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The Theater of Attractions*


Although the attraction achieved its fame as a component of Sergei Eisensteins cinematic montage practice, it should not be forgotten that its origins lie in the collaborative theater work of Eisenstein and Tretiakov from 1923.1 Inuenced by the reexology of Ivan Pavlov and the biomechanical labor science of Aleksei Gastev, the two proposed the theory of the attraction in an attempt to establish rational norms for evaluating the affective content of the theatrical event. As Eisenstein would later state, the attraction was a unit for measuring the force of art. The basic idea of an aesthetic action that stimulates the organism of the spectator was not in and of itself a noteworthy innovation at the time; in fact, the Russian art journals of the day were ooded with articles focused on advancing the eld of research that Mayakovsky designated as physiological criticism, a discipline whose object of study was the art works use-value as an instrument to organize the neural responses of the spectator.2 Rather, Tretiakovs particular contribution in The Theater of Attractions was to mobilize these experiments with the psychophysiology of spectatorial processes for the project of dismantling aesthetic illusion tout court. If conventional theater addressed the audience as an abstract and universalized subject, the theater of attractions stipulated that the productions must be tailored according to the variable ideological and physical composition of different audiences. And if narrative theater contained the intrigue within the stages visual proscenium, the actor in the theater

* Teatr attraktsionov, Oktiabr mysli, no. 1 (1924), pp. 5357. Translator Kristin Romberg is grateful to Dmitri Gutov and Aleksei Penzin for clarifying aspects of the Russian text, and to Devin Fore for editorial advice. 1. In 1923 and 1924 Tretiakov worked closely with Eisenstein in the First Workers Theater of the Moscow Proletkult, where together they produced the rst plays designated as montages of attractions: an adaptation of Ostrovskiis Even a Wise Man Stumbles and two plays by Tretiakov, Are You Listening, Moscow? and Gasmasks. Their close collaboration would, moreover, continue after Eisenstein left the theater to work as a lmmaker. Eisenstein discusses the attraction in The Montage of Attractions (1923) and the Montage of Film Attractions (1924), both of which are translated in Writings 19221934, vol. 1 of S. M. Eisenstein: Selected Works, ed. and trans. Richard Taylor (London: BFI, 1988). 2. Between 1923 and 1925, numerous articles that appeared in Lef, Zhizn iskusstva, and Sovetskoe iskusstvo proposed a variety of techniques for quantifying and standardizing the reactions of the spectator in the theater and cinema.

OCTOBER 118, Fall 2006, pp. 1926. 2006 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.



of attractions faced the spectator as a physical presence in the auditorium. The theater of attractions focused attention not on the spectacle but on the audience as a concrete and tangible entity to be affected. For this reason Tretiakov proposed that the theater of attractions could be likened to a surgical theater whose object was the spectator, although he insisted that this patient must be one who is starkly sober: he must be operated upon without anesthesia, without the haze of aesthetic semblance or the prophylaxis of representation.3 The spectator must be made aware of the fact that his own body was the object of this theatrical procedure. By concretizing the audience and incorporating this embodied subject as an element of the performance, the theater of attractions breached the epistemological barrier that created the spectacles illusion. It thereby disabled a contemplative mode of aesthetic consumption. The evolution of this theatrical experiment culminated with Tretiakovs 1926 I Want a Baby.4 Continuing to eschew densely plotted narrative forms, Tretiakov designed this nal montage of attractions to be constantly interrupted by discussions and seminars on various topics germane to the plays subject matter, eugenics, and even concluded by inviting the audience to come on stage and view an actual exhibition of genetically exemplary children. In the process, it perforated the score of the play, the source of its integrity as an autonomous art object. In the last montage of attractions, then, the spectator steps into an open-ended work. So while theater critics speculated about various methods for acquiring audience feedbackquestionnaires, hidden cameras, etc.5Tretiakov built this feedback mechanism into the text of the play itself. Perhaps we could thus characterize I Want a Baby as a precursor to the happening; or perhaps a closer relative, both genealogically and sociopolitically, would be Bertolt Brechts Great Pedagogy. In either case, the director of I Want a Baby, Vsevolod Meyerhold, had clearly drawn the logical conclusion when he insisted that the publicity for the play should not announce rst, second, and third show [ spektakl], but rst, second, and third discussion. 6 * The recent history of Russian theater has shown close parallels with other forms of art, particularly literature and painting. Once subjective impressionism and symbolist stylization had done away with any sense of reality in art, once art had withdrawn beyond the boundaries of reality into a realm of illusion where there abides not sickness, nor sadness, and especially no class war, there came a period
3. Sergei Tretiakov, Rabochii teatr, Oktiabr mysli, nos. 56 (1924), p. 56. 4. While the montage of attractions would live on in Eisensteins lm work, it nevertheless continued in its cinematic afterlife to be a device that was intrinsically theatrical. Thus Annette Michelson has suggested that even Eisensteins lm work belonged to a general critique of representation effected through theater. See Michelsons Introduction, in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p. l. 5. See, for example, M. Zagorskii, Kak reagiruet zritel?, Lef, no. 6 (1924), pp. 14153; and A. P. Borodin, O razlichnykh priemakh izucheniia teatralnogo zritelia, Sovetskoe iskusstvo, no. 9 (1925), pp. 3037. 6. Vsevolod Meyerhold quoted in a stenographic record from a meeting on the production of I Want a Baby, reprinted in Sovremennaia dramaturgiia, no. 2 (1982), p. 242.

The Theater of Attractions


when art turned to explore a space that had been forfeited to a set of utilitarian industries. It is utterly characteristic of this return that it did not begin by subordinating the object to a clearly dened, socially useful job; it did not follow a specic material forms clear-cut social function (thus, aestheticism, psychologism, and the discrepancy between the aesthetic tradition and economics remained rmly in place).7 This return took the opposite approach: it began by becoming conscious of the material and formal elements of the art at hand. In the way that they studied their arts materials, the principles of its support structure and combination [skrepy i kombinirovaniia], Cubism and nonobjectivity (with their problem of faktura), and transrationalism and the theory of the self-made word in literature, correspond to the theory of biomechanics in theater. The theory of biomechanics offers an organically based and calculated type of movement to replace the decaying wood of the MKhATs autohypnosis, the aesthetic plastic pretensions of the Kamernyi Theater, and the Malyi Theaters muscular narcosis.8 It provides for expressive movement the same scientic foundation that the Scientic Organization of Labor and scientically based sport brought to labor movement. Yet I must emphasize that despite the tremendous importance of biomechanics as a new and purposive method of constructing movement, it far from resolves the problem of theater as an instrument for class inuence. This is why two essentially incompatible functions for the new theater have appeared at different times in the press (indeed, at times simultaneously, for example, in my own work while I was developing my theses on Meyerholds theater). On the one hand, we see an agit- or advert-theater proposed, and on the other, a theater of illustrative demonstration and the presentation of everyday life. Completely overlooked is the fact that the spectacle that acts upon the emotions and that which addresses the intellect are, according to their own devices, absolute opposites. Historically, the path from form to social prescription, rather than the reverse, turned out to be the right one. Those who took the opposite route, ignoring the material and its properties in an effort to build the things necessary for the current plan, quickly fell into old aesthetic molds and produced work that was not only useless, but also actually harmful (e.g., the Forges prolet-poetry, the painting of AKhKhR,9 MGSPSs [Moscow City Council of Trade Unions] theater, and even the Theater of the Revolution, to the extent that it remained unaffected by Meyerholds work, or where Meyerhold ran up against the obviously unsuitable material of an obsolete type of acting that could not be adapted).
7. This may be explained by the fact that the idea of introducing art into industry arose from the very group of artists who had broken away from easel painting and stood as far removed from the questions of the reorganization of the socioeconomic base as economists and politicians from questions of art. [-S. T.] 8. Tretiakov refers to the three most prominent theaters in Moscow, each known for different styles and acting methods: Stanislavskys Moscow Art Theater (MKhAT), well known as the cradle of method acting; Tairovs Kamernyi Theater, known at that time for an aestheticized use of European and Asian theatrical traditions like pantomime and commedia; and the Malyi Theater, the oldest and most traditional dramatic theater in Moscow. 9. Presumably Tretiakov is referring to AKhRR, the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia.



Of course one must also consider those groups who did work with the material, but who stopped halfway. Unable to apply their knowledge of the materials properties to the days urgent problems, they squandered their energies on aesthetic knick-knacks, displays of pure self-indulgence, and a shamanism in the service of rened pastimes. Literary transrationalism is one example. With no desire to become a factory or laboratory of exact methods, it moved entirely into handcrafting verbal decoration, the justication of which required the most elaborately concocted rationalizations based entirely on psychology.10 In the visual arts, the nonobjectivists took a similar path, contenting themselves with decorating porcelain teacups with squares and other geometrical forms or with converting those teacups into constructions so at that they ceased to be t for practical use. In theater, this trend produced an aestheticization of the machine (Foreggers dances) and the self-indulgent theatrical eccentrism that, tainted by the aesthetic idolization of every Americanism, created a sort of American skyscraper exotica (an example is the dying Petersburg FEKS). Work on stage materialthat is, its transformation into a machine that helps make the actors job as broad and multifaceted as possiblebecomes socially justifiable only at the point when the machine is not only firing its pistons and sustaining a denite workload, but also carrying out useful work in response to actual problems of the revolutionary day. Without this useful and emphatically utilitarian function, all the achievements of the new theater very easily begin to serve the opposition. The reactionary theatrical front regarded constructivism and eccentrism as a source of little tricks [priemchikami ] to spice up the performances of theaters of the right front, a dash of red pepper to satisfy petty-bourgeois tastes. Needless to say, the majority of theaters, so obviously hostile to the new theaters basic revolutionary tendency, did not have Cuckolds interests in mind when they replaced their pavilions and backdrops with ladders and planks.11 Now, when a production uses these sorts of constructions, it is actually considered a sign of good taste. In Meyerholds theater, by contrast, Cuckold represented only one phase in the mastery of material, a phase without which the production of The Earth in Turmoil would have been inconceivable.12

10. Even if the transrationalists dont mention it themselves, one cant help but think of the task of creating name-days (for saints). The names that emerge todayfor example, Oktiabrinaare made from the same sufxes that in principle also construct names like Evelina, Georgina, Frina, and Irina, and carry the unbearable scent of confectionary philistinism, which kills the whole explosive expressiveness of the names origin. Tendencies to found name-monuments must be opposed, as must be name-projects, name-tendencies, and names connected to industry. Rapit (a type of especially hard steel) is an example of one of these names. [-S. T.] 11. Meyerholds production of The Magnanimous Cuckold in April 1922 employed Liubov Popovas Constructivist stage design, which was composed of wooden scaffolding and ladders. 12. The Earth in Turmoil was also written by Tretiakov. Meyerholds 1923 production used a number of contemporary real-life objects, including a car, motorcycles, eld telephones, machine guns, a mobile army kitchen, and a combine harvester.

The Theater of Attractions


Even in The Earth in Turmoil, the construction is already nothing but a purely auxiliary structure enabling future performances to be staged in any preexisting setting, e.g., the square, the factory, the arsenal, the courtyard (similar to those of the Meyerhold theaters summer tours). Thus the logical course in the search for the new theater begins by mastering the material properties of theatrical activity on a scientic basis and then proceeds to address the precise social tasks that convert theater into a tool for class action. The theatrical demonstration is replaced by the theatrical commission [prikazom], by a process of direct work with the audience [priamoi obrabotkoi auditorii ]. Indeed, here we have located our next task: to integrate the audience as an element in the performance and to develop methods for calculating the particular effects and emotional charge that theater seeks to provoke in its audience. The Theater of Attractions is exploring this territory. The director of the Proletkult Theater, Sergei Eisenstein, considers an attraction to be any calculated pressure on the spectators attention and emotions, any combination of staged elements that is able to focus the emotion of the spectator in the direction that the performance requires. From this point of view, the performance is not at all a demonstration of

Eisenstein and Tretiakovs production of Even a Wise Man Stumbles. 1923.



events, characters, or plastic combinations, more or less true to life. It is a site for the construct ion of a sequence of theatrical situations that work on an audience according to a given task. The attraction seizes the audiences attention, compresses its emotion, and discharges it. In the end, the performance has delivered the requisite charging of the spectator. Of course, Comrade Eisensteins work in the First Workers Theater thus far represents only the rst step toward the conscious calculation of theatrical perception. Yet this first step is already significant : fir st , because it demands that the performance calculate attractions in accordance with a definite audience (otherwise an effect could be falsied or inaccurate); and second, because it converts what was formerly an artistic theatrical demonstration into proRehearsal for Eisensteins production of ductive work based upon experiment Tretiakovs Gasmasks. 1924. and calculation. The attraction is not to be regarded as a new invention in theater. Theater always employed the attraction, but unconsciously. Think of all the particularly affecting parts of a performance, those climactic moments that are intended to provoke applause and ovation, all those dramatic nal exits. These are all attractions. But their position in the old theater is secondary and subordinated to the psychological logic of the plot. The Art Theaters chirping cricket is also an attraction. An attraction always requires an estimation of habitual viewer psychology, and then, against this baseline, it can work on the nerves to produce a moment of alarm. In the Theater of Attractions, creating a performance entails rst nding the form that most sharply provokes the viewers emotions (i.e., the attraction). These attractions, then, are deployed in a sequence of mounting intensity, which secures the nal discharge of the viewers emotion in the desired direction (the montage of attractions). A montage of attractions may either result from mere contiguity or be motivated by the plot. The rst type of montage shows up in the music hall, the variety show, and the circus program (although there they are directed toward a selfindulgent and aesthetic form of emotion); the second type of performance is composed as a play with a plot. In the production of Even a Wise Man Stumbles, we

The Theater of Attractions


nd the rst type of montage of attractions. Its attractions are above all based on acrobatic tricks and stunts and on parodies of canonical theatrical constructions taken from the circus and the musical. The acrobatic demonstrations provoke audience reexes that are almost entirely objective [absoliutnye ] and that are connected to motor structures that are difcult and unfamiliar for the spectator. The connection between the attractions is provided by the plot, which on the whole plays a very minimal role, serving only to guarantee continuity of attention. It should be noted that several very effective attractions (for example, the balancing act) are linked to the plot in a completely articial way, through arbitrary motivations (in this case through the words go out on a limb). Yet none of the power of this performance relies on the motivating text. Far more crucial is the way that groups of attractions operate as partial agit-tasks. For example, there are attractions of political satire (e.g., Joffre and Curzon), satire of everyday life (in the fourth and fth acts), topical buffoonery (in the fth act), and theatrical parody (e.g., the fascists movements stylized in the mode of the Kamernyi Theater, the recreations of MKhATs repertoire parodied by Turusina and Ryzhii, or the series of exits that provoke cries of Bravo! Just like in the Bolshoi Theater!). The performances effect on the audience is expressed in statements such as What a shame that I cant control my movements like that, If only I could do cartwheels, and so on. This resultthese platonic sighs over physical ineptitude that nonetheless remain sighsdemonstrates exactly the same aesthetic that every Ivan Ivanovich carries in his soul as he exits a performance of Brand, depressed from all Brands thrashing about. The advantage in the Theater of Attractions is that people do not leave the performance regretting the absence of personal inner turmoil or the decadent renement of Chekhovian heroes, but rather their own existing physical shortcomings. Nevertheless, a fact is a fact, and as an attempt to develop the montage of attractions, Wise Man is only of formal, experimental signicance. In this regard, Wise Man is just as nonobjective as Cuckold. The production of Moscow, Do You Hear Me? is somewhat different. This play was created for and adapted to the tasks of the period when the German revolution was unfolding. Its function was the condensation of a victory-directed [pobedoustremitelnuiu] revolutionary energy in the masses who would very possibly end up replenishing Germanys armed front, and who in any case would have had to provide active material support [aktivnym tylom] for the revolution. The play was staged on the same principle as Wise Man: no emotional experience on the stage, no psychological or historical veracity, but rather an efcacy in accumulating emotions of class sympathy and class hatred. The performance had to function as a precise tool for accumulating this kind of emotion in the audience. Quantitatively it contained few attractions: the scene with the whip and spit in the rst act, the unmasking of the provocateur in the second, the openly staged murder of Kurt in the third, and the portrait of Lenin in the fourth. The directors use of attractions to build an ever-increasing and alarming nervous tension employed



a variety of techniques: both naturalistic devices (blood, chattering teeth, a rie shot) and a technique of supercharging emotion through the extensive use of pauses (for some critics this called to mind MKhATs use of pauses). The entire structure of the movement relied on the simplest organic movements, decomposed into their elementary parts and then recomposed into sometimes highly complicated gures (e.g., the murder of the provocateur). This movementconstructed not on the basis of feeling, but just the opposite, on a study of the way that it works in realityproduced the desired effect. Viewers typically remarked that performing a role in this way requires complete habituation. No less interesting was their amazement when the same movement was demonstrated in its decomposed form, which claried the nature of a performance that is constructed on the basis of calculations of the emotional intensity, tempo, and movement of the actor (not to be confused with inspiration or conversion into the character on stage, or with penetration into the characters psyche). This emotional tension is absolutely identical to the efciency and readiness that is familiar to anyone who has ever executed any sort of work in a serious way. Preliminary calculation can be said to account for 70 percent of the productions effect. This is not the full 100 percent, because 1) as historical events marched on, the play lost the context for which it was intended; and 2) the audience had nowehere near the homogeneous class composition that is necessary for the Theater of Attractions to calculate and deliver a maximally productive effect. To summarize in conclusion: Sergei Eisensteins Theater of Attractions is the latest stage of work on a productive theater that is effective in terms of class [klassovo-deistvennogo teatra] and that treats the performance as a series of pressures on the audiences psyche to be brought about by theatrical means. The Theater of Attractions requires an audience with a homogeneous class composition, and it understands this audience as a material that can be worked using a set of established techniques. First taking into account the audiences psyche and the concrete tasks of contemporary social reality, the Theater of Attractions organizes the material of the stage by creating attractions from every means that has an expressive inuence on the spectator. It uses every means, because the Theater of Attractions is not a theater with a nished style, but a theater of expedient class action and conscious utilitarian aims.