Go back to article: Threading through history: the vertical transmission of Davy, Faraday and Tyndall’s lecture demonstration practices

Embodied knowledge transmission: Bratton and intertheatricality

Marvin Carlson’s aforementioned concept of ‘recycling’ chimes with another important theoretical framework for this article – Jacky Bratton’s notion of ‘intertheatricality’ (Bratton, 2003, pp 37–8). In New Readings in Theatre History (2003) Bratton articulates a new theorisation of the transactions in theatre in which she envisages a ‘mesh of connections between all kinds of theatre texts, and between texts and their users’ (2003, p 37). Focusing particularly on theatrical performance in London in the 1830s, Bratton uses the material remains of playbills to investigate the ways in which audiences were able to read and interpret performances by building on their previously acquired experiences of both the specific contexts of the performance itself, and of all the associated contexts – reputation of performers, other roles played or other interpretations of the same role, for instance. Bratton’s concept of intertheatricality capitalises on building the ‘knowingness’ (2003, p 37) that comes from the experience and memory of particular performances, and their contexts, and suggests that many forms of performance can be retained by spectator and performer as part of the shared language of a system that will ultimately shape and enhance individual interpretations of future performances yet to be seen and made.

William N West’s essay Intertheatricality (2013) exploring reverberation and repetition in Elizabethan theatre uses Bratton’s concept as a starting point. As with aspects of my own investigation, West is particularly interested in the reiteration of action and gesture in performance and how this can result in experiences that seem familiar for audiences and performers. He suggests that ‘to look in an “intertheatrical” way – is to seek shared memories of actions that can be called up to thicken present performances’ (West, 2013, p 155). As we shall see, this description of past actions ‘thickening’ those in the present resonates with my location of the roots of twentieth and twenty-first century Science Museum Lecturer and Explainer performance actions in nineteenth-century RI lecture-demonstration practices. Of even greater interest here is West’s overarching definition of intertheatricality:

Rather than seeing different patterns and forms of performance as variations on a fixed type (…) it understands them as belonging to a horizontally organised repertoire, never completed and slowly changing, of lines, gestures, characters, situations, genres, and other smaller elements that cumulatively allow for new performances and new concatenations of actions. Let us call this way of looking at playing its "intertheatricality".

(West, 2013, p 156)

Here, in a description that echoes Bratton’s conception, West envisages new performance as something that repeatedly evolves out of other existing performances, but that moves ‘horizontally’, within one time frame (in his example, the Elizabethan age).[6] Bratton’s theory contains a potentially limiting factor through her suggestion of interdependency amongst the various entertainments and dramas ‘that are performed within a single theatrical tradition’ (2003, p 38). I posit here that physical traces of the RI nineteenth-century lecture-demonstration practices have lingered and endured and, over an extended period of time, can be said to have become intertheatrically enmeshed with elements of other forms of performance, re-emerging in the performance practices of the twenty-first-century SMG Explainer. The context I narrate here suggests that Bratton’s idea of intertheatricality can be expanded beyond the single tradition of theatre. Before elaborating on that claim, and having established a framework for the historical analysis of lecture demonstration practices, let me now return briefly to the details of the vertical transmission of embodied knowledge with specific reference to the ‘master-scientists’ of the RI.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160604/004