the ‘objectivity, economy and visibility of the theatre’
into prose fiction. Its effect lies rather in the hinterland between the visibility
of gestures as if on stage, and the opacity of gestures as incomplete textual
In The Other House, initially conceived as a play in 1893 before being
transformed into and published as a novel in 1895–6, Rose Armiger drowns
the daughter of Tony Bream, ostensibly to rid herself of her sexual rival, Jean
Martle, by casting blame for the murder on her. The triangular relation is
partly derived from the situation in Hedda Gabler between Hedda, Thea and
Eilert Lovborg: Thea and Jean Martle are sweetly naïve; Hedda and Rose turn

james joyce

their strange cunning and malevolence to destruction, Hedda of Bilert’s manu-

script, which Lovborg calls ‘like child murder’, and Rose of Tony’s daughter.
James resists taking his account of events beneath the perceptible surface,
denying recourse to internal monologue, and Rose’s motives are never clari-
fied as they might have been in his earlier novels. He achieves this effect not
only through Rose Armiger’s contradictory behaviour, reminiscent of Hedda
Gabler, and Hilda in The Master Builder, but also by never allowing her
deliberately opaque gestures fully to come into focus, and consequently never
overtly showing her to be what she does.
Rose’s indistinctness – ‘one really didn’t know whether she was awfully
plain or strikingly handsome’,41 she is ‘a light sketch for something larger,
a cluster of happy hints with nothing quite yet “put in” ’(p. 14) – allows her
to mask her self-imposed equivocation of purpose, and to remain undetected
through insidious aspect-shifts. James explicitly disavows third-person optics
as a stabilising and referencing icon. Rose’s lack of hard, clear visible outline –
‘Rose exhibited some vagueness’ (p. 40), she ‘ambiguously murmured’ (p. 40),
she ‘shook her head slowly and ambiguously’ (p. 73) – denies to the reader and
to those around her a shared perceptual constancy. The lack of a real audi-
ence which could scrutinise her actions paradoxically allows her to implant,
‘like an actress’ (p. 86), her subtle implications: ‘Rose Armiger opened her
eyes – there was perhaps a slight affectation in it’ (p. 25), she ‘hesitated in a
way that almost suggested alternatives’ (p. 25). Tony Bream, lacking her skill
at ambiguity, consistently fails to detect her subtle looks and the nuances of
her performance, the way she puts on ‘a sudden tremor in her voice’ (p. 83), or
the turns ‘that might have struck him had he not been following another train’
(p. 39). This performance of imperceptibility is one of the key elements of
Rose’s character, and her indefinable expressions and motivations become an
aspect of the novel’s indeterminacy and the deliberate perceptual constraints it
imposes on the reader. James’s thematised split process of reading and spectat-
ing, as derived from Ibsenite naturalism, generates double hybrid constructions
of gesture, by self-consciously foregrounding the performative, spectatorial
aspect – what ‘might at this instant have struck a spectator’ (p. 45), what
‘would have been equally evident to a spectator’ (p. 63) – and the absence or
incompletion of that performance, the inability of writing, what he calls ‘our
sad want of signs for shades and degrees’ (p. 10), to make perceptible an action
which might finally offer clarity to the situation.
Gabriel in ‘The Dead’ is also stricken with spectatorial paralysis. He enters
the Morkans’ house with ‘a call from the dark’, and is often seen ‘in a dark part
of the hall’, imperceptible to the others and motionless while others continue
unabated around him. His request, just prior to the moment he must take the
limelight for his after-dinner speech – ‘kindly forget my existence, ladies and
gentlemen’ (p. 226) – inflects this passive orientation and the accumulated

the speech-gesture complex

misreadings of gestures, as he is rebuffed or heckled by almost every woman

present over the course of the evening. Unable to apprehend a gesture’s illocu-
tion because he is unable fully to take part, his own gestures suffer from an
embarrassed sense of finding himself outside his element. They are ‘perplexed
and inattentive’, or ‘thought-tormented’, and serve to distract attention from
himself, and from the scene before him. He is frequently seen glancing ‘right
and left nervously’, staring ‘blankly’ or trying ‘to cover his agitation’. The
epiphany of Gretta, as he stands ‘in a dark part of the hall gazing up the stair-
case’, is presented as a tableau to which only he is witness, recognising her not
as his wife but as a defamiliarised ‘woman [. . .] in terra-cotta and salmon-pink
panels [. . .] which the shadow made appear black and white’ (p. 239). The
arrangement of bodies, one observing while the other distantly listens to some-
thing else, anticipates their confrontation in the hotel room.
Bob Doran in ‘A Boarding House’ is caught polishing his glasses – ‘every
two or three minutes a mist gathered on his glasses so that he had to take
them off and polish them’ (p. 71) – and then later again ‘his glasses became so
dimmed with moisture that he had to take them off and polish them’ (p. 74).
The gesture is symbolic of his inability to read the extent to which the object
of his gaze, the music hall performer Polly Mooney, is putting on a show for
him in order to dupe him into marrying her. Bernard Benstock notes of Doran
that he exists in ‘literal entrapment’ and that ‘most critics point out that Joyce
is exposing the institution of forced marriage’.42 Joyce takes the metaphor
of entrapment further and imagines a marriage, forced or otherwise, as like
the relation between a frustrated uncomprehending spectator and an actress
always, to an extent, behaving as though she were unattainably on stage. Garry
Leonard comments on Polly’s ‘theatrical flair’43 and her automatic instinct to
perform for a crowd, as does Margot Norris, who asks if gestures such as the
‘agitation of her bosom’ Doran feels through her shirt ‘represent “her” own
feeling or nature, or do they belong to a calculated performance?’44 A series of
observable performances confronts both Doran and the reader, though Joyce
elides intentional states which might confirm those performances as either
genuine or theatrical. On stage, she plays the ‘naughty girl / You needn’t sham
/ You know I am’ (p. 67), although the role as the seduced, suicidal heroine in
a melodrama, which she presents to Doran alone, sounds just as staged: ‘ “O
Bob! Bob! What am I to do? What am I to do at all?” She would put an end to
herself, she said’ (p. 72). Even when she is without an audience, Polly is seen
performing the virgin on her bath night: she dips ‘the end of the towel in the
water-jug and refreshed her eyes [. . .] looked at herself in profile and read-
justed a hairpin above her ear’ (p. 74). She is an offstage actress in her dressing
room, preparing for her next role as the respectable wife, appearing again in
the ‘Cyclops’ chapter of Ulysses as Doran’s ‘little concubine of a wife wagging
her tail up the aisle of the chapel with her patent boots on her, no less, and

james joyce

her violets, nice as pie, doing the little lady’ (p. 258: 811). Doran is too caught
up in his role as a spectator to tell the real Polly from the fake, and there is an
implication in Ulysses that his sense of Polly playing roles and masquerading
for him is what he needs from her, and what defines him as her husband and
spectator: he is last seen by Bloom in ‘Lestrygonians’, ‘sloping into the Empire
[theatre]’ (p. 137: 29).
The same year Joyce received a telegram from Ibsen, he also visited London
to see the great Italian actress Eleanora Duse perform in D’Annunzio’s La
Gioconda and La Città Morta.45 In the darkened theatres of London, Joyce
fostered an infatuation for Duse which stayed with him for several years. After
watching the two plays by D’Annunzio, both of them conceived and written
for Duse,46 Joyce wrote her an encomiastic poem (unacknowledged by her,
and which has not survived) and ‘procured a photograph of Duse which for
a long time stood on his desk’. He later told Stanislaus that that she would
be ‘an ideal actress for Ibsen parts’,47 though he had not yet seen her produc-
tions of, for instance, The Doll’s House, or Hedda Gabler. She went on to
become, according to Ibsen’s Norwegian biographer Halvdan Koht, Ibsen’s
most ‘perfect interpreter’.48 The writing of small-scale movements of the hand
in Dubliners, in particular Gabriel’s visions of Gretta in ‘The Dead’, were par-
tially filtered, I would argue, through his long-term attachment to Duse, and
the memory of watching her perform from the darkness of the auditorium.
Much of the surviving commentary on Duse draws attention to her power
to articulate speechless interior struggle through tiny movements. Pirandello
remarks that ‘she may have nothing to say during the whole scene; nevertheless
she remains its central figure’.49 A review in The Nation comments on ‘her way
of standing, of sitting, of holding some simple thing like a parasol; of handling
a simple drapery like a little shawl’.50 Hofmannsthal saw her in Vienna in 1891
and ranked her alongside Nijinsky as ‘the greatest genius of mime’:
she acts the transitions; she fills the gaps of motivation; reconstructs the
psychological novel in the drama. With a pursing of the lips, a movement
of a shoulder she portrays the maturing of a decision, the passing of a
thought through the mind, the whole psycho-physical occurrence which
precedes verbal expression.51
Duse had by 1900 already given definitive versions of Ibsen, and had ‘created
for herself her own style [. . .] a sort of convention’,52 which consisted of
rigidifying her neck, chest and shoulders, with either a backward curve for
repressed characters mounting a resistance, such as Rebecca West, Nora and
Hedda Gabler, or a forward curve, with hunched shoulders, for characters
absorbed in interior struggle,53 or what Joyce called, in his 1900 essay on
Ibsen, ‘painful introspection’.54 Pirandello remarked of her acting style that
‘the artistic skills of the actress seemed to be paralysed’.55 This semi-paralysis

the speech-gesture complex

of the torso would then foreground the articulations of repressed energy

through her hands. D’Annunzio dedicates La Gioconda ‘to Eleanora Duse of
the beautiful hands’,56 and her hands, evidently a distinguishing feature of her
acting style, receive significant attention from commentators: ‘her hands are
peculiar, attenuated and talon-like in the fingers, flat in the palm’;57 ‘she used
her hands a great deal but did not “gesticulate” with them’;58 ‘her divine hands
which seemed to talk [. . .] adding so much to the words actually spoken’.59
In Dubliners, bodies paralysed with inarticulacy, occasionally letting slip
a repressed impulse with a small movement of the hand, bear witness to a
meticulous attention both to Ibsen’s stage directions and to a performative
style exemplified by the slight movements of Duse. When Gabriel’s hands are
not engaged in a preset convention, as when he must carve the goose – ‘he felt
quite at ease now, for he was an expert carver’ (p. 225) – they act as signals
for his own sense of unease at the bustle which surrounds him. With the rest
of the party engaged in performance, recitals and applause, Gabriel is seen by
the window looking out: ‘Gabriel’s warm, trembling fingers tapped the cold
pane of the window. How cool it must be outside!’ and later at the dinner
table, his ‘trembling fingers leaning against table cloth’ (p. 218). His attitude of
quiet restraint gives the impression to the party’s onlookers of self-command,
although he only ever half-stifles his discomfort which surfaces often in small-
scale momentary restlessness. After the misplaced remark to Lily about finding
a young man, looking away from her, to disguise his embarrassment, he
‘flicked actively with his muffler at the patent leather shoes’ (p. 202). Then an
attempt is made to dispel the gloom this incident casts over him by ‘arranging
his cuffs and the bows of his tie’. Gabriel’s strained gestures of distraction and
embarrassed defensive strategies block him from fully perceiving or inhabiting
his environment, the mark of a man who longs to remain inconspicuous in a
place where he cannot easily de-emphasise his presence. His gestures testify to
Stanislaus’s description of the origins of Dubliners’ technique: ‘ironical obser-
vations of slips, and little errors and gestures – mere straws in the wind – by
which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal’.60
Arthur Symons witnessed the London production of The Doll’s House in
1893, with Duse as Nora, and recalled ‘the quieting down of a tumult’ con-
veyed by the minutiae of her gestures.61 William Archer similarly describes the
distinct absence of emphatic gesture, and of physical restraint which allowed
the unconscious to work its way to the surface in discrete movements of the
hands.62 Her version of Nora was radically different from previous interpreta-
tions. Betty Hennings at the Royal Theatre Copenhagen, 21 December 1879,
played her with ‘nervous speed’, ‘rapidity of gesture’ and would ‘flutter about
with childish officiousness’.63 Duse excised these coquettish elements and
concentrated instead on Nora’s suppressed hysteria, caught up in a nervous
exigency which seeks to preserve Helmer’s idea of marital relations. Duse’s

james joyce

Nora would only ever rise above the surface of semi-paralysis to twist and play
with a handkerchief or her wedding ring. Nora, ‘deep in her own thoughts’
often ‘claps her hands’.64 In this respect she resembles Hedda Gabler, ‘clench-
ing her hands together in desperation’,65 Mrs. Alving, who ‘wrings her hands
and walks, in silent struggle, backwards and forwards’,66 and Rebecca West,
who also ‘walks about clenching and wringing her hands’.67 By fastening
their hands together, they keep disclosed what they know and feel about the
situation. Duse’s reading of Ibsen’s stage directions clearly informs her perfor-
mance style, as she strove to perfect the nuanced, minute down-playing of her
gestures. This small-scale naturalism, as a performance style, in which signs
of nervous apprehension briefly emerge from paralysis,68 acquires an ampli-
fied significance in ‘The Dead’. When Gabriel asks Gretta if she would like
to go to the West of Ireland: ‘his wife clasped her hands excitedly and gave
a little jump. “O, do go, Gabriel,” she cried. “I’d love to see Galway again” ’
(p. 218). Her hands partially allude to charged moments in Ibsen which display
repression and its counterforce in a single gesture. Gretta’s hands simultane-
ously declare and suppress her nostalgia and excitement, an attempt to rein
in the potency of her secret attachment to Galway and the figure of Michael
Furey. Joyce does not paraphrase or ventriloquise Gretta’s thoughts, as he does
Gabriel’s, he stages her, through speech and gesture which resemble the pat-
terns of dialogue and stage direction in a playscript. The clasping of her hands
is the initial gesture in a sequence which finally imagines her as an Ibsenite
heroine, watched by her self-deluding spectator husband.
Gabriel’s position in relation to his wife is one of interpretative failure as
he struggles to read her gestures, to match his own lyricised self-absorption
with the ‘mystery in her attitude’ (p. 240). As they travel back to the hotel, no
word is exchanged as he presses her arm to his side and projects onto the silent
figure of his wife his wild and radiant vision. In the hotel room, while under
the same delusion, ‘slipping one arm swiftly about her body and drawing
her towards him’ (p. 249) but not getting the reply he seeks, his reading of
the scene begins to lapse into impalpability: ‘ “Gretta, what are you thinking
about?” She did not answer nor yield wholly to his arm’ (p. 249). Gabriel tries
to shake himself of an incipient disillusionment, continuing ‘to caress her hand’
though ‘it did not respond to his touch, but he continued to caress it just as he
had caressed her first letter to him that spring morning’ (p. 252). He strains,
with increasing desperation, to read her hand as though it were a love-letter.
Although Gabriel’s ironised rancours and longings, his diffidence and sense
of inadequacy and shame, as against the observable scene, take up the greater
part of the narratorial description, it is Gretta’s embodied stage presence which
gradually overwhelms him. In her moments of intense quietness, her statuesque
poses, the smallness of her gestures and their hesitancy, suggesting the presence
of an inaccessible interior struggle, Gretta performs the scene in the manner

the speech-gesture complex

of Duse playing Ibsen. Joyce writes Gretta, echoing eye-witness commentary

on Duse, as giving the ‘impression of intimate soliloquy within her own soul
or of someone conversing with invisible spirits’, and with a ‘melancholy and a
quiet dignity [. . .] intense almost painful sincerity [. . .] neither self-conscious
nor deliberate but impulsive’.69 Gabriel is made to watch a performance, at
once resigned and capricious, showing in modulations surprise, disappoint-
ment and quiet contempt. With the recognition of his own insignificance as her
husband, Gabriel’s bodily agency, unable to affect his wife, recedes into the
background and fades away into imperceptibility: ‘his own identity was fading
out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself [. . .] was dissolving and
dwindling’ (p. 255). His inability to read his wife’s attitude is concomitant to
his own paralysis and spectatorial passivity. It is suffused with Joyce’s reminis-
cence of watching Duse on stage, reading her mind through her gestures, his
own identity fading out in a darkened room.
Joyce models the separation between the dissolving and dwindling passive
voyeur and the scene unfolding before him on the strict divide between stage
and audience in fourth wall naturalist theatre, as pioneered by André Antoine’s
productions of Ibsen. The paralysis of fourth wall naturalism’s passive gaze
becomes for Joyce a defining condition of domestic life – Eveline cannot leave
for Argentina, Chandler will never go to London, Bob Doran will be trapped
in a forced marriage – but also of political life, and of the Irish political scene.
The spectator in the auditorium entrapped in his seat and unable to alter events
becomes a paradigm for the ‘hemiplegia of the will’ of the Irish, ‘who entrust
their wills and minds to others that they ensure for themselves a life of spiritual
paralysis’. For Joyce, the Catholic church and the British state as challenged
by Parnell are paralysis-inducing spectacles – ‘individual initiative is paralysed
by the influence and admonitions of the church, while its body is manacled by
the police, the tax office, and the garrison’70 – as is the sentimental, idealised
nationalism of Revivalist theatre exemplified by W. B. Yeats and the Abbey
Theatre, and summoned in ‘The Dead’ by the ghost-like presence of Michael
Furey. Joyce’s Ibsenite naturalism is in this respect an assertion of antipathy
towards Yeatsian Revivalism. Commentators have located in Joyce’s politics
an antithetical propensity towards Irish nationalism – as Emer Nolan puts it
‘nationalism [was] no more than an extension of British and Roman Catholic
imperialism’71 – and nationalism’s conjoining of history and mythology,
which, as Dominic Manganiello contends, serves to romanticise violence and
blood sacrifice,72 but have not situated his position in relation to Yeats’s theat-
ricalising of nationalist politics, and Joyce’s negotiations between the counter-
currents of Revivalism and the modernity of European naturalism.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Irish theatre was an inescapably
political matter, largely due to the powerful presence of Yeats, the central
figure in the opening of the Irish Literary Theatre in 1898, and then the Abbey

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Theatre in 1904. The fall of Parnell incited the emergence of Irish cultural
nationalism and the assertion of a national identity which would mitigate
against English cultural influence; in 1897, a year before the opening of the
Irish Literary Theatre at The Abbey, Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn
wrote a letter outlining their plans for an Irish Literary Theatre: ‘We will show
that Ireland is not the home of buffoonery or easy sentiment, as it has been rep-
resented, but the home of ancient idealism.’73 Explicit in the vision of Yeatsian
Revivalism is the ideology of an ‘intensified sense of nationhood’ and, as Emer
Nolan argues, ‘a reconstructed version of native or folk culture [...] a faith that
“the people” – through an enhanced awareness of their common identity – will
ultimately benefit from this aesthetic programme’.74 For Yeats, writing in 1899
on ‘The Literary Movement in Ireland’, ‘politics are, indeed, the forge in which
nations are made, and the smith has been so long busy making Ireland accord-
ing to His will that she may well have some important destiny’:75 the Irish
Literary Theatre would provide Ireland with a model of a unifying ‘national
institution’76 precisely aimed at forging a national political identity. Yeats,
alongside Gregory, George Russell (AE), Edward Martyn, George Moore
and others, selectively rewrote Celtic mythology, elevating the figures of Irish
oral histories, such as Cuchulain, to a mythical embodiment of the people, in
order to fashion a new nationalist literary culture. Yeats’s early plays, such as
The Countess Cathleen (1882), The Land of Heart’s Desire (1894), Cathleen
Ni Houlihan (1902), The Shadowy Waters (1904) and Deirdre (1907), draw
heavily on the correlation of the romance of Celtic mythology and Irish nation-
alism. In The Countess Cathleen, a heroic melodrama derived from Celtic
myth, English mercantile imperialists are allegorised as demons who bring
plague and famine to Ireland and offer the peasants gold in exchange for their
souls; the Countess offers the sacrifice of her soul in a grand romantic gesture
to stop the peasants selling theirs; after she dies, Heaven cancels the deal, her
soul is saved and the demons disappear.
The presence of Yeatsian theatre reverberates in key moments in ‘The Dead’,
when Miss Ivors and then Gretta speak of the West of Ireland, a region which
represents for Yeats the sentimental allure of rural nationalism. Gabriel’s
unease as he dances with the nationalistic Miss Ivors – she lays her ‘warm
hand eagerly on his arm’, but he recoils from the gesture – is amplified, as
Luke Gibbons suggests, by her political sentiments:77 the gesture accompanies
her invitation to Gabriel to come to the West of Ireland, to which his hand,
in its rejection of hers, provides an answer. He dismisses her reminder that
Gretta is from the West of Ireland, as he also later disregards Gretta’s desire
to visit the West, and she clasps her hands and exclaims she would love to see
Galway again. As Christy Burns argues, Gabriel is caught between parallel
resentments: ‘his refusal of cultural nationalism – ignited by Miss Ivors – and
his envy of the strong, idealist passions brewed by Michael Furey and images

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of Western Ireland associated with Gretta and her past’.78 Yeatsian heroic
­idealism, of the kind he mobilises in The Countess Cathleen, confers a sacrifi-
cial energy upon Michael Furey’s romantic gesture. Gabriel watches Gretta, as
she in turn watches the melodramatic Michael Furey, now vanished from view,
in a version of the love triangle Joyce extends in Exiles and Ulysses. Gabriel
becomes a spectator in the theatre of Revivalism, experiencing by proxy an
idealist intensity, romantic and nationalistic in equal measure, that he had
never felt for himself.
But Furey’s performance of histrionic sentimental extremism – he is an
uncompromising Irish martyr – is undermined by its spectrality. Gabriel
must imagine the staging of the scene through Gretta’s account. Joyce further
deprives the performance of its substance by filtering it through the con-
sciousness of a man deeply resistant to the idealising tendency of Revivalism.
Michael Furey, the Revivalist hero, dissolves and dwindles just as Gabriel does,
and what remains is the powerful impression of Gretta’s performance in the
naturalist style of Duse. As Taxidou notes, ‘Naturalism and its conventions are
tied up with the specific representation of the female’, a figure of ‘self-reliance
and self-fulfilment’;79 this new figure emerges in theatre history as an alterna-
tive to the familiar idealised version of femininity in melodrama. Histrionic
melodrama, for Joyce, constituted an oppressive structure of thought, both
for women, and also, by allegorical extension, for Ireland. Critics have read
Gretta’s attachment to the West of Ireland as embodying the attraction of
the Yeatsian idea, and of Gretta as a symbol or feminine embodiment of the
national spirit.80 I would argue, contrary to these claims, that Gretta coun-
teracts the Revivalist element through an Ibsenite performance style which
exceeds in power and grace the melodramatic, heroic grand style of Irish
Revivalism as suggested by Michael Furey.
For Joyce, the Irish Revivalist theatre, in dealing exclusively with Irish iden-
tity, in its surrender to the ‘rabblement’, and its courting of populist heroic
mythology, had ‘cut itself adrift from the line of advancement’. For Joyce,
this ‘advancement’ was political as well as aesthetic: an authentic literature,
and here he agrees with Wagner, is ‘revolutionary because its very existence
is opposed to the ruling spirit of the community’.81 His allegiance to Ibsen
and European naturalism is in this respect a political gesture of resistance
against the ruling spirit of Yeatsian Revivalism, a way of rejecting its central
claims. Yeats’s view of Ibsen – ‘why did [his characters] not speak out with
louder voices or move with freer gestures?’82 – embodied for Joyce a politically
redemptive performance style which pitches the commonplace, small-scale
gesture, made by ‘men and women as we meet them in the real world, not as
we apprehend them in the world of faery’83 against the aggressive grand ges-
tures of Irish heroic mythology. These heroic gestures, with their emphasis on
the need for ‘blood sacrifice’,84 permit and incite the romantic lure of political

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violence in the name of an artificially constructed, and dangerously one-sided

– Yeats spoke primarily on behalf of the Anglo-Irish Ascendency – cultural
nationalism. As Joyce told Padraic Colum, ‘violence in the physical life, and
sentimentality in the emotional life, were equally distressing’.85 In this respect,
Joycean naturalism does not, as Elin Diamond would claim, ‘operate in
concert with ideology’,86 nor is it, as Michael Egan puts it, ‘the serious, heroic
and even tragic treatment, in art, of the ruling class’.87 By filtering naturalist
performance style through his prose fiction, thematising the split process of
reading and spectating, and the paradox of reading a performance invisible to
the eye, Joyce undermines straightforward claims about naturalism’s simple
conviction in the effectiveness of language to represent reality, and shows forth
its emphasis on the diurnal, on Ibsen’s ‘capacity to destroy idealist notions
of femininity’88 as a counterforce to Revivalism’s sentimental idealisation of
women, and its tendency to allegorise Ireland through female characters.

Slips of the Hand in Exiles

While in Trieste, Joyce attended performances with great frequency, remarking:
‘the Italians have an immense genius for the theatre’.89 Though the documenta-
tion of plays he attended is scarce, it is certain he saw Duse – ‘the queen of the
Italian stage’, in the words of Gordon Craig90 – perform in Ibsen’s Rosmersholm
on 28 February 1908.91 He had not yet begun to write Exiles, though his com-
parison of this performance with La Città Morta in 1900 suggests the force of
a visual memory which could easily recall the details of a performance several
years earlier. Symons describes the signature-tune gestures in Duse’s perfor-
mance: ‘her beautiful firm hand grasping the arm of the chair without move-
ment; but so slightly that the knuckles grow rigid; her body droops sideways in
the chair, her hand rests on the other hand, the eyes are like a drowsy flame; the
whole body thinks’.92 Symons’s account foregrounds the importance, in drama
for the stage, of bodily process as much as speech. Duse talks as much with her
hands as her tongue, and ‘to talk with one’s hands is in some measure to think
with one’s hands’.93 When Rosmer asks Rebecca West to leave behind their pla-
tonic relations and the restless shade of his late wife, and marry him, Rebecca
briefly seizes up; the stage direction shows her ‘feeling for the chair back’. It is
a heightened moment, which Duse, one imagines, depicted by rigidifying her
knuckles to repress the energies of her thinking hand. Helmer, as he asks for her
hand in marriage, might look to her hand for an answer. Rebecca is compelled,
not having yet confessed to Rosmer her role in the suicide of his wife, to con-
tinue showing her disinterest, her fearlessness and self-command. His proposal,
in that instant, forces a concealed impulse to surface in the small movement of
her hand across the chair, though the exact nature of that impulse is unclear.
She quickly recovers her poise, and when Rosmer questions her refusal, she
‘seizes both his hands’ and replies: ‘dear friend – both for your own sake and

the speech-gesture complex

for mine – do not ask why. Lets go his hands’.94 The radical equivocality of
these gestures signals a series of conflicting intentions which range from her
suppressed desire for Rosmer, to her guilt, newly awakened by his high-minded
influence, at the malign deception of his wife.
Freud’s analysis of Rosmersholm relies exclusively on the dialogue.
Surprisingly, he does not apply his own theory of ‘symptomatic’ actions,
those small gestures which betray the role of unconscious intention in their
enactment, revealing inclinations or attitudes which would otherwise remain
hidden or disguised. Joyce’s meticulous attention to the slightest movements
of the hand in Exiles, which outdoes even Ibsen in the level of its detail, tes-
tifies to his first encounter during 1910–11 – between seeing Duse perform
Rosmersholm and the writing of Exiles – with Freud’s work on parapraxes.
One of his Trieste pupils, Paolo Cuzzi, remembers discussing ‘Five Lectures
on Psychoanalysis’ with him: ‘he talked with Joyce about slips of the tongue
and their significance’.95 Though no mention is made of slips of the hand, their
obsessive magnification in Exiles implies a direct acquaintance with Freud’s
theories on symptomatic actions.
In Freud’s view,
states of mind are manifested, almost without exception, in the tensions
and relaxations of facial muscles, in the adaptions of the eyes, in the
amount of blood in the vessels of the skin, in the modification in vocal
apparatus and in the movements of limbs and in particular of the hands.96
These suggestive non-verbal phenomena can obstruct the attempted conceal-
ment of a mental process. Freud describes a symptomatic act as one ‘which
people perform [. . .] unconsciously, without attending to [it], as if in a moment
of distraction’; it manifests an unconscious intention which has momentarily
‘come to the surface’.97 This ‘concurrent action – or perhaps rather, the mutu-
ally opposing action – of two different intentions’,98 is a conspicuous phenom-
enon in Exiles, where ambiguous Ibsenite gestures of repressed energy become
inflected with Freudian analysis.
As Robert’s attempted seduction of Bertha becomes more apparent, Richard’s
façade of self-possession begins to reveal barely perceptible cracks, in the form
of symptomatic acts. When he attempts to speak calmly to Robert – ‘Your
advances to her, little by little, day after day, looks, whispers. [With a nervous
movement of the hands]. Insomma, wooing’99 – his hand escapes his control,
involuntarily hints at his secret and a split complex of attitudes towards his
wife. On the one hand, he embraces the hypothetical situation of her infidelity
with Robert, and takes steps to arrange it: accepting her sexual liberty means
freeing his mind from a perpetually clawing and uncertain jealous suspicion.
But this distance, the moral attitude on which he prides himself, is a performed
deception, for others and himself, in order that Bertha and Robert may act

james joyce

unhindered and of their own volition. His conscious intentions arrange the
scene so that his wife and friend are free to lie together, while his unconscious
intentions, signalled by his hands, are directed towards the prevention of this
ever happening, ‘unwilling to carry out the [conscious] intention’.100
For Freud, ‘psychic freedom’101 in the way Richard conceives it is an illu-
sion which involves the forgetting of intentions contrary to those which are
immediately apparent. Richard’s striking composure in those rare instances
where he confesses his suffering draw attention to the timing of his confession
as insincere, yet his nervousness when speaking calmly to Robert reveals his
attitude towards his wife as split between jealous possessiveness and libertar-
ian distance. As Richard attempts to obstruct the revelation of his thoughts,
his symptomatic gestures serve as trustworthy indicators of the nervousness
underpinning his apparent grasp of the situation. The notion of symptomatic
acts offers a framework which reinforces the simultaneity of conflicting inten-
tions in the same speech-gesture complex. But Freud’s view, that physical
parapraxes always occur in a state of conscious inapprehension, is less conclu-
sive in instances of misrecognition where the grounds for cross-purposes are
necessarily undefined. To pronounce gestures in Exiles as unconscious, in the
Freudian sense, is to offer a conclusive rationale to which the gesture, as given,
is not exclusively confined.
Gestures in Exiles often ask the reader-spectator to make an inference at
odds with the tone of the verbal utterance. The play explores ‘counterpositions
of modes of insincerity’102 by staging gestures of convention and artifice, along-
side the speakers’ efforts to read behind those conventions. Richard conceals
his mistrust of Robert by resort to the gestures of etiquette; his considered
‘smiles and bows’, ‘nodding’ and ‘rising’ (p. 52) maintain an unruffled surface
from which he calmly surveys Robert’s potential designs on his wife, Bertha.
His effort in deducing Robert’s intentions often relies on inferences made in
the act of spectating the deceptive outward show of demonstrative gestures, or
their suppressed absence. There is a strong implication that Richard spies on
Robert’s advances from another room: ‘Robert: You were watching us all the
time? Richard: [Very coldly]. I was watching you’ (p. 84).
Robert is first seen coming towards Bertha ‘with outstretched hand which
she takes’ (p. 30). He frequently ‘comes nearer’ to Bertha (p. 39), and stays
proximate ‘beside her’ (p. 39) while Richard attentively keeps his distance.
Robert’s gestures are fervent and sentimental – ‘he kisses her with passion,
holding her head between his hands’ (p. 47) – though it is uncertain whether
his courtship of Bertha is not feigned with a view to the betrayal of Richard.
With Robert fixed in his ‘steady gaze’ (p. 97), Richard is constantly observed
‘recovering himself’ (p. 26) while he speaks ‘coldly’ and ‘with sudden self
control’ (p. 28): these qualities are as much a gestural as a vocal attitude.
His gestures are slight and convey an air of self-possession. Whilst aware

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that ­competence in expressive gesture is often a sleight of hand, an attempt

to distract the unwary observer, Richard also understands the principle that
‘the hands are especially designed to discharge nervous tension [. . .] they are
very rarely in repose; continually they reflect by minute gestures and slight
changes of posture the processes of the mind’.103 A slight movement of the
hand might let slip what he thinks and feels about the situation, and his strat-
egy depends on not giving away his anger and mistrust of Robert, whom he
suspects of simulating their friendship ‘in order to lull and stupefy the vigilance
of his mind’ (p. 165). This allows him to concentrate on observing shades of
ambiguous expression in Robert’s gestures. He remains throughout in a state
of interpretative suspicion, struggling to read the implied concealments behind
the suddenness and enthusiasm in a gesture.
The barely perceptible struggle to keep interior deliberation hidden from
view circumscribes Richard’s hand movements. His most characteristic gesture
involves ‘clasping his hands quietly’ (p. 23), he only ever ‘joins his hands ear-
nestly’ (p. 21), and this serves to keep to himself his emotional strategies and
bearings. When his blood is up, he halts, ‘thrusting his hands in his pockets’
(p. 71), or ‘restrains a sudden gesture’ (p. 76). Robert consistently tries to goad
him into disclosing his possible resentment against Bertha, though Richard
holds out with unflagging self-command:
ROBERT: Not only for your sake. Also for the sake of – your present
partner in life.
RICHARD: I see. [He crushes his cigarette softly on the ashtray and then
leans forward, rubbing his hands slowly]. (p. 52)
In fragments of dialogue for initial drafts of the play,104 the end is approached
with Richard Rowan addressing Bertha: ‘O how I loved you then! My little
bride! My little bride in exile!’; the preceding stage direction recalls Mrs.
Sinico’s gesture: ‘seizing her hands, kisses her passionately’.105 Nowhere in the
final version is Richard so demonstrative or tactile in his gestures; in the first
edition’s equivalent section, he merely sighs. In situations when this tactile
distance with Bertha is breached, when he speaks with emotional directness,
he quickly ‘lets her hand fall’ (p. 103), or ‘releases his hand’ (p. 162), and this
obstructs a straightforward reading of his intentions by disavowing gesture’s
merely illustrative function. Similarly, when Richard declares to Bertha: ‘O, if
you knew how I am suffering at this moment! For your case, too. But suffer-
ing most of all for my own’, the stage direction reads: ‘leans back, his hands
locked together behind his head’ (p. 25). The ease and composure in the stage
direction signals reflective deliberation rather than anxious involvement.
His hands give away his coldness in the moment he confesses his emotional
dependency and suffering. They articulate an intention to disentangle himself
from the mess of contingency, to sit apart from the spectacle before him, like

james joyce

a playwright amongst his characters, and stage manage the physical affections
and possible infidelity of his wife.
The substantive variants in Exiles indicate the minute re-examination to
which many of these gestures were subjected, in light of the Ibsen–Duse effect.
There are 112 substantive variations from the fair copy manuscript to the first
edition, of which forty-six concern the stage directions. Joyce stripped from
Richard’s interactions with Bertha nearly all supportive speech and gesture, so
that she is left to act from a position of uninfluenced freedom. In the revisions,
Bertha too becomes less emphatic in her gestures. In the fair copy manuscript,
when Robert, drenched in rain, re-enters the cottage in Act II, Bertha ‘lays
her hands on his arms’, whereas in the first edition, Bertha ‘lays her hand on
his arm’: both hands and arms become singular, her bodily attitude to Robert
becomes more reserved, implying a heightened instinctive caution. In the
process of authorial emendation, Richard’s movements are revised to allow
Bertha more freedom; she in turn is shown as adopting this freedom warily.
These results are achieved by presenting the gestures they make as indetermi-
nate, so that intentions are less evidently affirmed.
Like Dubliners, the politics of Exiles works by allegorising the personal:
the technique which embodies two simultaneous conflicting intentions, with
gesture counteracting speech, as in Dubliners, indicates not only the con-
tradictions of an attitude to marital betrayal, but also of political betrayal,
and of the ambiguities and uncertainties of the ‘divided consciousness of the
colonial subject’. As Emer Nolan argues, Joyce’s critics observe in his critical
writings about Irish nationalism and colonialist violence a ‘detached ambiva-
lence’, while in his fiction these uncertainties and hesitations take the form
of a ‘painful deadlock’.106 The conflict between outwardly calm detachment
and fraught ambivalence, as revealed by the minute gestures which counteract
speech in Exiles, is an aspect of Joyce’s thinking about the divided conscious-
ness of the political subject, unable to accept either British colonial violence, or
the violence of nationalism’s advocacy of immanent cultural unity.
Joyce embodies these conflicts and self-divisions within his individual char-
acters and in the allegorical connotations of their gestures. As Andrew Gibson
notes of Ulysses, ‘colonial culture necessarily promotes self-fabrication and
self-alienation’.107 For Joyce, the defining feature of Irish history is its split
identity, and its impossible struggle to maintain conflicting loyalties, within
a coherent body-politic which includes, on the one hand, an English sover-
eignty, begun in 1171 under Henry II, with its dual Irish and English legal
system, and on the other, Irish nationalism’s ideology of an original national
unity, fragmented over time but restorable through violence, transcending,
as David Lloyd puts it, ‘historically determined cultural and political differ-
ences and form[ing] the reconciliatory centre of national unity’.108 Joyce partly
admires Arthur Griffith, the founder of Sinn Fein, and writes to Stanislaus of

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his support of commercial boycotts; but he is appalled at the prejudice such

nationalism inevitably generates: ‘What I object to most of all in his paper, is
that it is educating the people of Ireland on the old pap of racial hatred.’109
Where Yeats envisaged a national theatre modelled on a transcendental idea
of cultural wholeness which would include both performer and audience, Joyce
imagines diverse isolated spectators, riven with unresolvable contradictions,
complicities and betrayals. Ireland’s ‘history of self-betrayal’110 is most power-
fully marked for Joyce in the fall of his political hero, Charles Stuart Parnell,
whose presence in Exiles is marked in the Notes: ‘The two greatest Irishmen
of modern times – Swift and Parnell – broke their lives over women.’111 The
note here on ‘the relations between Mrs. O’Shea and Parnell’ reinforces the
historical and political reading of Joyce’s exploration of marital relations.
His affair with the wife of Captain William O’Shea deposed Parnell and with
him a Home Rule Bill in its advanced stages. According to Joyce, Parnell was
‘perhaps the most formidable man that ever led the Irish’,112 the figurehead for
Home Rule, whose brilliant campaign for Irish Home Rule in the 1870s led to
the introduction of the first Home Rule Bill by Gladstone in 1886. He success-
fully negotiated his way through disruptions to his programme by nationalist
violence, in particular the assassination of the British Undersecretary and the
new Chief Secretary in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, and united fragmented politi-
cal factions, parliamentarians and the church. Parnell’s affair with Katherine
O’Shea was an open secret from 1886, and, as Dominic Manganiello notes,
‘what impressed Joyce was Parnell’s indifference to moral convention in
Catholic Ireland’.113 The scandal his affair caused was largely exacerbated by
Catholic bishops who turned against him, orchestrating the by-election defeat
of April 1891 in North Sligo, which effectively ended his parliamentary career,
and with it the dream of Home Rule. The fall of Parnell was the lens through
which Joyce viewed Ireland’s self-betrayal:
No honourable and sincere man [. . .] has given up to you his life and his
youth and his affections from the days of Tone to those of Parnell but
you sold him to the enemy or failed him in need or reviled him and left
him for another.114
In ‘The Home Rule Comet’, he wrote that Ireland had ‘betrayed her heroes,
always in the hour of need and always without gaining recompense’.115
In a letter to Stanislaus of 1906, Joyce compared his sexual rival, Oliver
St-John Gogarty to MacNally and Reynolds, the bishops who betrayed
Parnell. This sense of the interchangeability of personal and political instincts
is reinforced in the echoes between Richard Rowan’s remark that ‘There is a
faith still stranger than the faith of the disciple in his master [. . .] The faith of
a master in the disciple who will betray him’ (p. 58) and Joyce’s view that ‘one
of the disciples who dipped his hand in the same bowl with [Parnell] would

james joyce

betray him’.116 Joyce’s critical analysis of the uncertainties and contradictions

between Richard, Robert and Bertha is informed by the catastrophic relation
between the personal and the political in relation to Parnell. Exiles represents
Joyce’s thinking about the uncertainties of moral equivalents, a conflicted
attempt to overcome the morality of the institution of marriage, of the insig-
nificance of marital betrayal next to the betrayal of Parnell and of Irish Home
Rule, and of Ireland as enslaved in an unhappy marriage to England. Political
extremism quickly filled the vacuum after the fall of Parnell, with the rise of
Sinn Fein, on the one hand, and Revivalism on the other. As Yeats put it, ‘The
fall of Parnell had freed imagination from practical politics, from agrarian
grievance and political enmity, and turned it to imaginative nationalism, to
Gaelic, to the ancient stories, and at last to lyric poetry and drama.’117 Joyce
continues to articulate his resistance to the extremism of either side by resort to
the methods of naturalism, where he found an innovative, politically progres-
sive modernity, and a means to define a hesitant, divided, uncertain colonial
consciousness, caught between unresolvable contradictions.
The performance style of small-scale Freudian–Ibsenite gestures remains a
key element of his aesthetics and politics as late as Exiles and Ulysses, long
after modernist abstraction and estrangement had supplanted and denounced
an increasingly conservative naturalism. As Olga Taxidou observes, Yeats
belongs to the modernist tradition of externality and formal experiment. He
had already developed an anti-illusionist aesthetic as early as The Countess
Cathleen, with its ‘static tableau-formations, non-realistic sets, chanted dia-
logue and creative lighting to portray the set but also the mood’.118 This
aesthetic is further elaborated in his 1911 Abbey Theatre collaboration with
Edward Gordon Craig on The Hour Glass, with its innovative use of screens to
present a radically anti-illusionist scenic space and stylised, ritualistic gesture,
in the manner of the Noh and Eastern influenced European modernist experi-
ments of the time. As with Dubliners, the prevailing view that Joyce ‘resolved
to demythologise the pretensions of the Revival in the name of a thoroughgoing
modernism’ is undermined, in terms of performance culture, by his thorough-
going anti-modernism, and the failure of Exiles is partly the result of his attach-
ment to the increasingly passé method of naturalist interiority and restraint.
Joyce’s director of choice for a Paris production of Exiles, Aurélien Lugné-
Poë, turned it down in favour of a play by Fernand Crommelynck called
Le Cocu Magnifique, staged at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre in 1920. Joyce later
explained why Exiles was not acted in Paris. Le Cocu Magnifique

took the wind out of the sails of Exiles. The jealousy motive is the same
in kind in both cases. The only difference is that in my play the people
act with a certain reserve, whereas in Crommelynck’s play the hero, to
mention only one person, acts like a madman.119

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A comparison with Le Cocu Magnifique, against the tendency to situate Exiles

within extended critiques of Joyce’s novels, rather than in the performance
culture of its time, assists in revealing why Exiles has proved ill-suited to the
stage. The ‘certain reserve’ with which Joyce characterises his play is both a
vocal quality and a physical condition, manifest in stage directions without
which the play loses its force. The lack of action which commentators observe
is partly a result of the frequently imperceptible on-stage tensions between
speech and gesture. The static procedures are the background against which
tiny movements of the hand map out the developing tensions and crises. Exiles
relies on static reserve and the articulation of body parts as though separate
from the total body-image, whereas Le Cocu, despite thematic similarities, pre-
sents a radically different version of speaking bodies, and its production dem-
onstrates the extent to which Joyce’s minute permutations, in themselves not
ideally suited to the perceptual fields of the proscenium arch, failed to chime
with the new spirit of externality and experiment in theatre culture.
Le Cocu’s central figure, Bruno, puts his jealousy to the test by forcing Stella,
his wife, to sleep with all the men in the village, thinking her non-existent lover
will reveal himself. His gestures are characterised by a total lack of restraint. In
one scene, he demands that his friend admire his wife’s breasts: ‘feverishly he
opens the bodice of the young woman’. 120 Whereas Richard manages to contain
his suspicions by controlling his bodily expression, Bruno’s jealousy, as it turns
into psychotic delusion, takes possession of every gesture he makes. As he loses
the physical possession of his wife to other men, so he loses his self-possession:
‘Bruno: Every gesture, every word of Stella, every beat of her heart, her silence
and her immobility, whether she’s awake or sleeping, all that pertains to her in
time and space, is a reason for my anxiety.’ This literal rendering of physical
possession is what underpins Bruno’s jealousy. He cannot accept her physical
separateness, and this leads him to a severance between his instincts and his
body. The mania of his suspicions takes possession of his body, whereas Richard
manages to contain these suspicions by controlling his bodily expression. The
darkly farcical final scene is the culmination of Bruno’s inability to interpret the
language of dumbshow. His hermeneutic capacity throughout the play is based
on assuming Stella will not publicly demonstrate affection for her imaginary
lover, and that she may feign affection with others in order to keep him hidden:

Stella and the Young man from Oostkerke remain quiet. Not a gesture,
not a look. Two statues.
Bruno: Your silence and your discretion give you away. This immobility
means as much as an embrace.121

Bruno is consistently observed failing to secure the illocutionary uptake in the

stage directions. Having reduced the role of the other characters to players on

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the stage of his own trauma, Bruno, usually seen arranging the scene as he wills
so that he can (mis)read it in a particular way, becomes a director who ignores
stage directions which would correct his error, so he can stage a private vision
of infidelity.
Lugné-Poë’s hyper-kinetic production inspired Meyerhold’s famous
Biomechanical production of Le Cocu in 1922, at the Actors’ Theatre,
Moscow. The Biomechanical law of balance between actor and character was
applied to express the malign will which inhabits Bruno’s gestures: there is
already a Biomechanical quality in the script which helped influence the devel-
opment of the new performance style. Erast Garin, in an account of the first
performance at the Actors’ Theatre, remarked:
Bruno stood before the audience, pale face motionless [. . .] at the same
time this Bruno was being ridiculed by [Bruno’s] actor performing acro-
batic stunts at the most impassioned moments of his speeches, belch-
ing and comically rolling his eyes whilst enduring the most dramatic
The simultaneous operation of two opposed wills in one body, that of Bruno
‘pale faced and motionless’, and the actor playing Bruno ‘performing acrobatic
stunts’, served as an analogue for the split intentions Bruno has towards his
wife, at once insanely jealous, and yet forcing her to sleep with other men to
catch her non-existent lover. Manifest in ‘Biomechanics’, a training method for
his actors, it was Meyerhold’s conviction that relationships on stage are ‘deter-
mined by gestures, poses, glances and silences’, that ‘in the new theatre, speech
and plasticity are each subordinated to their own separate rhythms and the
two do not necessarily coincide’.123 Meyerhold would instruct his players to
begin with external physical techniques and from there work inwards towards
psychological centres. An emotional reaction was the consequence, and not the
cause, of a physical reaction, itself triggered by a physical stimulus. Exercises
were developed in gesture and movement, which were then broken down into
physical stimulus, physical reaction and emotion.124 These studies train the
actor’s sense of balance, between himself and his part, serving to distance the
actor’s body from his role, and signal formal correlatives for intentional states.
Bruno’s self-created trauma is thematised as a total body-image, by playing
on the notion that an actor’s body ‘acquires its mimetic and representational
powers by becoming something other than itself’.125 Bruno, as an intentional
agent, for the duration of the performance, is exiled from his own body, and
must enact gestures according to the imperatives of his jealous mania.
These techniques are contrary to Exiles, where hidden intentions precede
their physical manifestation. In the process of composition, Joyce allocated
intentions to his characters prior to the conception of dialogue and gesture.
He wrote these intentions, found in the notes at the back of the play, and

the speech-gesture complex

i­mpractical as guides for stage management, before the play itself was
drafted.126 The gesturing body in Exiles conceals hidden eddies of desire,
given away in scarcely perceptible slips of the hand. Despite his admiration
for Duse’s performance in The Doll’s House in 1892, even William Archer
began to notice the recurring problems of imperceptibility in naturalist theatre.
In the scene where Krogstad points out a crucial discrepancy between dates
on the loan agreement form, Duse’s reaction, as Archer notes, was minimal
to the point of being scarcely visible.127 The audience could not see her subtle
expression of surprise and apprehension, likely expressed with a flutter of the
hand. This problem is more acute in Exiles, where small-scale iconic utter-
ance demands a representation which gives it a valency equal to speech. This
emphasis is difficult to achieve on stage and is often imperceptible in a prosce-
nium arch theatre.

‘In the beginning was the gest’: ‘Circe’, Early Cinema and the ‘Art
of Gestures’
Joyce’s writing for the stage met largely with disappointment and failure. The
rejection by Yeats in 1904, on behalf of the Abbey Theatre, of his transla-
tions of Hauptmann’s Before Sunrise and Michael Kramer anticipated Yeats’s
eventual rejection of Exiles in 1915. Exiles sustained years of rejection by
theatres. Yeats refused it on behalf of the Abbey Theatre in 1915, and Archer
‘did not much care’ for its ‘form of realism’.128 Exiles suffers, in my view, from
two related problems. Firstly, Joyce’s attachment to naturalist theatre, which
by 1920 had receded from the avant-garde, was increasingly anachronistic;
naturalism’s original radical intent was being supplanted by the resurgent
anti-naturalist school of Meyerhold, whose ideas and performance style would
have such a transformative effect on Brecht in the early 1920s. Next to the
aesthetic and political advancements of this school, Ibsenite naturalism was
beginning to look distinctly passé; yet for Joyce, this performance style, in
theatre at least, remained his preferred mode of articulation against Yeatsian
ritual melodrama.
The problem of Exiles in performance is also to a large extent related to the
intricate patterns of hand gestures in the stage directions. Ezra Pound voices
a majority view of Exiles: ‘I don’t believe an audience could follow it or take
it in, even if some dam’d impracticable manager were to stage it.’129 John
MacNicholas, in his survey of the play’s reception, remarks: ‘it is generally
agreed, perhaps especially among Joyceans, that Exiles is a bad play, opaque
to both reader and viewer’,130 an opinion borne out by ‘the infrequency of
its performance’.131 A review of its English premiere at the Neighbourhood
Playhouse, New York, in 1924 complained of the ‘lack of every vestige of
action’.132 The 1926 London production at the Regent Theatre was also ‘rather
tedious and lacking in action’.133 The reviews agree about lack of perceptibility

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and the script’s uneasy transfer to the stage, but they do not explicitly mention
the importance of those detailed, almost imperceptible gestures, revealing
intentions contrary to the dialogue, and easily overlooked in a proscenium
arch theatre.

As Joyce approached the writing of ‘Circe’ – the only text, other than Exiles, to
make extensive use of stage directions – he remained desperate for the play to
be performed in Paris, remarking: ‘an unperformed play is really a dead depor-
tee’.134 ‘Circe’ invokes the technical language of the proscenium stage – ‘From
left upper entrance with two sliding steps Henry Flower comes forward to left
front centre’ (p. 421, 2478–9) – only then to undermine its capacity to signal
performable acts of the staged body. Joyce mercilessly cuts up the proscenium,
and this is partly the consequence of his fraught relations with the language of
the stage. He writes ‘Circe’ against a background both of his personal failure in
the theatre, and during a period of crisis for European theatre in general, which
was losing its audiences to the cinema. As early as 1914 in France, ‘the cinema
had largely supplanted the theatre and café-concert [. . .] in the provinces and
had become a strong rival to them in the larger cities’.135 In its parodies of Irish
Revivalist theatre,136 ‘Circe’ is partly Joyce’s affront to Yeats’s rejection of
Exiles; the chapter takes energetic revenge on the theatrical institutions which
refused his playscripts and frustrated his long-held ambition. The consequent
peculiar cross-pollination of theatrical tableaux with introceptive focal points,
and the discovery of a performance style beyond the scope of the stage, which
can amplify the significance of small-scale symptomatic acts and bestow upon
them an emphasis equivalent to speech, reveals a sustained awareness of film
technique, the chapter’s natural province.
From 1902, when he stayed at the Grand Hôtel Corneille in the Rue
Corneille, two miles from the Théâtre Robert-Houdin owned by Méliès, until
Paris in the twenties, when, according to Patricia Hutchins, ‘he went frequently
to the movies, usually between dusk and dinner time when he could no longer
work’,137 Joyce witnessed early film history from the exhibitionist ‘cinema of
attractions’138 circa 1904, to the gradual formation of syntactic conventions,
perceptual fields and the dismemberment of the gesturing body. The waltz and
twirl in ‘Circe’ between language and iconicity occurs under a narrative gaze
trained to read the performed gestures in films, from their earliest inception
right up to the chapter’s composition in 1920–1. Joyce situates the moment of
film history in 1904 retrospectively from the vantage point of later develop-
ments in film technique, and the breaking up of theatrical space, and the body,
into focal points and shots of varying distance. The chapter’s stage directions
demonstrate an ease and fluency with the technique of the shot sequence,
moving the narration forward in cells, wholes rendered by parts, showing
forth a method which clearly transgresses the confines of the proscenium arch,

the speech-gesture complex

where the spectator would observe the enacted scene as a whole in space,
according to the total measurements of the actors’ bodies:
Bloom walks on a net, covers his left eye with his left ear, passes through
several walls, climbs Nelson’s Pillar, hangs from the top ledge by his
eyelids, eats twelve dozen oysters (shells included), heals several suf-
ferers from king’s evil [. . .] turns each foot simultaneously in different
directions, bids the tide turn back, eclipses the sun by extending his little
finger. (p. 404: 1841–51)
I wish to extend the territory of scholarship on Joyce’s film-literate prose139
by relating the chapter’s aesthetics and politics, its ‘art of gestures’ – Joyce’s
own category in his Notesheets140 – to the history of spectatorship and perfor-
mance style in early cinema, in light of his description of the chapter’s figures
as ‘cinema fakes’,141 and his fraught relations with the theatre. Joyce had begun
to think about representational overlaps between film and writing as far back
as 1906, for instance, in a sixty-miles-an-hour hyperbole to Stanislaus which
ends with the line: ‘the Italian imagination is like a cinematograph, observe
the style of my letter’.142 His remark in 1924 that ‘the book [Ulysses] could
not be translated into another language, but might be translated into another
medium, that of the film’,143 testifies to his fascination with the perceptual
reality of cinema’s ‘mute world’ (p. 424: 2575), and the compositional energy
of aspect-shifts between acts of reading and spectatorship. At a showing of
the Lumières’ Arrivée d’un train at the Grand Café in 1895, one spectator
was heard to announce ‘la langue universelle est trouvée’;144 this is echoed by
Stephen in the chapter’s opening declaration: ‘so that gesture [. . .] would be a
universal language’ (p. 353: 106).
‘Circe’ conjures an imaginary audience for Nighttown, a crowd of observers
assembled to watch scenes from the private lives of Stephen and Bloom; yet
these scenes and the assembled audience are imaginary – they belong in a novel,
not in concrete space – and Bloom and Stephen, and by extension the reader,
who shares their predicament, are constantly made aware of their readerly
isolation and failure to experience events in Nighttown as a collective experi-
ence. As David Hayman and Fritz Senn argue, physical routines in ‘Circe’ are
partly an aspect of mimographic evocations which enact movement through
acoustic effects.145 At the same time, the technical language and proxemic stage
codes, the detailed blocking of the cast, the elaborate physical routines in the
stage directions, according to Katie Wales, foreground the chapter’s essential
iconicity.146 As Derek Attridge observes, the language in Ulysses, in one view,
‘draws attention to itself and its configurations independently of its referential
function’, and in the other, it wills its own disappearance ‘in an enhanced expe-
rience of referentiality’.147 These perceptual aspect-shifts show forth the chap-
ter’s politics: the intense active engagement required to imagine the chapter’s

james joyce

action correlates with Bloom’s and Stephen’s effort to resist being drawn into
the passive attitude of an idealised collective or body politic in the Yeatsian
mould, and their struggle to remain active, radically engaged individuals,
responsive to the constantly shifting, fluid representations and contradictions
of text and performance.
Stephen and Bloom spend June 16 distracting their minds from two painful
thoughts, the death of a mother and a wife’s infidelity, until they reach
Nighttown’s midnight-movie, when those secrets, no longer kept, are pro-
jected onto a public screen for Dublin’s assembled throngs to watch aghast.148
Stephen and Bloom’s experience in ‘Circe’ is intensely solitary, private and
fragmented, but at the same time it is on public view to Nighttown’s crowd
of observers. In ‘Telemachus’, Stephen’s mother ‘in a dream, silently [. . .] had
come to him’ (p. 9: 270); the past perfect tense keeps the apparition, a remem-
bered dream, at a safe distance. ‘Circe’’s stage directions place the afflicted
dead mother presently before the horrorstruck eyes of an audience:
emaciated, she rises stark through the floor, in leper grey with a wreath of
faded orangeblossoms and a torn bridal veil, her face worn and noseless,
green with gravemould [. . .] She fixes her bluecircled hollow eyesockets
on Stephen and opens her toothless mouth uttering a silent word. A choir
of virgins and confessors sing voicelessly. (p. 473: 4157–62)
These shock tactics gain their iconic impetus by harking back to the origins
of cinematic movement. Joyce recreates the first spectators’ unfamiliarity,
their perceptual shock at the sheer visibility of mechanically recorded motion.
Maxim Gorky’s 1896 commentary on the Lumières’ Arrivée d’un train – ‘it is
not life but its shadow, it is not motion but its soundless spectre [. . .] All this
in a strange silence [. . .] no sound of footsteps or of speech’149 – also serves to
describe the rising of Stephen’s mother, who ‘opens her mouth [. . .] uttering
a silent word’, just as Bloom ‘calls inaudibly’ (p. 497: 4962) after Rudy, both
instances rendered in the style of mute utterance in silent cinema, where the
lips are seen to move but no sound is heard.
Bloom is held fast as a subject while being compelled to attend a public exhi-
bition of his own hidden sexual proclivities. Isolated voyeurisms are screened
for an awestruck staring audience. Katherine Mullin has amply demonstrated
the significance of the Mutoscope – a peephole machine, observed though
an eyepiece using large photographs flipped through with a hand crank, and
introduced the same year as the first public screening of the Lumières’ Arrivée
d’un train at the Grand Café in 1895 – in her analysis of ‘Nausicaa’.150 The
language of peephole pantomime which passes between Gerty and Bloom – no
word is exchanged, though ‘it was a kind of language between us’ (p. 305:
944) – is Mutoscopic: it remains a private fantasy seen only by him. This
fantasy is ended mid-thought, or rather mid-flick, as Gerty limps away, just as

the speech-gesture complex

Bloom himself goes limp: ‘she walked with a certain quiet dignity characteris-
tic of her but with care and very slowly because – because Gerty MacDowell
was ... Tight boots? No. She’s lame! O! Mr Bloom watched her as she limped
away’ (p. 301: 769–72). But Gerty reappears lasciviously in Nighttown,
pawing Bloom’s sleeve, after which ‘she slides away crookedly’ rather than
limping away. This pun on ‘slides’ alludes to the photos prepared for use in a
Mutoscope, and Gerty’s crooked movement suggests the jerkiness and irregu-
larity of those hand-cranked slides.151 Bloom’s reflections in the past tense
– ‘he watched her as she limped away’– mutate into ‘Circe’’s stage direction
which incarnates movement in the present tense and puts it before an audience,
exploding private Mutoscopic peepshow into public cinema projection.
Bloom then finds himself locked in a turn-of-the-century ‘through the
keyhole’ film. These tableau films, which reproduced ‘the peepshow perspec-
tive of kinetoscope or mutoscope parlors’152 in their transition to public exhi-
bition space, show characters peeping through a device, such as a telescope or
keyhole, before a cut to what is seen, often an incriminating scene. A Search
for Evidence (1903) displays a series of points-of-view as the deceived wife,
accompanied by a private detective, observes a row of hotel rooms through
keyholes which frame the tableaux, eventually finding her unfaithful husband
in the last room. ‘Circe’ harks back to this arrangement when Boylan offers
Bloom a view of Molly: ‘you can apply your eye to the keyhole and play with
yourself while I just go through her a few times’, to which Bloom asks if he
can ‘take a snapshot’ (p. 462: 3788–92). These films contained incipient iden-
tifications between the spectator-subject’s orientation and what the audience
sees; the relation between the Mutoscopic drives in ‘Nausicaa’ and the sense
of collective spectatorship in ‘Circe’ is suggested by the historical shift from
the Mutoscope to the cinematograph. Bloom’s spectacular embarrassment at
having his fantasy reconstructions laid bare is imagined as an act of voyeurism
played over the ‘coughs and feetshuffling’ (p. 413: 2169) of an audience, in the
style of tableau films such as The Story the Biograph Told (1904), in which
an unseen office boy films the proprietor kissing his secretary, then screens the
film to an audience which includes the proprietor and his wife. Bloom’s private
guilt is turned into a masochistic spectacle in which he is not only a member of
the audience but also its ideal reluctant spectator.
In ‘Circe’, Joyce sets forth a model of collective spectatorship as an alterna-
tive to the Yeatsian model. For Joyce, an audience should consist of a group of
unitary spectators, each plotting their own path, as Jacques Rancière puts it,
through ‘the forest of things, acts and signs that confront or surround them’.153
He achieves this effect by thematising the speech-gesture complex and the shift
from the collectivity of the theatrical audience to the isolation and individua-
tion of the film spectator. For Yeats, the unity of a nation is ‘like an audience
in a theatre’, and the Abbey should strive to become a contemporary Theatre

james joyce

of Dionysus, a national theatre in which the people would watch ‘the sacred
drama of [their] own history’. In the Greek model, the theatre transformed
Dionysian rites and mythological history into dramatic form in order to evoke
a sense of communal identity and unify the city-state. The identity of each indi-
vidual is transformed into the active communal body of an audience observing
and confronting the history of itself as a collective political entity. Yeatsian
Revivalist theatre, in conscious allusion to the Greek model, also combined
occult and ritual ceremonies, such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,
with a sense of theatre as a model for collective civic experience, a province
in which the ceremonies of a distinctly Anglo-Irish history could be enacted,
where isolated individuals are transformed into the unity of an audience. A
nation, according to Yeats, should be ‘like an audience’ in which ‘a room full
of people share the same lofty emotion’.154
Joyce strongly objected to the politics of this model of theatre, and to what
he regarded as the falsifying immanence and self-enclosure of the communitar-
ian model of an audience. The Yeatsian conception of an assembled, unified
audience pacifies the spectator with the simulacrum not only of spectacle but
of history, a dangerous illusion prohibiting the spectator from experiencing the
possibility of alternative versions of history, or of civic community. Against
this conception, he stages Bloom’s struggles throughout the chapter to keep a
zone of himself which is private, upon which various versions of himself in the
form of screen personas attempt to encroach. Bloom experiences the ‘cunning
dissociation of consciousness from identity’ which Roland Barthes describes in
speaking of the photographic subject, or rather, ‘neither subject nor object, but
a subject who feels he is becoming an object’,155 as he tries to keep a sense of
himself as the real Bloom and the origin of possible Blooms. Screen representa-
tions of his body-image – as Stephen Heath puts it, ‘the body in its conversion
into the luminous sense of its film presence’156 – alienate his volitional agency,
as for instance in the doppelganger projections of Henry Flower and Virag,
who resemble the reproducible demon images of screen personas like Douglas
Fairbanks and Max Linder:
Henry Flower combs his moustache and beard rapidly with a pocket-
comb and gives a cow’s lick to his hair. Steered by his rapier, he glides to
the door, his wild harp slung behind him. Virag reaches the door in two
ungainly stilthops, his tail cocked, and deftly claps sideways on the wall
a pusyellow flybill, butting it with his head. (p. 426: 2627–31)
Bloom’s ‘trickleaps’ as he ‘darts forward suddenly’ (p. 355: 184) and ‘blunders
stifflegged’ (p. 355: 191), later transposed into Virag’s ‘ungainly stilthops’ (p.
426: 2630), resemble the style and gait of Max Linder. When Joyce showed the
film A Conquest (1909) as part of the Volta programme, Linder had already
established a reproducible star-persona through his distinctive style of move-

the speech-gesture complex

ment. Bloom’s personas, aspects of an alienated consciousness dissociated

from his physical identity, approach the condition of the film actor, who ‘feels
as if in exile – exile not only from the stage but also from himself. [. . .] his
body loses corporeality, it evaporates, it is deprived of reality, life, voice [. . .]
in order to be changed into a mute image’.157 The effect of Bloom watching
possible versions of himself is situated at the intersection of the performative
gesture in theatre and cinema, or rather, the dialectic between theatricality in
tableau cinema, in which the spectator is externalised and refused perceptual
identification, against the technique of spectator-subject identification avail-
able since the historical shift from film tableaux to the shot sequence, and the
consequent ‘shift in the relations between film and spectator’.158 The time-lag
between his reflexive intelligence and his body, inhabited by the imperatives of
its role, generates an effect where Bloom becomes conscious of his own repre-
sentations. Cinematic dissociation compels Bloom, as we read his gestures, to
become his own spectator.
The majority of extant films up to 1904 required a mediating agent, for
instance a keyhole or lens, to co-represent a person looking and the object
looked at. Aside from the keyhole films, film historians place the identifica-
tion of the film’s spectator with the diegetic viewpoint at around 1910–11.
Early cinema is predominantly framed from a centred frontal position which
excludes the spectator’s gaze from the gaze of the figures on screen.159 This is an
aspect of a performative style derived from tableau gestures for the stage, and
in particular, the standardised and codified gestures of the widespread Delsarte
system, which combined the properties of symbolic language – each gesture
would correspond to a given emotion – and the naturalised expression of the
human body. Roberta Pearson names this coded system of gestures ‘the histri-
onic code’:160 it recommends actors not to use, according to Dion Boucicault,
a leading Irish-American playwright and actor of nineteenth-century melo-
drama, ‘gesticules, or little gestures’.161 Joyce was evidently aware both of this
convention and of Boucicault himself, who is mentioned in ‘Lestrygonians’
when Bloom sees Bob Doran ‘sloping into the Empire [theatre] [. . .] Where
Pat Kinsella had his Harp theatre before Whitbred ran the Queen’s. Broth of
a boy. Dion Boucicault business with the harvestmoon face in a poky bonnet’
(p. 137: 29–32).
Vitagraph’s Francesca de Rimini (1907), shown as part of Joyce’s Volta pro-
gramme in 1909, is a salient example of this performance style. The film, in its
depiction of a distinctly anti-Bloomian event, the murder of an adulterous wife
and her lover, contains fifteen tableau shots, acted in the classical mime style.
The actors are shown in full length, and their bodies speak with exaggerated
extended gestures of the arm.162 The performances consist of a series of codified
gestures and exemplify Pearson’s ‘histrionic code’, with hands on both sides of
the face signifying distress, covering the face for despair, or displaying resolu-

james joyce

tion with a ‘fist clenched in the air, and then brought down sharply to the side
of the body’.163 Francesca de Rimini was based on a theatrical version written
in 1855, and first staged at the Star Theatre, New York in 1882. Surviving
detailed sketches of this production, which show the iconography of actors’
bodies in speech, closely parallel the gestures enacted in the film.164 Vitagraph’s
version is a typical instance of the transferral of a work for the stage to tableau
cinema’s replica proscenium arch. Gerty’s reappearance in ‘Circe’; Stephen’s
rising mother; Bloom’s guilt-ridden keyhole introspections; Privates Carr and
Compton marching ‘unsteadily rightaboutface’; the deaf-mute idiot, ‘shaken
in Saint Vitus’ dance’; the Hobgoblin ‘kangaroohopping with outstretched
clutching arms’ (p. 413: 2157–8), all represent allusions to the stagey demon-
strativeness and histrionic style of early cinematic performance.
Exaggerated gesticulations in cinema were more or less eliminated by 1913
once focal points had become dispersed across sequences of body parts.165
The abandonment of the ‘histrionic code’ in favour of discrete accumulations
of small-scale gestures emerged from the twofold advance in camera tech-
nique and editing, and inaugurated the new capacity to write the gesturing
body in its extremities, together with a more nuanced, restrained acting style.
These innovations are mainly attributed to D. W. Griffith’s Biograph films of
1907–13.166 The difference between the two styles of gesture can be observed
in two versions of the same narrative by Griffith, After Many Years (1908) and
Enoch Arden (1911). In the first, histrionic coded gestures show the married
couple embracing before the departure of the husband, who points to his chest,
and then upward, raises his hand to his forehead, and clenches his fist in the
air. The 1911 version concentrates on their hands rather than their outspread
arms. For the same scene, closer shots show the wife’s hand cutting a curl from
the head of their baby and hanging it round her husband’s head; she then plays
with the lock while whispering to her husband.
Griffith, like Joyce was an unsuccessful playwright. As Mayer observes, he
wrote two plays in 1906–7, only one of which, A Fool and a Girl, was pro-
duced commercially, playing for a week to a nearly empty house.167 He then
successfully cross-pollinates the performance style of theatrical naturalism
with the new form of the cinema, inaugurating a new style of psychologi-
cal realism, which, as James Naremore observes, served to ‘shorten distance
between actors and the camera’ and, through the use of the system of shot-
reverse-shot, allowed for close-up action and reactions and ‘the smallest
nuance of gesture’.168 Griffith’s innovations closely parallel Ibsen’s reaction
against the histrionic melodrama of the stage: in both theatre and cinema,
there is a parallel shift from a codified, semiotic performance style, where
each gesture has a fixed meaning within a taxonomic system, to a restrained,
psychological style. Film historians tend to emphasise the development of the
classical style as marking a break from theatricality, but Griffith’s new method

the speech-gesture complex

of quiet restraint in fact originated in theatre, which early films such as A

Drunkard’s Reformation (1909) make explicit. Arthur Johnson takes his child
to the theatre to see a temperance melodrama about the evils of alcohol; scenes
in the play of domestic violence mirror scenes from the life of Arthur Johnson’s
family, except in the play, the actors perform in the histrionic style, raising
clasped hands, ostentatiously cowering, clutching at throats, whereas the ‘real’
characters act out their domestic scenes with small, slow gestures of relative
static restraint. The film stages the encounter between the film and theatre – the
physical co-presence and parallel scenes of audience and performer are staged
by dramatising the fate of the lead character as a spectator – as a showdown
between two performance styles.
Griffith’s staging of film’s encounter with theatre through the eyes of a
dramatised spectator bears comparison with Joyce’s negotiation of the two
performance styles through the eyes of Bloom. His performance style – his
facial expression, gestures, posture, movement – as distinct from the histrion-
ics he is made to observe, is given in a down-played naturalistic assemblage of
discrete shot sequences: ‘Bloom, holding in his hand Stephen’s hat, festooned
with shavings, and ashplant, stands irresolute. Then he bends to him and
shakes him by the shoulder’ (p. 496: 4920–3). ‘Bloom’ and ‘stands irresolute’
name the full shot, which is interspersed with a detailed close-up of the hat, fol-
lowed by a medium-close shot as Bloom shakes Stephen’s shoulder. Sequences
move in an instant from the proscenium body to dismemberment of the unified
body image: ‘Bloom trickleaps to the curbstone and halts again. He brushes
a mudflake from his cheek with a parcelled hand’ (p. 355: 196–7). Bloom’s
gesturing body tends towards fragmentation, and the audience sees him unfold
in a series of particularised views or body parts: a close-up of his ‘left foot’,
cuts to his ‘impelling fingers’ as he ‘gives the sign of past master’, cuts again as
he draws ‘his right arm downwards from his left shoulder’ (p. 429: 2723–5).
Bloom’s dual status as spectator and subject is partly expressed in the tension
between the theatricality of the cinema of 1904 and the advent of the shot
sequence. The dialectic between these two kinds of spectatorship, and the
sense that an audience, including a shame-faced Bloom, watches versions of
Bloom engaged in voyeuristic acts, frames the composition of his many-angled
The technique of the shot sequence, with its heightened emphasis on small-
scale gestures, and its incorporation of spectator-subject identification, articu-
lates Bloom’s distinct style of performative gesture in ‘Circe’ as a counterforce
to the gesticulating screen personas and tableau mock-ceremonies unfolding
before him. His counter-histrionics are an aspect of Joyce’s parody, not only
of melodramatic over-emphasis in early cinema, but also of the grand gesture
in Yeatsian Revivalist theatre. Tableau gestures combine the ceremonial ele-
ments of Revivalist theatre with the historical reconstructions of early cinema,

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in order to critique both the histrionic style – which came to signify, for Joyce,
the kind of melodrama which invariably leads to bloodshed – and the false his-
toriography and stereotypes of Anglo-Irish Revivalism at the Abbey Theatre.
The attack on Irish Revivalism is Joyce’s affront to Yeats’s rejection of Exiles,
who declined to recommend it ‘to the Irish Theatre because [. . .] it is too far
from the folk drama’.169 ‘Circe’ parodies the gestural conventions which assert
Celtic ceremony as Ireland’s most distinguished ‘folk drama’ by alluding to the
performative over-emphasis in early cinema.
In Yeats’s theatre, pagan ritual gestures, preserving ancestral relations to
Celtic Ireland, hark back to the patterns of movement, unchanged over centu-
ries, of Ireland’s heroic age. In On Baile’s Strand, Cuchulain’s oath of fealty
to the High King Conchubar is performed as a grand scale ritual in which
his sword is joined in the fire with those of the lesser kings, to the inaudible
murmur of chanting female voices, a symbolic rite directly borrowed from
the Celtic Mysteries.170 These ceremonies at the Abbey were embodied in a
solemn, hieratic acting style, described in a review of On Baile’s Strand at
the Abbey as ‘an art of gesture admirably disciplined and a strange delicacy
of enunciation [. . .] in the method of [. . .] ritual’.171 While Revivalist theatre
played at the Abbey – its inaugural play, Yeats’s The Countess Cathleen was
staged at the Abbey in 1899, and Synge’s In the Shadow of the Glen and The
Playboy of the Western World in 1907 – Dublin’s Erin Theatre would screen
the tableau historical reconstructions of early cinema. Lumière programmes
interspersed documentary footage of current affairs of state with ‘vues his-
toriques’, presented in a style identical to their documentaries, as unmediated
actuality. Méliès also produced tableau reconstructions of solemn rituals of
state, for instance the Coronation of Edward VII (1902), which displays a pro-
cession of gifts, with the king swearing his allegiance, the presentation of the
sword of justice and his adornment with an orb, crown and sceptre. In works
such as Épopée napoléonienne (1903), Pathé also begins to present historical
events as contemporary documentary, in the histrionic style. These spectacles
of national identity, commonplace in the pre-war French Third Republic,
particularly after the success of Film D’Art’s L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise
(1907), a film which exemplifies the histrionic style, had become by 1911 one
of French cinema’s most distinctive genres.172
The ceremonies of state and empire in ‘Circe’, of the trials, executions
and coronations which Bloom both watches and is made to enact, serve as
mocking acknowledgements of Yeatsian Anglicisation, in the style of the his-
torical pseudo-documentary of early cinema. Joyce detected in both a similar
false historiography, particularly in the historical claims made for the grand
gesture. Against the ritual style of the historical tableau, with its sweeping
gestures, Joyce pitches tentative, small-scale movements. The shift between the
historical tableau, in which the spectator is externalised, and the technique of

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perceptual identification available since the evolution of the shot sequence, a

phenomenon which emerged in 1910–12, in the films of Griffith and the system
of parallel editing and shot-reverse-shot,173 is incorporated into the dialectic of
Bloom’s hybrid status as spectator and subject. His ‘apologetic toes turned in’,
Bloom ‘opens his tiny mole’s eyes and looks about him dazedly, passing a slow
hand across his forehead’ (p. 378: 957–9); but on ‘Circe’’s exploding screen,
he appears, ‘in a crimson velvet mantle trimmed with ermine, bearing Saint
Edward’s staff, the orb and sceptre’ (p. 392: 1442–4). Edward VII appears
‘slowly, solemnly’ singing a song about ‘coronation day’ (p. 485: 4562), but
it is Bloom’s coronation: the Archbishop of Armagh ‘pours a cruse of hairoil
over Bloom’s head’ (p. 393: 1487), an aspect of the ceremony whereby an oath
is taken and the sovereign is anointed with holy oil to indicate the sanctity
of his person. Symbolic ceremonies further invest Bloom with the imperial
Bloom assumes a mantle of cloth of gold and puts on a ruby ring. He
ascends and stands on the stone of destiny. The representative peers put
on at the same time their twentyeight crowns. [. . .] The peers do homage,
one by one, approaching, genuflecting. (p. 393: 1490–6)
These symbolic ceremonies of Anglo-Irish history summon Bloom, and by
extension, Ireland, to a role Joyce regards as contrary to their natural ten-
dencies. Once Bloom is made sovereign, he is observed enacting an idealised
version, not of the grand heroic gesture, but of his own small-scale domestic
shaking hands with a blind stripling [. . .] Placing arms round shoulder of
an old couple [. . .] He wheels twins in a perambulator [. . .] He consoles
a widow [. . .] He kisses the bedsores of a palsied veteran [. . .] He whis-
pers in the ear of a blushing waitress and laughs kindly [. . .] He gives his
coat to a beggar. (p. 397: 1600–15)
These are Bloom’s versions of the grand gesture. His instinctive distaste for
ritual is an aspect of his independence of mind. When he finds himself in situ-
ations of ritual behaviour, his mind slips into its own routines, removing him
from the scene, as it does at Dignam’s funeral. His private commemorations
demonstrate a resistance to mechanical templates of imposed physical behav-
iour, just as his small-scale gestures contrast with the falsely historicising folk
rituals of theatrical Revivalism and historical pseudo-documentary. Bloom’s
acts of heroism are found in the littleness of the diurnal, rather than the
grandly ceremonial. It is a performative style precisely suited to the mock-epic.
Bloom’s resistance through his performance style manifests a politics con-
trary to the kind of integrating nationalism which fostered sectarian or racial
prejudice. Bloom’s outsider status, an aspect of an ‘Irishness’ which the racist

james joyce

Citizen in ‘Cyclops’ attempts to deny, is emphasised by dramatising his status

as a spectator, and through a style of restrained naturalism which separates
him from the ceremonial histrionics of Nighttown: it is a form of ironic detach-
ment, Joyce’s elective mode of self-assertion amidst the perceived deadlock
of colonial and nationalist violence, and Bloom’s method of avoiding the
self-alienation and self-division which is, as Andrew Gibson notes, ‘the most
prominent feature of the Dublin unconscious as it is dramatized in “Circe” ’.174
Bloom’s struggle to hold himself together amidst opposing sides is embodied
through the complicities and contradictions of performance style. He is both
a ‘successor’ to Parnell (p. 394: 1513–14), attacking ‘Sir Walter Raleigh’ and
English colonial trade (p. 390: 1355–61), and also a comic Edward VII persona
taking his coronation oath and an oath to fealty;175 he is an ‘Anarchist’ and
‘dynamitard’ (p. 384: 1157–60) but also an advocate, of non-violent resistance
– a powerful gesture in 1922, seven years after Sinn Fein’s turn towards armed
struggle – advocating, as he puts it in ‘Cyclops’, ‘Love . . . I mean the opposite
of hatred’ (p. 273: 1485). Bloom’s politics, like Joyce’s, involves an advocacy
of multiplicity and cooperation as distinct from unified movements or leader-
ship. As Tratner argues, Joyce did not repudiate his early anarchist syndicalist
views, as expressed in letters to Stanislaus in 1906: syndicalists ‘do not desire
the conquest of public powers which, they say, only serve in the end to support
middle-class government’.176 Joyce’s politics, Tratner argues, ‘developed in the
direction that the English Guild Socialists took syndicalism: to a nonviolent
pluralism based on the elimination of any general system or action’.177 Joyce’s
pluralism, in contradistinction to a unifying, reductive sovereignty – and
Yeatsian Revivalism, for Joyce, was just another form of sovereignty replacing
the old sovereignty of English colonialism – is embodied in Bloom’s sense of
himself as a multiplicity of contradictory performance styles, and in particular,
his resistance to the grand heroic gesture.
As counter-Revivalist drama, ‘Circe’ stages the small-scale intimate gesture
against the violent histrionics of false ceremony and sovereignty. Bloom’s natu-
ralist gestures subvert the hieratic solemnity of the ritual body and its capacity
to depersonalise the expressive life of the body. Joyce found in film technique
an ideal method to present patterns of minute naturalist gestures, in particu-
lar of the hands, which are given amplified significance throughout Ulysses.
Bloom not only talks with his hands but is seen thinking aloud with them.
Earlier, in ‘Sirens’, bored Bloom tambourines gently with ‘I am just reflecting
fingers’ (p. 229: 863), his hands as attentive as those in ‘Scylla and Charybdis’
which ‘fingerponder nightly each his variorum edition of The Taming of the
Shrew’ (p. 175: 1062). Hand gestures in Ulysses are forms of self-reflexivity,
symptoms of (dis)engagement of the self with itself. Michel Serres describes
how an internal sense of one’s own body derives from manual self-reflection in
his account of cutting his fingernails:

the speech-gesture complex

where does the subject settle itself? [. . .] I take the implement in my left
hand, and present the open blades to the end of my right index fingernail.
I position myself in the handles of the scissors, the I situates itself there,
and not at the tip of the right finger. [. . .] The left hand participates in the
I, suffused with subjectivity, the right hand is of the world.178

Steven Connor remarks of this passage that ‘the hand is a principle and agency
of this capacity [. . .] bringing oneself to oneself’.179 As it is also for Bloom: in
‘Hades’, when Boylan is sighted by the others, Bloom instantly ‘reviewed the
nails of his left hand, then those of his right hand’, after which ‘he clasped his
hands between his knees’ (p. 76: 200). In ‘Lestrygonians’ his hands search his
pockets in a dumbshow of misdirection: ‘I am looking for that. Yes, that.’ The
chapter ends after he tries ‘all pockets’ and locates his potato soap and purse:
‘Safe!’ (p. 150: 1188). Recurrently throughout his day, Bloom prevents himself
from disintegrating at the thought of Molly’s infidelity with small gestures
which serve both to distract his mind and to restore his bodily self-integrity. In
‘Circe’, these gestures help ease his sense of spectatorial shock: ‘his eyes wildly
dilated, clasps himself’ (p. 462: 3815).
By the time Joyce had begun to compose ‘Circe’ in 1919–21, the power of the
cinematic close-up, its capacity to show the exact visual form of a hand move-
ment, the stretch or curl of a finger, the position of the palms, had achieved
international status.180 According to theorist and filmmaker Jean Epstein,
writing in 1921: ‘the amplifying close-up demands underplaying. It’s opposed
to theatre where everything is loudly declaimed.’181 Griffith remarked in 1914
that ‘the close-up enabled us to reach real acting, restraint’.182 Having seen
Birth of a Nation (1914), Eleanora Duse, aware of the new possibilities for
restraint on the screen, became eager to perform in a Griffith film. An attempt
was made to contact him, though by that time he was already immersed in
Intolerance (1916). Duse spoke of the cinema with enthusiasm: ‘the spoken
word is less expressive than light. One day soon the most remarkable tran-
scriptions will be achieved on the screen!’183 She only made one film, Cenere
(1916), and as such it remains an invaluable record of the hand gestures
which had so bewitched Joyce. Duse plays Rosalia, impoverished and unable
to afford a life for her son, whom she sends away to a wealthier village. She
first appears in the film outside her son’s house – he has now grown up, and
has not seen his mother since childhood – although we only see her shadow,
in a statuesque pose, as it almost imperceptibly rises upwards and her hands
slowly unclench. In the reconciliation scene, medium-close shots concentrate
on the activity of her hands. They begin at rest on her knee, rise up tensely
to grasp her neck, nervously flutter as she picks at some string in her sleeve,
then, distracted from this, they clench together, the fingers quickly outstretch
and then close again into a fist. These uneasy gestures, one constantly inter-

james joyce

rupting the other before its motion is complete, subtly express her hesitancy,
disappointment and anguish. From a gentle self-enfolding of her hands, she
moves to clasp his hand, interrupts herself and lets her hand fall to her knees;
moments later she looks up into his eyes, her hand stretches out and then falls
back into rest. The interrupted gesture signals uncertainty and the unresolved
division in her maternal instincts between wanting a prosperous life for her son
and wanting him by her side. The movement is partially echoed after her death:
the son kisses his dead mother, his hand beneath her head, she is carried away
while he stands there, locked in the same gesture and staring at his empty hand,
which then slowly falls to his side.
Close-up gestures amplify the significance of tiny underplayed hand signals.
In Griffith’s The Avenging Conscience (1914), the scene with the protagonist
Walthall at the police station is constructed from close-ups of Walthall’s hands
as he nervously pleads innocence: his hands pull at his clothes and stroke
his knees, he plays with his thumbs, puts his hands in his pockets. Cecil B.
DeMille’s The Whispering Chorus (1918) constructs an elaborate series of
close-up hand gesture motifs. John Tremble, an accounts clerk, attempts to
convince himself that stealing money from his office might be justified. The
intertitle, an interior voice, reads: ‘Clumley has more than he can use: take
what you need.’ We see his hands, in medium-close, interrupt his counting
motion to tap nervously the wad of notes, his hands seeming to make their
mind up for him; after taking some of the money for himself with his right
hand, his left hand grasps the right, as though to conceal its guilt. The right
hand appears to act with an autonomous criminal agency of its own. We next
see it in extreme close-up, falsifying the figures in the account book in order
not to arouse suspicion, and then later, a disembodied extreme close-up of the
hand appears in superimposition: in place of his voice of conscience, or an
accusing face, we see an enlarged double of his right hand in handcuffs, next
to a medium shot of Tremble, whose left hand, anxiously feeling his right, falls
into the same clasping position as when he had stolen the money. The rest of
the film shows Tremble, as an intertitle puts it, ‘feeling suspicion in every smile
he meets – and handcuffs in every welcome’. In the final extreme close-up of his
right hand, it is strapped to an electric chair, as though the hand were assuming
responsibility for the crime on the man’s behalf.
Bloom often keeps his hands in his pockets, partly because he keeps his
magic potato soap there, but also to conceal himself, to prevent his hands from
speaking about him against his will. When a ‘male cough and tread are heard
passing through the mist outside’, Bloom immediately adjusts his features, and
then ‘places a hand in his waistcoat, posing calmly’ (p. 429: 2727–9). Put on
the spot, he enacts the physical equivalent of an embarrassed change of subject.
He ‘tightens and loosens his grip’, ‘fumbles again in his pocket’. Joyce’s writing
of hand gestures in ‘Circe’, liberated from the contingencies of the stage and

the speech-gesture complex

its demands for spectatorial wholeness, are imagined as individual close-ups

in a shot sequence. Correspondences between the symptomatic gesture and
the isolation and analysis of cinema’s ‘unconscious optics’ anticipate Walter
Benjamin’s explicit comparison between Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday
Life, in which symptomatic actions receive their most extensive account, with
the ‘precise statements’ given by enlarged fields of view in filmed behaviour,
and the revelation of ‘entirely new structural formations of the subject’.184
Derek Attridge’s observation that Ulysses ‘frequently fails to conform’ to the
syntactic norms of a language which ‘allows little independence to the organs
of the body’185 finds iconic correlates in the way Bloom’s hands in ‘Circe’
speak as though independent of his conscious sensation of movement, and the
detachment of movement from agency in a filmed close-up. When Mrs. Breen
‘surrenders’ her ‘soft moist meaty palm’ to Bloom’s ‘finger and thumb’ (p. 364:
46–7), their hands are observed up close, conducting their own conversation
separately from the dialogue. As ‘Bella approaches, gently tapping with the
fan’, the fan remarks: ‘we have met. You are mine. It is fate’ (p. 430: 2775).
Hugo Münsterberg’s view, writing in 1916 of ‘an enlarged play of the hands
in which anger and rage or tender love or jealousy speak an unmistakeable
language’,186 is suggested in Joyce’s detailed hand gestures. Particular move-
ments of the hand make inanimate objects speak, often in the give-away voice
of the symptomatic unconscious. In the chapter itself, Bella’s fan as she moves
it towards her face mockingly speaks with a voice of its own: ‘The Fan: [flirting
quickly, then slowly] Married, I see’ (p. 430: 2755).
‘Circe’ literally gives voice to gesture, and in one aspect realises Stephen’s
desire for a universal language: ‘So that gesture, not music not odour, would be
a universal language, the gift of tongues rendering visible not the lay sense but
the first entelechy, the structural rhythm’ (p. 353: 105–7). This notion closely
parallels Bloom’s notion of ‘esperanto the universal brotherhood’ (p. 399:
1696–7). The chapter’s dream of a universal language of gesture, in which hands
acquire a textual status, closely parallels the contemporary discourse of univer-
salism in film. The film theorist Béla Balázs, writing in 1924, explicitly relates
the origins of language in expressive movement – ‘It is the expressive move-
ment, the gesture, that is the aboriginal mother-tongue of the human race’187
– with cinema’s universal language of gesture: ‘in the motion picture screens all
over the world we currently witness the development of the first international
language: that of facial expression and physical gestures’.188 Balázs had seen
Griffith’s Intolerance a year earlier in 1923, a film which aspired to construct
a textual system through narrative cross-cutting and constellations of recurring
close-up hand gestures, inaugurating a new art of pictorial writing to rival the
ancient vanished hieroglyphic language of Babylonian cuneiform. As one of
the film’s intertitles reads: ‘a civilisation of countless ages was destroyed and a
universal written language (the cuneiform) was made to become an unknown

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cipher on the face of the earth’. Griffith’s film links together four historical nar-
ratives through a complex weave of recurring textual motifs and gestures, in an
attempt to generate, as Miriam Hansen observes, ‘a space of hieroglyphic sig-
nification and interpretation’, actively engaging the reader in a process of deci-
phering and interpretation. Griffith presents the film’s textual-pictorial system
as a form of writing to rival written speech. Whereas written signs in the film
often carry with them connotations of violence and death, such as Charles IX
signing the decree for the massacre of the Huguenots, shown twice in close-up,
ideographic signs suggest potential freedom from oppression. As Hansen notes
of the Babylonian section, the close-up of Belshazzar’s seal in the mountain
girl’s hand, stamped on a wax tablet with a rolling machine, allowing her to
marry as she chooses, ‘emphasises the indexical nature of the process, the unity
of gesture, tool, and imprint that ensures the proper name its magic power’.189
The Babylonian seal suggests a parallel between the written language of cunei-
form and the universal language of film, as a hieroglyphic composite of textual
system and visual presence.
In one aspect, ‘Circe’ also generates a hieroglyphic space in which intricate
patterns of coded hand gestures approach the condition of a natural language
system. The effect is achieved by allowing the terms which ordinarily govern
speech and gesture to become interchangeable, and the effect is elaborated
in the Notesheets to the chapter. For Bella’s ‘fan flirt’, ‘quick = engaged’ and
‘slow = married’. A movement of the parasol towards the shoulder indicates
indifference; holding it with ‘2 hands’ means ‘well?’; ‘high = darling’; ‘shut
= dare all’. Swinging an umbrella ‘over hand = I am a nuisance’. A twirl of
the handkerchief in the right hand means ‘love another’, whereas a twirl in
the left hand connotes ‘riddance’; a folded handkerchief signifies a ‘wish to
speak’.190 We learn that Bloom’s fingers are shorter than Stephen’s, and his
fingers have round tips, and that this indicates his pragmatic materialism.191
The first and second bend easily, indicating shyness. Zoe sees Bloom’s secret in
his hands, remarking: ‘Short little finger. Henpecked husband. That wrong?’
(p. 459: 3706). The Notesheets open out the fields of reference from which
she reads Bloom’s palms: the first and second finger, if ‘far apart’, show the
subject is ‘self-willed’; the third and fourth finger apart signal impulsiveness;
long and white fingernails signify cruelty. The Notesheets reverse the terms
which allocate coded significance only to ‘histrionic’ gestures by magnifying
tiny symptomatic actions, as hand gestures move towards resembling a micro-
linguistic system in themselves. But aside from a few instances of correlation
between the Notesheets and the final text – such as the placing of the fan on the
ear with ‘forgot me?’ informing the text’s literally giving voice to the gesture:
‘The Fan: [folding together, rests against her left eardrop] Have you forgotten
me?’ (p. 430: 2764) – Joyce tends to discard, or merely hint at details in the
Notesheets which explicitly cross-breed gestures with discursive speech. Joyce,

the speech-gesture complex

unlike Stephen, and D. W. Griffith, was ambivalent about the prospects of a

universal language of gesture, constantly undercutting any claim to universal-
ism by resort to parody and ironic distance. Herring notes Joyce’s research in
palm reading for the chapter’s composition: he asked Frank Budgen to bring
him a handbook on the subject, and was already familiar with occult figures
such as Madame Blavatsky from her prominence on the scene of the Irish
Literary Revival.192 The occult details on palmistry in the Notesheets parody
both Yeatsian occultism and cinema’s aspiration towards a universal language
of gesture.
‘Circe’ plays out the tension between the gesture as textual phenomenon
and as non-linguistic material presence, through a constant reversal of the
categories of the naturalistic and histrionic codes. On the one hand, Joyce
undermines the verisimilar effect of naturalist acting which, as Pearson notes,
‘had no standard repertoire of gestures, no limited lexicon. The style defined
itself by the very abandonment of the conventional gestures of the histrionic
code.’193 Joyce gives them a pseudo-linguistic function, undermining their nat-
uralising function, making them seem arbitrary, symbolic. Yet the chapter just
as frequently dissolves semiotic readability in the visceral force of the sensual,
material uncoded body, as for instance:
Stephen with hat and ashplant frogsplits in middle highkicks with
skykicking mouth shut hand clasp part under thigh, with clang tinkle
boomhammer tallyho hornblower blue green yellow flashes Toft’s
cumbersome turns with hobbyhorse riders from gilded snakes dangled,
bowels fandango leaping spurn soil foot and fall again. (p. 472: 4124–8)
Gestures in ‘Circe’ frequently elude linguistic categorisation, such as Stephen’s
gesture to illustrate ‘the loaf and the jug of bread or wine in Omar’: ‘Stephen
thrusts his ashplant on him and slowly holds out his hands, his head going
back till both hands are a span from his breast, down turned in planes inter-
secting, the fingers about to part, the left being higher’ (p. 353: 124–7). The
gesture is evidently not as readable as he would like to think: Lynch asks him
in response: ‘Which is the jug of bread?’ The lack of a fixed coded meaning,
despite Stephen’s failed attempt to impose one, allows the gesture to unfold
into multiple connotations. Instantaneously, ‘on the farther side under the
railway bridge Bloom appears’ (p. 354: 141–2), as though summoned by
Stephen’s palms. The gesture instigates the coincidence of Stephen and Bloom’s
meeting. The planes of Stephen’s intersecting palms, in one sense, represent
the intersection of his lines of fate with Bloom’s; in another sense, Stephen’s
intersecting palms suggest the idea that ‘dreams go by contraries’ in the coinci-
dence of Bloom’s preoccupation with ‘metempsychosis’ and Stephen’s brood-
ing on elective fatherhood: ‘paternity may be a legal fiction. Who is the father
of any son that any son should love him or he any son?’ The mutual dreams

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of Stephen and Bloom finally intersect and culminate in the transformation of

Stephen into Rudy. The lack of a fixed, stable meaning imbues the gesture with
a radical ambiguity which cannot be reduced to the predetermined forms of a
coded system.
For Joyce, the notion of the coded, readable gesture, exemplified by the his-
trionic code as derived from Delsarte, was liable to the same homogenising ten-
dency as Yeatsian Revivalism. As Andrew Hewitt argues, ‘Delsartism served as
a dictionary for the reading and writing of bodily signs.’194 Delsarte’s project to
impose a legibility on the gesturing body is caught up in the project of an emer-
gent bourgeois to represent its newly acquired social and economic status. Yet
the system is built on a paradox: the reduction of the natural body to a series
of readable signs. By codifying socially acceptable gestures and manners in the
natural language of the body, the bourgeois sought to make those gestures seem
natural and universal. This project of naturalising gesture can be observed in
Film D’Art, such as Francesca de Rimini, in which the histrionic code attempts
to legitimate cinema – regarded at the time as a cheap form of entertainment
for the working classes – by making it appear bourgeois and respectable. The
widespread teaching of the system lead to a homogeneity in performance style
which concealed, in the manner of Yeatsian Revivalism’s naturalised heroic
gesture, an assertion of unifying cultural hegemony. For Joyce, the histrionic
code’s claims to universalism, and its forcing of gestures into pseudo-linguistic
categories, masked the violence of imperialist self-assertion.
Delsarte’s and Yeats’s attempts to impose a legibility on the body, the
naturalising of coded gestures, and the erasure of difference and plurality of
forms of expression, are also potentially complicit with Griffith’s advocacy of
the universal language myth, despite the differences in performance style. As
Hansen argues: ‘the ideological objective of constructing a unified subject of
– and for – mass-cultural consumption, of integrating empirically diverse audi-
ences with this goal, was troped in the ambiguous celebration of film as a new
universal language’.195 Griffith’s universalism masks Hollywood’s accelerated
tendency to homogenise its global audiences through a standardised language
of classical film form, which was becoming increasingly bourgeois in its subject
matter, values and registers. The widespread rhetoric of universalism in the
film industry, and the stabilisation of the codified, universalised category of
the film spectator, provided Hollywood with a method to standardise the con-
sumption of film, to naturalise both a one-sided, white, middle-class version
of American history, and also the interests of the increasingly big-business,
capitalist project of large-scale industrial filmmaking.
Film’s claim to utopianism, transcendence, integration and universalism
resembles Yeatsian Revivalism and the histrionic code, particularly by conceal-
ing an ideology of homogeneity and suppression of difference. Joyce’s tech-
nique, by contrast, relentlessly manoeuvres between representations, revealing

the speech-gesture complex

the inherent instability of categories which make universalising claims on the

reader-spectator. By foregrounding the indeterminacy and double aspect of a
speech-gesture complex which is neither exclusively linguistic nor a transparent
mirror to reality, and by imbuing small-scale gestures with a pseudo-­linguistic
function, whilst at the same time resisting the totalising reduction of the body
to language, Joyce challenges the familiar view that naturalism presents an
unmediated view on reality, and that naturalist acting, by attempting, as James
Naremore puts it, ‘to preserve the illusion of a unified self, by maintaining
coherence in the face of multiple possibilities’ is essentially conservative.196 At
the same time, Bloom’s small-scale naturalist gestures, informed by Ibsen and
Griffith, subvert the violent histrionics of false ceremony, and the universalis-
ing tendency of both colonial sovereignty and the cultural hegemony of nation-
alism, which both seek to naturalise and codify an aggressive imperialism in
the language of the body. The Joycean speech-gesture complex, by upsetting
oppositions between text and performance, isolated readership and collective
spectatorship, theatre and film, primitive tableaux and continuity editing, dis-
rupts the naturalising process which masks contradiction, allowing Bloom to
become conscious of his own representations, a spectator of possible versions
of himself; his increasing awareness of himself as both an individual spectator
and a member of a community, always rehearsing for a never fully determined
performance, is articulated through a hybrid conjunction of reading and spec-
tating, drawing both the reader and Bloom away from a passive attitude and
transforming them into active participants. By constantly gravitating between
hieroglyphic gesture and uncodified sensual presence, by refusing to allow
an easy unproblematic interchangeability between the categories of speech
and gesture, Joyce mitigates against the universalised, transcendental reader-
spectator in favour of a divided, pluralist consciousness actively resisting the
suppression of other voices. The Joycean speech-gesture complex, in its rejec-
tion of set formulations, and its attack on the hegemony of any universalis-
ing grand project, manifests an aesthetics and politics which is profoundly

1. Joyce, ‘A Painful Case’, Dubliners, p. 124. All references are to this edition, and
are included parenthetically within the text.
2. Ibsen, The Doll’s House, Seven Famous Plays, p. 20. This is the translation read
by Joyce.
3. Ibsen, Rosmersholm, Seven Famous Plays, p. 290.
4. Joyce, My Brother’s Keeper, p. 99.
5. Ibsen, The Master Builder, p. 493, p. 495, p. 513, p. 514, p. 537.
6. Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, p. 141.
7. Pavis, ‘From Text to Performance’, in Issacharoff and Jones (eds), Performing
Texts, p. 89.
8. Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 265.

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9. Ibid. p. 79.
10. Joyce, Critical Writings, pp. 38–46.
11. Ibid. pp. 47–67.
12. Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 74.
13. See Tysdahl, Joyce and Ibsen; Farrell, ‘Exiles and Ibsen’; Benstock, ‘Exiles, Ibsen
and the Play’s Function in the Joyce Canon’. Watt, Joyce, O’Casey and Irish
Popular Theatre considers the attitude to sexuality in When We Dead Awaken, in
relation to popular Victorian melodrama and its effect on Ulysses.
14. Tysdahl, Joyce and Ibsen, p. 56. Two articles draw thematic and narratorial par-
allels between Ibsen and ‘The Dead’: Theoharis, ‘Hedda Gabler and “The Dead” ’
and Doloff, ‘Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and “The Dead” ’. Neither of these mentions
performative elements, gestures, stage directions or Joyce’s preoccupation with
15. Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 265
16. Joyce, The Dublin Diary, p. 12.
17. Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 54, pp. 79–80, p. 54.
18. Hauptmann, Before Sunrise, trans. James Joyce, in Perkins (ed.), Joyce and
Hauptmann, p. 84, p. 68.
19. Letter to Stanislaus, 9 October 1906, Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, p. 178.
20. Joyce, My Brother’s Keeper, p. 134.
21. Faherty, ‘Heads and Tail: Rhetoric and Realism in Dubliners’, p. 380.
22. Culleton, ‘ “Taking the Biscuit”: Narrative Cheekiness in Dubliners’, p. 112.
23. Kenner, Joyce’s Voices, pp. 15–38.
24. Benstock and Benstock, ‘The Benstock Principle’, pp. 10–21.
25. Avery, ‘Distant Music’, p. 479.
26. Genette, Narrative Discourse, p. 31.
27. Joyce says he wrote Dubliners ‘to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paraly-
sis which many consider a city’. Letter to C. P. Curran, July 1904, quoted in
Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 163.
28. Merleau-Ponty, The Prose of the World, p. 137.
29. Letter to Stanislaus, 18 September 1905, quoted in Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 210.
30. Maupassant, ‘A Day Out in the Country’, p. 55.
31. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 206.
32. Garner, Bodied Spaces, p. 40.
33. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, p. 104.
34. Egan, Henry James, p. 29.
35. Ibid. p. 6, p. 40.
36. James, Guy Domville, The Complete Plays of Henry James.
37. Litvak, Caught in the Act, p. 243. On the effect of the failed theatrical project on
his novels, see also Greenwood, Adapting to the Stage.
38. Egan, Henry James, p. 25.
39. James, The Spoils of Poynton, p. 6.
40. Egan, Henry James, p. 60.
41. James, The Other House, p. 13. All references are to this edition, and are included
parenthetically within the text
42. Benstock, Narrative Con/Texts in Dubliners, p. 124.
43. Leonard, Reading Dubliners Again, p. 134.
44. Norris, ‘Narrative Bread Pudding: Joyce’s “The Boarding House” ’, p. 163.
45. Joyce, My Brother’s Keeper, p. 188.
46. Weaver, Duse, p. 137.
47. Joyce, My Brother’s Keeper, pp. 188–9.
48. Koht, The Life of Ibsen, pp. 412–13.

the speech-gesture complex

49. Pirandello, ‘The Art of Duse’ (1928), in Pontiero, Eleanora Duse, p. 112.
50. The Nation, 7 May 1924, Pontiero, Eleanora Duse, p. 261.
51. Hamburger, Art as Second Nature, p. 238.
52. Letter from Adelaide Ristori to Leone Fortis, 1897, quoted in Stokes et al.,
Bernhardt, Terry, Duse, p. 136.
53. Ibid. p. 149.
54. Joyce, Critical Writings, p. 45.
55. Pirandello, ‘Duse’, in Pontiero, Eleanora Duse, p. 131.
56. D’Annunzio, Gioconda, p. 1.
57. New York Herald, 27 January 1893, quoted in Pontiero, Eleanora Duse, p. 113.
58. Galliene, The Mystic in the Theatre, pp. 155–6.
59. Pirandello, ‘Duse’, in Pontiero, Eleanora Duse, p. 259.
60. Joyce, My Brother’s Keeper, p. 134.
61. Symons, Eleanora Duse, p. 7.
62. See Davis, ‘Acting in Ibsen’, p. 117.
63. Herman Bang, quoted in Marker, Ibsen’s Lively Art, p. 49.
64. Ibsen, The Doll’s House, Seven Famous Plays, p. 36.
65. Ibsen, Hedda Gabler, Seven Famous Plays, p. 450.
66. Ibsen, Ghosts, Seven Famous Plays, p. 148.
67. Ibsen, Rosmersholm, Seven Famous Plays, p. 344.
68. Pirandello, ‘Duse’, in Pontiero, Eleanora Duse, p. 125.
69. Hansson, Modern Women, pp. 95–125.
70. Joyce, Critical Writings, p. 171.
71. Nolan, James Joyce and Nationalism, p. 18.
72. Manganiello, Joyce’s Politics. On Joyce and politics, see also Kearney, Transitions:
Narratives in Modern Irish Culture, pp. 31–47; Watson, ‘The Politics of Ulysses’,
pp. 39–59; Gibbons, Transformations in Irish Culture; Cheng, Joyce, Race and
Empire; Platt, Joyce and the Anglo-Irish.
73. Quoted in Nolan, James Joyce and Nationalism, p. 24.
74. Nolan, James Joyce and Nationalism, p. 24.
75. Yeats, Explorations, p. 214.
76. Quoted in Flannery, W. B. Yeats and the Idea of a Theatre, p. 66.
77. Gibbons, ‘Visualising the Voice’, p. 182.
78. Burns, Gestural Politics, p. 119.
79. Taxidou, Modernism and Performance, p. 53.
80. See for instance Foster, Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival, p. 170.
81. Wagner, Art and Revolution, quoted in Manganiello, Joyce’s Politics, p. 211.
82. Yeats, Explorations, p. 139.
83. Joyce, Critical Writings, p. 45.
84. Watson, Irish Identity and the Irish Literary Revival, p. 89.
85. Quoted in Manganiello, Joyce’s Politics, p. 113.
86. Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis, p. 4.
87. Egan, Henry James, p. 20.
88. Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism, p. 4.
89. Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 266.
90. Craig, Index to the Story of My Days, p. 226.
91. Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 266.
92. Symons, Eleanora Duse, p. 2.
93. Jousse, The Oral Style, p. 41.
94. Ibsen, Rosmersholm, Seven Famous Plays, p. 330.
95. Ellmann times his first exposure to Freud between 1910 and 1911 in Trieste.
Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 340.

james joyce

96. Freud, A Case of hysteria, Three Essays on Sexuality, and other Works, p. 256.
97. Ibid. p. 76.
98. Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, p. 44.
99. Joyce, Exiles, p. 83. All references are to this edition, and are included parentheti-
cally within the text.
100. Freud, Introductory lectures on Psychoanalysis, p. 53.
101. Ibid. p. 49.
102. Kenner, Dublin’s Joyce, p. 70.
103. Wolff, A Psychology of Gesture, p. 78.
104. These fragments were composed in 1913. The fair copy manuscript is dated 1915,
and the first edition appeared in 1918. See MacNicholas, James Joyce’s Exiles: A
Textual Companion, p. 29.
105. Ibid. p. 21.
106. Nolan, James Joyce and Nationalism, p. 130.
107. Gibson, Joyce’s Revenge, p. 192.
108. Quoted in Nolan, James Joyce and Nationalism, p. 52.
109. Letter to Stanislaus, 1909, Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, p. 124.
110. Burns, Gestural Politics, p. 130.
111. Joyce, ‘Notes’, Exiles, p. 175.
112. Joyce, Critical Writings, p. 162.
113. Manganiello, Joyce’s Politics, p. 6.
114. Joyce, Critical Writings, p. 213.
115. Ibid. p. 213.
116. Joyce, Critical Writings, p. 228.
117. Yeats, Explorations, p. 343.
118. Taxidou, Modernism and Performance, p. 81.
119. Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of Ulysses, p. 350, quoted in Empson,
‘Magnificent Cuckolds’, p. 157.
120. Crommelynck, The Magnificent Cuckold, p. 31.
121. Ibid. p. 55, p. 65.
122. Quoted in Braun, Meyerhold, pp. 182–3.
123. Meyerhold, ‘First Attempts at a Stylised Theatre’, Meyerhold on Theatre, p. 56.
124. Meyerhold, ‘Biomechanics’, Meyerhold on Theatre, pp. 197–204.
125. Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, p. 9.
126. The Notes were composed in 1913, the fair copy manuscript in 1915. See

MacNicholas, James Joyce’s Exiles: A Textual Companion, p. 29.
127. Davis, ‘Acting in Ibsen’, p. 116.
128. Ellmann, James Joyce, pp. 401–2.
129. Pound to Joyce, 7 September 1915, Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, p. 365.
130. MacNicholas, ‘Joyce’s Exiles: The Argument for Doubt’, p. 9.
131. Brandabur, A Scrupulous Meanness, p. 127.
132. George Jean Nathan, American Mercury, 4 April 1925, quoted in MacNicholas,
‘The Stage History of Exiles’, p. 11.
133. Bristol and Times, 16 February 1926, quoted in MacNicholas, ‘The Stage History
of Exiles’, p. 11.
134. Letter to Carlo Linati, 10 December 1919, Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, p. 457.
135. Abel, ‘Before the Canon’, in Abel (ed.), French Film Theory and Criticism, vol. I,
p. 14.
136. See Platt, ‘Ulysses 15 and the Irish Literary Theatre’, in Gibson (ed.), Reading
Joyce’s ‘Circe’, pp. 33–63.
137. Hutchins, ‘James Joyce and the Cinema’, p. 11.
138. Tom Gunning’s term for the almost exclusive emphasis in early cinema (1895–

the speech-gesture complex

1906) on the sheer ‘act of showing and exhibition’ in itself, and the use of fixed
frame ‘theatrical display over narrative absorption’. See Gunning, ‘The Cinema of
Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’.
139. For instance, Spiegel, Fiction and the Camera Eye; Briggs, ‘ “Roll Away the Reel
World”: “Circe” and Cinema’; Burkdall, Joycean Frames; Danius, The Senses of
Modernism; Paraskeva, ‘ “In the Beginning was the Gest” ’; Williams, ‘Odysseys
of Sound and Image’.
140. Joyce, Joyce’s Ulysses: Notesheets in the British Museum, p. 288.
141. Joyce, Scribbledehobble, p. 119.
142. Letter to Stanislaus, 6 November 1906, Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, p. 203.
143. Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 561.
144. Sadoul, Histoire générale du cinéma, vol. 1, p. 288, quoted in Heath, Questions
of Cinema, p. 17.
145. Senn, ‘ “Circe” as Harking Back in Provective Arrangement’, in Gibson (ed.),
Reading Joyce’s ‘Circe’, pp. 63–92; Hayman, ‘Language of/as gesture in Joyce’.
146. Wales, ‘ “Bloom passes through several walls”: The Stage Directions in “Circe” ’,
in Gibson (ed.), Reading Joyce’s ‘Circe’, pp. 241–76.
147. Attridge, Peculiar Language, p. 134.
148. Films were shown in Dublin from April 1896, for instance, at the Erin Variety
Theatre and Rotunda. There was no cinema until 1909, when Joyce opened the
Cinematograph Volta. See Williams, ‘Joyce and Early Cinema’, p. 1 for a synopsis
of the Volta programme.
149. Maxim Gorky, Review of the Lumière programme at the Nizhny-Novgorod Fair,
1896, trans. Leda Swan in Jay Leyda, Kino, pp. 407–9.
150. Mullin, James Joyce, Sexuality and Social Purity, p. 155.
151. This reading favours the 1922 edition rather than the Gabler, whose update from
“slides” to “glides” (p. 361: 386–1922) obscures the Mutoscope reference. See
Ulysses, ed. Jeri Johnson, p. 420.
152. Hansen, Babel and Babylon, p. 40.
153. Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, p. 6
154. Yeats, Explorations, p. 32, p. 33.
155. Barthes, Camera Lucida, p. 12, p. 14.
156. Heath, Questions of Cinema, p. 181.
157. Benjamin, ‘Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations, p. 222.
158. Hansen, Babel and Babylon, p. 24.
159. Burch, Life to Those Shadows, p. 164.
160. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures, p. 21.
161. Dion Boucicault, quoted in Anon, The Art of Acting or Guide to the Stage, p. 33.
162. Uricchio and Pearson, Reframing Culture, p. 99.
163. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures, p. 24.
164. Uricchio and Pearson, Reframing Culture, p. 99.
165. Keil, Early American Cinema in Transition, p. 141.
166. Gunning, D. W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film, pp.
167. Mayer, Stagestruck Filmmaker, p. 2.
168. Naremore, Acting in the Cinema, p. 38.
169. Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 401.
170. Yeats, Collected Plays, pp. 262–3.
171. Quoted in Flannery, W. B. Yeats and the Idea of a Theatre, p. 27.
172. Abel, French Cinema: The First Wave, p. 91, p. 92.
173. Salt, Film Style and Technology, p. 94.
174. Gibson, Joyce’s Revenge, p. 192.

james joyce

75. Ibid. p. 193.

176. Letter to Stanislaus, 1906, quoted in Tratner, Modernism and Mass Politics,
p. 185.
177. Ibid. p. 185.
178. Serres, Les Cinq sens: philosophie des corps mêlés, quoted in Connor, ‘Modernism
and the Writing Hand’.
179. Connor, ‘Modernism and the Writing Hand’.
180. See for instance DeMille’s The Cheat (1915); Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915),
Broken Blossoms (1919) and Intolerance (1919); Abel Gance’s J’accuse! (1919).
181. Epstein, ‘Magnification’, in Abel (ed.), French Film Theory and Criticism, vol. I,
p. 239.
182. ‘David Wark Griffith Speaks’, The New York Dramatic Mirror, 14 January 1914,
quoted in Pratt, Spellbound in Darkness, pp. 110–11.
183. Letter to Enrichetta in December 1915, Pontiero, Eleanora Duse, p. 300.
184. Benjamin, ‘Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations, p. 230.
185. Attridge, Peculiar Language, pp. 160–1.
186. Münsterberg, The Film, p. 36.
187. Balázs, Theory of the Film, pp. 41–2.
188. Ibid. p. 189.
189. Hansen, Babel and Babylon, p. 194, p. 197.
190. Joyce, Joyce’s Ulysses: Notesheets in the British Museum, p. 266, p. 296, pp.
191. Ibid. p. 46.
192. Ibid. p. 43.
193. Pearson, Eloquent Gestures, p. 37.
194. Hewitt, Social Choreography, p. 105.
195. Hansen, Babel and Babylon, p. 16.
196. Naremore, Acting in the Cinema, p. 72.



The Clown and the Über-Marionette in Enemy of the Stars

Pound echoes his earlier remark about the unperformability of Exiles in an
account of the experimental play Enemy of the Stars by Wyndham Lewis,
first published in BLAST in 1914: ‘it could not be presented in the theatre’.1
Stage directions summon the mimetic body of the actor, only then to dismantle
it, resisting Pound’s definition of the ‘medium of drama’ as ‘not words, but
persons moving about on a stage using words’.2 This resistance to perform-
ability, the negative critique of theatricality, is a key aspect, I will argue, of the
play’s aesthetic of anti-mimesis and the tension it generates between the body
of the actor, constantly invoked as a point of reference, and a ‘phrasal style’3
which seeks to explode the performative body into linguistic components. As
Martin Puchner observes, modernist drama, while often seeking to ‘interrupt
and break apart any possibility for either an actual or an imaginary stage’,
nevertheless ‘contains that which it resists’.4 By situating the play within the
performance culture of its time, and by exploring the category of theatre which
Enemy of the Stars violently resists, I will show how Lewis’s attack on mimesis
parallels a similar critique by figures at the forefront of a theatrical (rather
than literary) tradition which privileges anti-naturalist, machine-like abstract
Lewis’s anti-mimetic technique informs his complaint in Time and Western
Man, where he claims ‘Circe’ as an unacknowledged appropriation of the

wyndham lewis

Vorticist style of Enemy of the Stars.5 As Dennis Brown points out, ‘if Enemy
of the Stars was the chief proto-Modernist bid of 1914, one of its main effects
was to initiate a rivalry in experimental daring which helped propel Joyce
toward Ulysses’.6 Joyce conspicuously makes no mention of Enemy until
Finnegans Wake, though as Brown comments, ‘it is difficult to believe that
the grotesque settings, weird metamorphoses and neo-Vorticist stylistics of
“Circe” are not a quite direct response to Lewis’ “play” ’.7 From this point
on, as Scott Klein argues in his illuminating study of the rival aesthetic and
philosophical projects of Joyce and Lewis, ‘Lewis considered Joyce to be his
opponent or “Enemy”, while Joyce made Lewis, in Finnegans Wake, an idi-
osyncratic and archetypal figure of aesthetic conflict’.8 Lewis bitterly held to
the view that Joyce ‘had, I am persuaded, read everything I had ever written.
He pretended however not to have done so.’9 The publication of Ulysses,
and Lewis’s grievance that Joyce had appropriated the signature tricks of his
style, brings amicable relations between them to an end.10 The site of ensuing
rivalry, and prolonged reciprocal counterattacks between Joyce and Lewis,
which continues until the composition of Finnegans Wake, is located less, as
Brown suggests, in parallel ‘Expressionist melodramatics’ and ‘psycho-drama
burlesque’,11 but more specifically, I would argue, at the intersection of the
iconic gesturing body, constantly invoked as a point of reference, and an
anti-mimetic impulse which seeks to fracture iconicity with paratactic effects,
exploding the performative body into linguistic components. Joyce writes the
performative body in a hybrid style informed by the linguistic innovations,
the ‘phrasal style’12 of Enemy of the Stars, and the syntax of shot sequences
in early cinema; this compels Lewis towards his stylistic zenith in The
Childermass, which mimics, in order to critique, the aesthetic and politics of
cinematic mimesis, partly developed in ‘Circe’, as well as sending up Joyce in
the figure of Pullmann, one of the lead characters. Joyce responds in Finnegans
Wake by converting Lewis into an aspect of the composite figure Shaun, ‘mein
goot enemy’, author of a ‘postvortex piece’ called ‘irony of stars’.13 Modernist
anti-mimetic performance, its struggle between the signifying properties of
phrasal syntax, and the iconic perception of the gesturing body – a key feature
of the speech-gesture complex – is forged in the multiply overlapping attempts
in Joyce and Lewis to collide verbal kinaesthesis with the typography of body,
and to reinvent in the process congealed habits of reading and spectatorship.
Vorticism’s simultaneous representation of the natural and the anti-mimetic
erupts in Enemy of the Stars into a radical new form which compels a critical
reorientation towards acts of reading and spectatorship. The hybrid abstrac-
tions and figurative effects of the gesturing body generate an essential inter-
dependency between anti-mimesis and performance style. The play eludes the
possibility of a staged production, and yet constantly refers to the performative
body and the representational space of the theatre – the objects it seeks to resist

the speech-gesture complex

– only to proceed with their negation. As in ‘Circe’, the action opens by invok-
ing the dimensions of a staged setting – ‘CHARACTERS AND PROPERTIES
and playfully modifying the scenography by writing the solitary reader of the
play, in the form of ‘Posterity’ (p. 98), into the space reserved for the diegetic
‘AUDIENCE’, which ‘LOOKS DOWN INTO SCENE’ (p. 97). The reader is
also a spectator occupying a ring-side seat as the action unfolds, a member
of a collective audience, a paying customer: ‘THE BOX OFFICE RECEIPTS
HAVE BEEN ENORMOUS’. In this sense, reading as an act of spectatorship is
foregrounded against the impalpability of depersonalised phrasal abstraction.
The perceptible body, conscious of the act of performing before an audience,
infiltrates the attempt to dissolve the mimetic space into abstraction and dis-
mantle the body into formalist components. The critique of the language of
mimetic realism, considered the play’s central achievement by David Graver,15
is only one side of a reciprocal transformative process which also reconfigures
the perception of the theatrical body.
Scholarship on Lewis’s play tends, on the whole, to concentrate on the
play’s thematic and philosophical aspect, or its relations to the abstract for-
malism in contemporary visual art.16 Paul Edwards’s elegant close analysis
considers the play’s lineage within the European Expressionist tradition, as
an aspect of Arghol’s ‘Romantic quest for pure authenticity and transcend-
ence’17 and a method which allegorises Schopenhauer, Stirner and Nietzsche.
Andrzej Gasiorek amply extends and refines Edwards’s argument about the
‘use of gnostic dualism’ and Arghol’s ‘desire to return to a Platonic trans-
cendent origin’.18 I wish to develop this line of argument about Arghol’s
thwarted desire for transcendence, and the agonistic dispute which ends as a
death-match between its two figures, by reading the play as a confrontation,
overlooked in Lewis scholarship, between two kinds of performance style:
the clown-like imitations of Hanp, which foreground the body’s materiality,
versus the mechanised, formalist, reflective body of Arghol.
Arghol’s position is a defence of the transcendental self, and its impossible
desire to avoid the corruption of what he calls the ‘indiscriminate rubbing’
of ‘social excrescence’ (p. 107). He seeks not only to liberate ‘each gesture
and word’ from its organic conditions, its ‘degradation’ and ‘ “souillure” ’,
and achieve authentic selfhood, ‘the original solitude of the soul’ (p. 106),
but also to demonstrate its unattainability. His gestures are slow, mechani-
cal, anti-mimetic; every movement he makes is also an attempt to dissolve the
movement into imperceptibility, so it cannot be appropriated by the crowds
huddled round to observe him, or his opponent Hanp. Arghol wills his own
imperceptibility. The stars, which appear as he comes out of the hut, ‘strain to
see him’; Lewis mobilises the phrasal abstractions which describe him toward
this end, purifying his gestures of their mimetic resemblance to organic life.

wyndham lewis

His immediate struggle is to preserve his integrity against, as T. S. Eliot puts

it, ‘the eyes that fix [him] in a formulated phrase’,19 especially Hanp’s, whose
eyes search for ‘a companion for his detached ailment of self’. His attempt to
imitate Arghol’s performance style represents the organic, imitative, naturalist
body: the body of an actor who ‘becomes’ himself as he ‘imitates and assimi-
lates that Ego until it is no longer one’ (p. 102). It is this process of imitation,
as Hanp’s gestures mirror his, which Arghol seeks to escape, to preserve his
distinctiveness against the violent masquerade which finally supplants him.
Once he realises Arghol is an immovable object, envious hostility drives Hanp,
incapable of overcoming, or fully imitating him, to kill him in his sleep, an
event which is then abruptly followed by Hanp’s suicide. Arghol, poised at ‘the
centre of the red universe’, and the object of murderous imitation, maintains
an integrity, though it proves to be his undoing, which his clown-like opponent
lacks: the play closes with Hanp’s suicide as he leaps off a bridge ‘clumsily [. . .]
his heart a sagging weight of stagnant hatred’ (p. 119).
Arghol’s gestural style belongs to a modernist theatrical tradition which
negates the living presence of the actor, and which seeks to estrange gestural
mimesis by mechanising the actor’s performance style. In this respect, Enemy
of the Stars resides at the forefront of a tradition which privileges anti-natu-
ralist, or machine-like gestures, and which encompasses the major practition-
ers of modernist theatre, from Gordon Craig and Yeats, through Meyerhold,
Brecht and Beckett. Modernist anti-naturalism in the theatre begins with late
nineteenth-century Symbolism’s advocation of marionettes in favour of actors,
and a subsequent style of acting whereby actors aspire to the condition of mar-
ionettes. In an account he gives of Maeterlinck’s plays for marionettes, Arthur
Symons quotes a remark by Eleanora Duse, that ‘the actors and actresses
must all die of the plague’;20 the depersonalised gestures of symbolist theatre,
divested of their naturalist tendencies, strive for a self-reflexive formality, as
distinct from a mimetic identification with ‘character’, in the manner of the
naturalist actor. This disavowal of identification – as Symons puts it, sounding
Brechtian before the fact, ‘I like to see my illusions clearly, recognising them
as illusions’21 – begins with the Maeterlinckian notion that symbolist theatre,
with its emphasis on imperceptibility, ‘will not tolerate the active presence of
man’. Maeterlinck wrote plays for marionettes with the conviction that the
actor’s physical presence, or mimetic representation, held captive by its own
materiality, interferes with the imperceptibility available to the solitary reader
of the play. The plays for marionettes are an aspect of this desire to transcend
the materiality of the body. This recurrent emphasis in Symbolist theatre – on
‘the soul of things visible’22, as Symons puts it, or in Yeats’s words, ‘invisible
essence’23 – is not exclusively privileged in the Lewisian performative body,
although they share a hybrid sense which returns theatrical spectatorship to
the act of reading, where gestures always in a sense remain ‘invisible’.

the speech-gesture complex

Symons spoke of Maeterlinck’s drama as a ‘theatre of artificial beings,

who are at once [. . .] more mechanical than the living actors whom we are
accustomed to see’, observing their ‘grave, regulated motion’.24 Arghol con-
ducts his movements according to this performative style: he ‘shifted his legs
mechanically’ (p. 102); his hands are a ‘thick shell’ (p. 101); he ‘lies in deliber-
ate leaden inanimation’ (p. 104); he is ‘central as stone, poised as a magnet’,
EQUIPOISE’ (p. 97). His gestures are possessed of a multi-dimensional ease,
control and restraint which are thoroughly marionette-like. Yeats described
the marionette style of actors moving ‘slowly and quietly, and not very much,
and there should be something in their movements [. . .] rhythmical as if they
were paintings in a frieze’.25 Symons also foregrounds this concern to freeze
movement, and the ‘sense of motion which it is the business of painting to
arrest’.26 This theatrical style is one way of grasping the ‘frozen constellations’
of Lewis’s Vorticist syntax as they capture the force of gesture without motion.
Arghol’s mechanised body in Enemy of the Stars, statuesque, caught between
movements, a performative effect achieved by suppressing temporal conti-
nuity between phrasal sequences, correlates with the frozen tableau effects
in his painting of this period, such as The Domino (1912), The Courtesan
(1912) and Smiling Woman Ascending Stair (1913), where gestures stiffen
into arcs and sharp lines, attitudes which resemble the symbolic body of the
Lewis’s movement towards angular machine gestures in his painting crys-
tallises between 1912 and 1914, reinforced during his attendance of T. E.
Hulme’s lectures on art-historian Wilhelm Worringer. As Reed Dasenbrock
has commented, this comparison of primitive art, such as the Egyptian pyra-
mids or Byzantine mosaics, ‘directly opposed to the empathy impulse’, with
modern machine-based art, coincides with Lewis’s own activity as a painter
and writer.27 Hulme and Worringer identify the primitive with the modern by
exposing a common impulse: the desire to extract a living object from condi-
tions of accident and relativity, to form an abstract of the object, providing it
with a refuge from those conditions, fixing it in the ‘irrefragable necessity of its
closed material individuality’,28 finds its expression in the geometrical, crystal-
line regularity of machine-art. The Vorticist position is expounded towards
the end of Tarr, which Lewis wrote between 1911 and 1915, in the disquisi-
tion on painting given by the novel’s hero: ‘Instead, then, of being something
impelled like an independent machine by a little egoistic fire inside, [the statue]
lives soullessly and deadly by its frontal lines and masses’.29 Art which imitates
the organic ‘pulsing and moving of the soft inside of life’ also imitates the
conditions of life’s decay. Hulme’s view of ‘the geometrical line as something
absolutely distinct from the messiness, the confusion and the accidental details
of existing things’30 finds its counterparts in Tarr’s art theory, Arghol’s view of

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bodily movement as liberated from its organic conditions, and the depersonal-
ised gesture in the theatre of marionettes.
Lewis’s Vorticist reformulation of European movements in the visual arts
parallels the development of the ‘Über-Marionette’31 by Edward Gordon
Craig, according to Michael Walton, ‘the one English [theatre] practitioner
and theorist of the Edwardian era who could be said to have possessed a
genuine European outlook’.32 Given Lewis’s close observations of contempo-
rary developments in the European avant-garde – his sharp awareness of the
progress of Futurism and Expressionism are key instances – it is highly unlikely
he would not have encountered Gordon Craig’s journal, The Mask (1908–29),
its accounts of Futurism and Cubism and their relation to modern theatre.
Futurism was in fact a significant preoccupation of Craig’s from 1911–14; the
journal published the first English translation of the Futurist Manifesto on the
theatre in 1913.33 Both Craig and Lewis shared a suspicion of Futurism’s dei-
fication of speed, vitalism and technology, and both demonstrated intellectual
affinities with the Expressionism of Kandinsky and the Blue Rider group, with
their tendency towards an abstraction partly derived from Worringer.34 Lewis
does mention Craig in The Art of Being Ruled, and gives a brief account which
strongly resembles his conception of Arghol: ‘the influence of the Gordon
Craig school had been in the other direction. They sought to make the actor
more remote, masking him, robbing him of personality, so that he should seem
isolated, a creature of a different birth.’35
Arghol’s contempt for the contingent accidents of ‘organic conditions’
resembles the polemical anti-naturalism of Gordon Craig: ‘in the modern
theatre, owing to the use of the bodies of men and women as their material, all
which is presented there is of an accidental nature’. For Gordon Craig, as for
Arghol, the actor’s materiality, his mimetic presence, ‘the actions of the actor’s
body’ obscure the constructedness of theatre and the attainment of a complex-
ity of immanent relations. The unmediated live presence of unregulated actors
on stage exposes the work to the accidents of naturalist performance; Craig
declared that ‘art can admit of no accidents’, what Arghol calls ‘souillure’, and
that the actor, as an intentional agent, ‘must go’. The figure which replaces
him, the depersonalised ‘Über-Marionette’, purges the actor’s movements of
haphazard, unregulated emotion, and by extension, vanity: ‘the actor plus fire
minus egoism’, as Gordon Craig puts it.36 Arghol’s performance as a Vorticist
Über-Marionette is the actor freed from personal vanity, unlike Hanp, hidden
beneath his ‘mask of discontent, anxious to explode, restrained by qualms of
vanity and professional coyness’ (p. 96).
Yet Gordon Craig’s Über-Marionette remained an ideal which he never
fully realised, as he found he could not entirely abstract the mimetic presence
of the actor, nor eliminate all accidents and contingencies of the actor’s body
from the live event. This failed project of anti-mimesis is partly enacted in

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Lewis’s (conscious) failure to approximate abstraction in visual art by purging

language of reference in Enemy of the Stars: ‘my literary contemporaries I
looked upon as too bookish and not keeping pace with the visual revolution.
A kind of play, Enemy of the Stars [. . .] was my attempt to show them the
way.’37 As Peter Nicholls notes of Pound’s essay on Vorticism, published in
BLAST, the ‘identification of the authentically modern with the non-mimetic
was easier to grasp in terms of the new visual arts than it was in relation to
literature’.38 Lewis’s ‘kind of play’ is his most concerted attempt to find cor-
relatives between prose style and visual anti-mimetic or abstract ‘planes in rela-
tion’: ‘Throats iron eternities, drinking heavy radiance, limbs towers of blatant
light, the stars poised, immensely distant, with their metal sides, pantheistic
machines’ (p. 100). Clusters of static non-representational phrases, ‘frozen
constellations’, as Vincent Sherry puts it,39 suppress clauses which indicate
temporal relation, dispensing with continuity and ordinary syntax. These
phrasal abstractions acquire their own integral significance, as William Wees
observes: ‘events are broken down and reconstructed like the interrelated frag-
ments of Vorticist pictures’.40 Yet the phrasal clusters of Enemy of the Stars
are composed of indivisible units which, in themselves, remain unavoidably
referential – ‘throats’, ‘iron’, ‘eternities’ – and so the style, as Lewis recognised,
could never attain pure abstraction.
Whilst other painters associated with Vorticism often tended to break
definitively from figurative references and develop exclusively mechanical
forms,41 Lewis maintained a technique which never quite dissolved the figura-
tive body, even within his most abstract pictures, remarking: ‘the finest art
is not pure abstraction, nor is it unorganised life’.42 This dual aspect is the
outcome of Lewis’s attempt, as a painter and writer, to discover formal cor-
relatives between the written and the perceptible body. In The Vorticist (1912),
the human figure is expressed in a staccato vocabulary of taut linear shapes
and frenzied diagonals; Vorticist Design (1914) intersperses saw-tooth edges,
levers, pistons and even gun barrels amongst anatomical components: each
of these elements can be identified either as a section of anatomy or the frag-
ment of a streamlined machine. The Vorticist collision of muscular physicality
with hard edges and abstractions in Enemy of the Stars is presented in BLAST
alongside a drawing by Lewis bearing the same name, in which the mechani-
cal shifts and starts of a wildly angular head and barely figurative torso are
stretched downwards into curvilinear calves and thighs, described in the play
as sinewy ‘explosive muscles’ (p. 95).
This tension between the abstract and the organic is enacted in the strug-
gle between Arghol and Hanp. Hanp represents the materialist and mimetic
body. In contrast to Arghol’s entrance as a ‘POISED MAGNET’, Hanp ‘comes
out of hut, coughing like a goat, rolling a cigarette. He goes to where Arghol
is lying. He stirs him with his foot roughly’ (p. 100). The action of the play

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is described as occurring in ‘SOME BLEAK CIRCUS’ (p. 95): Hanp is the

comic servant, the acrobatic trickster, and his performative style belongs to
the tradition of the grotesque. He is the ‘clown in the circus’ (p. 116). Hanp’s
chthonic movements – he springs ‘out of the ground’ (p. 110) – frequently
resemble the knockabout mime routines of clowns: ‘a handful of furious
movements: flung himself on Arghol’ (p. 110). An established routine in com-
media dell’arte, the ‘lazzi suicide’, where the First Zanni clown, the servant,
having failed successfully to plot against his superior, mimes his own suicide
as part of a comic interlude,43 is echoed in Hanp’s actual suicide and in the
murder of Arghol: ‘Arghol rose as though on a spring, his eyes glaring down
on Hanp, and with an action of the head, as though he were about to sneeze.
Hanp shrank back, on his haunches. He over-balanced and fell on his back’
(p. 118). Arghol keeps his centre of gravity and strikes an elegant contorted
pose in his final moment, not a dying fall but a rising upwards. Hanp grace-
lessly mistimes and tumbles over, a classic buffoonish pratfall. These routines
of low grotesquery, clown-like and therefore deliberate, account for Hanp’s
‘blatant virtuosity of self’ (p. 96), and his attempts to mime the actions of
Arghol, both defining features of the circus clown. Albert Fratellini, perform-
ing with the Fratellini Brothers at the Medrano Circus in Paris, described by
the mime artist Jacques Copeau as ‘muscular perfection in the service of a
spontaneous and sincere feeling’, would frequently imitate, in order to parody,
his more earnest counterparts.44 Having observed Arghol as he ‘strains and
stretches elegantly’ (p. 100), Hanp himself is later seen ‘stretched and strained
like a toy wound up’ (p. 118). Though in Enemy of the Stars, the imitative
tendency is not parody, it is riven with murderous envy of his stiff, indifferent
Lewis wrote an account of his own spectating of circus clowns at Quimperlé,
on the south coast of Brittany, in his 1909 short story, ‘Les Saltimbanques’.45
The ‘heavy tight clothes’ and ‘dull explosive muscles’ (p. 95) of Hanp recall
the ‘bulging muscles’ and ‘painted faces’ of the Breton clowns in his story. The
night at the circus in Quimperlé begins with the head showman introducing the
proceedings, ‘his movements followed with minute attention by the crowd’.
As he asks them to take their seats ‘with an expressive gesture [. . .] they
riveted their eyes on his hand’ although they do not as yet occupy their seats.
The clown then bursts into the circle: ‘ “B-o-n-soir, M’sieurs et M’dames,” he
chirped, waved his hand, tumbled over his employer’s foot’. Waving his hand,
the clown imitates the gestures of the proprietor, his master, in an effort to
undermine his authority and assume the role of mock-ringmaster. The audi-
ence then howls with delight as the master,

woken to the sudden violence of an automatic figure set in motion [. . .]

sprang nimbly backwards and forwards as though engaged in a boxing

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match, and grinned at the clown’s wit, as though in spite of himself,

while nearly knocking his teeth out with delighted blows.46

The idea of the clown as an ‘automatic figure set in motion’ testifies to the
influence of Bergson. In Laughter, which Lewis read on its publication in
1903 whilst attending his lectures at the Collège de France,47 Bergson puts
forward ‘the tricks of the circus clowns’ to exemplify the theory that imita-
tion is a version of automatism, of the ‘momentary transformation of a person
into a thing’.48 Lewis’s statements that ‘any autonomous movement of matter
is essentially comic’ and ‘the root of the Comic is to be sought in the sensa-
tions resulting from the observations of a thing behaving like a person’49 are
derivations of Bergson’s theory, as Robert Murray and Bernard Lafourcade
have observed,50 although specific instances of these gestures in Lewis, particu-
larly during the Vorticist period of 1912–14, tend towards negative critique
of Bergson’s propositions. Lewis concurs with the view that gestural imita-
tion posits a structure of automatic repetition, an excess of which generates
mechanical uniformity: ‘to imitate anyone is to bring out the element of
automatism he has allowed to creep into his person’. According to Bergson:
‘wherever there is repetition or complete similarity, we always suspect some
mechanism at work behind the living’.51 Mechanical repetition confers upon
gesture an automatic quality. Arghol ‘strains and stretches elegantly’ (p. 100);
when Hanp imitates him, he ‘stretched and strained like a toy wound up’
(p. 118). Lewis’s paintings and drawing of this period, such as Two Figures
(1912), Two Vorticist Figures (1912) and Two Mechanics (1912), bring out
this element of automated similarity by depicting pairs of identical machine
figures, pulled down to earth by heavy ballast, each a simulacrum of the other,
‘two copies cast in the same mould’. Gesture becomes mechanical through rep-
etition: the more thoroughly imitated, the less observable presence of mind in
the gesture. The master’s ‘wave of the hand’ in ‘Les Saltimbanques’, imitated
by the clown, is already a standardised, ritual gesture, signalling an invitation
to the audience to take their seats. Rigid and lifeless, emptied of the Bergsonian
élan vital from an excess of performative repetition, the gesture ceases to func-
tion. The audience do not take their seats until the clown’s mock-imitation.
Foregrounding its explicitly automatic quality, the clown, intentionally mecha-
nising his hand, just as his master does without realising, makes explicit the
comedy in the gesture, to which the audience then reacts. As Lewis observed,
after Bergson, ‘a comic type is a failure of considerable energy, an imitation
and standardising of self, suggesting the existence of a uniform humanity’.52
The master is jolted, from the version of himself which is comically imitable –
as Bergson puts it, ‘the attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body
are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine’53
– into the version of himself as ringmaster, his authentic self.

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Arghol and Hanp are both automata, though radically different in kind. In
his strained mechanical slowness, Arghol is a deliberate automaton, poised and
self-aware, like one of Symons’s ‘living people pretending to be those wooden
images of life which pretend to be living people’.54 Hanp’s movements, on the
other hand, frequently take the form of involuntary outbursts, neither deliber-
ate nor reflexive: the ‘strain of his mock life [. . .] was tremendous on his under-
world of energy and rebellious muscles’ (p. 109). As Arthur C. Danto observes,
if someone’s arm just flew up, because of a spasm, the description of it as
an action would be false [. . .] we see bodily movements as actions only
against the assumption that certain unobserved conditions hold: we see
them ‘in terms of’ intentions, motives.55
Hanp’s gestures, propelled by haphazard, unregulated emotion and vanity,
always appear ‘false’ in this sense; his constant sudden emissions of tension
and crisis are like accidental ‘muscular spasms’ (p. 99). He carries his limbs
around with him, in Bergson’s words, as ‘an isolated part of [him] expressed,
unknown to, or at least apart from, the whole of the personality’.56 This
unspent friction finds an outlet in his attempt to imitate Arghol and become his
‘sunken mirror’ (p. 107). Hindered by his cheap materiality – the ‘toy wound
up’ – and stagnant incompletion, he sinks into mechanical obstinacy, his body
transformed into an unwitting third-personal object.
Hanp sees Arghol as a more authentic version of ‘another HIMSELF’
(p. 109). Arghol tells him he is ‘amazed to find that you are like me. I talk to
you for an hour and get more disgusted with myself’ (p. 109); when Hanp
flings himself onto Arghol to attack him – he ‘brought his own disgust back to
him [. . .] He felt himself on him’ (p. 110) – and when he finally puts the knife
in – ‘he could hardly help plunging it in himself’ (p. 118) – there is a momen-
tary suspension as to whom ‘himself’ should refer. The reflexive pronoun
ceases to correspond exclusively to Hanp, it drives a wedge between the body
that expresses a first-person idea of action, and the body that is the subject of
the idea of action. As Elizabeth Anscombe comments, ‘it is part of the sense of
“I” that utterer and subject should be one and the same’, yet in these instances,
the pronoun does not refer to an agency which could utter, without serious
misgivings: ‘I am the thinker of these thoughts’, or ‘I am this body’.57
A similar pronominal doubling effect occurs in Tarr, a novel which further
develops Lewis’s ongoing project to reorientate outdated habits of reading
and spectatorship by staging a violent collision between the natural and anti-
mimetic performative body. It pitches, once again, the figure of the detached
observer, mechanised but self-reflexive, the character of the title, against the
mimetic figure of Kreisler, described as ‘clown-like’ (p. 178), who moves, like
Hanp the ‘toy wound up’, with the ‘dead weight of old iron, that started, must
go dashing on’ (p. 107). Lewis told Hugh Kenner, echoing the declaration that

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Enemy of the Stars was ‘keeping pace with the visual revolution’,58 that he
wrote Tarr as ‘a piece of writing worthy of the hand of the abstract innovator
[. . .] Anyhow, it was my object to eliminate anything less essential than a noun
or a verb. Prepositions, pronouns, articles – the small fry – as far as might be,
I would abolish.’59 This attempt to streamline parts of speech which indicate
subjective agency, in particular, the reflexive pronoun ‘himself’, informs a tech-
nique concomitant to his innovations as a Vorticist painter and playwright.
The Lewisian frontal assault on the line again explodes the phenomenon of
the body’s intersubjective agency. The aggressive dislocation of the movement
of limbs from intentionality is manifest in Tarr, as in Enemy of the Stars, in
fissures and overlaps between perception and readability, and the complex
dispositions of deictic referents and reflexive pronouns.
Tarr is the version of himself as a painter Kreisler aspires to be, although
Soltyk, who supplants him as chief recipient of money from Volker, and as
Anastasya’s escort, is also an ‘efficient and more accomplished counterpart’
(p. 90). When Soltyk, provoked by Kreisler, breaks out in suddenly accru-
ing fury to attack, ‘Soltyk tore at himself first, writhing upright, a statue’s
bronze softening, suddenly, with blood’ (p. 272). The reference-field of
‘himself’, which Lewis italicises, doubles up to include both men, an effect
which continues during the fight scene: ‘hands flew at Kreisler’s throat [. . .]
Kreisler was hurled about. He was pumped backwards and forwards. His
hands grabbed a mass of hair; as a man slipping on a precipice gets hold of a
plant’ (p. 273). In this instance, ‘his hands grabbed a mass of hair’ could refer
either to Soltyk attacking, an extension of his hands which ‘flew at Kreisler’s
throat’, or Kreisler’s defence, ‘as a man slipping on a precipice gets hold of a
plant’. This pronominal doubling effect is also a feature of Dostoevsky’s The
Double, a story to which Tarr richly alludes.60 Golyadkin is a split personality,
threatened by an identical simulacrum who shares his name, as intelligently
varied and supple as the authentic Golyadkin is monotonous and mechanically
inflexible. When Golyadkin ‘looked as though he wanted to hide from himself,
as though he were trying to run away from himself’, or when he becomes ‘mis-
trustful of himself’,61 the reference is to Golyadkin, and his double, in equal
measure. Living at a distance from their own bodies, Kreisler and Golyadkin
become reproducible when they cease to be themselves. Automatism, in the
form of a mimetic double, exceeds them, whereas Hanp in Enemy of the Stars,
unable to become ‘himself’ by imitating Arghol, expires in a mimetic double-
bind: he is his opponent’s failed double.
Arghol’s fear of being assimilated and reproduced until he is no longer exclu-
sively himself, registered in the dream in which he meets a version of Hanp
and accuses him of ‘masquerading as me’ (p. 114), propels his anti-mimetic
stance. In his resistance to the repetition of himself, and contempt for Hanp’s
professional vanity, Arghol is also an Enemy of the Stars, of actor-stars, and

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the phenomenon of star personas, which Lewis regards as the consequence of

an excess of vanity and repetition in which the star persona, having acquired
an automatic life of its own, overtakes the particularity of the actor. Arghol’s
opening stage direction declares, ‘HE IS NOT EVEN A “STAR”’ (p. 96); he
is rather the actor who resists the process compelling him to conform to a
standardised version of himself. Hanp’s degenerate process of appropriation,
as his opponent’s ‘self-centred and elemental shadow’ (p. 99), overcome with
‘qualms of vanity’ (p. 96) and indignant at ‘Arghol ACTING, he who had not
the right to act’ (p. 115), mimes a standardised misrepresentation of a persona
Arghol refuses for himself. The 1932 revision of the play clarifies Hanp’s status
as a ‘bad actor – or else one in violent disagreement with his part’ (p. 191),
unable to imitate and supplant Arghol in the eyes of the audience, the ‘faces
following stars’ (p. 103). The struggle in Enemy of the Stars is also between
the standardised artificial reproducibility of the star persona as a commodity,
versus the irreducible authenticity of the anti-mimetic self. The consequence
for Arghol in permitting even a single imitation of himself – ‘two reproduc-
tions of the same negative’ – would be to invite a ‘manufacturing process’62
for multiple autonomous reproductions. This nightmare vision blazes over
him in an ‘electric atmosphere’ (p. 100): gazing up at the ‘dry, white volcanic
light’ (p. 98), he sees a ‘furious mass of images’, flashes of a ‘hundred idols
to a man’. The real Arghol, spectating images of possible appropriations
of himself, anticipates Bloom’s struggle in ‘Circe’ to safeguard an authentic
version of himself from reproducible film personas which threaten to consume
The persona of the film actor, as Noël Burch observes, emerged as a conse-
quence of the star system and the development of the close-up.63 The phrasal
units of Enemy of the Stars, unhindered by the physical limitations of the
stage, often present the performative body of Hanp in shot sequences with an
emphasis on extreme close-ups: ‘Upperlip shot down, half covering chin, his
body reached methodically’ (p. 99). Already a bugbear for Lewis as early as
1914, though not evolving into an extended critique until The Childermass,
published in 1927, and the polemics of the late twenties and thirties, Enemy
of the Stars generates intense bursts of awareness of cinematic gestures as the
zenith of the mimetic image, its severance of movement from volition, and the
reproducibility of inauthentic selfhood exemplified by the star system.
As DeCordova has demonstrated, the star system in filmmaking, established
as early as 1907–10, was inherited from the theatre. In France, the prestige
historical melodramas produced by Film D’Art, essentially photographed pro-
scenium theatre, had begun to emphasise the star quality of their performers
around 1909. The performance of Sarah Bernhardt in La Tosca (1909) and
then Camille (1912) set a precedent in which the appearance of a star could
become a film’s most distinctive feature, its selling point.64 The US had been

the speech-gesture complex

manufacturing star performers in theatre since George Frederick Cooke’s

extensive tour across America in 1810 generated a maximum of publicity and
exposure for its actors. Around 1910, the major film production companies
Vitagraph and Biograph inherit the star system from theatre, fully established
by 1870, with Maude Adams, William Faversham and Ethel Barrymore its
leading lights, prestige actor personas with a high commodity value. Observing
the popularity of Biograph’s Florence Lawrence, Vitagraph followed suit by
manufacturing their own brand-name phenomenon, Florence Turner, the
‘Vitagraph girl’.65 Lewis hints at the anxiety, especially for the actor in theatre,
of this industrial manufacture of personas when Arghol gazes up at the flicker-
ing electric sky to see an ‘immense production of barren muscular girl idols’
(p. 104). These momentary glimpses foreshadow the Bailiff’s afterlife in The
Childermass, where an ‘immense production’ of idols permeates every feature
of the landscape and its inhabitants.

The Childermass: Lewis vs Chaplin in the Afterlife

The hints towards a cinematic environment in Enemy of the Stars, and its
implied critique of mechanical repetition as a phenomenon of the shadow-ges-
tures of cinema, attain full and explicit realisation in The Childermass. The fol-
lowing section close reads The Childermass in light of its laceration of Charlie
Chaplin’s mimetic gestures.66 The Tramp persona, by the time of the novel’s
composition, had become a symptom, for Lewis, of what he found unoriginal,
fraudulent and inauthentic in the culture industry. The two lead characters
are compelled to enact routines from Chaplin films by the totalitarian Bailiff,
who presides over the afterlife, at times appearing to his subjects as Chaplin.
Performative mimesis, as exemplified by the Tramp persona, is transformed in
the afterlife into a mechanised cliché which severs movement from volition,
and supplants the authentic, anti-mimetic self. The endless reproducibility of
individual gestures on film signifies, for Lewis, the deadness of mass-produced
Hollywood group personality. The critique of Chaplin, and cinema in general,
reinforces his attacks on Bergson’s theory of duration in The Childermass and
Time and Western Man.
The two lead characters, Pullman and Satters, both killed in the First World
War, meet again in the afterlife as animated stiffs. Vorticist duality between
organism and machine becomes a matter of life and death, as Lewis converts
the gestures of these dead figures into the mechanical afterimage of their living
bodies. Shell-shocked human forms, ‘corpses’,67 articulate themselves with the
‘stiffest joints, stalking slowly in, advancing very little’ (p. 22). Pullman searches
for ‘the dead accuracy required for walking flexibly from the hips as though
born a biped’ (p. 20). The Bailiff’s afterlife provides Lewis with the ideal con-
ditions for the lifelessness of the Vorticist machine gesture, where ‘deadness is
the first condition of art [. . .] that opposed to the naked pulsing and moving of

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the soft inside of life, along with infinite elasticity and consciousness of move-
ment’.68 This division between the empathy of the organic and the lifelessness
of the mechanical is crystallised as a split, as Lewis puts it in Time and Western
Man, between the ‘living person’ and the mechanical ‘image’ or ‘representa-
tion into which he or she projects himself or is projected’.69 The figure Satters
observes, ‘a flat daguerreotype or one of the personnel of a pre-war film’
(p. 22), is a body converted into the afterlife of its image, its screen persona: ‘he
comes and goes; sometimes he is there, then he flickers out’ (p. 22). In the lan-
guage of film theory, it is a body projected into ‘the luminous sense of its film
presence’.70 Pullman and Satters are flickering shadows of their former selves;
like all other inhabitants of the afterlife, they occupy their earthly bodies, but
the gestures they make are animated by an electro-mechanical force external to
themselves. Lewis effects a total separation between movement and volition by
writing his two leads as the dried shells of cinematic automata, screen personas
detached from their point of origin and hardened into mechanised cliché.
The narrative eye in the novel’s opening passage cuts abruptly from a wide-
shot of the ‘ferry-station’ to the ‘frail figure planted’ there, Pullman. His ges-
tural presence is projected in the received images and routines of cinema as he
makes his entrance in the style of the biggest star of all:
The suit of nondescript dark grey for ordinary day-wear, well-cut and
a little shabby, is coquettishly tight and small, on the trunk and limbs
of a child. Reaching up with a girlish hand to the stick cuddled under
the miniature oxter, with the other hand the glasses are shaded against
the light, as the eyes follow the flight of a wild duck along the city walls
northward, the knee slightly flexed to allow the body to move gracefully
from the slender hips. (p. 10)
The description identifies the physiognomic template of Chaplin. Pullman’s
suit, ‘coquettishly tight and small on the trunk and limbs of a child’ summons
the Tramp persona, as does the ‘girlish hand’ reaching for ‘the stick cuddled
under the miniature oxter’. The description recalls Lewis on Chaplin in Time
and Western Man: ‘his tiny wrists, his small body, are those of a child’ (p. 65).
In no time, Satters begins to imitate Pullman, according to the system of habit
set in motion by their meeting, ‘swinging his body with an arch girlish oscil-
lation’ (p. 13). The Chaplin persona then overtakes Satters as he learns to
walk, or learns to adapt his walk to its new standard. The Tramp’s ‘epileptic
shuffle’71 is the yardstick for which Satters rehearses: he is observed ‘bracing
his legs in bandy equipoise [. . .] he starts off badly, striking his feet down all
over the place, but after a trial or two he finds his sea-legs and develops a gait
of his own, which is manfully rachitic, if at first absurdly arrogant’ (p. 19).
This captures the shrewd and defiant rickety quality of a walk which is not
Satters’s, as he thinks, but Chaplin’s. The segments and directions of Satters’s

the speech-gesture complex

feet are brought together ‘after a trial or two’ in the angular swerves and
mechanical stutter of Chaplin’s walk. As David Ayers notes, the behaviour of
Pullman and Satters is merely an ‘instinctive response to the environment’.72
Specifically, their movement is attuned to the machine-like regularity and
endless reproducibility of the Bailiff’s afterlife, in the manner of Chaplin, who
raises, according to Benjamin, ‘the law of the filmic sequence of images to that
of human motor actions’.73 Once the Chaplin walk is mastered, Pullman and
Satters are compelled to rehearse more complicated routines, from the same
slapstick template:
David toe to toe with Goliath, he squares up, moves lithely and rapidly,
measuring the insulting bulk of the egregious Satters with methodic
deadly eye [. . .] The ox is felled: Satters as Keystone giant receives the
crack exactly in the right spot, he sags forward in obedient overthrow,
true to type – as though after a hundred rehearsals, true to a second – and
crashes to earth as expected, rolling up a glazed eyeball galore, the correct
classical Keystone corpse of Jack-the-Giantkiller comedy. Pullman gazes
down at the prostrate enemy while the camera could click out a hundred
revolutions, ready with his little tingling truncheon. (p. 116)
The reference again remains indirect though indisputable. Chaplin is described
recurrently by Lewis in his polemical work as ‘the little fellow put upon’; his
routines are the ‘pathos of the small’; he is David to the Goliath of the ‘Keystone
giants by whom, in his early films, he was always confronted, who oppressed,
misunderstood and hunted him, but whom he invariably overcame’.74 The
routine clearly alludes to similar square-ups between Chaplin and the Keystone
Cops in films such as Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) and A Film Johnnie
(1914). Lewis comprehends the film actor’s constant need for repeated takes
until the ‘crack’ can be administered in ‘exactly the right spot’. Chaplin and the
Keystone Cops rehearse and repeat until they are ‘true to type’, reproductions
of the muscular habits and gestures expected of their personas; by extension,
Pullman and Satters repeat until they can imitate those routines, ‘as though
after a hundred rehearsals’, again ‘true to type’, but a second-hand imitation
of ‘type’, of a ready-made, pre-existent cinematic cliché.
Helen Rowe, Lewis’s model and associate between 1914 and 1915,
described his preference for a ‘flea-pit cinema at the bottom of Charlotte
Street’ which screened Chaplin one-reelers: ‘This was before anyone talked
about Chaplin, but Lewis discovered him there.’ Inviting Rowe to the cinema,
Lewis would remark: ‘Come and see a clown’;75 he later identifies Chaplin
with ‘the old spirit of the circus clown’ and writes that ‘Charlie Chaplin, the
only creative personality that the cinema has produced for itself (coming in its
first days, before superproduction changed, in standardising it, the character
of the screen play), was the swan-song of the English clown.’76 Lewis expresses

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an admiration for the early one-reelers, prior to his conversion into the ulti-
mate mimetic superstar, although his view of Chaplin as a clown intimates an
inherent mimetic quality which only required a level of ‘superproduction’ to
transform mimesis, on an unprecedented scale, into an autonomous governing
During 1914–15, the Chaplin star-persona was only incipient and had not
yet become an autonomous entity; the Tramp is seen for the very first time
wandering on to the screen frame right in Kid Auto Races at Venice in 1914.
A year later, Chaplin plays an aspiring star-actor in His New Job (1915) who
successfully auditions for a part as an extra in a period costume drama. The
producer agrees to hire him, Chaplin leaves the studio office and we see his
walk gradually morph into the epileptic swagger of the Tramp, twirling his
cane, a triumphal flourish, just before he disappears off-screen. In the scene
which immediately follows, he walks onto the film set and stops centre frame.
Flanked by two doors behind him, he swivels round to observe the door on the
right, marked for ‘Extras’, and the one on the left, marked for ‘Stars’. The shot
is repeated moments later, when he is seen deliberating about which to open
before entering the door for ‘Stars’, a retrospectively iconic moment. Taking
the star’s role for himself, he dons the brigadier’s costume before proceeding
to the shoot. The effect of the routines which follow already depend on his
trademark walk, the surest indicator of the Chaplin star-persona: he acts the
part of the brigadier by attempting to hide the walk which would give him
away. Forcing his legs, against their own automatic tendency, to behave them-
selves and not blow his cover, the result is a bizarre stuttering effect, even more
mechanical than the usual shuffle. Chaplin’s own star-persona, an automaton
of its own volition, already far exceeds any attempt to imitate otherwise. From
this point on, the stuttering walk rapidly becomes a standardised unmistak-
able signature which seemed, in its familiarity and reproducibility, to suggest
a star-persona ‘independent of the actor playing the role’,77 as though Chaplin
were merely operating the mechanical figure of the Tramp. Chaplin testified to
this sense of alienation from his screen double during his 1921 trip home to
England, when he was greeted by massive crowds wanting to see the reproduc-
ible image of the Tramp as distinct from its source.78
This dual personality, peculiar to the film actor and described by Benjamin
as ‘the same kind as the estrangement before one’s own image in the mirror’,79
is analogous to the split in Pullman and Satters between the rapidly fading
memory of gestures which characterised them as earth-bound volitional
agents, and the conversion of this organic material into the automatic ges-
tures prescribed by the Bailiff. Having discovered him prior to superstardom,
Lewis repeatedly describes Chaplin as ‘the greatest screen artist’;80 even his
account of army service in the First World War is inflected with a routine from
Chaplin’s war satire Shoulder Arms (1918):

the speech-gesture complex

I instantly wheeled with the precision of a well-constructed top; and with

the tread of an irresistible automaton. I bore down swiftly and steadily
upon the adjutant; I brought my heels together with a resounding spank,
gave my rifle a well-deserved slap.81

As automatism’s most forthright representative, Chaplin comes to signify, for

Lewis, an idea of mass mimesis and mechanised cliché, once he becomes, as
Iris Barry puts it, writing in February 1926, ‘the most popular man alive’.82 In
The Childermass, he represents the irresistible force of the already pre-elapsed:

A stone’s-throw out he stops, faces the shore, studying sombrely in

perspective the man-sparrow, who multiplies precise movements, an
organism which in place of speech has evolved a peripatetic system of
response to a dead environment. It has wandered beside this Styx, a lost
automaton rather than a lost soul. (p. 11)

Pullman’s movement is objectless, ‘peripatetic’, a mechanical response to the

durational tyranny of the Bailiff’s environment, prone to halts, jerks and tics;
‘multiplies precise movements’ chops up the movement into staccato compo-
nent parts, but also suggests the idea of repetition towards a pre-existent stand-
ard. Chaplin later mutates into the sinister mask through which the totalitarian
Bailiff speaks to his subjects. The sky short-circuits and the Bailiff appears,
beneath a mask in mechanical enlargement: in a moment of complete eclipse, all
gaze up at an extreme close-up of ‘a greatly enlarged mask of Chaplin’ (p. 184).
Mesmerised by this spectacle of awe, the Bailiff’s public enact, as Lewis puts it
in Time and Western Man, a collective ‘submission to a giant hyperbolic close-
up of a moment [. . .] to banish all individual continuity’.83 The Bailiff’s gaze
imposes upon his subjects the solidification of routines endlessly rehearsed,
slipped into, in Pierre Bourdieu’s words, ‘to awaken, by the evocative power of
bodily mimesis, a universe of ready-made feelings and experiences’.84
The cumulative disunity of the bodies of Pullman and Satters suggests an
acquaintance with Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique (1924), in which Chaplin
becomes a Cubist automaton in disrepair, the locomotion of the trademark
walk broken up into discrete components and abstractions; as Susan McCabe
observes, in Léger’s film, Chaplin’s body ‘threatens to dissolve into the anti-
mimetic’.85 Lewis likely saw the film in 1925, when it was screened at the
London Film Society, one of whose founders was Iris Barry, with whom Lewis
had an affair – according to his biographer his ‘first serious relationship with a
woman’86 – and two children.87 Lewis short-circuits the effect of Chaplinesque
mimesis by converting his gestures into text, writing the performance style
of Pullman and Satters as a series of phrases which cumulatively reveal their
disunity, on the edge of mimetic dissolution, enacting the movement of frag-
mentary shot sequences:

wyndham lewis

Pullmann stands fast. Shoulders high and squared, small calves in inflex-
ible arcs, eyes still hypnotic [. . .] He works his toes up and down in the
slipper. His head twists sharply towards the river as though in pain [. . .]
Pullman comes to a stop, his feet firmly set side by side in the worn slip-
pers, pushing down, shovelling into the hot sandy nap, the small legs
braced and arched, knotted in little business-like muscles, shoulders high,
hands pressed into jacket-pockets. (pp. 13–15)

An extreme close-up of ‘toes’ working ‘up and down in the slipper’, to a shot
of his head, from ‘calves’ to ‘eyes’, implies an elliptical rising arc which defines
the sweep of the torso, sections intersecting against an unseen scaffolding.
Lewis does not emphasise the main axis into which the lines and masses of the
figure are organised, he offers instead a staccato rhythm of close-ups scarcely
belonging to a torso. Satters’s limbs are similarly observed ‘restlessly adjust-
ing’ (p. 51) themselves to the sharp angles and edges of an abstract body. The
central characteristic of the Lewisian body, as Paul Edwards observes, involves
‘denying the concept of an integrated human subject’.88 In The Childermass,
the negation of volitional agency is concomitant to the breaking up of unified
perspectives into shots. The effect both for the reader and characters is to
perceive their movement as utterly depersonalised. The gestures Satters makes
are ‘objects’ which are ‘part of him, apparently, and yet he disowns them,
and proceeds’ (p. 112). Textual form absorbs and contains the mimetic per-
formance: the speech-gesture complex generates an ironised critical distance
whereby Pullmann and Satters rehearse for a performance which never finally
materialises as a finished, visible spectacle. By thematising the mid-way zone
between text and mimetic performance, Lewis’s prose both enacts and resists
submission to the Bailiff’s standardised template which banishes the agency of
the individual.
Fredric Jameson’s account of Lewis’s prose style builds on Hugh Kenner’s
notion of ‘phrasal style’ to describe a ready-made language of ‘cultural and
mass cliché, the junk materials of industrial capitalism, with its degraded com-
modity art, its mechanical reproducibility, its serial alienation of language’,89
though he does not relate the ‘mass cliché’ to cinema, which for Lewis consti-
tutes its most vivid exemplification, or its relation to his dispute with Joyce.
Despite an intense admiration for Ulysses, Lewis regarded Joyce as Chaplin’s
brother-in-cliché: Pullman, a bespectacled former teacher of Berlitz English in
Trieste, also deliberately resembles Lewis’s arch rival. Beckett spoke of Joyce’s
‘fondness’ for the films of Chaplin,90 and commentators such as Marshal
McLuhan have described Bloom as a Chaplinesque figure.91 Lewis conflates
these possible resemblances into the composite figure of Pullman in order to
satirise automatism as a phenomenon both of performance and of writing.
He points to an evident paradox he perceives in Joyce, of ‘an intelligence so

the speech-gesture complex

alive to purely verbal clichés that it hunts them like fleas, with remarkable
success, and yet leaves the most gigantic ready-made and well-worn dummies
enthroned everywhere, in the form of the actual personnel of the book’.92 A
‘verbal’ cliché issues from language which has gone stiff from excessive and
automatic repetition; Lewis draws attention to the phenomenon of the bodily
cliché, its reliance on an equivalent stiffness of movement and vision. The
centre of gravity of the notorious critique of Ulysses in Time and Western
Man, first published in The Enemy in 1927 as ‘An Analysis of the Mind of
James Joyce’,93 resides in minute readings of gestures, and the view that Joyce
had inadvertently written them with a congealed and ready-made diction and
visual sense. Lewis alludes to several instances of these iconic-verbal clichés:
‘When Buck Mulligan asks Stephen for a handkerchief, “Stephen suffered him
to pull out” the handkerchief. The word suffered and the bathos of the gesture
involved in the offering of the pocket are characteristic’;94 he calls Joyce’s
adverbial phrases ‘stage directions’ and ‘usually tell-tale’:
the stage directions for getting Stephen Dedalus, the irritating hero, about,
sitting him down, giving accent to his voice, are all painfully ­enlightening
[. . .] the incredible slowness with which he gets about from place to place,
up the stairs, like a funereal stage-king; the time required for him to move
his neck, how he raises his hand, passes it over his aching eyes, or his
damp brow, even more wearily drops it [. . .] ‘Stephen Dedalus stepped
up, followed him (Mulligan) wearily halfway and sat down . . .’ He does
almost everything ‘wearily’. He ‘sits down’ always before he has got far.
He moves with such dignified and ‘weary’ slowness, that he never gets
further than half-way under any circumstances as compared with any
other less dignified, less ‘weary’, figure in the book – that is to say, any of
the many figures introduced to show off his dismal supremacy.95
Lewis’s critical view that Joyce’s use of the ready-made gesture was not con-
scious, impelled by an unyielding enemy persona, falls severely short of his
acuity of vision in identifying them. Stephen’s ‘tiresome mannerisms’, as he
calls them, are precisely calibrated by Joyce to signal a theatrical inauthenticity
on Stephen’s part. The use of such worn-out diction suits the sense in which, by
exaggerating an automated protective shell, Stephen shuts out his companions
from his brooding anxiety over the death of his mother. The congealed diction
and movement further speak of the extent to which Stephen has stiffened into
his sullen, pseudo-magisterial persona. This deliberate crafting of automa-
tism, enacting in order to critique, partly foreshadows the technique in The
Childermass and Pullman’s own mechanical stiffness.
As Paul Edwards observes, Joyce’s associative thought-stream constituted a
version of Bergson’s ‘time-cult’,96 a prime target for Lewis; ‘time-philosophy’ is
largely responsible for the ‘walking clichés’97 which inhabit Ulysses:

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The powerful impressionism of Ulysses, constructed in the approved

‘time’-basis – that is, a basis of the fluid material gushing of undisciplined
life – I have chosen as in some ways the most important creation so far
issued from the ‘time’ mint. The approved ‘mental method’ – dating from
the publication of Matière et Mémoire or the earliest psychoanalytic
tracts – leads, as it is intended to lead, to a physical disintegration and a
formal confusion. A highly personal day-dream, culminating in a phan-
tasmagoria of the pure dream-order, is the result in Ulysses.98

This method of ‘ “telling from the inside” ’ (p. 101) invariably leads towards
periodic decay, ‘an aged intelligence, grown mechanical and living upon
routine and memory’ (p. 91), which is also his view of Bloom. The Childermass
satirises the ‘physical disintegration’ and ‘phantasmagoria’ in the followers of
the ‘time-school’ (p. 87) made-up of ‘Einstein with Miss Stein, of Swann and
Stein, of Bergson and Bloom, of Miss Loos, Charlie Chaplin and Whitehead’
(p. 218), but also of the effects of duration, or psychological time, in the
cinema. Lewis’s critique of Bergson’s qualitative durational time-philosophy,
as against the ‘the geometric, the non-qualitied, the unsensational’, includes
cinema as its target, as a form which obeys the law of perceptual psychol-
ogy:99 the phenomenon of cinematic time, as Münsterberg observes, shows
‘events in continuous movement; and yet the pictures break up the move-
ment into a rapid succession of instantaneous impressions. We do not see
the objective reality but a product of our own mind which binds the pictures
Bergsonian ‘duration’ or ‘durée’ is interior time, the perception of changes
between segments of time according to the mind’s perceptual organisation of
them. It depends on each section losing its contour, as movement is established
between them. This is how Pullman and Satters experience physical reality, as
a ‘succession of [. . .] conscious states, but all felt at once [. . .] an incessantly
renewed intensive quality’.101 Bergson’s thesis, as interpreted by Deleuze in
his influential account of cinema’s ‘Time-Image’,102 defines movement as the
composition of immanent material sections, rather than transcendental poses.
Bergson in Creative Evolution names this the ‘cinematographic illusion’, and
goes on to describe cinema in terms of two complementaries: instantaneous
sections called images, and a movement or a time which is impersonal, abstract
and mechanical.103 Movement is the relation between parts and it is the state
of the whole. On the one hand, it modifies the respective positions of the parts
of the set, each one immobile; on the other, it is itself the mobile section of a
whole whose change it expresses.
Cinema, as Arnheim puts it, is the ‘succession’ of single motionless frames,
phases of motion: ‘it is only because they succeed each other so rapidly and
because they fit one another so exactly that the impression of continuous

the speech-gesture complex

movement is given’.104 Jean Mitry similarly describes individual shots as

­‘distinct spaces the succession of which reconstitutes a homogeneous space, but
a space unlike that from which the elements were subtracted’.105 Constellations
of frozen cells in Enemy of the Stars fall short of this phenomenon; Lewis’s
intention to exclude the temporal dimension, in order to achieve a transcen-
dental critique of movement, or rather immobility, cannot render those cells as
immanent successive phases of the same movement or event. The Childermass
not only comprehends the technical premise of cinematic gestures as an aggre-
gate of individual images, based on a recording process that is as continuous as
the movement of photographed objects, but also perceives the immense possi-
bilities of mechanical variation of those single frames when they are converted
into text.
Sequences of phrasal-shots subject gestures to durational interference,
slowing down movements and reversing them, and these are distinct forms
of cinematic motion-study. Film’s capacity to analyse movement closely, as
Arnheim observes, to ‘slow down natural movements’ and ‘create new move-
ment’106 is a regular phenomenon in the environment of The Childermass:
‘we attempt to slow down everything as much as possible [. . .] Or perhaps
of a much greater acceleration than that you enjoy even so much greater that
you might remain transfixed for a very great period in its midst’ (p. 164).
Satters moves ‘in convulsive slow-movement’ (p. 65) as his limbs adjust to the
mechanical template of the Bailiff’s kingdom. Displaced bodies move heavily,
as though in ballast, in ‘slow-time’ (p. 214): ‘a massive time is introduced
into the forward churning of his legs’, a slowness which ‘clicks into action’
(p. 235). Again, Chaplin’s walk is recalled, but this time as the signature of the
cinematic apparatus itself.
Lewis’s prose demonstrates an acute awareness not only of the cinematic
division of movement into shots, but also of cinema as the montage of single
frames. Satters ‘sees a hundred images, in the aggregate, sometimes as few as
twenty’ (p. 22). The slowing of movement into successions which facilitate
motion study stresses the determining conditions of cinema as the equidistance
of single frames, a gesture in the process of its formation, as in Pullman’s ‘suc-
cession of classical art-poses suggestive of shadow-archery’ as he approaches
Satters (p. 19). The division of movement into a series of instants harks back
to the pre-cinema graphic recordings of Muybridge and Marey, where motion
is clearly divided into singular frames immanent to movement. As Stephen
Heath points out, the term ‘frame’ at once serves as ‘the material unit of the
film’,107 and, in its derivation from painting, also defines and delimits the image
on the screen, and the framing of the camera’s viewpoint. This dual function,
the static single frame running in a sequence to describe the mobile frame of
the camera, complicates the ordinary laws of pictorial composition. The result,
as Arnheim notes, is ‘neither absolutely two dimensional nor absolutely three-

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dimensional, but something in between’.108 The prose of The Childermass

enacts this dual operation, in particular during the ‘Time-hallucination’. An
eighteenth-century panorama appears to Pullman and Satters as a painting
‘built in a diminishing perspective’ (p. 102); there is ‘a massive horse [. . .]
arrested in its toiling dream, one hoof in the air’ (p. 91), and it is ‘a little faded
like a very much enlarged rustic colour-print’ (p. 88). Satters remarks, ‘it’s
like a picture’, though he is ‘afraid the word may not be right’: the ‘picture’
has three dimensions as well as two, when they realise they can walk through
it. Viewed from the outside, the picture is contained in its entirety within
the frame. When they are inside it, the ‘frame’ switches its denotation from
painting’s delimitation within its borders, to cinema’s implied continuation of
reality off-frame. The picture is a ‘time-hallucination’ (p. 88); though they can
walk through the scene, they are surrounded by frozen instants.
Abstracted from its ordinary laws, time stands still, or moves in reverse.
Pullman remarks: ‘reversibility is the proof that the stage of perfection has been
reached in machine-construction – it’s the same with us, in my opinion. Here
we are going backwards aren’t we?’ (p. 101). The alliance of ‘reversibility’ and
‘machine-construction’ invokes cinema’s ability to tamper with motion, to
reverse it, slow it down, freeze the passage of time. The ‘Time-hallucination’
echoes the critique of Bergsonian ‘durée’ in Time and Western Man: ‘we can
posit a time-district, as it were, just as much as we can a place with its indi-
vidual physical properties’.109 As they enter the ‘Time-hallucination’, Pullman
and Satters experience physical reality as ‘durée’. When film-time slows down
or accelerates, in its emphasis on momentary impressions, it substitutes regular
mechanical time with psychological time. The temporal dimension, stretched
or contracted, comes to represent lived, subjective experience, equivalent to
Bergson’s idea of duration.
Cinematic perception works continuously, in a single movement, rather
than as a regulated transition from one pose or privileged instant to another.
It extracts from bodies the movement which is their common substance, or
the mobility which is their essence. In The Childermass, this common sub-
stance is an abstract idea of succession endlessly repeated until it becomes
entirely mechanical. This abstract duration is the property of the Bailiff: it
is not only his show on endless repeat, it is also viewed through his omnisci-
ent perceptual apparatus. The Bailiff’s duration penetrates and merges each
object; it is an abstract force which demands pre-determined responses from
his subjects. The individual movements and gestures of Pullman and Satters,
compelled to conform to the ‘Time-factor’ (p. 47), are merely the fulfilment of
this pre-­determination, and no longer serve as expressions of volitional agency.
Standing in front of the vast ‘group-mechanism’ (p. 24), where numberless
spectators imitate and watch themselves imitating, a voice is heard within the
crowd: ‘ “it’s a cinematograph!” ’ (p. 143).

the speech-gesture complex

The Politics of Gesture: The Bailiff, Hitler and the Society of the
The triumph of mass production over the individual personality is the recur-
ring theme in Lewis’s work of this period. The Childermass elects mass cinema,
as a standardisation of the individual, both as a means of political control and
also an end in itself, the spectacle it creates to justify itself to the ‘watching
throngs’ (p. 142). The endless reproducibility of individual gestures on film
represents, for Lewis, the deadness of mass-produced subjectivity. The cinema
of spectacle, its subsumption of the unitary identity into a manufactured group
personality, as Lewis saw it, is replicated in the syntactic disintegration of the
gesturing body-image into discrete parts, and the placing of each individual
body within an ornamental mass. The Bailiff’s cinema-time, having reduced
men to unreflective mechanical objects in order to facilitate their manipula-
tion, is a version of government by spectacle. This fictionalised critique ante-
cedes Benjamin’s thesis of the cinema as the ‘art of automatic movement’,
and the notion of the spectator, dispossessed of his or her own thought, being
repositioned ‘as part of that which is perceived’, incorporating impressions of
automatism directly into his or her body through a ‘shock’ effect,110 a collision
between bodily and mechanical-cinematic perception. The film-image is not
taken in by a disembodied eye, it administers, as Deleuze also argues, shocks
‘to the cortex, touching the nervous and cerebral system directly’.111 This
passage between the representation of automatism to its bodily incorporation
by the spectator is presented in The Childermass as a large-scale electric shock
inducement of docility.
Cinema-time in The Childermass, in which representations of the machine–
gesture complex unresistingly supplant subjective reflection, argues for a
structural similarity between the mere suggestiveness of the representation, for
instance, of Taylorist gestures, and the imitation of those gestures by force.
The idea that suggestion, once it becomes impossible to resist, is closer to
force than liberal capitalism cares to think is closely informed by the critique
of mass suggestion in Time and Western Man – ‘the democratic masses could
be governed without a hitch by suggestion and hypnotism – Press, Wireless,
Cinemas’112 – and The Art of Being Ruled:
when people are encouraged, as happens in a democratic society, to
believe that they wish to ‘express their personality’, the question at once
arises as to what their personality is [. . .] It would be a group personal-
ity that they were ‘expressing’ – a pattern imposed on them by means of
education and the Hypnotism of the cinema, wireless and press.113
The Childermass was originally planned as part of a longer work, begun in
the early twenties, called The Man of the World.114 This 500,000 word ‘trea-

wyndham lewis

tise’ was also to include The Apes of God, The Art of Being Ruled and Time
and Western Man, but the London publisher Chapman and Hall deemed the
manuscript, submitted on 2 February 1922, too long, so Lewis broke it up and
revised it into separate works. The ‘totalising critique of the culture of liberal
capitalism’,115 as Edwards notes of The Art of Being Ruled, is indissociable
from the more extensive, fictionalised critique of cinematic spectacle in The
Childermass. David Ayers argues that the socio-cultural critique of Lewis’s
polemical works of this period potentially overturns the assumption that
‘radical cultural criticism is the exclusive province of the Left’ and that ‘Lewis’
questioning of the contemporary environment is more fundamental, less com-
placent about “human nature” and the possibility of knowing and fulfilling
desires, than anything in contemporary socialism.’116 Ayers mentions the role
played by ‘technologised modernity’ in his polemical works, although he does
not relate this to the cinematic society of the spectacle as it is manifest in The
Childermass. I would further argue that Lewis’s cultural critique, particularly
in relation to the cinematic gesture, is the not-so-distant forebear of the theatre
of Brecht, and the left modernist theories of the Frankfurt school and their
critiques of commodity culture. The force of Lewis’s vision, and the emergent
dialectic between mesmerised uncritical spectatorship of mimetic performance
and active interpretation through its conversion into text, extends into the
realm of politics, and potentially overturns the distinctions he makes in his
work between left and right. It is against this extraordinarily prescient critique
of the intersections between politics and performance that his declarations
of allegiance to fascism in the early 1930s, self-condemning as they remain,
should be assessed.
The critique of the spectacle of automatism in The Childermass offers a
seriously neglected counter-context to the lamentable book entitled Hitler,
published in 1931, a book so self-condemning it has Lewis blacklisted in uni-
versities and art-schools to this day. As Paul O’Keefe notes: ‘Hitler has done
more lasting harm to Lewis’ reputation than anything else he produced and,
several decades after his death, that positive evaluation of National Socialism
continues to be branded against him.’117 The outcome of a series of commis-
sioned articles by Lady Rhondda, editor of the political journal Time and Tide,
whose contributors included Orwell, Woolf, Shaw and Emmeline Pankhurst,
it became the first book in English on Hitler. The damage to his reputation
was instantaneous. He stopped receiving portrait commissions from wealthy
patrons, and after its publication, alongside The Apes of God and the libel suits
of the early thirties, ‘no established publisher wanted a book about Lewis’.118
After Hitler, Lewis becomes, for decades and to this day, the least read of the
major Anglo-American modernists, the consequence of a widespread view,
exemplified by John Carey in The Intellectuals and the Masses, of an ideologi-
cal allegiance to Hitler. As Carey remarks:

the speech-gesture complex

both were obsessive, and expounded their relatively small collection

of ideas with unflagging repetitiveness. Both regarded themselves as
unjustly neglected artists, and took this neglect as the central fact around
which to construct their distorted and vindictive models of the societies
in which they lived.119
Hitler begins with Lewis saying that he writes ‘as an exponent – not as a critic
nor yet as an advocate – of German National Socialism, or Hitlerism’ before
proceeding to incriminate himself with a series of dreadful misapprehensions:
‘Hitler would, I am positive, remain peacefully at home, fully occupied with
the internal problems’; ‘perhaps the German people are today nearer to true
democracy, who knows, than any European nation has ever been at all’; ‘the
present Hitlerist attitude is adamantly pacific’.120 Lewis is uncritically seduced
by Nazi propaganda, to his eternal discredit. Yet what remarks such as these
reveal is a profound misunderstanding, not entirely uncommon in 1931, as to
the nature of Hitlerism, and what lay ahead. Even as late as 1935, Winston
Churchill writes uncritical praise of Hitler’s personal qualities: ‘those who
have met Herr Hitler face to face, in public business or on social terms,
found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable
manner, a disarming smile and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal
magnetism’.121 Lewis’s biographer notes that as a First World War veteran,
his ‘attempt to prevent a Second World War, however wrongheaded or mis-
guided, was the dominating impulse behind the disastrous political books of
the 1930s’.122 Paul Edwards also points to Lewis’s ‘radical misunderstanding
of Hitler’s anti-semitism’ as an ‘incidental, embarrassing side issue to the main
imperative of avoiding war’.123 Lewis had in fact foolishly avoided reading
Mein Kampf until 1938, another blind-spot which further contributed to the
book’s hideous misunderstanding of German fascism’s true nature and intent.
The mistakes in Hitler reveal a severe ignorance, rather than an ideological
sympathy with fascism. As Charles Ferrall observes: ‘Lewis’ flirtation with
Nazi ideology was not only brief but also less than committed’ and ‘the only
consistent aspect of Lewis’ many and varied ideological pronouncements is
their opposition to liberal democracy’.124 A contradictory picture emerges, in
light of his other writing of this period, particularly when Lewis comments
directly on his own politics. In The Diabolical Principle he describes himself as
‘partly communist and partly fascist, with a distinct streak of monarchism in
my Marxism, but at bottom an anarchist, with a healthy passion for order’;125
in Time and Western Man, ‘I am that strange animal, the individual without
any “politics” at all. You will find neither the politics of communism nor those
of the militant right’;126 in The Art of Being Ruled:
I have already said in the abstract I believe the soviet system to be the best
[. . .] all Marxian doctrine, all etatisme or collectivism, conforms very

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nearly on practice to the fascist ideal [. . .] what will shortly be realized
will be a great socialist state such as Marx intended, rigidly centralised,
working from top to bottom with the regularity and smoothness of a

Hitler, which bizarrely considers its protagonist ‘a socialist prophet’, rec-

ognises the future significance of its subject, post-beer-hall putsch and jail
sentence, during a time when, to most of England, it looked like Hitler might
be finished: ‘it might very well be the deciding factor in the political life of
the world what Germany dreams and wishes and resents cannot be lightly set
aside’. Against the serious mistakes as to Germany’s future political reality,
the false prophecy, the book contains remarks which invoke the instinctive
premonitory vision of Hitler’s fearsome spectacular methods, the prophetic
satire in The Childermass: ‘the political cinema unrolling itself in the German
capital, with many a hefty start and flick’ he observes in Hitler, hints at the
courtship of political regime with cinematic spectacle, of the appropriations
of spectacle by government he attacks in The Childermass. The comments in
Hitler that ‘it is rather a person than a doctrine with which we are dealing’,
and of ‘a nation acting as one man’,128 foreseeing the extent to which Hitler’s
personality would hold sway over Germany’s collective psychological disposi-
tions, echoes the figure of the Bailiff in The Childermass, a figure who conflates
the tyrant hypnotist with the idea of the totalitarian dictator as film star. The
analogy, refined in the fictional critique, is then marshalled into a thorough
repudiation of the Hitler book in The Hitler Cult, published in 1939, in which
he unequivocally condemns National Socialism as ‘barbaric’, predicting it ‘will
die a violent death [. . .] in six years time’. Hitler’s method of presentation, the
book argues, is based on the model of the film star: he is ‘two-dimensional’, a
‘hysterical prima donna’, ‘taken from every conceivable angle, and dished up
in every possible mood, from playful buffoonery to savage admonition’; the
representation of himself as the heroic embodiment of German folklore a vari-
ation on the ‘disgusting travesty’ of Hollywood acting. Lewis’s perception in
The Hitler Cult that ‘for the Berliner, life has become like a never-ending film
of The Life of Adolf Hitler’129 forecasts the post-war view of left modernist
film theory, expressed for instance by Deleuze, that ‘Nazism thinks of itself in
competition with Hollywood’.130
The Hitler book of 1931 should remain permanently inexcusable, the work
of a destructive contrarian over-stepping the line. But the view of Lewis repre-
sented by John Carey – that his ‘hatred of democracy’ is ‘essentially fascist’131
– is simply false. It is not hatred of democracy which compels Lewis, but in
fact, the elements in liberal democracy which demonstrate a will-to-fascism.
The Bailiff’s afterlife calls to mind the critique of these elements of democracy,
and of the relations between fascism and the market economy of liberalism,

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found in the Frankfurt school of Adorno, Benjamin and Kracauer. The percep-
tion, in the separate works which were to constitute the Man of the World, of a
structural continuity between liberal democracy and an insidious future totali-
tarian government re-emerges, once that government takes hold in Germany,
in the work of Theodor Adorno. Esther Leslie, commenting on Adorno and
Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), notes the ‘duplicate dialectic
of instrumental reason’132 Adorno and Horkheimer perceive between Nazi
Germany and the democratic US, particularly in terms of the principles of
mass production, citing the ‘mutual admiration’ of Hitler and Henry Ford as
an instance of this continuity:

in 1931, Hitler had informed a Detroit newspaper that he regarded

Henry Ford as his inspiration [. . .] The German subsidiaries of Ford
and General Motors controlled 70 per cent of the German car market
in 1939. For this reason Ford was not keen for war to be declared on

In both political zones, culture becomes subsumed and standardised by big

business, which turns culture into industry, manufactured under the economic
principles identical to all other forms of industrial production. The function
of culture under these conditions, in particular the role of the film industry,
is required to enforce the continued operation of those economic conditions
by the incorporation of the spectacle of automatism. Taylorism, Fordism and
UFA-influenced Hollywood conspire to make a spectacle of reification, to
make the human beings they reproduce resemble things.
Lewis’s and Adorno’s critiques of the application of ‘the democratic princi-
ple’134 in liberal democracies uncannily resemble one another. Both argue that
democratic governments depend upon and represent the vested interests of
big business over and above the majority of an electorate which has entrusted
them to act and speak on its behalf. Rationalising this imbalance, the ruling
class incorporates the ‘antidemocratic stimuli’ of an all-pervasive spectacle to
influence political subjects by ‘irrational means’.135 As a consequence, politi-
cal subjects are treated as subjects for hypnosis, in order to undermine their
intellectual autonomy. Lewis clearly articulates this phenomenon in The Art
of Being Ruled:

The working of the ‘democratic’ electoral system is of course as follows.

A person is trained up stringently to certain opinions; then he is given
a vote, called a ‘free’ and fully enfranchised person; then he votes [. . .]
strictly in accordance with his training [. . .] education and suggestion,
the imposition of the will of the ruler through the press and other public-
ity channels, cancelling it. So ‘democratic’ government is far more effec-
tive than subjugation by physical conquest.

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Lewis’s view of ‘the standardisation coming in the wake of the compounding

of local national interests’ and the ‘highly organised uniformity’136 of public
opinion is a counterpart to Adorno’s notion of ‘the standardisation of what
is individual’137 and of ‘totality gaining primacy over individual interests’.138
Both writers observe the alliance of film technology with mass politics – the
levelling trends of state machinery, represented by one of its most potent
weapons, the reproducible moving image – as central to this means of irra-
tional transference. Lewis constantly reiterates the seismic cultural effects
marked by ‘the mass-arrival of cinema’.139 Movies, indistinguishable from big
business, are an aspect of ‘indirect government’: ‘Whether openly or covertly,
it is Press and Cinema hypnotism that rules Great Britain and America, not
the conversazione at Westminster or the White House.’140 Cinematic spectacle,
in the hands of big business, with its routine modes of production and ready-
made ornaments, forces upon the spectator a pre-fabricated schema of inter-
changeable sameness, and this leaves the spectator, as Lewis puts it, ‘open to
objective control’,141 encourages a ‘self-annihilating obedience’, makes him or
her ‘ecstatically obedient’.142 The Lewisian society of the spectacle anticipates
Adorno’s view that the effective domination of cinema and the wider ‘culture
industry’ to which it belongs, exerting itself by its ‘undemanding docility’,143
is equivalent, in liberal democratic states, in the scope of its repression, to
the political techniques of National Socialism which ‘regards masses not as
self-determining human beings [. . .] addressed as rational subjects, but [. . .]
as mere objects of administrative measures who are taught, above all, to be
self-effacing and to obey orders’.144 The technical alliance of the standardised
culture of mass spectacle with big business, as Adorno puts it, ‘belongs to the
presuppositions and effects of Fascism’; ‘Hitler was merely the final executor
of tendencies that had developed within the womb of German society.’145
The Childermass was published a year after Siegfried Kracauer’s ‘The Mass
Ornament’ (1927),146 an essay which forges a set of relays between Fordism,
Taylorism and the effacement of individual autonomy in representations of the
mass spectacle in Weimar cinema. Kracauer later reconfigures the notion of
the mass ornament in Weimar cinema as foretelling the rise of fascism, in his
seminal study, published in 1947, From Caligari to Hitler, identifying a conti-
nuity, in particular, between the inclination towards the construction of crowd
scenes as a geometric ornament in German Expressionist film, the mechanised
automation of Fordism and Taylorism, and the spectacles and public rallies,
arranged as geometric patterns, under National Socialism. Along with the
national productions of France and Russia, Lewis held German cinema in
high regard: ‘you have to go to the French cinema, or the German or Russian,
to match the wonderful resourcefulness and intelligence of some American
[radio] productions’.147 Since the successful screening of The Cabinet of Dr.
Caligari (1919), Weimar cinema had become a regular fixture at the London

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Film Society. In an article published in 1924, Iris Barry lists ‘seven producers
of genius’ – ‘Lang, Grune, Wiene, Lubitsch, Chaplin, Griffiths and Seastrom’148
– four of which were German. Lewis could well have seen Metropolis (1926),
which contains one of German Expressionism’s most notorious automata, the
evil robot double of Maria, at one of these screenings. Maria, a figurehead
for the city’s underground workers, is abducted by the scientist Rotwang and
replaced by a robot double programmed to send the workers’ organisation into
disarray. The reproduction of Maria, detached from the volitional agency of
its ‘referent’, the real Maria, mimes the process of malign dominance by the
spectacle – or the representation, the copy, the reproduction – which is the
film’s aesthetic principle, the means by which it turns content into form – as
Raymond Bellour argues, ‘the actual process of substituting a simulacrum for a
living being directly replicates the camera’s power to reproduce automatically
the reality it confronts’149 – and also the idea it seeks to critique.
The city of Metropolis is dominated by an administrative complex in which
the workers, situated in a vast underground complex beneath the city, serve
as automata for the ruling classes who live above. The workers’ manual
tasks consist exclusively of the operation of large clocklike machines. Their
gestures, a form of standardised mechanical leverage, replicated by each
worker, are versions or parodies of Taylorism. F. W. Taylor’s Principles of
Scientific Management appeared in 1911, a study of industrial management
which sought to introduce a system of standardised repetitive operations to
boost mass production in factories and eliminate wasted energy.150 Industrial,
systematised efficiency and the mechanisation of its workers are elevated by
Taylor to the status of an imperative. As Mark Seltzer argues, ‘the real innova-
tion of Taylorism becomes visible in the incorporation of the representation
of the work process into the work process itself – or the incorporation of the
representation of the work process as the work process itself’.151 The auto-
mated gesture is both the means and the spectacle of the work process, both
function and aesthetic: in Metropolis, the workers’ movements as they operate
the machines’ dials resemble the rhythmic stutter of clock-hands, mimicking
the idea of the time-schedule, or work process, they serve. Incorporating the
spectacle into the work process, the version of Taylorism in Metropolis, in
which all gestures must conform to a standardised template, imbues the ideol-
ogy of efficiency, of keeping time, with an aesthetic of ornamental uniformity.
The domination of the idea of the ‘mass ornament’,152 as Kracauer describes
the phenomenon, is reinforced by Lang’s geometrical compositions, particu-
larly of the shots of the engine room, in which the multitude of workers are
arranged symmetrically, each individual repeating the same movements, each
holding significance only within the ornament. Workers advance, as Kracauer
notes, in ‘wedge shaped, strictly symmetrical procession’.153 During the nar-
rated vision of the Tower of Babel parable, thousands of workers, seen in

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intersecting columns, generate an image of five outspread fingers. Each worker,

a pair of hands, is subsumed by the giant hand of the ideological ornament,
the administrative system itself, which now assumes the character of agency,
or personification.
In The Childermass, the mechanical repetition imposed upon Pullman and
Satters also systematically holds sway over the entire city’s inhabitants. Close
formations of people expand and contract as a compact mass, nuclei of larger
groups, ‘dense centripetal knots’ (p. 239) breathing in synchronicity:
a slow animation flexes and disturbs the tableau, a clockwork spring or
a trumpet blown in other spaces. The figures move clumsily as though
to rehearse their occupations, each in its kind, but first to stretch their
joints, and practise ankle, neck and wrist. Several, slowly lurching from
one foot to the other and back, persevere. (p. 24)
The machine gestures of the workers in Metropolis are paralleled by the
‘clockwork regularity’ (p. 24) with which Lewis’s peons enact their routines.
The stress Vorticism places on minimum wastage of energy and, in Pound’s
words, ‘the greatest efficiency in the precise sense – as they would be used
in the text book of MECHANICS’154 is distorted in The Childermass into a
hyper-Taylorist principle of industrial organisation. In both Lewis and Lang,
the peon-workers’ stupefied enslavement to time schedules exemplifies Henry
Ford’s classification of workers as ‘a few heads and many hands’,155 or razor
blade tycoon King Gillette’s view of ‘cogs in the machine, acting in response
to the will of a corporate mind as fingers move and write at the direction of
the brain’.156 Iris Barry described Metropolis as an image of ‘standardised
mankind’.157 A similar fearful vision of total adaptation to the systematic
forces of production informs The Childermass, which points to the Taylorist
connection between film and mechanisation: ‘as F.W. Taylor had found out,
film, with its multiple frames per second, is the most excellent technology of
time-motion analysis for industrial purposes – a machinery that spurs the
mechanisation of its subject’.158 Lewis aims to attack the ideology of mecha-
nised efficiency, the spectacle of movement as a means to enforce industrial
replication, and, by extension, cinema’s ‘art of automatic movement’, as
Deleuze puts it, and its relation to the ‘automatism of the masses’:159 the
multitude of ‘myopic percipient automata’ in The Childermass, in clockwork
muscular activity, is characterised as ‘like a film-scene’ (p. 29).
In Metropolis, ‘the decorative appears [. . .] as an end in itself’.160 Films such
as Lubitsch’s Passion (1919), The Loves of Pharoah (1922) and Deception
(1920) depict large-scale spectacles of crowds as a solid, dynamic unit, a
‘wheeling mass, rushing in figures from every corner to cover the screen’. The
compositions of Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) reduce people to accessories of
vast buildings, each individual forming an ornamental mass, where ‘absolute

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authority asserts itself by arranging people under its domination in pleasing

designs’.161 The spectacular ornamental groupings, also ends in themselves
in The Childermass, the stark angles and geometric abstractions of Lewis’s
peons, his description of these dense ornamental tableaux, in conjunction with
Lewis’s polemics on the alliance of film technology with mass politics, parallels
this prescient. At the same time, Lewis’s description of these ornaments as ‘vor-
tices of people’ (p. 239), as ‘a compact circular mass or vortex’ (p. 239), their
violent perspectivist geometry, oblique perspectives, the replacement of curved
lines with sharp diagonals, signal a problematic shared emphasis between
Vorticism and the German Expressionism of Kracauer’s thesis.
As Tom Gunning points out, Worringer’s Form in Gothic (1912) helped
inspire the geometric visual design of Lang’s Die Nibelungen, in which
‘monumental set design interacts with (and to a large degree determines) the
placement and composition of actors as well as the composition of the camera
frame’.162 The natural contingencies of the forest are contained by the symme-
try and geometrical abstraction of the Court of the Burgundians. In Gutner’s
hall, the king and his courtiers are observed seated in symmetrical arrangement,
a manifestation of ‘the geometrical line as something absolutely distinct from
the messiness, the confusion and the accidental details of existing things’.163
These geometrical groupings suggest a parallel with the rigid lines and dead
crystalline forms of the Vorticism expounded by Tarr – ‘art is ourselves dis-
entangled from death and accident’164 – and Arghol’s gestures, liberated from
their organic conditions. A perilous contradiction emerges between, on the one
hand, the geometry of the individual gesture, and on the other, the rigid lines of
the proto-fascist mass ornament, its replication of individual gestures accord-
ing to a mimetic template. Lewis abandoned Vorticism after the war: that The
Childermass calls its ornamental groupings of manipulated automata ‘vortices’
suggests a self-critical awareness of the dangers of geometrical abstraction as
a large-scale phenomenon of the crowd. This rift between the Vorticism of the
individual and the mutated geometry of crowd spectacle reflects the problem-
atic contradiction in Lewis’s art and polemics, between a left modernist nega-
tive critique of liberal capitalism, against an uncritical expounding of German
fascism in the early 1930s.
The group-mechanism of the authoritarian mass ornament was evidently
a strong ideological feature of the spectacle of the Third Reich. The Munich
pageants of the 1930s, such as the ‘Night of the Amazons’, were enormously
elaborate spectacles, designed not only for the edification of the spectator, but
also to attack and devalue the possibility of a self-reflection which would make
the individual aware of him- or herself. Nazi pageantry was an aggressive form
of anti-enlightenment. Hitler’s own techniques of public address were mod-
elled on this notion of pageantry, in which spectators are looked upon as mere
physical objects to be coldly manipulated. His speeches were addressed to an

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enormous ornament consisting of hundreds of thousands of particles, a phe-

nomenon captured by Leni Riefenstahl in Triumph of the Will (1934), which
drew inspiration from Lang’s Die Nibelungen in the organisation of its pag-
eants. Vast panoramas of geometrical crowd-scenes are intercut with Hitler on
a raised podium looking on, the ideal spectator, as though the spectacle is con-
structed exclusively for his edification. The assembled throngs raise their arms,
an automatic response to Hitler’s gaze, as he declaims: ‘and remember, that, at
this moment, not only are the 100,000 eyes of Nuremberg looking at you, but
for the first time, all of Germany’. Riefenstahl’s film contains several moments
of Hitler, in medium shot, surveying his panoramic awe-struck crowds, spec-
tacle obscuring the real conditions under Nazi rule. The Nazi obsession with
order in fact masked severe administrative chaos. For twelve years, ‘Hitler
produced the biggest confusion in government that had ever existed’.165 Gunter
Lohse, a diplomat and Nazi Party Member from 1937–45 remarked on this
attitude: ‘That’s order for you – they’re all in line.’166 The illusion was partly
generated by the spectacle of arranging bodies in geometrical patterns.
The Bailiff’s performances as he addresses his crowds resemble a fascist
rally, not least in their preoccupation with the process of spectacular represen-
tation. His entrance, preceded by a ‘massed cast in stately procession’ (p. 128),
framed by the thousands of peons around him, forecasts this phenomenon: ‘the
massive business of the show as it unfolds itself at the centre of the stage of
the Miracle is heralded by the sudden detonation of a solitary furious trumpet’
(p. 128). Pyrotechnics, ornament and ceremony characterise the Bailiff’s rallies,
the positions of the audience as much as the principal functionaries fixed by
‘rigid custom’ (p. 130). In Adorno’s words, ‘the merging of one’s impulses
within a ritual scheme is closely related to the universal psychological weak-
ening of the self-contained individual’.167 The Bailiff’s gaze imposes upon his
subjects the principle of mimetic automatism. The ‘watching throngs’ (p. 142)
gaze up in collective submission at the ‘greatly enlarged mask of Chaplin’ (p.
184), the mask of mimetic authority, ‘a giant hyperbolic close up’ which serves
‘to banish all individual continuity’.168 The mask of Chaplin serves the injunc-
tion to be like him, fixing the collective spectators into the false coherence of
the ‘Time-factor’ (p. 47), the abstract duration of cinema-time. All movement
in the afterlife, continuous, stretched or contracted, is seen through the Bailiff’s
eyes, the product of his perceptual apparatus converted into objective reality.
Standing in front of the ‘group-mechanism’ (p. 24), the individual within the
crowd, participating as subject and object, both imitates and spectates himself

there is no you apart from what you perceive: your senses and you with
them are all that you habitually see and touch: I am a part of you at
this moment: those battlements are becoming you; the you bodily and

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­ therwise, which has been perpetuated, much to your disgust it seems, is

all that at present you are witnessing and sensing. (p. 224)

The Bailiff’s performative technique exemplifies Adorno’s notion, derived

from Freud’s analysis of the group ego, that totalitarian demagoguery involves
a procedure resembling hypnosis in which individuals ‘undergo the regressions
which reduce them to mere members of a group’.169 The Bailiff’s routines,
endlessly repeated, mesmerise the audience into mimetic identification. They
enact seeing themselves and being seen as a group-ego, an ornamental image of
collective submission to the ego of the totalitarian father figure. This cinematic
phenomenon, exemplified in Triumph of the Will, appears much earlier, in a
silent film which became a key influence for Riefenstahl, Abel Gance’s French
Impressionist masterpiece, Napoleon (1927). In one of the Bailiff’s many
appearances as a screen persona, he ‘attempts to pace up and down in his
narrow box, his hands behind in Napoleonic clutch, but strikes his nose at
once and desists’ (p. 194). The routine echoes scenes in the final reel, projected
onto a three-screen triptych, of Gance’s Napoleon. Opening at the Albenga
encampment, after an elaborate montage of panorama shots of Napoleon on
his white horse and the massed units of his soldiers, the scene cuts to Napoleon
addressing his troops: a tight close-up of Napoleon’s face against the clouds
is intercut with panoramic shots of hundreds of soldiers in collective rapture.
The sequence, matching eyelines between Napoleon and his troops, effects
a shot-reverse-shot, a technique ordinarily reserved for spatial continuity
between two actors, though in this instance, it is between Napoleon and a
crowd of hundreds. His soldiers, effaced as individuals, meld into a group-ego
as they rise to his commands, the mirror image and fulfilment of Napoleon’s
messianic narcissism. The following sequence reiterates the event of collec-
tive transference between Napoleon and his troops and brings the film to an
ecstatic climax. A rapid montage between three screens cross-cuts shots of the
marching troops, the scenes of the French revolutionary leaders, and close-ups
of Napoleon, at various stages of his life, before the triptych explodes into the
tricolour of the French flag. Napoleon becomes both the subject of this version
of the recent history of the revolution, the means through which it is realised
– the sequence is presented as his own subjective vision – and its object, its cul-
mination and fulfilment. The sequence represents an unprecedented technical
innovation in film montage; at the same time, its emphasis on the introceptive
vision of a single leader lends itself to charges of further refining the language
of totalitarian demagoguery. Moussinac has pointed out that the image of
Napoleon as the embodiment and fulfilment of military dictatorship is close
to the image of the Emperor held by groups of the extreme right.170 There is a
clear-cut influence, in the means of representing the collective ego under hyp-
nosis, between Napoleon and Triumph of the Will, particularly in the shots

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of Hitler’s rallies, with him gazing at his rapt audience of thousands, his gaze
submissively returned.
Lewis demonstrates a constant awareness, both in his fiction and polemics,
of the vast alteration to mass politics brought forth by the film camera, once
again anticipating Benjamin’s canonical essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of
Mechanical Reproduction’. Benjamin argues that
Mass reproduction is aided especially by the reproduction of masses. In
big parades and monster rallies, in sports events, and in war, all of which
nowadays are captured by the camera and sound recording, the masses
are brought face to face with themselves. A bird’s eye view best captures
gatherings of hundreds of thousands [. . .] the image of the eye cannot
be enlarged as a negative is enlarged. This means that mass movements,
including war, constitute a form of human behaviour which particularly
favours mechanical equipment.171
The vision of mass automatism in The Childermass brings ‘the reproduction of
the masses’ not only ‘face to face with themselves’ but also with their mimetic
template, the ruler whose perceptual apparatus appropriates the reproduction.
Benjamin also comments on the new kind of democratic selection involved in
the mechanical reproducibility and public presentation of the ruler: ‘since the
innovations of camera and recording equipment make it possible for the orator
to become audible and visible to an unlimited number of persons, the presenta-
tion of the man of politics before camera and recording equipment becomes
paramount’. This alteration in the public presentation of rulers is a change
which ‘equally affects the actor and the ruler’. 172 The film camera enables
a form of irrational transference between the actor-ruler and his audience,
institutionalising the falsity of enthusiastic identification, and the dynamics of
performance and group psychology. For Lewis, as for Benjamin, politics has
disappeared in a representation of the same order as the actor’s representation
before an audience, and the mimetic identification enacted, by dissolving the
critical relations between body and speech, constitutes a disempowerment of
an electorate who are reduced to the status of passive onlookers.
Adorno’s account of the histrionics of the totalitarian leader, shouting
and crying and fighting ‘the Devil in pantomime’, is mirrored in the Bailiff’s
‘Punch-and-Judy theatre’ routines, where each speaker repeats the same
clichéd gestures, the mechanical application of which is ‘one of the essentials
of the ritual’.173 The Bailiff is always conscious of his own mass reproduction,
and of the technique of mimetic theatricality: he stands on an elevated plat-
form in a ‘large auditorium’ for his subjects who ‘come there for the spectacle’
(p. 129). He revolves in his hands ‘the pivetta used by the atellan actors to
mimic the voices of the mimes of classical tragedy’ (p. 131); he wears Chaplin’s
face like a ‘tragic mask’ which allows him to progress from slapstick clown to

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‘the tragical person’ (p. 151). The Bailiff’s technique, shrewdly personalised
pseudo-emotional wish-fulfilment, relies heavily on physical routines which
elicit instant responses from his audience:
he allows his head to sink slowly upon his arm, which is in horizon-
tal collapse along the ledge: completely sunk, the head hangs forward
outside the box, he rolls it from side to side several times as a sign that
he is inconsolable [. . .] Shoulders shaken with sobs [. . .] Several of the
assistants are so moved by this that they take out their handkerchiefs and
quietly cry into them. (p. 196)
Identification with the gestures of authority prompts the hypnotised spectator
‘to participate in their leader’s performance’,174 to substitute the reflective ego,
or ‘independent autonomous conscience’,175 as Freud puts it, for the group
ego. Lewis’s satire of performative demagoguery and the dangers of imitative
histrionics remains in advance both of the prime target itself, Hitler, and of left
modernist attacks on that target in Adorno, Benjamin and Kracauer, and also
Brecht, whose theorised ironical juxtapositions of actor and ruler had not yet
come to full realisation by 1927. The Childermass, as a diagnosis of the severe
danger of mimetic identification when exploited for malign political ends, also
intersects with the dramaturgical, iconographic culture of alienated machine
gestures from which Brechtian anti-fascism emerged.
The speech-gesture complex in Lewis seeks to restore the critical distance
which is lost in the absorption of the spectator in the mimetic performance:
by turning the performance into ironical text, Lewis foregrounds its status as
a representation masquerading as political reality. In this respect, the writing
of performance opposes and corrects the visible performance it describes.
Reading and spectatorship, by antagonising each other, activate a dialectical
force which avoids the imposition of a false coherence on both performer and
spectator. The central target of Lewis, as for Brecht, is performative mimesis
as derived from Aristotle, and exemplified by naturalism. The example above
illustrates the convention. The Bailiff performs hysterical inconsolability, his
‘shoulders shaken with sobs’; his spectators, imitating the display of emotion,
‘are so moved by this that they take out their handkerchiefs’. Brecht defines
this style of performance according to the ‘identification’ or ‘empathy’ which
passes between actor and spectator: ‘weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow
also arises from weeping’.176 Aristotelian mimesis depends upon an avoidance
of contradiction between actor and role, and between actor and spectator; the
actor’s identification with the role should stimulate an equivalent empathy
in the spectator. Brecht’s non-Aristotelian dramaturgy rejects this style of
performative mimesis in favour of ‘a critical attitude [. . .] (as opposed to a
subjective attitude of becoming completely entangled in what is going on)’.177
The Brechtian actor,

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aiming not to put the audience in a trance, must not go into a trance
himself. His muscles must remain loose, for a turn of the head, eg. with
tautened neck muscles, will ‘magically’ lead the spectator’s eyes and even
their heads to turn with it, and this can only detract from any speculation
or reaction which the gesture may bring about.178

Finding a gesture which contradicts the emotion of the character, the actor is
able to avoid identification, adopt a critical attitude to his role and provoke
the spectator, who is also, by extension, refused identification, to critique the
character and events portrayed. The dramaturgy of performative mimesis, for
Brecht, regards its audience ‘not as a number of individuals but a collective
individual, a mob, which must be and can be reached only through its emo-
tions’.179 In this reliance on emotional suggestibility, it resembles the politi-
cal techniques of fascism, what he calls ‘fascism’s grotesque emphasising of
the emotions’, which seek to exercise domination over an electorate through
mimetic hysteria and undermine the rational element of political choice. The
Bailiff’s ‘intensity of the will-to-please’ is a master of these gestural tricks and
fictitious imitations of real feeling which manipulate an audience:

Archly he rolls his eye sideways to take his measure from a test-gauge
[. . .] Back in the middle of his box, slowly he dilates his chest, then, with
a constipated grunt, forcibly collapses [. . .] With another glance of refer-
ence at the test-gauge he inhales tip-toes and flaps his arms in a caricature
of flight [. . .] Thereupon he stands-easy, breaks into smiles and rolls
out his genial relief at the successful issue of the test over the audience.
General laughter accompanies the demonstration. (p. 181)

The ease with which ‘salvoes of sympathy and admiration’ (p. 184) are reg-
istered impels this repressive false enjoyment of the spectacle of state power,
personalised in the clichéd banality, the ‘two-dimensional life’ of the actor-
star, tailoring his performance according to test screenings and behaviour-
ist response techniques: ‘from star to stage-struck there are tokens, signals’.
The Bailiff maintains total control by appealing to the unconscious optical
mechanisms of ‘the staring awe-struck [. . .] eternal Public’ that ‘WILL have
its favourite show himself again’ (p. 184). Brecht frequently calls this kind of
performance, in which an audience is ‘worked up by a display of temperament
or “swept away” by acting with tautened muscles’,180 overwhelmed with the
power of the actor’s transformation into a state of passive empathy, a version
of ‘hypnosis’, of casting ‘a spell’181 over an audience. In contradistinction,
non-Aristotelian acting does not ‘make the spectator the victim, so to speak, of
a hypnotic experience’:182 ‘the first condition for the V-effect’s application to
this end is that stage and auditorium must be purged of everything “magical”
and that no “hypnotic tensions” should be set up’.183 In The Childermass,

the speech-gesture complex

Hyperides’s view of the Bailiff as a ‘hypnotist or technical trick performer’ (p.

153), an ‘old mesmerist’ (p. 275), finds its vindication in the rhetorical mode
with which the Bailiff addresses his crowds. He can switch in an instant from
histrionic inauthenticity to the measured cadences of the hypnotist: ‘there is
no you apart from what you perceive: your senses and you with them are all
that you habitually see and touch: I am a part of you at this moment’ (p. 224).
The proto-Brechtian sense of performative hypnosis combines in The
Childermass with an all-pervasive ‘hypnotism of the cinema’,184 of spontane-
ous docility and subjective dissolution induced by an electromagnetic spell, a
view which echoes Kracauer’s description of the experience of cinema viewing
in general:
the moviegoer is much in the position of the hypnotised person.
Spellbound by the luminous rectangle before his eyes – which resem-
bles the glittering object in the hand of the hypnotist – he cannot help
­succumbing to the suggestions that invade the blank of his mind.185
In the manipulative spell he casts over his audience, the Bailiff also bears
comparison with the tyrannical hypnotists of German Expressionist cinema,
­particularly the arch villains in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
(1919) and Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922), figures who employ
their hypnotic power to empty their victims of volition, and make them vulner-
able to the imposition of an external will. Kracauer argues that the ‘omnipo-
tence of a state authority’ represented by Caligari, a showman who puts his
assistant Cesare into a hypnotic trance, forcing him to become a murderous
automaton, and Mabuse’s unscrupulous manipulation of the ‘multitude in
search of easy pleasures’, foreshadow ‘in content and purpose, that manipula-
tion of the soul which Hitler was the first to practice on a gigantic scale’.186
The appearance of the Bailiff’s face as a ‘mask’ in extreme close-up shaking
above the audience (p. 184) recalls an instant in Dr. Mabuse when the face
of Mabuse rushes to the foreground and fills the whole frame, superimposed
over the stock exchange he has just cleaned out. In order to operate unde-
tected, Mabuse the master criminal employs a range of disguises: stockbroker,
psychoanalyst, gambler, conjuror, drunken sailor; the close mimetic identi-
fication with the characters he plays becomes synonymous with his practice
as a hypnotist, mobilising his passive victims through the power of his gaze.
The opening shot of the film shows a close-up of his hand holding cards with
images of his various disguises; in a later scene, when he forces Countess Told
to witness the hypnotism of her husband during a game of poker, a series of
shot-reverse-shots across the table bind together the eyeline between Told
and Mabuse, setting up an expectation which is then disrupted when we see
a close-up of Mabuse’s eyes, followed by the cards in what should be Told’s
hands. The disorientation when the audience sees Mabuse’s hands in place of

wyndham lewis

Told’s mimes the hypnotic identification Mabuse employs throughout the film.
In this instant, the film viewer, as spellbound as Told, his or her perceptual
apparatus invaded by the malign agency of Mabuse, also becomes a victim of
hypnosis. The sequence exemplifies, in its suggestive intercutting of gaze and
gesture, Lewis’s critique of the power of cinematic hypnosis.
Lewis shares with the anti-fascist culture theory of the Frankfurt school and
Brechtian performance theory a fierce, politicised strain of anti-mimesis. His
conviction that ‘the democratic masses are [. . .] governed by hypnotism’187 is
the outcome of a complex understanding of the multi-dimensional relations
between the mimetic gestures of an actor, induced mass identification in the
spectacle of cinema and the manipulation by political leaders of the plaster-
cast tokens of that spectacle. The emergent speech-gesture complex in Lewis
– the outcome of his long-term project as a painter and writer to discover a
critical dialectic between iconography and experimental syntax in his represen-
tations of the performative body, and in particular, the anxiety of experience
in finding one’s body set in motion apart from one’s own intentions – compels
a reassessment of his political affiliations in light of the theoretical work of
Adorno and Brecht.
For Adorno, as for Lewis, the perceptual closeness between sign and refer-
ent in cinema encourages the occlusion of rational interpretation with false
immediacy. This mode of collective reception, the reification spell which instils
in an audience the principle of automatism, objectified in UFA, Fordism and
classical Hollywood, obstructs critical and reflective consciousness with illu-
sionist self-identity and spectacle, which only the symbolic mode of written
language can achieve, to prevent the intrusion of a malign system upon reflec-
tive consciousness. In order to counter this inbuilt iconic character, cinema
should incorporate modes of representation which resemble the phenomenon
of writing. Adorno, like Lewis, excludes from his polemic against cinematic
iconicity those filmmakers, in particular the Soviets, who attempted to inhibit
the exclusively iconic with the principle of montage which ‘arranges things
in constellations akin to writing’.188 The collision between iconic and sym-
bolic properties enables dialectical thinking, which ‘interprets every image as
writing. It teaches how to read in its own features the admission of its falsity
so as to deprive it of its power and appropriate it for truth.’189
Brechtian dramaturgy is also founded upon a dialectic between reading
and spectatorship, of a resistance to spectatorship divorced from the critical,
distanced reflective activity of the solitary reader. The denial of mimetic identi-
fication is an effect of this tension between the actor’s relation to the text and
its enactment in performance. The gestus renders the iconic gesture readable,
and opens out the possibility of critical enquiry, by explicitly turning the actor
into a reader of his or her own role. In his directorial capacity, Brecht would
insist on ‘more reading rehearsals than usual’, and that the actor ‘should go

the speech-gesture complex

on ­functioning as long as possible as a reader, which does not mean a reader-

aloud’. He instructed Helen Weigel, in his production of Mother Courage in
1932, to speak the stage directions aloud and in the third person, to clash
between the two kinds of speech-act in the dramatic text – direction and
dialogue, or scene and text – and inhibit the transferential process between
Weigel, and by extension the audience, and Mother Courage. In this technique,
as he puts it, ‘the mimic principle is replaced by the gestural principle’:190 the
Brechtian gesture, conflating iconic and symbolic properties, ensures that
enactment is always accompanied by critique.
The speech-gesture complex in Lewis, initiated by the radical experiments
between the iconic gesture and paratactic effect in Enemy of the Stars, and
extensively developed in the written film-gestures of The Childermass, ante-
cedes the politicised transference between perception with signification in
Adorno and Brecht. By stirring up contradictions between distinct modes of
representation, on the one hand, of the perceptible immediacy of the performa-
tive body, and on the other, of the distanced, reflective body in language, those
representations are forced mutually to inform and rectify one another. The
critical awareness in Lewis of the far-reaching political consequences of the
spectacle, the urge to distort that representation and short-circuit its mesmeric
effect, jolting the reader-spectator into an active critique of its political appro-
priations and misuse, serves to counteract the equivocality of his declared
political affiliations. The innovations in The Childermass foreshadow not
only Brecht’s notion that ‘literature needs the film not only indirectly but also
directly’ and that ‘decisive extension of its social duties entails the multiplying
or the repeated changing of the means of representation’191 but also the sixties
revival of the modernist project in film, interrupted by the arrival of the talkies.
As Stephen Heath argues, the aim of the left modernist cinema, for instance,
of Godard, requires the audience to be pulled ‘into an activity of reading’,
to interrupt the illusory coherence of the spectacle with the critical distance
available to the reader. Demonstrating ‘the contradictions that coherence
avoids’ in this activity of spectatorial reading encourages a critical attitude to
the spectacle, which fixes the spectator, if it retains the properties of mimetic
identification, into ‘an imaginary coherence [. . .] the condition of which is
the ignorance of the structure of his production, of his setting in position’.192
Interrupting the enactment of identification with critical commentary allows
the inference of alternative deeds and histories, and a sense that the narrative
might be altered by critical intervention. To alter the representation entails a
concomitant reconstruction of the reader-spectator’s attitude to the represen-
tation, and consequently to the governing institutions which appropriate that
representation and hypnotise their subjects into a false coherence.
The simultaneous anti-mimetic fracturing of iconic coherence, and the con-
stant intervention of the perceptible body of cinema into syntactic coherence

wyndham lewis

in Lewis, belongs to this polemical tradition, particularly if the connection is

made to his powerful critique of the disappearance of political reality in its
representations. The Lewisian critique of the victimhood of political hypno-
sis, having transformed the representations of the performative body and of
modernist prose syntax, argues, by extension, for a transformation of the
institutions of government, a motive-force which further places him in a left
modernist genealogy. As one of his characters in Rotting Hill remarks: ‘ “once
the profit motive is banished – as it will be in a socialist society, then there will
be nothing but an intelligent standard of movie. If nothing else, its educative
power will be enormous. Today it miseducates and corrupts.” ’193 Lewis real-
ised soon after 1931 the catastrophic errors in his book on Hitler and National
Socialist ideology. Although the nature and extent of Hitler’s menace was not
clear in 1931, and despite the correction of his carelessness and leniency in The
Hitler Cult, the book had done irreversible damage, both to potential readers
in his lifetime, and to generations after him. Repositioning his work in rela-
tion to the speech-gesture complex of left modernism offers an alternative, if
not fully redemptive context to the branding of Lewis, false in its simplicity, as
modernist literature’s ultimate political reprobate.

1. Pound, ‘D’Artagnan Twenty Years After’, Selected Prose 1909–1965, p. 454.
2. Pound, ABC of Reading , p. 46.
3. Kenner, Wyndham Lewis, p. 56.
4. Puchner, Stage Fright, p. 26.
5. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 97.
6. Brown, Intertextual Dynamics within the Literary Group, p. 65. See also Klein,
The Fictions of James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis, p. 20.
7. Brown, Intertextual Dynamics within the Literary Group, p. 65.
8. Klein, The Fictions of James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis, p. 7.
9. Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering, p. 266.
10. See also Edwards, ‘Wyndham Lewis versus James Joyce’, pp. 11–18.
11. Brown, Intertextual Dynamics within the Literary Group, p. 65.
12. Kenner, Wyndham Lewis, p. 56.
13. Joyce, Finnegans Wake, p. 155: 19, p. 150: 7, p. 160: 22. All references are to this
edition, and are included parenthetically within the text.
14. Lewis, Enemy of the Stars, Collected Poems and Plays, p. 96. All references are to
this edition, and are included parenthetically within the text.
15. Graver, ‘Vorticist Performance and Aesthetic Turbulence in Enemy of the Stars’.
16. For illuminating accounts, see Klein, The Fictions of James Joyce and Wyndham
Lewis; Dasenbrock, The Literary Vorticism of Ezra Pound & Wyndham Lewis;
Beatty, ‘Enemy of the Stars: Vorticist Experimental Play’.
17. Edwards, Wyndham Lewis, p. 143.
18. Gasiorek, Wyndham Lewis and Modernism, p. 18.
19. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, Collected Poems, 1909–1962, p. 15.
20. Symons, Studies in Seven Arts, p. 336.
21. Symons, Cities and Sea Coasts and Islands, p. 169.
22. Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, p. 5.

the speech-gesture complex

23. Yeats, ‘William Blake’, Selected Criticism, p. 22.

24. Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, p. 153, p. 168.
25. Yeats, Explorations, p. 179.
26. Symons, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, p. 168
27. Dasenbrock, The Literary Vorticism of Ezra Pound & Wyndham Lewis, p. 53.
28. Hulme, ‘Modern Art and its Philosophy’, The Collected Writings of T. E. Hulme,
p. 248.
29. Lewis, Tarr, p. 299.
30. Hulme, ‘Modern Art and its Philosophy’, The Collected Writings of T.E. Hulme,
p. 278.
31. Craig, ‘The Actor and the Über-Marionette’, pp. 3–11.
32. Walton, ‘Craig and the Greeks’.
33. Taxidou, The Mask: A Periodical Performance by Edward Gordon Craig, p. 54.
34. Ibid. pp. 56–9; Edwards, Wyndham Lewis, p. 108.
35. Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, p. 175.
36. Craig, Craig on Theatre, p. 82, pp. 82–4.
37. Lewis, Rude Assignment, pp. 138–9.
38. Nicholls, Modernisms, p. 174.
39. Sherry, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism, p. 108.
40. Wees, Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde, p. 48.
41. For instance, Bomberg’s Composition (1914) and In the Hold (1913–14). See
Cork, Vorticism and Abstract Art in the First Machine Age Vol. 2.
42. Lewis, BLAST, I, p. 134.
43. McManus, No Kidding, p. 18.
44. Ibid. p. 31.
45. Lewis, ‘Les Saltimbanques’, The Complete Wild Body, pp. 237–47.
46. Ibid. pp. 239–41.
47. Murray, ‘ “Our Wild Body” ’, pp. 15–17.
48. Bergson, Laughter, p. 29.
49. Lewis, ‘The Meaning of the Wild Body’, The Wild Body, pp. 158–9.
50. Murray, ‘ “Our Wild Body” ’, pp. 15–17; Lafourcade, ‘The Wild Body, Bergson,
and the Absurd’.
51. Bergson, Laughter, p. 29, p. 34.
52. Lewis, ‘Inferior Religions’, The Wild Body, p. 316.
53. Bergson, Laughter, p. 29.
54. Symons, Studies in Seven Arts, pp. 374–5.
55. Danto, ‘Description and the Phenomenology of Perception’, p. 206.
56. Bergson, Laughter, p. 143.
57. Anscombe, ‘The First Person’, p. 47.
58. Lewis, Rude Assignment, pp. 138–9.
59. Letter to Hugh Kenner, 23 November 1953, The Letters of Wyndham Lewis, pp.
60. Materer, Wyndham Lewis the Novelist, p. 54, p. 172.
61. Dostoyevsky, The Double, p. 95, p. 33.
62. Bergson, Laughter, p. 34.
63. Burch, Life to Those Shadows, p. 267.
64. DeCordova, Picture Personalities, p. 39.
65. Ibid. p. 24, p. 64.
66. See Paraskeva, ‘Wyndham Lewis vs Charlie Chaplin’.
67. Lewis, The Childermass, p. 50. All references are to this edition, and are included
parenthetically within the text.
68. Lewis, Tarr, p. 299.

wyndham lewis

69. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 203.

70. Heath, Questions of Cinema, p. 181.
71. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 64.
72. Ayers, Wyndham Lewis and Western Man, p. 110.
73. Quoted in Susan Buck-Morss, ‘Dream World of Mass Culture: Walter Benjamin’s
Theory of Modernity and the Dialectics of Seeing’, p. 322.
74. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 64.
75. Wees, Vorticism and the English Avant-Garde, p. 147.
76. Lewis, The Lion and the Fox, p. 41.
77. North, Reading 1922, p. 168.
78. Chaplin, My Trip Abroad, pp. 32–3.
79. Benjamin, ‘Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations, p. 224.
80. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 65.
81. Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering, p. 22.
82. Barry, ‘The Cinema’, Vogue, February 1926, in Hankins, ‘Iris Barry, Writer and
Cinéaste’, p. 496.
83. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 13.
84. Bourdieu, Distinction, p. 474.
85. McCabe, Cinematic Modernism, p. 87.
86. Meyers, The Enemy, p. 197.
87. After her fractious and difficult relationship with Lewis, Barry went on to become
a pioneering film critic, especially of Griffith, Chaplin and German Expressionism.
She wrote the first serious film criticism in England in 1923 for The Spectator, and
founded the Film Society in 1925 and the prestigious film library in New York’s
Museum of Modern Art, which she curated until 1950. Her collection Let’s Go
to the Pictures (London: Chatto and Windus, 1926) includes her long review of
Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1924), and in February the same year she published
an essay in Vogue magazine entitled ‘The Cinema’, which is really about Chaplin:
it begins, as Leslie Kathleen Hankins has shown, with a full-page picture of him,
and attempts to explain his iconic status as ‘the most popular man alive’, a ‘leg-
endary figure’ as much with the artistic elite as the wider population. See Hankins,
‘Iris Barry, Writer and Cinéaste’.
88. Edwards, Wyndham Lewis, p. 326.
89. Jameson, Fables of Aggression, p. 73.
90. Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p. 98.
91. McLuhan, Understanding Media, p. 53.
92. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 94.
93. Joyce considered Lewis ‘by far the best hostile critic that had appeared’. See
interview with Frank Budgen, 1956, Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 596. The review
provokes a counter-defence by the Joyce circle, who rally around him to write
Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress
in 1929.
94. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 96.
95. Ibid. p. 95.
96. Edwards, ‘Wyndham Lewis versus James Joyce’, pp. 11–18.
97. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 94.
98. Ibid. p. 112.
99. Ibid. p. 416.
100. Münsterberg, The Film, p. 74.
101. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 411.
102. Deleuze, Cinema 2.
103. Bergson, Creative Evolution, p. 322.

the speech-gesture complex

104. Arnheim, Film as Art, p. 100.

105. Quoted in Heath, Questions of Cinema, p. 40.
106. Arnheim, Film as Art, p. 116.
107. Heath, Questions of Cinema, p. 10.
108. Arnheim, Film as Art, p. 12.
109. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 83.
110. Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, Illuminations, p. 159.
111. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 156.
112. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 117.
113. Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, pp. 164–5.
114. Lewis told Pound of his ‘five hundred thousand word book, The Man of the
World’. Letter to Pound, 29 April 1925, Pound/Lewis, p. 144.
115. Edwards, Wyndham Lewis, p. 300.
116. Ayers, English Literature of the 1920s, pp. 112–13.
117. O’Keefe, Some Sort of Genius, p. 303.
118. Meyers, The Enemy, p. 198.
119. Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses, p. 182.
120. Lewis, Hitler, p. 3, p. 46, p. 196, p. 46.
121. Churchill, ‘Hitler and His Choice’, p. 19.
122. Meyers, The Enemy, p. 87.
123. Edwards, Wyndham Lewis, p. 385
124. Ferrall, Modernist Writing and Reactionary Politics, p. 136, p. 146.
125. Lewis, The Diabolical Principle, p. 126.
126. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 116.
127. Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, pp. 369–70.
128. Lewis, Hitler, p. 46, p. 3, p. 12, p. 31.
129. Lewis, The Hitler Cult, p. 21, p. 30, p. 39, p. 41, p. 114, p. 25.
130. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 264.
131. Carey, The Intellectuals and the Masses, p. 185.
132. Leslie, Hollywood Flatlands, p. 133.
133. Ibid. p. 126.
134. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 298.
135. Adorno, ‘Democratic Leadership and Mass Manipulation’, p. 267.
136. Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, p. 111, p. 44.
137. Adorno, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’, The Culture Industry, p. 56.
138. Adorno, ‘Culture and Administration’, The Culture Industry, p. 96.
139. Lewis, Self-Condemned, pp. 89–90; The Writer and the Absolute, p. 38; Blasting
and Bombardiering, p. 36.
140. Lewis, Doom of Youth, p. viii.
141. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 329.
142. Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, p. 143.
143. Adorno, ‘On the Fetish Character’, The Culture Industry, p. 27.
144. Adorno, ‘Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda’, The Stars Down to Earth, p. 164.
145. Adorno, ‘What National Socialism Has Done to the Arts’, p. 414.
146. Kracauer, ‘The Mass Ornament’, The Mass Ornament, pp. 75–86.
147. Lewis, America and Cosmic Man, p. 206.
148. Barry, ‘Hope Fulfilled’, in Hankins, ‘Iris Barry, Writer and Cinéaste’, p. 501.
149. Bellour, ‘Ideal Hadaly’, p. 131.
150. Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management, p. 40.
151. Seltzer, Bodies and Machines, p. 14.
152. Kracauer, ‘The Mass Ornament’, The Mass Ornament, pp. 75–86.
153. Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, p. 164.

wyndham lewis

154. Pound, BLAST, I, p. 153.

155. Ford, My Life and Work, p. 56.
156. Gillette, The People’s Corporation, p. 167.
157. Barry, ‘The Cinema: Metropolis’, The Spectator, 26 March 1927, quoted in

Minden and Bachmann (eds), Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, p. 104.
158. Leslie, Hollywood Flatlands, p. 139.
159. Deleuze, Cinema II, p. 253.
160. Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, p. 149.
161. Ibid. p. 55.
162. Gunning, The Films of Fritz Lang, p. 40, p. 41.
163. Hulme, ‘Modern Art and its Philosophy’, The Collected Writings of T. E. Hulme,
p. 278.
164. Lewis, Tarr, p. 299.
165. Otto Dietrich Hotler, Nazi Chief Press secretary, quoted in Ian Kershaw, ‘The
“Hitler Myth”: Image and Reality in the Third Reich’, in Crew (ed.), Nazism and
German Society, p. 207.
166. Quoted in Jeremy Noakes, ‘The Nazi Party and the Third Reich: the Myth and
Reality of the One-Party State’, in Noakes (ed.), Government, Party and People
in Nazi Germany, p. 14.
167. Adorno, ‘Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda’, Stars Down to Earth, p. 167.
168. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 13.
169. Adorno, ‘Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda’, The Culture
Industry, p. 119.
170. Moussinac, ‘Panoramique du cinéma’, quoted in Abel, French Cinema: The First
Wave, p. 196.
171. Benjamin, ‘Mechanical Reproduction’, Illuminations, p. 244.
172. Ibid. p. 240.
173. Adorno, ‘Anti-Semitism and Fascist Propaganda’, Stars Down to Earth, p. 166,
p. 168.
174. Adorno, ‘Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda’, The Culture
Industry, p. 131.
175. Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, pp. 99–100.
176. Brecht, ‘Two Essays on Unprofessional Acting’, Brecht on Theatre, p. 152.
177. Brecht, ‘The German Drama: Pre-Hitler’, Brecht on Theatre, p. 78.
178. Brecht, ‘A Short Organum for the Theatre’, Brecht on Theatre, p. 193.
179. Brecht, ‘The German Drama: Pre-Hitler’, Brecht on Theatre, p. 79.
180. Brecht, ‘A Short Description of a New Technique of Acting’, Brecht on Theatre,
p. 136.
181. Brecht, ‘The Street Scene’, Brecht on Theatre, p. 122.
182. Brecht, ‘The German Drama: Pre-Hitler’, Brecht on Theatre, p. 78
183. Brecht, ‘A Short Description of a New Technique of Acting’, Brecht on Theatre,
p. 137.
184. Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled, pp. 164–5.
185. Kracauer, Theory of Film, p. 160.
186. Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, p. 64, p. 81, p. 72.
187. Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 117.
188. Adorno, ‘Transparencies on Film’, The Culture Industry, p. 158.
189. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 24.
190. Brecht, ‘On Experimental Theatre’, Brecht on Theatre, p. 134.
191. Brecht, ‘The Film, the Novel and Epic Theatre’, Brecht on Theatre, p. 48.
192. Heath, ‘Lessons from Brecht’, p. 106, p. 118, p. 106.
193. Lewis, Rotting Hill, pp. 198–9.



Nabokov, Lewis and Garbo

For Adorno, as for Lewis, film’s iconic immediacy, the mimetic spell it casts
over the audience, pacifying them into submission, could be negated through
a form of image-writing. The spell is broken, in Adorno’s view, through
montage, which ‘does not interfere with things but arranges them in a constel-
lation akin to writing’; for Lewis, the dialectic between writing and image, or in
my terms, speech and gesture, is generated through a performative prose style
which thematises the double aspect of textual absence and mimetic presence.
The Lewisian speech-gesture complex counteracts both iconic or performative
mimesis which casts a reifying spell over the spectator, breaking down the
performative body into linguistic components, and it also resists the autonomy
and self-enclosure of writing, by showing forth a series of rehearsed gestures
which never materialise as a finished spectacle. His aesthetic, which cannot be
reduced solely to discursive or performative terms, manifests a politics which
resists a totalised pre-scripted determination and disrupts the naturalising
process of the universalised, transcendental reader-spectator.
In Lewis’s view, the newly dominant form of Hollywood naturalism and
its narrative conventions reduced spectator-subjects to mere consumers. For
Lewis, as for Adorno, these conventions had become a new universal language,
encoded according to forms of mimetic behaviour, rendering the audience
passively star-struck and inducing the desire for mass mimesis. The tendencies

the transition to sound

Lewis critically observes in silent film, particularly as regards performative

mimesis and the star system, are intensified in the era of the talkies, during the
period of the ‘late modernism’ of experimental mid-century writers including
Nabokov and Beckett. As Tyrus Miller observes, late modernism is character-
ised by an all-pervasive presence of ‘spectacle and simulacra’.1 The following
chapter will further define this period category by contextualising late modern-
ist style in its relation to the dominant form of the classical-realist Hollywood
style. For Lewis and other writers, the house-style of performative naturalism,
which emerges by standardised consensus as Hollywood’s dominant model, its
universal language, with its synchronised dialogue and straightforward rela-
tion between sound and image, neutralises the critical dialectic of the speech-
gesture complex. By imposing a false coherence between speech and gesture to
sustain the illusion of a coherent self, it becomes the exemplary articulation of
the fabricated homogeneity of commodity capitalism.
Allusions to Chaplin, French Impressionism and German Expressionism
situate The Childermass in the era of the silent film, although it was revised
and published two years after the first public demonstrations of the Vitaphone
sound film, and one year after The Jazz Singer (1927). Tyrus Miller astutely
interprets Lewis’s use of the term ‘phono-film’ as referring to the new
Vitaphone recording process, which involved recording sound separately
onto discs and then aligning with the image using synchronising motors.2 The
Vitaphone phono-film inflects Lewis’s view of Gertrude Stein’s prose song as
‘gramophonic’ jazz in Time and Western Man together with the satirical con-
flation of Stein and Al Jolson when Satters’s speech breaks down into a series
of stutters. The Vitaphone process, the studios’ first attempt at synchronised
sound, often resulted in a peculiar dissociation of voice and body. According
to Fitzhugh Green, who wrote the first book on the subject in 1929, if voice
and body ‘did not coincide perfectly, the movie voice seemed to wander away
from its owner and the listener no longer connected it with him; it might be
anybody’s voice’.3 As Miller notes, Lewis was fascinated by ‘the estranging
qualities of the Vitaphone process’, and he mimics its ‘lack of tight corre-
spondence between body and voice’ in both The Childermass and The Apes of
God.4 Voices originate from outside the bodies of the characters, apparently
not belonging to them but to the predetermined discourse of the figures of the
Bailiff, or Pierpoint in The Apes of God, already recorded as though onto a
gramophonic disc.
Yet the potentially experimental, non-naturalistic Vitaphone process, which
allowed voices to wander away from bodies, and for voice-doubles to impose
themselves onto the body of the actor, did not last beyond 1930, when loca-
tion sound and recording directly onto film enabled a tighter synch between
speech and gesture, and by extension a more naturalistic style of performance
in which the actor was indissociable from his or her voice. The Vitaphone

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moment was transitional, but Lewis’s critique of cinema accelerates in the

period of the industrial standardisation of sound recording technique. His
thinking about the mass standardisation of sound, and the attendant style of
naturalist performance, continues to inform both his fiction and polemics,
echoing Adorno’s view that ‘the masks of mass culture’5 are all the more effec-
tive once they are naturalised by synchronic sound.
The worldwide conversion to optical, synchronised sound was rapid and
inexorable, and occurred against a background of competition, patent wars
and the triumph of an elite of international conglomerates. The emergent
optical sound technology required immense reserves of capital, both for pro-
duction and distribution. As Douglas Gomery observes, the major Hollywood
studios, already dependent on finance from banks, colluded with a small group
of large electronics companies ‘to manage the legalities, logistics, and finances
of sound conversion so as to avoid a costly patents war’. Conversion to sound,
as Gomery argues, ‘enabled powerful economic forces in the United States to
expand and become further entrenched’.6 This economic rationale transformed
the film industry in Hollywood, and the rest of the world soon after. In order
to remain cost-efficient in the new era of expensive optical sound, and to
retain worldwide control of sound recording technology, the major electronics
companies, in league with the big film studios in Hollywood, forged alliances
with a view to standardising both technology and film production methods.
Rather than compete against each other over patents, Western Electric, the
manufacturing subsidiary of American Telephone and Telegraph, the Radio
Corporation of America, a subsidiary of General Electric, and the Dutch-
German Tobis-Klangfilm, a company backed by Allgemeine Elektrizitäts
Gesellschaft (AEG), Germany’s largest electrical manufacturer, formed an
international cartel and effectively carved up the world between them. The
United States, Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand and the Soviet Union
were assigned to Western Electric and RCA; Germany, Austria, Switzerland,
Holland, the Dutch East Indian colonies, Scandinavia and the Balkan countries
were put under the dominion of Tobis-Klangfilm.7 The cartel of electronics
companies, in negotiation with the Hollywood studios, installed a system
called vertical integration, which involved the total ownership of each and
every element of film production and distribution.
The studios and cartels developed a house-style of naturalism, which syn-
chronised speech and gesture and effectively denied, through sheer economic
dominance, the possibility of alternative acting styles and film technique. The
rich and varied innovations of the late silent era were suddenly halted by a
standardised consensus imposed on the industry to ensure maximum profit.
Hollywood’s studio-approved techniques of narrative continuity editing and
naturalistic performance style was quickly adopted by the rest of the world,
including the Soviet Union, with the result that by the mid-thirties, there was ‘a

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drastic reduction in the cinema’s range of stylistic options’ and ‘the variety of
national film styles’.8 For Adorno, this corporate, big business erasure of cul-
tural difference in world cinema during the thirties signalled the triumph of the
culture industry, and its savage reduction of culture to the economic principles
dominant in other forms of industrial production. Similarly, for Lewis, there
was a structural similarity between what he calls the ‘Film-racket’, ‘rigidly
constrained by the profit motive’,9 the ‘pernicious racket’10 of German fascism
and the ‘Big Business Fascism’ exemplified by US capitalism.
Alternatives to Hollywood’s industrial method of production and narrative
style were radically reduced and could only survive on the margins, rather than
occupying the central position within the industry as they had in the silent era.
The blocking of actors according to the required proximity of non-directional
microphones, together with camera placement designed to maintain the con-
tinuity of audible speech, acquired a new technical priority.11 The cinematog-
rapher Michel Kelber spoke of the straightforward standardised pattern of
‘long shot, close-up, long shot, close-up’ imposed by the producers: ‘we were
always supposed to show the actors from the front – not in profile, not from
the back – because the management wanted to show the public how the sound
was perfectly synchronized with the lip movement’.12 Character-driven causal-
ity and formulaic, linear, naturalistic synch-sound effectively superseded the
still developing modernist cinema of critically reflective montage, of repetition,
and variations of speed, of superimposition, dynamically mobile camera move-
ment, radical alternations of lenses and camera angles, and anti-naturalist
performance style.
The principle of synchronised, audible speech supplants visibly expressive
gesture and reduces it to a merely illustrative function. As Rudolf Arnheim
put it, once speech assumes priority over gestural utterance and image, or the
‘visible aspect of behaviour’,13 cinema loses the principal features which dis-
tinguish it from other media. As Steven Connor points out, the ‘ventriloquial
demand to glue the voice to the lips [. . .] brings with it the repression of the
body’.14 Synchronised dialogue, by preventing creative disjunctions between
sound and image, relegated the expressive capacity of the body to an ancillary
status, where gestures merely support and reinforce speech, now the primary
means of expression for the actor. The absolute priority of synch-sound crys-
tallised what James Naremore calls ‘the rule of expressive coherence’, whereby
the actor’s effort is directed to ‘preserve the illusion of a unified self, by main-
taining coherence in the face of multiple possibilities’.15 In the new, amplified
style of performative screen naturalism, speech and gesture, sound and image
work in concert to sustain the illusion of a coherent self. Both actor and specta-
tor dissolve, through mimetic identification, into the illusion of a homogeneous
Lewis was fascinated and appalled enough at the prospects of cinema’s

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intensified mimetic capacity to visit the film set of an early talkie in 1930.
Lewis’s account of the Moroccan production – ‘The Three Unlucky Travellers’
– in Filibusters in Barbary (1932) concentrates almost exclusively on the work
of the actors. ‘In his professional displays’, Lewis remarks, ‘the Screen-worker
in the nature of things is the last word in naturalism, at the opposite pole to
a formal art.’ For Lewis, synch-sound intensified the mimesis of screen natu-
ralism, in which actors are observed ‘modelling a lie from the life – upon the
living original – in an odd process of deliberate misrepresentation’. The actor’s
naturalistic imitation of the unmediated behaviour of his or her character is ‘a
sham-article in process of manufacture, out of the raw material of the Real’.
The identification this process induces in an audience, as they ‘smile in debo-
nair close-ups, or prance in wistful middle-distance shots, for the benefit of a
gum-chewing World-pit’, is based not on reality, but on synthetic fabrication,
a ‘sham article’.16 What troubled Lewis, and what becomes the chief subject
of his most significant work of fiction in the thirties, The Revenge for Love
(1937), is precisely the lie of standardised naturalism, the false coherence an
actor imposes on a character, and the big business commodification of fabri-
cated sameness as individuality, inducing a mass audience to imitate what they
see and hear. Or as Adorno puts it, a ‘monopoly [which] shuts its doors on
anyone who fails to learn from the cinema how to move and speak according
to the schema which it has fabricated’.17
The Revenge for Love originates in Lewis’s thinking about performative
naturalism, sound conversion, the star system and big business standardisa-
tion in Filibusters in Barbary. His scathing account of the actors on set in
Morocco as ‘dumb characters in search of an author dumb enough to concoct
a plot and text for them [. . .] creatures, that is, of an art one remove from the
shadow-picture’ is developed in Revenge for Love: ‘the mere notion of Victor
as a shadow-person distressed [Margot] so much that she grappled him to
herself, so that he, at least, should not be outside herself among the unreals’.18
The description of the film set he observes in Morocco, ‘a rather elaborate
arabesque of kiss stuff, crime and contraband of arms’,19 roughly also serves
to describe the plot outline of Revenge for Love, in the style of a pitch to a
Hollywood mogul, and its title, ‘The Three Unlucky Travellers’ anticipates the
novel’s central characters, Victor and Margot Stamp, and Percy Hardcaster,
victims both of shadowy pre-Civil War agent provocateurs, and of the stand-
ardised, formulaic Hollywood template they are forced to inhabit. Victor
Stamp, a second-rate Australian painter and forger, and his wife, Margot, who
sees their marriage as a grand Hollywood romance, unthinkingly fall victim
to a gun-running mission into pre-Civil War Spain, against a background of
intrigue between the romantic communist agitator Percy Hardcaster – the
novel’s third protagonist – fashionable inauthentic Bloomsbury left-wing intel-
lectuals, failed artists and shady arms-dealing capitalists. Lewis interweaves the

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genres of the political espionage thriller with the domestic melodrama, while
simultaneously attacking the genre’s function, as he narrates how two versions
of romantic idealism, Hardcaster’s politics and Margot’s marital passion,
fall victim to the brute reality of ruthless and violent party apparatchiks and
businessmen of no political commitment. Hardcaster is drawn into the same
gun-running scheme as the Stamps by the unscrupulous O’Hara, who sets
Victor up as a decoy to allow someone else to smuggle the guns; Hardcaster
mistakenly gives himself up in a vain effort to save the Stamps, while Margot,
attempting to save Victor, unwittingly leads them both to their doom; in a
desperate attempt to avoid arrest by the Civil Guard, the Stamps drive towards
the Pyrenees, killing a guard in a high-speed car chase, before plunging over a
cliff trying to reach France.
Lewis wrote The Revenge of Love during 1934 and early 1935, submitted
the manuscript in January 1936 to Cassell, who published it in May 1937.
The novel bears a striking resemblance to a novel by Vladimir Nabokov.
Nabokov wrote his novel initially in Russian as Kamera Obskura between the
end of 1930 and 1931, and it was first published in 1933; he translated it into
English and published it in 1936, and then again as Laughter in the Dark, with
significant revisions and alterations, in 1938. No biographical detail or work
of scholarship connects The Revenge for Love and Laughter in the Dark yet
their similarities are numerous and insistent. The lead female character in both
novels is called Margot; in both, she is a victim of a particular kind of film
spectatorship, and in helpless thrall to the films of Greta Garbo; both novels
include male characters who forge paintings, and who occupy forged identi-
ties, intensely artificial second-hand imitations of cinematic persona; both
intermingle plots from Hollywood thrillers and romantic melodramas, climac-
tically stage a spectacular car crash, satirise the Hollywood star system, and
articulate a view of an ultimately lethal intensification of performative mimesis
in the era of cinema’s conversion to sound. For both Lewis and Nabokov, the
talkies brought with them a solidification of predetermined templates, stand-
ardised homogeneity and the injunction to an audience to imitate insubstantial
artifice masquerading as reality. But while Nabokov’s novel begins and ends
as modernist melodramatic thriller, Revenge for Love extends its critique of
the star system, of imitation, unreality and the deadly cliché of standardised
naturalism into the realm of politics, as a crucial element of what is one of his
most political novels, and ‘acclaimed by Lewis’ admirers as his best novel’.20
Nabokov, in his own words, ‘wanted to write the entire book [Laughter
in the Dark] as if it were a film [. . .] the scene and dialogue do manage to
follow a cinematic pattern [. . .] it’s a verbal imitation of what was then termed
a “photoplay.” ’21 The novel opens in the style of a pitch for a Hollywood
melodrama, compressing the novel’s narrative arc in a sentence: ‘Once upon
a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich,

the speech-gesture complex

respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful
mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.’22 Albinus, a
German art connoisseur and expert in forgeries, falls desperately in love with
a model and wannabe film actress, Margot; he leaves his wife for her, and
helps her find acting work in the film industry for which she is spectacularly
ill-suited; his daughter dies; Margot conducts an affair with Albinus’s associ-
ate Robert Horn; he loses his sight in a car accident in the south of France,
before learning of Margot’s betrayal; he dies of a gunshot wound whilst
attempting to kill Margot. The novel’s thirty-eight chapters imitate the scenic
structure of a melodramatic thriller. Nabokov, fond of the ‘grotesqueness
of the cinematic cliché’,23 cruelly imagines Albinus, with his pretensions to
high-minded grand passion, as the self-deluded victim of a cheap Hollywood
romance. Albinus and Margot, in their vulgarity, insidiousness and cruelty, are
deliberate clichés, locked in a stock scenario, the objective correlative to their
own banality and fakeness. Nabokov’s critique of the insidiousness of the cin-
ematic cliché develops ideas recurrent elsewhere in his work, particularly his
concept of ‘poshlost’, which he defines as ‘not only the obviously trashy but
also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely
attractive’.24 The concept is not dissimilar to Lewis’s sense of the ‘intense arti-
ficiality’ and ‘odd degenerescence’ of the second-rate actors, as he puts it in
Filibusters in Barbary, who force reality ‘to conform to what was certainly a
vulgar average, but a particularly odd variety of the vulgarest commonplace’,25
and the sham-reality in mass-produced group personality and the standardised
film-star persona in Revenge for Love.
Lewis and Nabokov both develop overlapping central ideas around the
borrowed, the inauthentic, and the fake by casting Victor as an art forger and
Albinus as a second-rate expert of forgeries. Victor lacks talent and originality
as a painter and makes his living forging pictures in Abershaw’s ‘fake master-
piece factory’ (p. 226). He is ‘no good as an artist’; his pictures suffer badly
from ‘formal shortcomings’ and ‘prettiness’ (p. 83), and his only talent is for
‘dull imitation’ (p. 82), which he exploits in his forgeries. He has enough self-
awareness to be disappointed in himself, as for instance when he puts his foot
through one of his Van Gogh forgeries, yet he also partly seeks solace in his
forged work; Victor ‘would never make his mark’ (p. 83) as an artist, but in
his fake pictures he can at least make his mark as someone else. While forging
the signatures of great painters, his own signature, one he himself cannot use
on his own work, acquires currency when it is forged in a letter which sets him
up as a decoy, allowing the real gun runner safe passage, and initiating the
sequence of events which leads to his death.
Nabokov’s Albinus is a second-rate art critic, and his acquaintance and
nemesis Axel Rex is a forger of Old Master paintings. Albinus, like Victor,
is a victim of his unoriginality and like Swann, another art expert (in one of

the transition to sound

the novel’s many Proustian imitations) has a tendency to look for physical
resemblances between people, usually women, in life and in paintings – ‘he
had often amused himself by having this or that Old Master sign landscapes
and faces which he, Albinus, came across in real life’ (p. 5) – priding himself
on his skill at identifying the genuine from the forged. These disjunctions and
false correspondences between interior fantasy, representation in art and real
life blind him to the ‘sprinkling of fakes’ (p. 146) in his apartment, such as the
seventeenth-century Baugin (a forgery painted by Rex), and also to Margot,
his most ‘brilliant discovery’, and his deadliest fake. He is already vulnerable
to the surface attractions of the artificial when he first sees her, ‘the melting
outline of a cheek which looked as though it were painted by a great artist
against a rich dark background’ (p. 13), working as an usherette in a cinema.
Margot, according to Albinus, is a ‘picture postcard’, yet the surface appear-
ance which so entrances Albinus is the precise inverse, like the image of the
camera obscura, to the role Margot performs: he considers her to be ‘better
than the most loyal wife’, yet she conducts a protracted affair with Rex, taking
his money and finally killing him.
Margot’s aspirations and unreal vision of herself – ‘that vision of herself as
a screen beauty in gorgeous furs being helped out of a gorgeous car by a gor-
geous hotel porter under a giant umbrella’ – crystallises her into a screen icon,
though it is a vision only Albinus can see, and it fuels her doomed ambition
to become ‘a model and then a film star’ (p. 17). For Nabokov, and for the
audience at the premiere of her film, she is a hopeless cliché, her behaviour a
bad imitation of an infantile Hollywood film star: ‘there were stormy scenes at
home, sobs, moans, hysteria. She flung herself on the sofa, the bed, the floor.
Her eyes sparkled brilliantly and wrathfully; one of her stockings had slipped
down. The world was swamped in tears.’ Margot’s cheap imitation of melo-
dramatic film style, ‘as abandoned damsels do in films’ (p. 25), becomes itself a
subject for mimetic desire for Albinus, who also starts to play out the version
of himself he sees in a film romance: ‘he arrived, he jumped out, he paid as men
do in films – blindly thrusting out a coin’ (p. 52).
Margot’s talent as an actress falls emphatically short of her desire to be a
film star. At the premiere of her film, she watches her ‘stiff, clumsy, angular
gestures’ (p. 122) in horror; she sees ‘a ghastly creature [. . .] awkward and
ugly’ (p. 120) up on screen, in a performance which delights Rex, who ‘had
never doubted that Margot would be a failure on the screen’ (p. 121). Yet
Albinus, oblivious to their reactions, sees only her ‘delightful childish zeal’
(p. 121). Margot is presented through the dual perspective of Albinus, in
slavish devotion to a romantic ideal, and Nabokov, for whom Margot’s behav-
iour is a capricious and absurd cliché. Albinus, finding perfection in a fake,
and caught up in a private film in which he casts himself as the hero, cannot
see what is self-evident to the rest of the audience at the screening of Margot’s

the speech-gesture complex

film, that she is a terrible actress, just as he cannot see the tawdry love triangle
melodrama in which he is cast by Nabokov as the victim.
In Revenge for Love, it is Victor who is cast as the imitation film persona,
but only his wife Margot sees him in this aspect, as ‘her private screen-star’ (p.
303). As David Ayers argues, ‘Margot’s love is a thoroughly romanticised and
sentimental one, conditioned by romantic reading and Hollywood.’26 Her love
for Victor, filtered through Hollywood, appears to her in the heavenly dimen-
sions of a romantic film lead. After his identity is forged in a letter and stolen
from him, he is forced to assume a second-hand persona; he is, as Ayers notes,
‘condemned to be forever a film character – he never loses his Clark Gable
smile – condemned to act out a part determined wholly by forces outside him
and culminating in his death’.27 But only Margot sees him as Clark Gable, and
it is only in scenes with Margot that he appears in this particular light: ‘ “Man
must work!” he said, with a Clark Gable smile telescoping one side of his face,
and with a sardonic corrugation of the brows’ (p. 72). Victor’s shortcomings
as an artist and his lack of judgement dissolve in a deeply sentimentalised
romantic vision, in which he is imbued with a heightened Gable-like mascu-
linity, cast as the central figure in Margot’s, and Lewis’s, tragic melodrama.
Margot’s singular perspective on Victor congeals him into the received gestures
of a mass-produced Hollywood code, in which he takes on a ‘heroic look as his
body strained upwards following the skyward aspiration of his uplifted arms’
(p. 88); her vision of him seals his fate, as the Gable persona acquires a mind
almost independent of Victor the struggling painter, and ends up playing the
lead role in a stock narrative of crime and contraband.
Victor’s ‘education had betrayed him and caused him to think of his bovine
aptitudes bovaristically, and led him into behaving as if he were an artistic
star’ (p. 83). But he surrenders his own bovaristic tendency, just as Albinus
does, to Margot, finally becoming a botched version of Margot’s private screen
idol. Lewis and Nabokov extend Flaubertian mimetic desire, as a phenom-
enon of the romantic novel, into the spectacle of the film star. Both Margots
are as much constructs of their film-going as they are of the books they read;
immersed in second-rate films, they have, like Emma Bovary, eroded their
ability to act spontaneously through excessive imitation of the desires of their
idols. The performances of themselves are always borrowed, mediated, uno-
riginal. As Peter Nicholls argues, citing René Girard, the work of Stendhal,
Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and Proust show how ‘desire is thus mediated by and
copied from a third party whose function as a model turns out to be more
important than the actual object of desire’.28 In Lewis and Nabokov, the third
party is the film star to which the two Margots are in hypnotic thrall. But they
do not so much copy desires in the Girardian sense as imitate styles of perfor-
mance and, as Victor puts it in reference to his painting, a ‘saccharine type of
seeing’ (p. 83). The word recurs in Blasting and Bombardiering, published the

the transition to sound

same year as Revenge for Love: ‘Further, there is a worse thing than no art at
all (no manner, no style) – the saccharine travesty of art, namely, of the kind
supplied by the Hollywood magnate.’29
Lewis maintains an ambivalent attitude to Margot: on the one hand, she is
histrionic, inauthentic, second-hand, and yet in her dedication to Victor, in her
perception, which is finally not good enough, of the agitators’ deadly masquer-
ade, she remains one of Lewis’s most sympathetic characters. Lewis is striving
for a Flaubertian effect, where the clear derivation of her character from films
and novels does not necessarily nullify our sympathy for her. As Paul Edwards
observes in his introduction to the novel, the reader’s empathy for Victor
and Margot represents a radical departure from his earlier fictions in which
empathy for his characters is always short-circuited by social critique. There is
a tacit analogy here between Lewis’s double-sided portrait of Margot, and his
ambivalent attitude to the iconic figure of Greta Garbo, whose unattainable
semi-divine presence haunts both Revenge for Love and Laughter in the Dark.
The two Margots’ fabricated, histrionic performance styles are bad attempts at
imitation of the Garbo manner.
Lewis’s Margot, like Garbo, has ‘an attractive foreign accent’ which ‘made
her speech pleasant and a little “quaint” ’. Like Garbo, who learnt to talk
English so she could perform in Hollywood, Margot ‘had taught herself
English [. . .] It was flavoured with American talkie echoes’ (p. 71). Lewis
makes a single, direct reference to Garbo, rich with implication, in his descrip-
tion of Jack Cruze:
The fact that ‘the Garbo’ is the accepted way of describing the Swedish
Queen of Hollywood must just mean that she saw herself as that, rather
than ‘Gretta’. That sort of impersonal style she must have carried about
with her – shutting out the familiar, the diminutive or the fond. But old
Jack Cruze was the opposite of that [. . .] He was a natural Jack! (p. 93)
The reference appears favourable, especially in light of an earlier mention of
Garbo in Filibusters in Barbary:
All day long the individuals of this herd were showing off to each other,
attempting to convince the rest that they were ‘coming’ stars, or if
already by way of being stars, that this show would give them a place in
the centre of the world-spotlight, with semi-Garbo-like laurels – or recall
the days of Valentino, when Stars were stars indeed.30
Lewis dismisses the diminutive, coarse, ‘natural’ Jack Cruze, by comparing
him to the ‘impersonal’ Garbo; similarly, a distinction is established between
the actors in Filibusters, who display ‘the last word in naturalism’, a crude
mimesis of the ‘vulgar commonplace’, and Garbo, who Lewis suggests is
much closer to the heightened sense of ‘the formal art’, of ‘the reflections of

the speech-gesture complex

a transcendent, abnormal existence’. The violent capitalist Jack Cruze is as

deluded and vain as the actors on a film set, and just as unreal; whereas Garbo
remains ‘impersonal’, transcendent, almost abstract. The distinction between
two kinds of performance style, of naturalism and impersonality, harks back
to the agonistic dispute in Enemy of the Stars, between the mimetic naturalism
of Hanp, and the formalist, impersonal body of Arghol, who seeks to achieve
‘the original solitude of the soul’ (p. 106). Like Garbo in Grand Hotel, Arghol
‘wants to be alone’.
In her time, Garbo was the biggest star of all; only Chaplin could rival her.
Lewis accords her the status of impersonality, and the passing references in
Filibusters in Barbary and Revenge for Love strongly suggest an awareness,
even an admiration of that famous impersonal style, which potentially con-
tradicts a view, consistent throughout his writing, of actor-stars as crass and
vain. She remained the modernist writer’s film-star of choice: for Lewis and
Nabokov, but also for H. D. and later, Roland Barthes; her aloof asceticism, her
resistance to her own celebrity, her mask-like features crystallised a luminous,
intangible otherworldliness which approached the ideal of modernist imper-
sonality. H. D., writing in the avant-garde film journal Close Up, describes her
performance style in Pabst’s Joyless St (1924), its ‘chiselled purity, its dazzling,
almost unearthly beauty’; Garbo is less a personality, according to H. D., but
a ‘symbol [. . .] a glorified embodiment’.31 Roland Barthes’s essay on Garbo
performs the ecstatic rapture her performances could induce in an audience:
The name given to her, The Divine, probably aimed to convey less a
superlative state of beauty than the essence of her corporeal person,
descended from a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in
the clearest light. She herself knew this: how many actresses have con-
sented to let the crowd see the ominous maturing of their beauty. Not
she, however; the essence was not to be degraded, her face was not to
have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual even
more than formal.32
Garbo’s mask-like features suggest an archetype, a Platonic idea; her intensity
and gracious superiority, the way she combined worldliness with detach-
ment, by these accounts, suggest impersonality by resisting appropriation by
mimesis, or standardised reproduction. Yet aside from Mamoulian’s Queen
Christina and Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, the films she made as a star in Hollywood
are widely regarded as substandard genre vehicles. She refined her impersonal
style in Europe under auteur directors like Pabst and Maurice Stiller, but in
Hollywood, Louis B. Mayer offered her only formulaic roles in clichéd melo-
dramas fashionable at the time. While Garbo was magnificent in Joyless St,
according to H. D., she was torrid and cheap in Torrent, her first Hollywood
film, a mere ‘house maid’. H. D. believed that Hollywood had corrupted

the transition to sound

Garbo’s transcendent playing style in an effort to market her to a mass audi-

ence: she was ‘deflowered, deracinated, devitalised, more than that, actively
and acutely distorted by an odd unbelievable parody of life, of beauty’. She had
been ‘trained with astonishing efficiency, to sway forward and backward in
long skirts with pseudo-Lilian Gish affectation, to pose with a distinct, parrot-
like flare for the Gloria Swansonesque’.33 Received acting styles, the ‘pseudo
Lilian Gish’, the ‘Swansonesque’, were imposed upon her, eclipsing her own
uniqueness as a performer.
MGM quickly realised that Garbo was going to survive the transition to
sound, unlike her co-star John Gilbert, a bigger star than her in the late twen-
ties, but whose performance style, as for instance with Louise Brooks and
Buster Keaton, was not suited to vocal delivery. The studio prized Garbo
as their ultimate mass-market commodity, and it continued in the era of the
early talkies to tame her refined aloofness, her quality of remoteness from the
world around her, forcing it to conform to the stock Hollywood personas of
the vamp, the woman of affairs, the woman of noble self-sacrifice. Despite
heightened moments in Queen Christina and Flesh and the Devil, where Garbo
was able to develop an unhistrionic style of maximum effect through minimal
movement, it is the coarsened Garbo, I would argue, which fascinated Lewis
and Nabokov, and the mass market, ‘saccharine travesty’ of Garbo which
informs the two Margots. In Nabokov’s view, ‘she was so pretty but except
for Ninotchka (1939), the films themselves were always so awful, the stories
so absurd’.34
In Revenge for Love, Margot desires her life to resolve itself in a Garboesque
Hollywood contrivance, but she ends in a tragic, rather than a romantic melo-
drama. Her tragedy is her failure to see her life as a series of events derived
bovaristically from Hollywood and romantic fiction, and in particular, from
too many second-rate Garbo talkies. She is often observed striking melodra-
matic poses learnt from Hollywood:
Flinging herself against a great paneled door, like something out of a
Hollywood set, which offered itself, she pressed her streaming face into
the hollow of her lifted arm. She was convulsed from head to foot. Great
cries came from her. Settling in against a sculpted jamb, Victor drew her
round, and supported her head against the big twin-pillow of his chest.
(p. 270)
This is the Garbo of her weaker Hollywood output, commonplace, childishly
submissive, dependent on the rugged male lead, precisely the ‘diminutive and
the fond’ which Lewis railed against in his account of her. In her coarsest
moments, Garbo would bite her lip and break out into hysterics alongside her
lesser performers. The way Victor holds her head in his hands is a very Gable-
esque gesture: Garbo did in fact make one film with Gable, Susan Lennox in

the speech-gesture complex

1932, one of her worst films and very possibly on Lewis’s mind when he wrote
the scene.
In the confusion over a letter she sent to Albinus, during one of his bouts of
hysteria, Margot looks around her for clues as to how to react: ‘She shrugged
her shoulders, picked up the book and turned her back on him. On the right
hand page was a photographic study of Greta Garbo’ (p. 51). The vision she
has of herself as a ‘screen beauty’ with a ‘gorgeous hotel porter’ recalls Garbo
in Grand Hotel (1932); her supine lizard-like anomie, the way she lies ‘in a
kimono on a dreadful chintz-covered sofa’ (p. 50) suggests Garbo in her trade-
mark supine pose – ‘Garbo has been photographed supine in erotic scenes
with all her leading men [. . .] It is something of a trademark’35 – as does her
often distracted despondency. Margot’s sense of herself as a budding Garbo is
further enhanced by references to specific films:
As she sat between these two men who were sharing her life, she felt as
though she were the chief actress in a mysterious and passionate film
drama – so she tried to behave accordingly; smiling absently, drooping
her eyelashes, tenderly laying her hand on Albinus’ sleeve as she asked
him to pass the fruit, and casting a fleeting, indifferent glance at her
former lover. (p. 95)
The scenario here recalls the silent film Flesh and the Devil (1927), which
Nabokov’s wife remembers having seen with him,36 in which the supine
Garbo, often seen lounging on sofas, conducts an affair with her husband’s
friend and rival under his nose, with indifference and bored delight in her
power over the situation. Margot aspires to becomes a Garbo vamp, as for
instance in The Temptress, in which she drives Lionel Barrymore, who leaves
his wife for her, to ruin, disaster and finally suicide.
Albinus first sees Margot working as an usherette in the cinema. He watches
her watching the film on screen: ‘He had come in at the end of a film: a girl
was receding among tumbled furniture before a masked man with a gun [. . .]
A car was spinning down a smooth road with hairpin turns between cliffs
and abyss’ (p. 14). The two scenes Albinus uncomprehendingly watches mime
events which happen to him later in the novel: the car on a winding road of
‘hairpin turns’ anticipates his drive from the hotel at Rouginard which ends
in a crash that causes his blindness, and the girl ‘among tumbled furniture’ is
Margot as he tries to shoot her in the novel’s final scene, just before she shoots
him, a scene Nabokov writes as a series of ‘stage directions’ (p. 187) in a film
script. Albinus watching Margot in the cinema imitates Garbo’s entrance in
the espionage melodrama The Mysterious Lady. We first see her in an opera
box watching Puccini’s Tosca, and being watched adoringly by Conrad Nagel.
Garbo watches the scene in which Tosca kills Scarpia to save Cavaradossi, a
situation later played out in the film itself when Garbo shoots her old spy chief

the transition to sound

to save Nagel. In Laughter in the Dark, the film Margot watches in the cinema,
re-enacted for real in the novel’s climactic scene, as is Tosca in Mysterious
Lady, is itself a copy of another Garbo vehicle, Mata Hari (1931). Garbo,
spying for the Germans in Paris, having fallen in love with Ramon Novarro,
is confronted by her former lover, Lionel Barrymore; amongst tumbled furni-
ture, in a mise en scène replicated at the end of Laughter in the Dark, Garbo
points a gun at Barrymore and shoots him. It is clear Nabokov had seen Mata
Hari, both from his own reminiscences and from a reference in The Real Life
of Sebastien Knight (1941), in which Paul Pahlovich’s second wife says that his
marriage to the mysterious Nina ‘was merely a bad dream after seeing a bad
cinema film’: ‘I shouldn’t be surprised if she turned out to be an international
spy. Mata Hari! That’s her type.’37 Margot’s cheap imitations are enacted
amidst a hodge-podge of Garbo films. When Albinus returns for a second time
to visit her in the cinema: ‘She stood in the darkness leaning against the wall
and watched Greta Garbo’ (p. 27).
Mesmerised by his private screen icon, Albinus watches his counterfeit
Garbo in giant close-ups: ‘her face was aflame, the iris of her eyes was dazzling,
and a large tear trembled on the side of her nose: he had never before seen tears
of that size and brilliance’ (p. 77). The rapture of Albinus gazing at Margot
resonates in Barthes’s account of the Garbo effect. For Barthes, ‘Garbo still
belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged
audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human
image as one would in a philtre.’38 Barthes is thinking about Queen Christina,
a film which contains an extraordinarily high rate of close-ups of Garbo’s face,
and which ends with her alone on the bow of a ship, taking her place as its
figurehead, and looking out to sea, in a close-up which fills the screen and lasts
for almost a minute. Her inscrutable lack of expression turns her face into a
mask of all-absorbing power, an image before which audiences would vener-
ate. Queen Christina, Mata Hari and The Temptress stage this spectatorial
effect in individual acts of courtly love by Garbo’s male leads, in which adora-
tion tips over into something closer to worship.
Barthes observes that Garbo’s face in Queen Christina has ‘the snowy thick-
ness of a mask’, and that it ‘comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of
Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance’.39
The veneration of audiences before the mask-like countenance of Garbo and
Chaplin recalls the sudden appearance in The Childermass of the Bailiff as ‘a
greatly enlarged mask of Chaplin’:40 the Bailiff’s audience enact, as Lewis puts
it in Time and Western Man, a collective ‘submission to a giant hyperbolic
close-up of a moment’. For Lewis, the close-up intensifies the process of iden-
tification, the point at which, as Richard Dyer puts it, ‘the audience-member
places himself in the same situation and persona of the star’, activates the
instinct to imitate, and serves the injunction to be remade in his or her image.

the speech-gesture complex

As Dyer argues, ‘the more extreme the projection, the more the person lives
his or her life in terms bound up with the favoured star’. This construction of
image, personality and character-type is bound up with industrial capitalism:
according to Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Studios, ‘the fabrication
of stars is the fundamental thing in the film industry’, a process involving huge
financial investment, as contracts with stars become monopoly products for
mass consumption, bought for vast sums, advertised on an industrial scale, and
regarded by banks as insurance for the money lent to studios. For Dyer, as for
Lewis, the process of a standardised manufacturing of ego ideals is indissocia-
ble from the ideology of industrial capitalism, and by rendering the audience
passively star-struck, ‘depoliticising their consciousness by individualising it,
rendering the social personal’,41 the process becomes capitalism’s most visible
and glamorous articulation.
Lewis invokes this process to describe what happens to Margot, finally
unable to tell the real from the fake, but also Percy Hardcaster, in his moment
of realisation at his role in the death of Victor and Margot. In the final sentence
of the novel, we observe Hardcaster in an effect similar to Nabokov’s close up
veneration of Margot’s tear: ‘And down the front of the mask rolled a sudden
tear, which fell upon the dirty floor of the prison’ (p. 336). This is the language
of melodramatic self-pity, and therefore double edged in Lewis’s terms, both
tender and artificial. Hardcaster is transformed in these final moments into one
of the cinematic shadow-people, the novel’s leitmotif for inauthenticity, and
crystallises the novel’s sense in which the political imagination is just as vulner-
able to the deadly unreality and second-hand imitation of swooning idealism.
Jameson sums up Hardcaster’s moment of realisation: ‘out of the realm of the
shades [. . .] there issues at length a force to kill the living. What does not exist
reaches out its shadow arm to strike down real flesh and blood, and, itself
insubstantial, to leave real corpses behind it.’42 For Lewis, the shadow sign
system is not only, as it is in Nabokov, a phenomenon of the private imagina-
tion; it is also inescapably political, and has real political consequences on real
flesh and blood. The satirical language of surface, of disguise, of acting applies
as equally to politics as it does to romance. The political agitators, as much as
Margot and Victor, are playing a part, or faking it. Margot fails to perceive
the unreality of a romantic love derived from second-hand Hollywood, just as
Hardcaster is mesmerised by the illusion of political utopia, leaving him pow-
erless to resist the deadly cabal of big business.
Abershaw is the foremost representative of the big business arms dealers
and chief arranger of the downfall of Victor and Margot – Victor works for
him as an art forger, before being duped into a gun-running mission – and of
Hardcaster. Abershaw, like Jack Cruze, is a capitalist conspirator, manufactur-
ing false and deceptive surfaces to disguise the salesmanship of arms to both
the Spanish fascists and communists. Though the politics Lewis attacks are

the transition to sound

Communist, namely, the activities of the Communist party in Spain before

the Civil War and the delusions of the bohemian intellectuals who roman-
ticised them, Lewis’s critique is ultimately of totalitarian power in general,
whether left or right. As Edwards argues, Lewis’s critique is ‘ultimately in
as sharp a conflict with Fascism as with Communism’.43 The critique of the
Communists in Spain, and their ‘brutal suppression of the P.O.U.M. by the
Communist party, on the orders of Stalin’,44 is echoed in George Orwell’s
Homage to Catalonia (1938) and, as Frank Kermode notes, the ‘indictment of
the intellectual left’, their delusions and hypocrisy in supporting Stalin, ‘has to
a large extent prevailed’,45 not least amongst commentators on the left. Lewis
misjudged the ambitions of Nazi Germany (the Communists did not); yet his
consistent repudiation of political violence and totalitarian systems – ‘we must
not waste our time in predilections or beliefs of an illusory nature, pitting this
system against that. All are apt to be equally bad’46 – together with his extraor-
dinary analysis of the politics of the culture industry, suggest a critique as
advanced and progressive as writers such as Adorno who are unambiguously
of the radical left.
Margot’s sense of the unreality of the corrupt political world around her,
‘a dangerous crowd of shadows’ (p. 163), derives from the love for Victor to
which she holds fast. But the language in which she perceives this unreality is
itself as unreal as her film fantasy romance: ‘if it came to a showdown, between
a shadow and a man of flesh and blood – they would give way [. . .] They could
only brow-beat you like a grammaphone, or impose on you like the projections
on the screen of the cinema’ (p. 164). Margot sees those around her, including
Victor, as cinematic types rather than individuals. Victor is Clark Gable, Tristy
is the town sheriff – ‘his party badge gleamed upon the lapel of his jacket, or
at all events it forced itself upon her notice, like the star of the film-sheriff, out
to get the bad man dead or alive’ (p. 207) – Abershaw is ‘out of a Caligari’s
drug-cabinet’ (p. 153); and the civil guards in the final scene are ‘True to type’
in their ‘highwaymanesqueness’ (p. 320). When she realises they have killed
one of the guards, her mind refuses to accept the fact of death by imagining it
as occurring elsewhere, on a screen in front of her eyes:
their car (it had left her behind) was rapidly disappearing and had already
grown quite small, in diminishing perspective; while in the foreground
she was staring down at a disagreeable flattened object. Sprawling in
the center of the road, it was incredibly two-dimensional, and, in short,
unreal [. . .] the face. That was flat, as well – as flat as a pancake, but as
pale as a sheet. (p. 325)
Margot’s vision of death is, finally, as artificial as her vision of love. The
dead guard is merely a two-dimensional object in her visual field, as though
she did not share a common physical world with him. She understands her

the speech-gesture complex

e­ xperience cinematographically, as something external to her rather than hap-

pening to her. The car in which she rides with Victor seems to rapidly disap-
pear while she is still inside it as ‘trees, rocks, and telegraph poles stood up
dizzily before her and crashed down behind [. . .] Like a card-world clacked
cinematographically through its static permutations’ (p. 314). By confusing
flesh-and-blood reality with projected surface, Margot becomes a spectator
of rather than participant in her own death. In this respect, she resembles
Albinus in Laughter in the Dark, entering the cinema towards the end of the
film, uncomprehendingly watching scenes from the car crash which leaves him
blind – ‘A car was spinning down a smooth road with hairpin turns between
cliffs and abyss’ (p. 14) – later remembered in terms similar to the accident
in Revenge for Love: ‘a telegraph post loomed in front of the windscreen’.
Nabokov saw the crash ‘vividly as a film’,47 and so does Albinus, unoriginal to
the bitter end, even his death reduced to a stock narrative device in a low-grade
Both novels belong to the period of ‘late modernism’. As Tyrus Miller
argues, the period is frequently characterised by an ironised return to the
conventions of classical realist prose, as distinct from the disrupted syntax of
earlier modernism. The world depicted by this ostensibly naturalist prose is
one ‘permeated by mimicry, counterfeit, diversion, imposture, and spectacle:
the condition of generalized mimetism’. The style enacts in order to critique
a ‘universally de-realised’ world saturated in spectacle. It is mimetic in the
traditional sense, but ‘the referent is explicitly thematized by the text as a
mirage’.48 The mirage-like spectacle in Revenge for Love and Laughter in the
Dark, as I have argued, is largely generated by the cinematic apparatus of the
early talkies; Miller’s sense of ‘generalised mimeticism’ is an aspect, in Lewis
and Nabokov, of Hollywood’s universal language, its melodramatic cliché and
archetypes which activate second-hand mimetic desire in a mass audience of
pacified consumers. Both Lewis and Nabokov resist Hollywood’s universal-
ism, its all-pervasive standardisation of synchronised speech and gesture, by
writing an ironised version of its classical realist style, thematising the split
operations of textual absence and visible presence. Histrionic performance
style is called forth, yet remains insufficient, never fully defined on the page,
its mimetic force diminished by its imperceptibility, and an ironised narra-
tive voice which refuses the naturalised coded conventions and universalised
reader-spectator of Hollywood.

Late Modernism and the Resistance to Sound

Lewis’s and Nabokov’s satirical mimesis of the victims of simulacra belongs to
a culture of resistance to synchronised sound, a culture that was powerless to
alter the inexorable course of big business. Lewis’s admiration for silent film
is replaced with disgust at the sham-reality of manufactured naturalism. As

the transition to sound

Albinus explains to Margot: ‘ “Sound,” he said, “will kill the cinema straight­
away” ’ (p. 79), while Nabokov himself remarked that
the verbal part of the cinema is such a hodge-podge of contributions,
beginning with the script, that it really has no style of its own. On the
other hand, the viewer of a silent film has the opportunity of adding a
good deal of his own inner verbal treasure to the silence of the picture
[. . .] I think what I love about the silent film is what comes through the
mask of the talkies and vice versa, talkies are mute in my memory.49
Nabokov’s and Lewis’s objections to the standardisation and generalised
mimesis of regressive early talkies belong to an avant-garde culture of the thir-
ties, which includes Eisenstein, Brecht, Artaud, Beckett, Chaplin and Meyerhold,
and which regarded the talkies as having slowed down film’s attempt to keep
up with the other arts. The central forum for this short-lived resistance thrived
in the pages of two avant-garde magazines, Close Up (1927–33) – which pub-
lished, for instance, H. D.’s essay on Garbo, and Eisenstein and Pudovkin’s
famous response to the advent of the talkies, ‘The Sound Film: A Statement
from U.S.S.R.’50 – and transition (1927–38), which serialised Finnegans Wake,
the first English translation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Eisenstein’s essay on
the cinematic hieroglyph and film scenarios by Artaud. Both magazines closely
focused on film’s relation to and impact on the other arts, on photography,
literature, painting and theatre. As Laura Marcus observes in her account of
the journal’s activity: ‘The years of Close Up were the years of the transition
from silent to sound cinema, and the journal is a highly significant resource for
cultural perceptions of the transition.’51 Close Up’s opposition to sound, as in
Lewis and Nabokov, meant opposition to Hollywood’s industrialisation and
standardisation, or as Kenneth Macpherson put it, ‘the militant imperialism
of the screen’.52 Hollywood’s massively accelerated level of industrial expan-
sion in the era of sound consolidates its imperialist domination of the global
film market; the hegemony of naturalistic, synchronised speech and gesture, as
Eisenstein and Pudovkin warned in 1928, ‘threatens to ruin’ the purely visual
means of effect in montage for commercial ends.53
Synchronised sound had reintroduced an unwelcome and regressive return
to theatricality. The writers of Close Up recount a growing anxiety, wide-
spread amongst cinéastes, at the ‘reactionary strivings of [early] talking films’
which had brought cinema back to the ‘proscenium front’54 after the leaps and
bounds of montage. Theatricality becomes a sign of cinema’s reactionary step
backwards into a primitive pre-modernist era of frontal staging and simplis-
tic narrative editing patterns. As Meyerhold remarked in 1929, ‘the dialogue
retheatricalizes the cinema, slowing down the pace of actions [. . .] the moment
the film began to talk, the international power of the screen began to dimin-
ish’. For Meyerhold, who spoke of the profound influence on his theatre of

the speech-gesture complex

Chaplin’s art of movement, an indebtedness which Brecht also acknowledged,

the Tramp loses his universal outreach the moment he is heard speaking: ‘a
Russian peasant will refuse to accept Chaplin as an Englishman’.55 Chaplin
remained acutely conscious of this need for silence and gesture, resolutely
holding his tongue until The Great Dictator in 1940.
Antonin Artaud’s remarks on the decline of cinema’s expressive and ges-
tural force in the era of sound – ‘the elucidations of speech arrest the uncon-
scious and spontaneous poetry of image; the illustration and completion of
the meaning of an image by speech show the limitations of the cinema’56
– coincide with his development, between 1931 and 1937, of a new lan-
guage of theatre which regards dialogue as secondary to the bodily presence
of a ‘sign, gesture and posture language with its own ideographic values’.57
Artaud had already acted in two of the acknowledged masterpieces of silent
film, Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927), and Gance’s Napoleon
(1927), and wrote several screenplays, including the first Surrealist film,
Dulac’s La Coquille et le clergyman (1928). But he loses interest in sound
To make a talking picture now, or at any time, seems wrong to me. The
Americans who have staked everything on it are preparing a very sinis-
ter future for themselves, as are all companies which produce bad films
on the pretext that they are more saleable; the talking picture is idiotic,
absurd. The very negation of the cinema.
For Artaud, as for Meyerhold and the writers of Close Up, cinema’s sound
conversion had irremediably damaged its artistic prospects by accelerated
commercialisation, and by denying cinema’s anti-naturalist capacity to deliver
visual sensation through a direct, visceral effect on the spectator, ‘independent
of speech’. Artaud turns away from cinema and devotes his energies to direct-
ing the Alfred Jarry Theatre, transferring his vision of a cinema of sensation to
the theatre and the construction of ‘a new bodily language no longer based on
words but on signs which emerges through the maze of gestures’. The primacy
of the image and the signifying properties of the performative body, decimated
in the cinema by the recent arrival of the audible, discursive logic of speech,
were re-envisaged in a theatre of the future with its own elaborate method,
similar to musical notation or the hieroglyph, for the effective ‘transcription
of gesture’.58
Artaud’s project emerges from the iconographic culture of silent cinema.
Despite his claims for improvised direct staging and the unrepeatability of per-
formance, Artaud’s aim was in fact to devise a system to precisely notate and
fix gestures, to make them reproducible, as though they had been mechanically
recorded, to remove accident from performance. This technique of ‘methodi-
cally calculated effects’ in the theatre was inspired, as Christopher Innes has

the transition to sound

argued, by his experience with working in silent film.59 Artaud’s style of

intricately patterned movements, the use of slow motion and the freezing of
gestures into emblematic positions, and the invocation of archetypal forms,
was strongly derived from German Expressionist film; he also transferred tech-
niques absorbed from working with Dreyer, Gance and Dulac to his produc-
tions of The Conquest of Mexico and The Cenci, such as the use of rhythmic
cutting and montage, minimal dialogue and the repetition of highly patterned
An alternative history emerges, in light of hybrid interactions between
theatre and cinema, in which modernist theatre becomes the inheritor of a
project, developed in silent cinema but cut short by the advent of the sound
picture, which pitches the expressive, signifying force of the gesturing body
against discursive speech. Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, with its vision of actors
as ‘moving hieroglyphs’60 chimes with Meyerhold’s notion that ‘every move-
ment is a hieroglyph with its own peculiar meaning’,61 and Brecht’s version of
gestic acting, heavily influenced, according to John Willett, by the ‘acting style
of silent cinema’.62 Anti-naturalist theatre elevates the contradiction of speech
and gesture, a process forbidden by the commercial restrictions of synchro-
nised speech, into an ethic of practice.
The idea of the hieroglyph as a dialectic of speech and gesture, or reading
and spectating, was regarded with intense seriousness in Close Up, and also
in transition (1927–33), where it unified the disparate figures of Eisenstein,
Joyce and Artaud, each of whom converged in the journal to locate a nexus
of constant reference to the hieroglyph. As Michael North observes, transition
considered poetic language to be ‘an optical as well as an aural phenomenon,
and film and photography were to provide much of the momentum behind
the revolution [of the word]’.63 The conversion to sound intensified the avant-
garde’s drive to reconsider interchangeable elements between film, theatre
and literature; transition published poetry by Eugene Jolas, Robert Desnos,
Philippe Soupault, and Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, which drew heavily on
the techniques of montage, alongside Artaud’s scenario for The Seashell and
the Clergyman and Eisenstein’s essay on film and the Japanese hieroglyph,
‘The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram’. Eisenstein’s essay, pub-
lished in June 1930, intensifies his thinking about the silent film techniques of
montage and juxtaposition as a resistance to the dominance of synchronised
speech. Film is a ‘methodology of language’, in which shots are edited together
into ‘montage-phrases’, according to ‘the principle of the hieroglyph’. The
body is ‘dismembered’ into ‘a close-up of clutching hands’, ‘medium shots of
the struggle’, ‘an extreme close-up of bulging eyes’; these ‘montage-phrases’,
constituting the disintegrated event, are ‘newly collected into one whole’.64
The disembodiment of the total body-image is a major characteristic of film’s
supposed linguistic quality: the syntactic complexity in the alternation of

the speech-gesture complex

c­ lose-ups with longer shots of variable rhythm confers upon the disembodied
gesture the properties of a clause within a sentence.
The claims made for a hieroglyph in theatre and cinema which retrieves
gesture’s speech-like capacity parallel a contemporary interest in the origins of
language in gesture. Béla Balázs, writing in 1924, explicitly relates the tendency
in contemporary linguistics to demonstrate ‘the origins of language in expres-
sive movement’ with cinema’s universal language of gesture: ‘It is the expres-
sive movement, the gesture, that is the aboriginal mother-tongue of the human
race.’65 In Elements of Folk Psychology (1916), Wilhelm Wundt aligns himself
with a long tradition of language scholarship, beginning with Giambattista
Vico in The New Science (1744), which shows forth ‘the origin of all signs in
natural gesture-language, in movements of expression’.66 According to Wundt,
during the period of evolutionary history before mankind learned to speak
and developed natural language systems, people communicated experience, or
affective states, in expressive patterns of physical movement. These patterns
of gesture were observed and imitated by others, in a process which induced
similar affective states in the imitator. Gestures then develop from affective
expression and begin to express concepts, and non-expressive imitations of
gesture elaborate into movements which create dialogue and enable the basis
for communication: gestures move from descriptive mimeticism to the conven-
tional symbolism of a language system. To support his thesis, Wundt examines
such diverse manifestations of expressive movement as the use of gesture by
speakers with no language in common, the gesture language of deaf-mutes,
the coded movements of Cistercian monks and Neapolitan gestures. As Adam
Kendon observes, Wundt’s ‘classification of various forms of gesture is based
on principles that we would call semiotic. There are signs for objects, signs for
processes and signs for actions.’67 In his analysis of the narrative conversations
conducted in mime between Native American tribes such as the Klamath, who
communicate in a language governed by the arrangement of visual signs in
syntactic order, Wundt emphasises the use of signs which mime their referents.
For instance, the several expressions the Klamath use to signify ‘walking’ are
indicated by the particular walk itself. Yet the Klamath, and the sign language
of the deaf, Wundt argues, also demonstrate that a gesture-language can be as
syntactical as spoken discourse. Furthermore, the evidence of these syntactic
orders suggests that patterns of gesture were the basis for original sentence
Symbolic gestures retain the afterimage, in the way words cannot, of their
original mimetic function, which once represented an object or action iconi-
cally. A further implication of Wundt’s thesis is that the mutual commerce,
throughout the historical development of a natural language, between speech
and writing, has privileged speech as a form of expression over gesture: it is not
possible to trace the etymology of a gesture, because gesture-language lacked

the transition to sound

a system of transcription. Even despite the lack of notation to indicate such

features of speech as timbre, intonation and accent, spoken language, unlike
gesture, is readily transferable from its original enunciation to its textual rep-
resentation. The diachronic absence of mutual influence and interdependency
between gestures and their textual representation has contributed to gesture’s
secondary status as an expressive tool, and the consequent indeterminacy of its
fields of reference.
For many of its most significant theorists and filmmakers, silent cinema
shows forth the makings of a universal language of gesture, a development
cut short by the arrival of sound technology. Wilhelm Wundt’s theories on
the origins of language and the syntactical reality of gesture did not achieve
much recognition in the realm of language scholarship. As Kendon notes,
there is ‘hardly anything’ written on gesture, as a topic in linguistics, between
1900 and 1915,68 and aside from Macdonald Critchley’s The Language of
Gesture (1939), David Efron’s Gesture and Environment (1941) and Charlotte
Wolff’s A Psychology of Gesture (1945), there is nothing sustained until Ray
Birdwhistell in 1957. Kendon does not explain this decline; it would be beyond
his intention as a linguistic anthropologist. I would argue for more than mere
historical coincidence between the disappearance of gesture theory in the age
of the new iconography: it is the practitioners of modernist literature, theatre
and silent cinema who inherit the project abandoned by language scholars, and
they in turn provoke literature into asking questions about its own status as
text and as speech-based, verbal discourse. In a review written the year it was
published, T. S. Eliot remarks: ‘one thinks of Wundt as one of half a dozen or
so of the founders of modern psychology . . . undoubtedly he has made great
and permanent contributions to the science of language’.69 Eisenstein considers
the neglected Wundt an exemplary thinker when he describes his own montage
practice. In his essay ‘Film Form: New Problems’, he alludes to the work of
Wundt and the language of the Klamath tribe, in which each type of walk
has its own iconic term, sign indistinguishable from referent, to support his
notion of cinema’s pictorial language, of the ‘literacy of film diction’ and ‘film-
syntax’.70 Wundt was not the only anthropologist whose views on gesture were
radically overlooked. Giambattista Vico’s New Science (1744), one of the earli-
est books to propose the view of the origin of language in prehistorical gesture,
did not, according to Kendon, ‘attain much recognition and indeed his views
on language and its origins have received more than passing attention only
quite recently’.71 Kendon makes no mention of another champion of Vico’s
gesture-theory, other than Wundt: James Joyce, to whom the importance of the
prehistory of gesture in Vico was first brought to critical attention in Samuel
Beckett’s first published work, an essay on ‘the savage economy of hieroglyphs’
in Finnegans Wake, published in the 1929 collection Our Exagmination Round
His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress.72

the speech-gesture complex

Vico’s New Science, published in 1744, anticipates contemporary work

by linguists such as Wundt on the origins of language in gesture. As Beckett
remarks of Vico: ‘in its first dumb form language was gesture. If a man wanted
to say “sea”, he pointed to the sea.’ In the Viconian scheme, the etymo-
logical roots ‘of any word whatsoever can be traced back to some prelingual
symbol’;73 during this ‘Hieroglyphic’ period in human history, when language
consisted exclusively of gesture, speech and writing, the verbal and the non-
verbal were in sensuous correspondence. The particular – for instance, indi-
vidual body parts – would signify the general: ‘head for top; eyes for needles,
mouth for opening, teeth for saw, beard for wheat’. The language of the
gesture-hieroglyph is gradually supplanted by alphabetism, and the attendant
distinction between the universal language of direct expression, and the capac-
ity for abstraction, manifest in the written sign: ‘as the power of abstraction
grew, personifications were reduced to diminutive signs’.74A similar diachronic
evolution, from picture-gesture, to speech in imitation of gesture, to alphabet-
ism, is traced in the contemporaneous work of the linguist Marcel Jousse, with
whom Joyce was also familiar during the composition of Finnegans Wake:

At that time the Abbé Jousse was lecturing in Paris. He was a noted pro-
pounder of a theory that Joyce gave adherence to, that language had its
origin in gesture – ‘In the beginning was the rhythmic gesture’ Joyce often
said [. . .] Around the lecturer was a group of girls, who addressed him
as ‘Rabbi Jesus’. The words spoken – one of the parables, I think – were,
I gathered in Aramaic, and what was shown was the word as shaped by
the gesture. Joyce was full of the subject.75

‘In the beginning was the rhythmic gesture’ is a quote from Jousse.76 As
Stephen Heath notes, Joyce and Jousse both advocated a form of reading
based on the primacy of mimographic script, and the revival of the originating
instance of speech in the physical immediacy of gesture.77 Spoken language, in
Jousse’s theory, bears the traces of the manual gestures of pre-lingual mankind,
the consequence of a diachronic pattern in which ‘the progress of civilisation is
due to the reciprocal action of hand on mind and mind on hand’,78 a view also
shared by contemporaneous linguists such as Richard Paget, who cites Jousse
in support of his thesis that ‘gestures previously made by hand were uncon-
sciously copied by movements or positions of the mouth, tongue or lips’, in a
‘specialised pantomime of the tongue and lips’. The word ‘hither’, for instance,
corresponds to the equivalent hand gesture,

extended hand, palm up, drawn inwards towards the face and at the
same time fingers bent inwards towards the palm. This is imitated with
the tongue protruding, withdrawing and bending up its tip as it re-enters
the mouth and falls to rest.79

the transition to sound

These conjunctions of etymology and writing as an inscription of gesture traces

are a constant presence in Joyce’s practice, from Stephen Hero, via ‘Circe’, and
into Finnegans Wake, and the hybrid form in which the tongue mimes the pre-
lingual sensuous mimeticism of the hand: ‘clap your lingua to your pallet, drop
your jowl with a jolt, tambourine until your breath slides, pet and pout and its
out’ (p. 248: 8–10).
Joyce’s fascination with the origins of language in gesture – ‘by ancientest
signlore his gesture meaning: s!’ – and the complex relation between gesture
signs and mimesis – ‘hourspringlike his joussture, immitiate my chry!’ –
­coincides with the historical transition from the grand project of cinema’s uni-
versal pictorial script into, as Joyce puts it, the ‘soundpicture’.80 In Finnegans
Wake, as Scott Klein convincingly argues, the ‘internal formal emblem for an
authentically dialectical mimetic is the modern technology of the film’.81 Joyce
intertwines the contemporary notion of the primacy of the hieroglyph with
the culture of a resistance to and rethinking of the relation between sound
and image, and between speech and gesture. The language of the Wake is
constantly heard miming the ‘shadows by the film folk’ (p. 221: 21): Shaun
appears as a ‘Moviefigure on its scenic section’ (p. 602: 27) in ‘longshots,
upcloses’ (p. 221: 21–2); Mercius thanks ‘Movies from the innermost depths
of my still attrite heart’ (p. 194: 2–3). The sense of ‘moving pictures’ (p. 565:
6) conflates the cinema effect with the mimography of the hieroglyph, echoing
the prominent theoretical premise of cinema as ‘a pictorial language, like the
hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt’.82
Joyce continued to visit the cinema during the writing of Finnegans Wake,
despite the crisis of his steadily worsening eyesight. The book’s complex ten-
sions between speech and gesture play out in parallel the blind advance of
cinema into the sound picture. A letter dated 23 November 1925 to Harriet
Shaw Weaver describes his ninth eye operation to date: ‘Twice a day they flash
a light before my eyes and say, “You see nothing? Not anything?” I am tired
of it all. This has gone on so long.’83 Attending a play in July earlier that year,
he was unable to see the actors’ faces even while sitting near the stage. In 1926
he could scarcely see at all, writing the manuscript of Book III, which contains
a film script, in an enormous scrawl, during severe bouts of near total blind-
ness. Joyce loses his eyesight just as the movies themselves lose the primacy of
visibly expressive movement. The transition of cinema from mute gesture to
anti-pictorial speech, coinciding with the fading of Joyce’s eyesight – ‘light ears
left yet he could but ill see’ (p. 158: 12–13) – is manifest in the wild collision
of gesture hieroglyphs and audible speech, the ‘sound seemetery’ of Finnegans
Wake: ‘windhame Lewis’, ‘the enemay the Percy’, author of ‘irony of stars’,
fades in and out of the composite figures of Shaun and Ont, accusing Shem
(Joyce) the ‘innerman monophone’, of being ‘camera shy’ and ‘all ears’ in
an extended argument staged as a sound picture watched by HC Earwicker,

the speech-gesture complex

‘earish with his eyes shut’,84 for whom the gestures are heard as sound miming
fading sight.
The complex web of indeterminate, ambiguous and contradictory relations
between text and image, and between speech and gesture, which much of
the rhetoric around universalism and film is eager to elide, is a fundamental
aspect of the modernist project. The writers and makers of this period chose
to foreground these contradictions, rather than seeking to naturalise them, or
collapse them into the artificial unity of Hollywood’s universal language. The
silent cinema, by avoiding, as Artaud put it, ‘the illustration and completion of
the meaning of an image by speech’,85 allowed the viewer to add, as Nabokov
remarked, ‘his own inner verbal treasure to the silence of the picture’; for
Eisenstein, it enabled a dialectic between the mute gesturing body and the
syntactic reality of montage. The contradiction which is at the root of silent
cinema’s visual Esperanto – that it attempts to create a text of signification and
interpretation from the constituent properties of an expressive body without
an audible speech-act to support it, lacks the status of language – parallels
the contradiction which occurs in reverse in modernist writing: the writing of
gestures bestows upon them the status of language they would otherwise lack,
although their illocutionary function, a necessarily visual occurrence, is imper-
ceptible to the reader and remains insufficient on the page. This illocutionary
lack, which prevents the simultaneous display of speech and gesture in both
silent cinema and modernist literature, and also between the playscript and
the performed gesture, generates a dialectical unease which becomes a defining
feature of the speech-gesture complex.
Joyce’s attempt to revive the sensuous immediacy of pre-lingual gestural
expression is cross-bred with the contemporary notion of cinema as a form of
hieroglyph of ‘the celluloid art!’ (p. 534: 25). But his sensuous intermingling of
speech and gesture, as it plays out the tensions and contradictions between the
idea of a universal language based on natural signs and the specificity of indi-
vidual languages, gestures and cultures, manifests a politics, as with Ulysses,
which is deeply resistant to universalism. The constant shifting in Finnegans
Wake between speech and gesture, between the sensuous correspondence
of the archetypal gesture hieroglyph and the materiality of language, or the
particularity of alphabetism, generates an endlessly fluid mode of representa-
tion which refuses fixity and universalism. As Christy Burns notes, ‘identities
dissolve and resurrect at an alarming rate, and Joyce parodies the drive to fix
identity by naming and, as well, by association’.86 Joycean plurality is neither
exclusively general nor particular: ‘Be ownkind. Be kithkinish. Be bloodysibby.
Be irish.’ (p. 465: 31). The portmanteau word ‘ownkind’ refuses the stabil-
ity of an exclusive identity either with mankind in general, or one’s ‘own’
in particular; ‘ownkind’ quickly slides into ‘kithkinish’ and then the blood-
ysibby’ of warring tribes each of whom claim the universalism of ‘mankind’

the transition to sound

for their own particular familial, social or national group. Joyce’s language is
a radical refusal of the ‘ownkind’ of nationalistic claims for universalism. To
be ‘bloodysibby’ is inherent in the idea of the purity of a nation, whether Irish
or English. By dismantling the structure and syntax of English and merging it
with elements from other European languages, as well as with a sensuous form
of gesture-language, Joyce articulates a form of transnationalism which resists
claims made by any one particular language or culture for universalism. By
thematising the double aspect of the speech-gesture complex, Joyce challenges
conventional notions of language, performance and mimesis, and presents a
radical alternative to the claims made by Gaelic on Irish intellectuals, to the
imperialism of English literature – as Beckett notes, English was as universal
a language as Latin in the Middle Ages – and by the new form of colonisa-
tion through the universalism of naturalistic synchronised sound. Written
between 1923 and 1939, the book’s radical conception of gesture-language,
partly derived from an engagement with an accelerated culture of word–image
hybridity in the era of the colonisation of the talkies, and the lethal national-
istic turn in European politics, becomes, according to Philippe Soller’s well-
known account, ‘the most formidably anti-fascist book produced between the
two wars’.87
As Eisenstein puts it in the essay in transition: ‘it has been left to James
Joyce to develop in literature the depictive line of the Japanese hieroglyph’.88
The idea of the hieroglyph becomes a significant point of contact between
Joyce and Eisenstein. As Neil Cornwell notes, Joyce is very likely to have read
Eisenstein’s essay in transition,89 which was also publishing Finnegans Wake.
Eisenstein develops his theory of non-synchronised sound and of a syntax of
gesture alongside his reading of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. In his famous
statement made with Pudovkin and Alexandroff in 1928, Eisenstein advo-
cates the incorporation of sound into the established method of dialectical
counterpoint, which had until then remained the exclusive province of visual
montage: the ‘non-coincidence’ of sound with image ‘affords new possibilities
of developing and perfecting the visual mounting’.90 Sound should be sub-
sumed under the totalising principle of montage, or the syntactic organisation
of each particle of a film fragment. Earlier that year, Eisenstein begins to read
Ulysses for the first time,91 writing in his diary that he had ‘received Ulysses,
the Bible of the new cinema’,92 and completing it around spring. In October he
asks friend and film critic Moussinac to send him Work in Progress, as it was
published in the journal transition,93 and he begins a long-term advocation of
Ulysses as a training manual for filmmakers, delivering lectures to this effect
in London between November and December.94 A year later, on 30 November
1929, at 2 Square Robiac, 192 rue de Grenelle, Paris, Eisenstein and Joyce
meet for the first and only time.95
In the account he gives in his autobiography, Eisenstein is struck when he

the speech-gesture complex

meets him by Joyce’s near blindness, ‘how weak his vision had become in
relation to the surrounding world’; they listen to a recording of Joyce reading
‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ on the gramophone;96 Joyce expresses a desire, ‘despite
his almost total blindness’, to see Battleship Potemkin and October, and
is ‘intensely interested’ in Eisenstein’s conception of the ‘inner film mono-
logue’.97 For Eisenstein, the practical realisation of the inner monologue had
been enabled by the sound-picture, although it is not dialogue, as manifest in
‘merely naturalistic passive sound recording’, the cumbersome lip-synch of the
commercial cinema, which he considers ‘the true material of the sound-film’,
but a polyphonic version of the monologue he had recently read, and heard,
in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. In his account of the unfilmed adaptation
of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy – obstructed, inevitably, by Paramount
Studios and their insistence on straightforward sound-image continuity – he
elaborates a Joycean conception of an interior monologue conveyed through
portmanteau, non-synchronised sound-images, heard over a ‘black screen and
interspersed with accelerated images over silence, of ‘polyphonic sounds’ and
‘images’ alternating visible gesture with the variable syntactic rhythms of inte-
rior speech. The dialectic of gesture and interior speech in Joyce profoundly
influenced Eisenstein’s view that ‘the sound-film is capable of reconstructing
all phases and all specifics of the course of thought’.98 Rather than constituting
a fundamental disruption, audible portmanteau speech could become another
expressive resource in montage filmmaking. At the Film School he estab-
lished in Moscow in 1931, he taught students of cinematography to translate
Bloom’s monologues into film language,99 in rhythmic alternations of audible
speech and expressive movement.
The Joycean reversibility of speech and gesture, of reading and spectator-
ship, dominates Eisenstein’s theoretical writing from 1929. Audible speech
should be organised according to the principles of visual montage established
in the silent era, in a process which resembles listening ‘to one’s own train of
thought, particularly in an excited state, in order to catch yourself looking at
and listening to your mind’.100 This echoes Beckett’s view of Finnegans Wake,
that it is ‘to be looked at and listened to’,101 in his 1929 essay on Finnegans
Wake, published in the collection Our Exagmination Round His Factification
for Incamination of Work in Progress, in response to Lewis’s attack on Joyce
in the first issue of transition (January 1927), ‘An Analysis of the Mind of
James Joyce’.102 As Beckett puts it, Joyce’s mimographic text is written in the
‘savage economy of hieroglyphs’.103 The ‘ “reading” ’ – Beckett places the word
in quotes – of Joyce’s ‘hieroglyphic [. . .] extraction of language and painting
and gesture’, straining towards the apprehension of pictorial visibility, col-
lapses the distinction between language as arbitrary, conventional symbolism,
and the sensuous immediacy of the visible, where the word-gesture mimes the
picture-gesture. In Joyce’s mimography, ‘when the sense is sleep, the words

the transition to sound

go to sleep. When the sense is dancing, the words dance’.104 Beckett’s first
published work is directly situated in modernism’s culture of interconnected
representations, of Eisenstein’s montage-gestures and his advocacy of a ‘non-
coincidence’ of sound with image,105 which emerged in response to a critical
reading of the speech-gesture complex in Joyce, itself forged in rivalry with
Lewis, and later developed in Brechtian theatre’s incorporation of the ‘epic,
gestic and montage elements that appeared in films’,106 and Artaud’s hiero-
glyphic performance style.

1. Miller, Late Modernism, p. 62.
2. Ibid. p. 108.
3. Green, The Film Finds its Tongue, p. 141.
4. Miller, Late Modernism, p. 108.
5. Adorno and Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 47.
6. Gomery, The Coming of Sound, p. 51.
7. O’Brien, Cinema’s Conversion to Sound, p. 19.
8. Crafton, The Talkies, p. 251. See also Bordwell et al., The Classical Hollywood
Cinema, pp. 298–308.
9. Lewis, America and Cosmic Man, p. 110, p. 177, p. 190.
10. Lewis, The Hitler Cult, p. 23.
11. Reisz and Millar, The Technique of Film Editing, p. 258.
12. Quoted in O’Brien, Cinema’s Conversion to Sound, p. 126.
13. Arnheim, Film as Art, p. 110.
14. Connor, ‘Sounding Out Film’.
15. Naremore, Acting in the Cinema, p. 72.
16. Lewis, Filibusters in Barbary, pp. 101–4.
17. Adorno, ‘The Schema of Mass Culture’, The Culture Industry, p. 79.
18. Lewis, The Revenge for Love (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1991), p. 163.
All references are to this edition, and are included parenthetically within the text.
19. Lewis, Filibusters in Barbary, p. 91.
20. Edwards, Painter and Writer, p. 443.
21. Quoted in Appel, Nabokov’s Dark Cinema, pp. 258–9.
22. Nabokov, Laughter in the Dark, p. 5. All references are to this edition, and are
included parenthetically within the text.
23. Quoted in Appel, Nabokov’s Dark Cinema, p. 108.
24. Nabokov, Nikolai Gogol, p. 70, pp. 63–9.
25. Lewis, Filibusters in Barbary, p. 96.
26. Ayers, Wyndham Lewis and Western Man, p. 171.
27. Ibid. p. 175.
28. Nicholls, Modernisms, p. 14.
29. Lewis, Blasting and Bombardiering, p. 259.
30. Lewis, Filibusters in Barbary, p. 96.
31. H. D., ‘Garbo/Helen: The Self-Projection of Beauty’, in Donald et al. (eds), Close
Up, 1927–1933, p. 145, p. 108.
32. Barthes, ‘The Face of Garbo’, Mythologies, p. 56.
33. Donald et al. (eds), Close Up, 1927–1933, p. 107, p. 109.
34. Appel, Nabokov’s Dark Cinema, p. 41.
35. Affron, Star Acting, p. 105.
36. Appel, Nabokov’s Dark Cinema, p. 41.

the speech-gesture complex

37. Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastien Knight, p. 145.

38. Barthes, ‘The Face of Garbo’, Mythologies, p. 56.
39. Ibid. p. 55.
40. Lewis, The Childermass, p. 184.
41. Dyer, Stars, p. 20, p. 13, p. 10, p. 27.
42. Jameson, Fables of Aggression, p. 176.
43. Edwards, ‘Afterword’, Revenge for Love, p. 393.
44. Edwards, Painter and Writer, p. 446.
45. Kermode, History and Value, p. 62.
46. Lewis, Men Without Art, p. 263.
47. Appel, Nabokov’s Dark Cinema, p. 259.
48. Miller, Late Modernism, p. 83.
49. Appel, Nabokov’s Dark Cinema, p. 57.
50. Eisenstein, W. I. Pudovkin and G. V. Alexandroff, ‘The Sound Film: A Statement
from U.S.S.R.’, in Donald et al. (eds), Close Up, 1927–1933, p. 84.
51. Marcus, The Tenth Muse, p. 324.
52. Macpherson, ‘As Is’, Close Up, quoted in North, Camera Works, p. 89.
53. Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandroff, ‘The Sound Film’, in Donald et al. (eds),
Close Up, 1927–1933, p. 83.
54. Macpherson, ‘As Is’, in Donald et al. (eds), Close Up, 1927–1933, p. 80.
55. Meyerhold, ‘The Reconstruction of the Theatre’, Meyerhold on Theatre, p. 255
56. Artaud, ‘The Premature Old Age of the Cinema’, Selected Writings, p. 313.
57. Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, pp. 27–9.
58. Artaud, The Collected Works of Antonin Artaud, vol. 4, p. 25, p. 38, p. 72.
59. Innes, Avant Garde Theatre, p. 62, p. 75.
60. Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double, p. 29.
61. Meyerhold, ‘Biomechanics’, Meyerhold on Theatre, p. 200.
62. Brecht, ‘The Question of Criteria for Judging Acting’, Brecht on Theatre, pp.
63. North, Camera Works, p. 65.
64. Eisenstein, ‘A Dialectic Approach to Film Form’ and ‘Dickens, Griffith and the
Film Today’, Film Form, p. 60, p. 236.
65. Balázs, Theory of the Film, pp. 41–2.
66. Wundt, Elements of Folk Psychology, p. 58.
67. Kendon, Gesture, p. 58.
68. Ibid. pp. 62–3.
69. Eliot, ‘Review of Elements of Folk Psychology’, pp. 252–4.
70. Eisenstein, ‘Film Form: New Problems’ and ‘Film Language’, Film Form, p. 139,
p. 112.
71. Kendon, Gesture, p. 36
72. Beckett, ‘Dante . . . Bruno.Vico..Joyce’, p. 15.
73. Ibid. p. 10, p. 11.
74. Vico, The New Science of G Vico, pp. 128–9.
75. Colum and Colum, Our Friend James Joyce, pp. 130–1.
76. Jousse, The Oral Style, p. 13.
77. Heath, ‘Ambiviolences: Notes for Reading Joyce’, p. 55.
78. Jousse, The Oral Style, p. 92.
79. Paget, Human Speech, p. 132, p. 138.
80. Ibid. p. 36: 15–17, p. 535: 2–4. p. 570: 14.
81. Klein, Fictions of James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis, p. 177.
82. Epstein, ‘On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie’, in Abel (ed.), French Film
Theory and Criticism, vol. I, p. 315.

the transition to sound

83. Quoted in Ellmann, James Joyce, p. 573.

84. Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake, p. 352: 10, p. 160: 22, p. 462: 16, p. 171: 33–4, p. 169:
14, p. 130: 19.
85. Artaud, ‘The Premature Old Age of the Cinema’, Selected Writings, p. 313.
86. Burns, Gestural Politics, p. 166.
87. Quoted in Nolan, James Joyce and Nationalism, p. 140
88. Eisenstein, ‘The Cinematic Principle and the Ideogram’, Film Form, p. 35.
89. Cornwell, James Joyce and the Russians, p. 80.
90. Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandroff, ‘The Sound Film’, in Donald et al. (eds),
Close Up, 1927–1933, p. 84.
91. Moussinac, Sergei Eisenstein, p. 148.
92. 15 February 1928, Leyda and Voynow, Eisenstein at Work, p. xii.
93. Moussinac, Sergei Eisenstein, pp. 120–1.
94. For a summary of his lectures on Ulysses, see Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein, pp.
95. Werner, ‘Joyce and Sergej Eisenstein’, p. 494. On Joyce and Eisenstein, see also
Costanzo, ‘Joyce and Eisenstein’; Palmer, ‘Eisensteinian Montage and Joyce’s
96. Eisenstein, Immoral Memories, pp. 214–15.
97. Eisenstein, ‘A Course in Treatment’, Film Form, p. 104. Joyce told Eugene Jolas
that for any film adaptation of Ulysses, he could ‘only think of two persons quali-
fied enough: Eisenstein and Walter Ruttman’. Hutchins, James Joyce’s World, p.
98. Eisenstein, ‘A Course in Treatment’, Film Form, p. 103, p. 105.
99. Marie Seton mentions looking through Eisenstein’s copy of Ulysses in spring
1934 and finding Bloom’s interior monologues ‘broken down into a rough shoot-
ing script’ by means of pencil margin notes. Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein, p. 290.
100. Eisenstein, ‘A Course in Treatment’, Film Form, p. 105.
101. Beckett, ‘Dante . . . Bruno.Vico..Joyce’, pp. 14–15.
102. As Scott Klein, argues, ‘Joyce took Lewis’ criticism seriously.’ Klein, The Fictions
of James Joyce and Wyndham Lewis, p. 3.
103. Beckett, ‘Dante . . . Bruno.Vico..Joyce’, pp. 14–15.
104. Ibid. pp. 14–15.
105. Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandroff, ‘The Sound Film’, in Donald et al. (eds),
Close Up, 1927–1933, p. 84.
106. Brecht, ‘On Film Music’, Brecht on Film and Radio, p. 11.



Hand-writing in Nacht und Träume

In 1936, Beckett writes to Eisenstein as a ‘serious cinéaste’1 and expresses a
desire to work in the lost tradition of the silent film. His extensive study of
silent film history and theory during this period, including Eisenstein and
Pudovkin, Rudolf Arnheim and Close Up,2 inspired the formulation of a view
which remained a shaping influence throughout his work: ‘the industrial film
will become so completely naturalistic, in stereoscopic colour & gramophonic
sound, that a backwater may be created for the two-dimensional silent film
that had barely emerged from its rudiments when it was swamped’.3 Beckett’s
thinking about silent film culminates in the production of Film (1964), which is
set in 1929, the moment in film history when talking pictures had just begun to
inundate the screen, when figures such as Nabokov, Lewis, Joyce, Eisenstein,
Artaud and Brecht, insisting on the separation or non-coincidence of speech
with gesture, sought to resist the transition from cinema’s mute language of
gesture to the proscenium theatricality of the talkies. He returns again to silent
film in one of his final works, Nacht und Träume (1982).
By emphasising continuity with the silent film of the twenties, from Film
(1964) to Nacht und Träume (1982), and developing a performance style
which refuses to domesticate the contradictions between reading and spec-
tatorship, Beckett’s practice exemplifies the relentless blurring of boundaries
between speech and gesture, and the refusal of rigidly defined categories of

samuel beckett

either literary or performative representation. The thematised split between

speech and gesture, a technique Eisenstein formulated after reading Joyce,
becomes one of the chief principles of Beckett’s dramaturgy. In Krapp’s Last
Tape, the mechanical reproduction of Krapp’s voice dislocates the ghost-like
distance of his speech from the presentness of his gesture, as he attempts to
maintain the illusion of a coherent self amidst multiple possibilities; during
the recording of Eh Joe in April 1966, while recording Deryk Mendel’s image
for the Süddeutscher Rundfunk Joe, Beckett was asked by a visitor what
he thought of Nancy Illig’s Voice: he replied, ‘today I’m concentrating on
the picture’; in Ghost Trio, the split is formalised by the two separate figures,
the prescriptive voice of V and the marionette-like gestures of F. This principle
of synchronicity, the split function of speech and gesture, correlates with the
thematised double aspect of gestures inflected as much by their readability as
by their performative materiality. The dual function of Beckett’s stage direc-
tions prescribes specifics of stage management and, on the page, they call to the
eye of the mind; they preserve gestures as instructions for spectatorial effect,
but also, in their compositional force, guide the solitary reader, for whom the
gesture remains imperceptible. This emphasis on the double aspect of reading
the gesture echoes Maeterlinck’s notion that the transmission of the gesture’s
symbolic qualities, in the act of reading, is not obstructed by the contingent
body of the actor.4 By liberating the gesture’s imitative relation to its field
of vision, it can attain a signifying property ordinarily reserved for writing.
Maeterlinck’s plays for marionettes, alongside Yeats, for whom the invisibility
of the actor also assumes a privileged status,5 attempt to dissolve the living
actor into a symbol or sign. The Beckettian actor is weighed down by the
body’s materiality, yet the elaborate patterns of minute gesture, the balletic
arrangement even of clownish routines, the regulated and solemn motions of
his theatre, suggest a kinship with the modernist anti-naturalism exemplified
in marionette theatre. The depersonalised gestures of the marionette theatre
advocated by Maeterlinck, Symons and Yeats aimed to return spectatorship
to the act of reading, based on the principle that the actor’s physical presence,
held captive by its own materiality, detracts from the imperceptibility available
only to the solitary reader of the play.
By way of conclusion, I wish to show how two of Beckett’s late works,
Nacht und Träume and Catastrophe, demonstrate the central tensions and
contradictions of the speech-gesture complex. Beckett’s deep structure of
recurring gestures, his constant placing of the same gesture in a different
context, exemplified in Nacht und Träume, articulates a drive to textualise the
body and endow gestures with the properties of language. As a director, he was
renowned for a style which seeks to regulate and formalise individual gestures
through intensive and particular work with actors.6 But in this book, I have
also been arguing against the view of modernism as autonomous, immanent

the speech-gesture complex

and as reducing the body to text. It is through the category of the speech-
gesture complex that we find Beckett’s most explicit challenge to the modernist
tendency to impose legibility on the body, and to the familiar view of Beckett
as ‘apolitically committed to the autonomy of his work’.7 Beckett’s intense
anti-naturalist formalism mutates in Catastrophe into a situation where the
prescriptive demands on the actor are explicitly paralleled with the violence
of authoritarianism; by foregrounding the ambiguity and partial opacity of
the written gestures, and the doubleness of the act of reading and spectating
the play, I read the aesthetics and politics of Catastrophe as a self-critique of
Beckett’s own practice as a writer-director to formalise gestures within a self-
enclosed and immanent structure.
Nacht und Träume, despite its electronic image, harks back to silent film:
the only audible sound is the Schubert song of the title. During its produc-
tion, which he wrote and directed for Süddeutscher Rundfunk in 1982 (it was
broadcast a year later), he told the cameraman, Jim Lewis, that ‘it was dif-
ficult for him to keep writing words, without having the feeling that it was a
lie’,8 echoing his argument in 1929 that Joyce had ‘desophisticated language’
by resort to the ‘savage economy of hieroglyphics’.9 The writing of gesture
in Beckett’s late work, and the reversibility of terms ordinarily applied to
language and movement, in this sense, hark back to the aspect-shifts between
acts of reading and spectatorship, between the word-gesture in writing and the
picture-gesture on stage or film, in Joyce, Eisenstein and Artaud. The words
for this late film, a work rarely screened or discussed,10 consisting entirely of
stage directions for camera and movement, are not a radical compression and
omission of words per se but of speech. The clarity of the film’s language of
gesture strives to elide every possible mendacity and corruption of the speech-
based properties of words. The neutral, prescriptive language of the stage
directions dissolves once the image on screen passes before the spectator; yet
the icon, the perceptible gesture, in its intense condensation, its referential
force, the way each gesture of the hand becomes an index of all the other hands
in Beckett, strives to achieve, within the context of the earlier work for stage
and screen, the symbolic properties of a micro-language. Cinema, accord-
ing to Agamben, ‘leads images back to the homeland of gesture. According
to the beautiful definition implicit in Beckett’s Nacht und Träume, it is the
dream of a gesture.’11 It is rather, in my account, a dream of the language of
This enclosed referential structure, each gesture taking its meaning by asso-
ciation with other gestures, either from the same or from other work, had by
this late stage achieved an intricate complexity in Beckett’s work. A cumulative
structure of gestural cross-reference and formalist repetition had always been a
steadfast principle of Beckett’s work as a writer-director, even before his own
activity as a director had begun:

samuel beckett

producers don’t seem to have any sense of form in movement [. . .] When,
in a text, actions are repeated, they ought to be made unusual the first
time, so that when they happen again – in exactly the same way – an
audience will recognise them from before.12

In Ghost Trio, F’s hands clutching his cassette, his head bowed, echo the
posture of Krapp’s bowed head, his hand on his tape machine. Krapp react-
ing when he feels ‘Old Nick behind him’13 in the Schiller Theatre production
(1969) informs the reflex of F, the turning of his body when he ‘thinks he
hears her’.14 The effect of immateriality in F’s ‘slow faltering walk’ which
‘makes no sound’15 resonates alongside the ‘clearly audible rhythmic tread’16
of May’s pacing in Footfalls. During the Schiller Krapp, Beckett asked Martin
Held to fold his arms across his body and clutch his upper arms:17 Krapp
shudders at the chill of winter as he warms himself, but the gesture is also
symbolic of his self-containment, his condition of existing only for himself,
having ‘nothing to talk to but his dying self, and nothing to talk to him
but his dead one’.18 Quoting himself in his 1976 production of Footfalls,
he instructed Billie Whitelaw to reproduce the gesture’s double aspect
of mimesis and formalism. Beckett stipulated her feeling ‘cold the whole
time’ in the way she ‘holds [her] body. Everything is frost and night’, but
her posture of self-embrace also suggests ‘that May is there exclusively for
Nacht und Träume achieves a multi-dimensional allusive compression,
particularly in its hand gestures. The two figures, played by the same actor, A,
the ‘dreamer’, and B, ‘his dreamt self’, summon the cinematic doubles in Film
and Eh Joe and the dream-eaten TV Krapp. A is observed by the camera in
right profile, his head bowed, like F and Winnie, and his hands resting on the
table, recalling Krapp at his desk, and the figures of the Listener and Reader
– after B, the dreamt self, appears to the right of the frame in left profile – in
Ohio Impromptu, written and produced a year earlier in 1981. Where Ohio
Impromptu stages an act of reading, Nacht und Träume stages an act of sym-
bolic gesture. In addition to A and B, there are two more roles assigned in the
text: ‘Dreamt hands R (right) and L (left)’ (p. 465). L, a disembodied hand,
rests on B’s head and then withdraws. R then appears, also disembodied, offer-
ing a cup from which B drinks, and then appears again with a cloth, wipes B’s
brow and disappears. The person to whom the hands belong remains ‘invis-
ible’, the only indication as to his or her identity when ‘B raises his head further
to gaze up at invisible face’ (p. 466). B lifts his right hand, still gazing at the
invisible face, and ‘holds it raised palm upward’ (p. 466); R then reappears
and rests his hand upon B’s upward palm, B raises his left hand and ‘rests it
on joined hands’ (p. 466). The hands ‘sink to table’, B’s head falls upon them,
L reappears and rests on B’s head. The dream fades out, A, the dreamer, fades

the speech-gesture complex

up again, and the whole sequence is repeated as before, except this time, ‘in
close-up and slower motion’ (p. 466).
While fondly remembering the hands of the old woman on the stairs in Film
and the ‘beautiful’ hands of Buster Keaton, which he declared were ‘his only
good memory of the shoot’, Beckett told André Bernold in 1980 of an intention
to write a play consisting solely of hands, remarking on their ‘photogenic’ quali-
ties, and expressing compassion for hands ‘at rest after all that they have done’.20
The switch in perspective from E to O, observer to observed in Film, signalled
by close-ups of Keaton’s hands – the camera, assuming the view through O’s
eyes, records his disembodied hands taking their pulse, locking the door, cover-
ing the fishbowl, closing the curtain – is distantly echoed in Nacht und Träume,
in the shift from dreamer to dreamt self. Each is the double of the other, the
same in every particular, except the dream is distinguished by the disembodied
hand gestures appearing from above. The camera-eye records Keaton’s hands,
towards the end of the film, viewing a series of photos of himself from birth to
the present and then tearing them up one by one. The second photo, showing
a child, hands clasped in prayer beside his onlooking mother, is reminiscent of
a photo of Beckett as a child of three in a similar posture, hands in prayer, his
mother beside him. The gesture in the photo reverberates, between Beckett’s
first and last silent film, in the joined hands of B and L, their palms clasping
one another in communal prayer. James Knowlson notes the similarity with
Christian painting of the seventeenth century, in particular, of an etching by
Dürer of praying hands, a reproduction of which used to hang on the wall of
Beckett’s room in his ancestral home at Cooldrinagh.21
Sacred ritual is reduced to essential gestures made with the hands. Beckett
told the cameraman, Jim Lewis, that the cloth which wipes the brow of B
‘alluded to the veil that Veronica used to wipe the brow of Jesus on the Way
of the Cross. The imprint of Christ’s face remains on the cloth.’22 The redemp-
tive quality of the hand gestures also chimes with an observation Beckett made
almost sixty years earlier in 1924. On seeing the actor Michael Dolan as a
modern Job in T. C. Murray’s Autumn Fire, he remarked how much the hand
movements had come into representing a kind of redemption when, ‘as a man
who was maimed and stricken’, he had ‘all these tragic occurrences falling
upon him’.23 In one of the film’s ‘numerous teasers’, as Beckett puts it, he asks
that ‘the sex of the hands must remain uncertain’, but then qualifies this: ‘I
think no choice but female for the helping hands.’24
The female hands reiterate the image of Veronica wiping the brow of Christ,
but they also allude to other female figures in Beckett, also given to prayer.
The joined hands of B and R recall the ritual intertwining hands of Flo, Vi
and Ru in Come and Go as they mime a communal prayer. The pattern made
by their joined hands, the figure on the right holding the left hands of each of
the others, the one on the left holding both right hands, the one in the centre

samuel beckett

holding a right and a left, suggests a figure of eight turned on its side, the
mathematical symbol for infinity. As Enoch Brater observes, the figure of eight
is also mimed by the pacing of May in Footfalls: her wheel and turn, from
right to left, then left to right, from above, is also an ‘elongated variation’ of
the same figure.25 These restless souls, trapped in the template of their physi-
cal predicament, are consigned to eternal repetition, like the lovers in Yeats’s
The Dreaming of the Bones, compelled to live and relive their unhappy exist-
ence, or the mother in Purgatory, condemned to tread the same circular path.
The ritual hands in Nacht und Träume are encoded with religious symbolism,
although they ambiguously also suggest, in light of another female figure who
attaches great import to prayer, the comforts of domestic routine. Winnie
begins her day, hands clasped, with an ‘inaudible prayer’ (p. 138). During Act
I, amongst her other routines, she wipes her spectacles with a handkerchief,
and takes a drink from her bottle of medicine. These two gestures, elements of
her domestic habit, are distantly recalled and formalised into sacrament in the
wiping of the brow and the offering of the cup. The final line of the act – ‘Pray
your old prayer, Winnie’ (p. 159) – is accompanied, in Beckett’s production in
1979, with an amended stage direction, from ‘long pause’ (p. 159) to ‘hands
remain frozen apart as interrupted above’.26 Her hands freeze on the way to
the clasp of the opening gesture, setting up the second act, in which she can no
longer pray, or enact her small-scale but vital routines. These elaborate rituals
– precisely regulated in the production Notebook, Beckett indicating when she
should use her left (‘LH’) and right (‘RH’) hands, again anticipating L and R
in Nacht und Träume – are Winnie’s sole consolation. Between the first and
second act, when she is buried up to her neck, Winnie could also be dreaming
of hands appearing from above to comfort her.
Referential fields of force in Nacht und Träume point to religious assuage-
ment, although in the distant allusions to the etching by Dürer on the wall of
Beckett’s childhood bedroom, the photo of himself as a child praying beside
his mother, and the routines of Winnie, they also enact a palliative domestic or
maternal tenderness. The ritual patterns, fixed once and for all by the camera,
bring out the archetypal quality of both religious and maternal consolation,
and attain a clarity of symbolic gesture, a shifting range of referential insight
in the constellation of gestures they summon, exemplifying Beckett’s sense of
form in movement.

The Politics of Depersonalisation in Catastrophe

Beckett breaks his rigid tendency towards self-enclosed, non-referential abstrac-
tion and autonomy in two late works for the stage. Tyrus Miller mentions
that Beckett asked each character in What Where, ‘with its plot suggestive
of repetitive, mindless torture’, to wear a Tarboosh, a fez-like headgear often
associated with Armenians, for a production in Stuttgart. Beckett ­suggested,

the speech-gesture complex

in his own words, to think of ‘ “the political situation in Turkey” ’.27 But the
most explicit correlation between a real political situation and the formal
situation of the work is in Catastrophe, written for the Avignon Festival in
1982 and dedicated to the Czechoslovakian dissident Václav Havel, arrested
and imprisoned in 1979. In previous plays, tyranny and oppression appear as
abstractions; in Catastrophe, the relation between the director and the actor is
explicitly politicised in the dedication to Václav Havel. A Director (D) moulds
and manipulates the body of the Protagonist (P) as he stands on a bare stage
in a theatre. P remains passive and mute throughout as D literally sculpts
and arranges his gestures, with the help of his Assistant (A), so as to elicit the
intended response in the audience. D instructs P not to raise his head, but in
the final moments of the play, in an act of defiance and a demonstration of
independent will, he ‘raises his head, fixes the audience. The applause falters,
dies’ (p. 461). Critics have read the sound of an imaginary audience faltering in
their applause as an act of resistance. As Anthony O’Brien argues, P’s defiant
gesture breaks the ‘bonds of domination’ that keep him under the tyranny of
D.28 In its dedication and P’s act of defiance, the play advocates a politics of
resistance to depersonalisation and a protest at the suffering and violence of
authoritarian political repression. For H. Porter Abbott, Beckett’s tyrannies
of theatre and state
merge in the insight that the political will that seeks to constrain human
life to an imagined social order, imprisoning or eliminating those uncon-
trollable elements that threaten that order, is rooted in the aesthetic will
that seeks to dominate the human through formal representation.29
Politics and theatricality are one, and the urge to freeze the body in its formal
function acquires, in this late work for the stage, a politics of resistance to
formality. But I would like to offer an alternative reading to Abbott’s claim
that ‘the particular human life at stake in this aesthetic tyranny [. . .] on the
block, as it were, is Beckett’.30 Catastrophe is both a critique of modernism’s
long-established vision of the human body as a form of writing and a critique
of naturalism’s mimesis of text and performance, its desire to induce identifica-
tion in the mind of an audience; but it is also a self-critique of Beckett’s own
practice as a writer-director to suppress the actor’s own agency in the process
of finding the right gesture. In this respect, Catastrophe’s negative critique of
Beckett’s own often proclaimed tendency toward fixed forms and unalterable
media provides a potentially fluid, less determinate perspective between autho-
rial speech and the gesture of the actor.
The Director and his Assistant stand in front of the mute Protagonist as
they attempt to find the gesture which would most effectively induce identi-
fication in the audience and ‘have them on their feet’ (p. 461). They focus on
the actor’s hands: the director gives instructions – ‘he mustn’t clench his fists’

samuel beckett

(p. 458) – while the Assistant ‘takes out pad, takes pencil, notes’ (p. 458),
and then ‘advances, unclenches fists’ (p. 459); they try joining his hands, A
‘advances, joins the hands’, D asks them to be higher, A ‘raises waist high the
joined hands’, D asks them to be higher still, A ‘raises breast-high the joined
hands’ (p. 459). The conjunction of A’s notation and D’s precise determination
of hand gestures recalls the fixing of gestures in Artaud, the tradition of dep-
ersonalisation in Gordon Craig’s Über-Marionette theatre and the thematisa-
tion of external authority in Meyerhold’s Biomechanics. But it also implicates
Beckett’s own practice of writing gestures and the intense formal demands he
made on his actors. Totalitarian violence in Catastrophe is an aspect of an anti-
naturalist formalism which seeks to transform gestures into text, and which
inflicts suffering on the materiality of the body’s non-linguistic presence. As
Jim Hansen notes, ‘D is a symbol-maker who imagines himself in sympathy
with P. P’s body becomes the symbol writ large on the stage and in front of
an audience.’31 In this sense, it is the reality of P’s physical presence, which
includes the specific gesture of the raised head, which resists the attempt to fix
his gestures. As Andrew Hewitt argues in relation to twentieth-century dance,
the body becomes ‘the final point of resistance to both social and discursive
determination’. For Hewitt, the attempt to enclose and reify the performative
body into an end-product shares a structural fantasy with totalitarian politics,
namely, a ‘belief in immanent totality’32 rather than process, rehearsal and
potentiality. Catastrophe is Beckett’s challenge to the body as text, to the fixing
of the body in an enclosed, immanent, signifying text, a system of signs to be
read by an audience. What the audience reads in Catastrophe is the violence of
the imposition of legibility on the body.
The play’s action critiques the double mimesis of theatre in which the actor
merely obeys action which the director prescribes, and the director in turn
merely transmits the word as it is written in the text. Catastrophe exposes
the structural violence in this self-enclosed theatrical mimesis between writer–
director–actor. In this structure, it is the text which assumes absolute primacy.
The actors’ gestures transmit an intended effect from the writer, via the direc-
tor and actor, into the mind of the audience. D uses his absolute power over
P to exert his directorial vision: P should represent the universalised plight of
mankind. As Jacques Rancière argues, this is the stultifying ‘logic of straight,
uniform transmission: What the spectator must see is what the director
makes her see. What she must feel is the energy he communicates to her.’33
Catastrophe disrupts this transmission, and this disruption is political as well
as theatrical. The raising of the head has been read as an unambiguous act of
defiance, a view which Beckett himself has reinforced, remarking of the final
gesture: ‘There’s no ambiguity there at all [. . .] he’s saying: you bastards, you
haven’t finished me yet!’34 Despite Beckett’s counterclaims, I would argue
that the stage direction ‘raises his head’, as a speech-gesture complex, is richly

the speech-gesture complex

ambiguous and that its double aspect, as both an instruction and as a partially
opaque written sign, thematises a politics of resistance to the imposition of
textuality on the body.
On the one hand, P is simply complying with the external authority of
the instruction as written by Beckett: it is an act of defiance which has been
pre-scripted and predetermined, and P’s climactic moment is no more than a
playing out of a design imposed upon him from above. Yet the partial opacity
of the stage direction, its sketch of a gesture invisible to the eye, the absence of
certain physical details such as the type of look P gives to the audience, whether
he raises his head slowly or sharply, the expression on his face, imputes an
openness and indeterminacy to the text, leaving the actor with choices to
make, allowing him to be the author of himself in the play’s climactic moment.
The inherent incapacity of the text to fully delineate the performative gesture
allows P a degree of power and freedom to assert his self-determination, and
consequently to refuse the reduction of his body to the status of a text.

 1. Beckett to Eisenstein, 3 February 1936, quoted in Leyda (ed.), A Premature
Celebration of Eisenstein’s Centenary, p. 59.
 2. Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p. 226.
  3. Beckett to Thomas MacGreevy, 6 February 1936, quoted in Knowlson, Damned to
Fame, p. 226.
 4. Deak, Symbolist Theater, p. 21.
  5. Yeats, ‘William Blake’, Selected Criticism, p. 22.
 6. Ben-Zvi, Women in Beckett, p. 31; Asmus, ‘Rehearsal Notes for the German
Premiere of Beckett’s That Time and Footfalls’, in Gontarski (ed.), On Beckett,
p. 253; Kalb, Beckett in Performance, p. 64.
 7. Milne, ‘Attacking the World’s Portadownians’, in Boxall (ed.), Samuel Beckett
Today/Aujourd’Hui, p. 284.
 8. Kalb, Beckett in Performance, p. 98.
  9. ‘Beckett, ‘Dante . . . Bruno.Vico..Joyce’, p. 15.
10. Notable exceptions include Brater, ‘Towards a Poetics of Television Technology’.
11. Agamben, Means Without End, p. 55.
12. To Charles Marowitz, Encore, March–April 1962, quoted in McMillan and
Fehsenfeld, Beckett in the Theatre, p. 16.
13. McMillan and Fehsenfeld, Beckett in the Theatre, p. 280.
14. Beckett, The Complete Dramatic Works, p. 410. All references are to this edition
and are included parenthetically within the text.
15. MS 1519/1, Ghost Trio, Beckett International Foundation: Reading University
16. Beckett, The Complete Dramatic Works, p. 399.
17. McMillan and Fehsenfeld, Beckett in the Theatre, p. 264.
18. Letter to Schneider, 4 May 1960, No Author Better Served, p. 59.
19. Asmus, ‘Rehearsal Notes for the German Premiere of Beckett’s That Time and
Footfalls’, in Gontarski (ed.), On Beckett, p. 258.
20. Bernold, L’Amitié de Beckett: 1979–1989, p. 73.
21. Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p. 682.
22. Quoted in Kalb, Beckett in Performance, p. 255.

samuel beckett

23. Bill Cunningham on Telefis Eireann radio programme, quoted in Knowlson and
Pilling, Frescoes of the Skull, p. 282.
24. Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p. 683.
25. Brater, ‘A Footnote to Footfalls’, p. 37.
26. Beckett, Happy Days: The Production Notebook, p. 198.
27. Miller, ‘Beckett’s Political Technology’, p. 271.
28. O’Brien, ‘Staging Whiteness’, p. 47.
29. Abbott, ‘Tyranny and Theatricality’, p. 87.
30. Ibid. p. 87.
31. Hansen, ‘Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe and the Theater of Pure Means’, p. 667,
p. 668.
32. Hewitt, Social Choreography, p. 14, p. 30.
33. Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, p. 14.
34. Conversation with James Knowlson, 1984. Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p. 680.


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Abbey Theatre, 52–3, 61, 64, 68–9, 73 Weigel, Helen, 126

Abbott, H. Porter, 168 Whitelaw, Billie, 165
actors, 121, 136, 142, 163, 164, 168, Actors’ Theatre Moscow, 63
169 Adorno, Theodor, 23, 25, 114, 115, 119,
Adams, Maude, 100 120, 121, 122, 125, 126, 132, 134,
Barrymore, Ethel, 100 135, 136
Barrymore, Lionel, 144, 145 Agamben, Giorgio, 6, 7, 12, 13,
Bassermann, Albert, 19, 20, 21 164
Bernhardt, Sarah, 99 Alfred Jarry Theatre, 150
Brooks, Louise, 28, 143 Anscombe, Elizabeth, 97
Chaplin, Charlie, 8, 22–3, 25–6, 100, Antoine, André, 17, 52
101–5, 107, 108, 119, 121–2, 133, Archer, William, 41, 42, 45, 50, 64
142, 145, 149–50 Aristotle, 122, 123
Cooke, George Frederick, 100 Armstrong, Tim, 24
Dolan, Michael, 166 Arnheim, Rudolf, 107–9, 135, 162
Duse, Eleanora, 8, 15, 16, 17, 49–50, Artaud, Antonin, 16, 33, 149, 150–1,
51–2, 54, 55, 56, 59, 64, 76–7, 91 156, 159, 162, 164, 169
Fairbanks, Douglas, 69 Attridge, Derek, 66, 78
Faversham, William, 100 Austin, J. L., 2
Gable, Clark, 140, 143–4, 147 Avery, Bruce, 43
Garbo, Greta, 8, 33, 137, 141–5, Ayers, David, 102, 111, 140
Gilbert, John, 143 Barry, Iris, 104, 116, 117, 129n
Gish, Lillian, 29, 143 Barthes, Roland, 69, 142, 145
Held, Martin, 165 Beckett, Samuel, 7, 13, 33–4, 91, 105,
Hennings, Betty, 50 133, 149, 157, 162–71
Illig, Nancy, 163 Catastrophe, 163, 164, 168–70
Keaton, Buster, 143 Come and Go, 166–7
Lawrence, Florence, 100 Eh Joe (for TV), 163, 165
Levi, Yitskhok, 9 essay on Finnegans Wake, 153–4,
Linder, Max, 69–70 158–9
MacKaye, Steele, 28, 32 Film (film), 162, 165, 166
Mendel, Deryk, 163 Footfalls, 165, 167
Nagel, Conrad, 144 Ghost Trio (for TV), 163, 165
Novarro, Ramon, 145 Happy Days, 5, 167
Reinhardt, Max, 19 Krapp’s Last Tape, 163, 165
Robins, Elizabeth, 17, 45 letter to Alan Schneider, 5
Swanson, Gloria, 143 letter to Eisenstein, 162
Terry, Ellen, 17 Nacht und Träume, 34, 162, 163,
Turner, Florence, 100 164–7


Ohio Impromptu, 165 Derrida, Jacques, 5

What Where, 167–8 Deutsches Theater Berlin, 19
Bellour, Raymond, 116 Diaghilev, Sergei, 7
Benjamin, Walter, 4–5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 13, Diamond, Elin, 5, 15, 55
14, 18, 20, 25, 26, 78, 102, 103, Dickens, Charles, 28
110, 114, 117, 121, 122 Dostoevsky, Fyodor, 98, 140
Benstock, Bernard, 43, 48 Dreiser, Theodore, 158
Bergson, Henri, 96, 97, 100, 106, 107, Duncan, Isadora, 7
109 Dürer, Albrecht, 166, 167
Bernold, André, 166 Dyer, Richard, 145–6
Birdwhistell, Ray, 31, 153
body, the, 4, 5, 7, 10, 11–12, 20, 21–2, Edel, Leon, 46
25, 27–8, 29, 31, 32, 34, 39, 40, Edwards, Paul, 90, 105, 106, 111, 112,
41–2, 43, 44–5, 49–50, 52, 55, 62, 141
63, 64, 65, 66, 69, 70, 71, 72, 75–6, Efron, David, 153
80, 81, 82, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, Egan, Michael, 45, 46, 55
94, 97, 98, 101, 105, 109, 110, 125, Elam, Keir, 11–12
126–7, 132, 133, 135, 150, 151–2, Eliot, T. S., 24, 91, 153
156, 163–4, 168, 169, 170 Ellmann, Richard, 42
Boucicault, Dion, 70 Erin Theatre Dublin, 73
Bourdieu, Pierre, 104
Brater, Enoch, 167 Ferrall, Charles, 112
Brecht, Bertolt, 5, 12, 13, 14–16, 18, film, 19–20, 21–7, 31–2, 65, 66
19, 25–6, 33, 64, 91, 111, 122–4, acting, 8, 18, 19–20, 25
125–6, 149, 150, 151, 159, 162 as hieroglyphic, 29–30, 78–9, 151–2,
Brod, Max, 19, 20, 21 155
Brown, Dennis, 89 as hypnotic, 123–5
Burch, Noël, 26, 99 cinematograph, 68, 109, 148
Burns, Christy, 53–4, 156 close-up, 26, 29, 71, 76–7, 78, 79, 99,
104, 105, 119, 120, 124, 135, 136,
Carey, John, 111–12, 113 145, 146, 151, 166
Cavell, Stanley, 24 continuity, 27
Cendrars, Blaise, 29 cross-cutting, 120
Churchill, Winston, 112 cutback, 29
cinema see film; film directors; films Dada, 24
Colum, Padraic, 55 documentary, 73
Connor, Steven, 76, 135 frame, 108–9
Copeau, Jacques, 95 genre, 21, 22
Cornwell, Neil, 157 juxtaposition, 151
Critchley, Macdonald, 153 kinetoscope, 68
Crommelynck, Fernand, 17, 61–3 long shot, 135
Cuzzi, Paolo, 56 montage, 24, 26, 28, 29, 108, 120,
125, 132, 135, 149, 151, 153, 156,
dance, 9, 12, 163, 169 157, 158, 159
Danius, Sara, 24 Mutoscope, 68
D’Annunzio, Gabriel, 49, 50, 55 parallel cuts, 27, 28, 74
Danto, Arthur C., 97 reverse-angle cross-cutting, 27
Dasenbrock, Reed, 92 shot-reverse-shot, 27, 71, 74, 120,
DeCordova, Richard, 99 124
Deleuze, Gilles, 107, 110, 113 silent, 7, 20, 23, 25, 26, 28, 29–30,
Delsarte, François, 27–8, 32 33–4, 67, 133, 134–5, 148–9, 150,
Der Meshumed (play), 9 151, 153, 156, 158, 162

the speech-gesture complex

film (cont.) Mackey, Arthur, 27

sound, 132–61: cartels, 134–5; talkies, Mamoulian, Rouben, 142
33, 126, 133, 137, 141, 143, 148, Méliés, George, 65, 73
149, 157; Vitaphone, 133–4 Pabst, Georg Wilhelm, 142
Soviet, 24, 26, 29, 125, 134 Porter, Edwin Stanton, 27
studies, 5–6 Powell, Michael, 19
Surrealist, 24, 150 Pressburger, Emeric, 19
takes, 102 Riefenstahl, Leni, 119
‘through the keyhole’, 68, 70 Sennett, Mack, 22, 23, 27
time, 107 Stiller, Maurice, 142
wide-shot, 101 von Sternberg, Joseph, 19
see also gesture(s); performance; Wiene, Robert, 124
theatre and the theatrical Williamson, James, 22
film companies, 150 Zecca, Ferdinand, 21
Biograph, 22, 27, 28, 71, 100 films
Film D’Art, 73, 81, 99 A Conquest, 69–70
Keystone, 22, 27, 102: Cops, 22, 102 A Corner in Wheat, 27
MGM, 143 A Drunkard’s Reformation, 72
Paramount, 158 A Film Johnnie, 102
Pathé, 21, 22, 73 After Many Years, 28, 71
Universal, 146 Arrivée d’un train, 66, 67
Vitagraph, 70, 71, 100 A Search for Evidence, 68
see also Hollywood Ballet Mécanique, 104
film directors Battleship Potemkin, 158
Balázs, Béla, 29, 78, 152 Birth of a Nation, 76
Collins, Alf, 22 Camille, 99
DeMille, Cecil B., 27, 77 Catastrophe, 34
Dreyer, Carl Theodor, 150, 151 Cenere, 76–7
Dulac, Germaine, 150, 151 Coronation of Edward VII, 73
Eisenstein, Sergei, 16, 25, 26, 33, Deception, 117
149, 151, 156, 157–8, 159, 162, Der Verschollene, 20–1
163, 164: copy of Ulysses, 161n; Die Nibelungen, 33, 117–18, 119
‘Dickens, Griffith and the Film Dix femmes pour un mari, 22
Today’, 28; ‘Film Form: New Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, 124–5
Problems’, 153; Moscow Film Enoch Arden, 71
School, 158; ‘The Cinematic Épopée napoléonienne, 73
Principle and the Ideogram’, 5, Film, 162, 165, 166
149, 151–2, 157; ‘The Sound Film: Flesh and the Devil, 143, 144
A Statement from U.S.S.R.’ (with Foreign Correspondent, 19
Pudovkin and Alexandroff), 149, Francesca de Rimini, 70–1, 81
157 Gold Is Not All, 27
Epstein, Jean, 29, 76 Grand Hotel, 142, 144
Gance, Abel, 29, 33, 120, 150, 151 His New Job, 103
Godard, Jean-Luc, 126 In the Clutches of the Gang, 22
Griffith, D.W., 27, 28, 29, 71–2, 76, Intolerance, 76, 78–9
77, 78–9, 80, 81, 82: A Fool and a Joyless St, 142
Girl, 71 Kid Auto Races at Venice, 23, 103
Hitchcock, Alfred, 19 La Coquille et le clergyman, 150: The
Ince, Thomas, 27 Seashell and the Clergyman, 151
Lang, Fritz, 33, 116, 117–18, 119, 124 L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise, 73
Lubitsch, Ernst, 117, 142 La Tosca, 99
Lumière, Louis and Auguste, 73 Mata Hari, 145


Metropolis, 116–17 Genette, Gérard, 43

Nacht und Träume, 34, 162, 163, gesture(s), 6–7, 9–13, 18, 20, 23, 33,
164–7 122, 123, 135, 150–1, 152, 154–5,
Napoleon, 33, 120–1, 150 156, 157, 163–5, 168, 169, 170
Ninotchka, 142, 143 and film as international language,
October, 158 29–31, 66, 78, 79–80, 81, 148, 153,
Passion, 117 154, 156
Personal, 22 clichéd, 121, 123
Queen Christina, 142, 143, 145 comic, 1–2, 95–6
Shanghai Gesture, 19 context dependency, 31
Shoulder Arms, 103 deictic, 3–4
Stop Thief!, 22 Delsarte system, 27–8, 32, 70, 81
Susan Lennox, 143–4 denotation and reference, 3, 4, 28, 30,
The Avenging Conscience, 77 31, 32, 100, 152
The Bangville Police, 22 facial, 41, 56
The Bargain, 27 histrionic code, 70–1, 72, 80, 81
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 115, illocution, 41, 44, 48, 62, 156
124 illustrative, 135
The Cheat, 27 kinesics, 31
The Gold Rush, 129n manual, 49–50, 55, 56–9, 75, 76–7,
The Great Dictator, 150 78, 80, 154, 164, 165, 166–7,
The Great Train Robbery, 27 168–9
The Jazz Singer, 133 manuals and handbooks of, 27, 30
The Kleptomaniac, 27 mechanical, 116–17, 118, 122, 150
The Loafer, 27 modern study of, 30
The Loves of Pharaoh, 117 performativity, 3, 4, 5, 8–9, 24–5
The Maniac Chase, 22 political potential, 12–13
The Mysterious Lady, 144–5 repetitive, 95–6
The Other, 21 scale of, 27–8, 42, 49–50, 51, 54–6,
The Passion of Joan of Arc, 150 59, 61, 62, 64, 65, 70, 71, 72–3, 74,
The Policemen’s Little Run, 21 75, 76, 79, 82, 106
The Primal Call, 27 sign-language, 152
The Red Shoes, 19 symbolic, 4, 6, 27–8, 70, 80, 152–3,
The Runaway Match, 22 165, 167
The Story the Biograph Told, 68 verisimilar code, 28–9, 80
The Temptress, 144, 145 visuality, 3, 9, 19
‘The Three Unlucky Travellers’, 136 see also performance; theatre and the
The Triumph of the Will, 119, 120–1 theatrical
The Water Nymph, 22 Gibbons, Luke, 53
The Whispering Chorus, 77 Gibson, Andrew, 59, 75
Tillie’s Punctured Romance, 102 Gillette, King, 117
Torrent, 142–3 Girard, René, 140
Flaubert, Gustave, 140, 141 Gomery, Douglas, 134
Ford, Henry, 114, 117 Gordon Craig, Edward, 16, 17, 18, 55,
Fratellini, Albert, 95 91, 93, 169
Freud, Sigmund, 56–7, 61, 78, 120, 122 Gorky, Maxim, 67
Fried, Michael, 8 Graver, David, 90
Green, Fitzhugh, 133
Garin, Erast, 63 Grice, Paul, 2
Garner, Stanton, 45 Griffith, Arthur (founder, Sinn Fein),
Gasiorek, Andrzej, 90, 147 59–60
General Motors, 114 Gunning, Tom, 118

the speech-gesture complex

Hansen, Jim, 169 Time and Tide, 111

Hansen, Miriam, 31–2, 79, 81 transition, 149, 157, 158: poetry in,
Hauptmann, Gerhart, 39, 42, 64 151
Havel, Václav, 168 Vogue, 129n
Hayman, David, 66 Jousse, Marcel, 154
H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), 23, 142–3, 149 Joyce, James, 8, 13, 15, 16, 17–18, 23,
Heath, Stephen, 23, 69, 108, 126, 154 26, 31, 33, 38–87, 88–9, 105–6,
Herring, Phillip, 80 151, 154, 162, 164
Hewitt, Andrew, 6, 9–10, 13, 31, 32, 81, A Brilliant Career, 42
169 ‘Drama and Life’, 42
Hitler, Adolf, 111–15, 118–19, 120–1, Dubliners, 16, 38–9, 40, 42–5, 47–50,
122, 124, 127; see also National 51–2, 53–4, 58, 59, 61
Socialism Exiles, 17, 42, 43, 54, 55–65, 88:
Hofmannsthal, Hugo von, 49 revisions of, 59
Hollywood, 29, 31, 32–3, 81, 100, 113, eyesight loss, 155–6, 157–8
114, 125, 132, 133, 134–5, 136, Finnegans Wake, 32, 42, 89, 149, 153,
137, 138, 139, 140, 141, 142, 143, 154, 155–7, 158–9
146, 148, 149, 156; see also film ‘Ibsen’s New Drama’, 42
companies interview with Frank Budgen, 129n
Horkheimer, Max, 114 letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver, 155
Hulme, T. E., 92 Our Exagmination Round His
Hutchins, Patricia, 65 Factification for Incamination of
Work in Progress, 129n, 153,
Ibsen, Henrik, 5, 14, 15, 16–17, 28, 32, 158–9
42, 49, 50, 51–2, 54, 55, 56, 59, 61, Stephen Hero, 155
64, 71, 82 ‘The Home Rule Comet’, 60
Ghosts, 51 Ulysses, 5, 26, 32, 42, 54, 59, 61,
Hedda Gabler, 45, 46–7, 49, 51 66, 75, 78, 89, 105, 106–7, 156,
Rosmersholm, 40–1, 46, 51, 55–6 157, 158: ‘Circe’, 43, 65–8, 71,
The Doll’s House, 40, 49, 50–1, 64 72–3, 74, 75, 76, 77–8, 79–81,
The Master Builder, 41–2, 45, 47 88–9, 90, 99, 155; ‘Cyclops’,
Innes, Christopher, 150–1 48–9, 73–4, 75; film of, 161n;
Irish Literary Theatre, 52–3 ‘Hades’, 76; ‘Lestrygonians’, 49,
70, 76; ‘Nausicaa’, 67, 68; ‘Scylla
James, Henry, 15, 45–7 and Charybdis’, 75; ‘Sirens’, 75;
Guy Domville, 46 ‘Telemachus’, 67
The Awkward Age, 46 Joyce, Stanislaus, 42, 49, 50, 59–60, 66,
The Other House, 46–7 75
The Spoils of Poynton, 46
The Tragic Muse, 46 Kafka, Franz, 1–5, 6, 8, 14, 18–19, 20–1,
What Maisie Knew, 46 22, 25, 45
Jameson, Fredric, 15, 26, 105, 146 Amerika, 1–4, 8–9, 10–12, 19, 20–3,
Jolson, Al, 133 26, 27: Der Verschollene, 11
journals ‘A Report to an Academy’, 11
BLAST, 88, 94 diaries, 8, 9
Close Up, 23, 33, 142, 149, 150, 151, letters, 8, 9, 19, 20
162 Metamorphosis, 149
Fortnightly Review, 42 Kandinsky, Wassily, 93
The Enemy, 106 Kelber, Michel, 135
The Mask, 93 Kendon, Adam, 31, 152, 153
The Nation, 49 Kenner, Hugh, 43, 98, 105
The Spectator, 129n Kermode, Frank, 147


Kipling, Rudyard, 23 Time and Western Man, 88–9, 100,

Klamath tribe, study of, 152, 153 101, 104, 106, 109, 110, 111, 112,
Klein, Scott, 18, 89, 155 133, 145
Knowlson, James, 166 Two Figures, 96
Koht, Halvdan, 49 Two Mechanics, 96
Kracauer, Siegfried, 114, 115, 116, 118, Two Vorticist Figures, 96
122, 124 Vorticist Design, 94
Kramer, Peter, 5–6 Lindsay, Vachel, 29
Litvak, Joseph, 46
Lady Gregory, 53 Lloyd, David, 59
Lady Rhondda, 111 Lohse, Gunter, 119
Laemmle, Carl, 146 London Film Society, 104, 115–16
Lafourcade, Bernard, 96 Lugné-Poë, Aurélien, 17, 61–2
Lawrence, D. H., 23
Léger, Fernand, 104 McCabe, Susan, 23–4, 25, 104
Leonard, Garry, 48 McLuhan, Marshal, 105
Leslie, Esther, 114 McNeill, David, 31
Lewis, Jim, 164, 166 MacNicholas, John, 64
Lewis, Wyndham, 8, 13, 17–18, 31, Macpherson, Kenneth, 149
32–3, 88–131, 132–4, 135–6, Maeterlinck, Maurice, 18, 91, 92, 163
143–4, 146, 149, 159, 162 Manganiello, Dominic, 52, 60
‘An Analysis of the Mind of James Marcus, Laura, 23, 29, 149
Joyce’, 106, 158 Marey, Etienne-Jules, 108
and Communism, 146–7 Martyn, Edward, 53
and fascism, 18, 33, 111–15, 118–27, Maupassant, Guy de, 44–5
135, 146–7 Mayer, David, 71
Blasting and Bombardiering, 140–1 Mayer, Louis B., 142
Enemy of the Stars, 18, 88–98, 108, Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, 43, 45
126, 142: drawing of same name, Metz, Christian, 29–30
94 Meyerhold, Vsevolod, 14, 16, 17, 25, 33,
Filibusters in Barbary, 136, 138, 141, 63, 64, 91, 149–50, 151, 169
142 Miller, Tyrus, 133, 148, 167
Hitler, 111–13 Mitry, Jean, 108
‘Les Saltimbanques’, 95–6 Moi, Toril, 16
Rotting Hill, 127 Moore, George, 53
Smiling Woman Ascending Stair, 92 Moore, Marianne, 24
Tarr, 92, 97–8, 118 Moore, Rachel, 30
The Apes of God, 111, 133 Moussinac, Leon, 120, 157
The Art of Being Ruled, 93, 110, 111, Muir, Edwin, 3
112–13, 114 Mullin, Katherine, 67
The Childermass, 33, 89, 99, 100–5, Münsterberg, Hugo, 78, 107
106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 113, Murray, Robert, 96
115, 117, 118, 119–20, 121–4, 126, Murray, T. C., 166
133, 145 Muybridge, Eadweard, 108
The Courtesan, 92
The Diabolical Principle, 112 Nabokov, Vladimir, 8, 13, 133, 142, 143,
The Domino, 92 144, 146, 149, 156, 162
The Hitler Cult, 113, 127 Laughter in the Dark, 33, 137–40,
The Man of the World, 110–11, 114 144–5, 148–9: Kamera Obskura,
The Revenge for Love, 33, 136–7, 138, 137
140–2, 143, 146–8 poshlost, concept of, 138
The Vorticist, 94 The Real Life of Sebastien Knight, 145

the speech-gesture complex

Naremore, James, 6, 27–8, 71, 82 Rancière, Jacques, 68, 169

National Socialism, 111, 112, 113, 115, Regent Theatre London, 64
118–19, 127, 147 Riblet, Douglas, 22
Neighbourhood Playhouse New York, Rilke, Rainer Maria, 7
64 Roman Catholic Church, 52, 60
Nicholls, Peter, 94, 140 Rowe, Helen, 102
Nietzsche, Friedrich, 8, 90 Royal Theatre Copenhagen, 50
Nijinsky, Vaslav, 49 Russell, George, 53
Nolan, Emer, 53, 59
Norris, Margot, 48 Saussure, Ferdinand de, 30
North, Michael, 22, 24, 151 Schiller Theatre, 165
Schopenhauer, Arthur, 90
O’Brien, Anthony, 168 Searle, John, 2
O’Keefe, Paul, 111 Seltzer, Mark, 116
Orwell, George, 111, 147 Senn, Fritz, 66
Serres, Michel, 75–6
Paget, Richard, 154 Shakespeare, William, 17, 19
Pankhurst, Emmeline, 111 Shaw, George Bernard, 111
Parnell, Charles Stuart, 52, 53, 60, 61 Sherry, Vincent, 94
Pascoli, Giovanni, 7 Shklovsky, Viktor, 26
Pavis, Patrice, 5 Sinn Fein, 59–60, 61, 75
Pearson, Roberta, 27, 28–9, 70, 80 Soller, Philippe, 157
performance, 12–13 Speech-act(s), 6, 31, 43, 126, 135,
acting, 5–6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 20, 25, 152–3, 156
28, 43, 63, 70, 80, 90–1, 93, 122–3: decorum, 2
as hieroglyph, 150–2 dialogue, 126
anti-naturalism, 14, 17, 64, 88, 91, direction, 126
93, 122–3, 135, 150, 151, 163, 164, illocution, 2, 11, 31
169 implication, 2
mime, 49, 70, 95, 152 inference, 2, 11, 57
mimesis, 8, 11, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, intentionality, 2, 3, 19
30, 33, 88, 91, 93, 100, 103, 104, irony, 2
122–6, 132–3, 135–6, 137, 141, subordinate clauses, 3
142, 148, 152, 155, 157, 168, 169 see also gesture(s)
naturalism (realism), 14–18, 27, 28, Spiegel, Alan, 23
29, 32–3, 47, 51, 52, 54, 61, 64, Stalin, Joseph, 147
71, 80, 82, 91, 93, 132, 133, 134, Stanislavski, Constantin, 17
135–6, 141–2, 148, 168 star system, 22, 23, 99, 103, 133, 136,
performative paradigm, 12, 13, 18, 137, 139, 140, 141, 142, 146
24–5 Star Theatre New York, 71
stage directions, 11, 14, 15, 16, 39–42, Stein, Gertrude, 23, 24, 133
50, 51, 55–6, 57–9, 62, 64, 65, 66, Stendhal, 140
67, 68, 69, 72, 74, 77–8, 79, 80, 88, Stirner, Max, 90
90, 94, 99, 106, 126, 144, 163, 164, Strindberg, August, 14, 16–17, 42
169–70 Süddeutscher Rundfunk, 163, 164
studies, 5–6, 7–8 Sudermann, Heinrich, 42
see also theatre and the theatrical Symons, Arthur, 18, 50, 55, 91, 92, 97,
Pirandello, Luigi, 49 163
Pound, Ezra, 24, 64, 88, 94, 117 Synge, J. M., 42, 73
Proust, Marcel, 7, 138–9, 140
Puccini, 144–5 Taxidou, Olga, 5, 16–17, 54, 61
Puchner, Martin, 6, 7–8, 88 Taylor, F. W., 116, 117


technology, 24 Trotter, David, 24, 25

textual paradigm, 5–6, 13 Tyler, Parker, 22–3
theatre and the theatrical, 18–19, 25, 66,
99, 100, 149–50, 159, 169 Vico, Giambattista, 31, 152, 153–4
character, 15, 17, 63 Vorticism, 88–9, 92, 93, 94, 96, 100–1,
Chinese, 14 117, 118
closet drama, 8
clowning, 95–6, 102–3, 121, 163 Wales, Katie, 66
comic, the, 95–6 Walton, Michael, 93
commedia dell’arte, 95 Weber, Samuel, 12, 13
directors, 16–17, 62–3 Wees, William, 94
fourth wall, 17, 52 Wells, H. G., 23
Futurist Manifesto on, 93 Willett, John, 151
Greek, 68–9 Williams, William Carlos, 23
Irish and Anglo-Irish, 16, 32, 52–5, Wolff, Charlotte, 153
69, 73 Woolf, Virginia, 23, 111
marionettes, 91–4, 163, 169 Worringer, Wilhelm, 92, 93, 118
melodrama, 14, 27, 28, 54, 64, 70, Wundt, Wilhelm, 30–1, 152–3, 154
71, 72–3, 138, 139–40, 142, 143,
146 Yeats, W. B., 16, 18, 61, 67, 80, 81, 91,
metatheatre, 16 163
mise en scène, 5–6, 145 Cathleen Ni Houlihan, 53
Noh, 61 Deirdre, 53
proscenium, 33, 62, 64, 65, 71, 72, On Baile’s Strand, 73
99, 149 Purgatory, 167
rehearsal, 13, 14 The Countess Cathleen, 53, 54, 61, 73
script(s), 11, 13, 16, 17, 18, 39–40, 41, The Dreaming of the Bones, 167
43, 51, 63, 65, 156 The Hour Glass, 61
studies, 6, 7–8 The Land of Heart’s Desire, 53
Symbolist, 91 The Shadowy Waters, 53
Yiddish, 8 theatre, 16, 32, 42, 52–4, 60, 64,
see also performance 68–9, 72–3
Théâtre de l’Oeuvre Paris, 61
Théâtre Robert-Houdin Paris, 65 Zischler, Hanns, 20–1
Tourette, Gilles de la, 7 Zola, Émile, 17
Tratner, Michael, 75 Zucker, Carole, 6