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Michael Foucault's Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison - Theatre and Bentham

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To Be Panoptic or Not To Be Panoptic

In the world of theatre, it is the actor’s duty to not only bring the character that they were cast as to life, but to do so in a way that will please and entertain the faces that are watching them during their performances. However, every minute they spend on stage, the eyes that are judging them cannot be seen. Because of the way that the theatre is structured, the actor is confined in a designated area, with their vision being confined as well, and in a sense, they have no choice but to act in a manner that they are told to. Actors have to abide by certain guidelines, such as saying the lines given to them in their scripts, their blocking and choreography to ensure that the show runs the way the director wants it to. And no matter what the actors do, people can see them when they are on stage. These guidelines in theatre are similar to that of the concept of panopticism. Panopticism is a theory of social order developed by philosopher Michel Foucault, who illustrated his theory in his book titled Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) [Foucault 219]. In Foucault’s book, he concluded that the concept of panopticism applies to more than people realize. Foucault said, “The practice of placing individuals under “observation” is a “natural extension of a justice imbued with disciplinary methods and examination procedures” (248-249). This relates to the concept of theatre because when an actor or actress steps onto the stage, they are immediately in a position that Foucault described, which is “under ‘observation’”. They are being watched every second that a spotlight is on them. Yes, they willingly choose to be on stage and showcase themselves to an audience, but there is an underlying pressure that comes to being observed so intensely by a lot of people all at once. There is a constant pressure on them while they are performing on stage and they know that if they mess up, it will be seen. And if they slip up, they will be judged by a multitude of observers. Because of these reasons, theatre is a very effective modern example of panopticism.

One aspect of theatre that contributes to it being an effective example of modern panopticism is the structure of the theatre. The structure is one similarity that is shared with J. Bentham’s panopticon prison, which is where Foucault drew the concept of panopticism from. Bentham’s panopticon is set up so that there is a large building with many small cells, and at its center there is a tower. The tower has wide windows which open up onto the inner side of the ring, and the outlying building is divided into separate cells. These cells extend the entire width of the building and each have two windows; one located on the inside, which corresponds to the windows of the tower. The second window is on the outside and it allows light to reach the cell from one end to the other. Placing a supervisor in a central tower is all that is needed after filling each cell with whomever people see fit. The way that Bentham’s panoptic jail is structured, backlighting will be in effect in which the one observing from the tower can stand entirely out in the light, creating small shadows in the cells (Foucault 225). In Foucault’s book, he states, “[Bentham’s panopticons] are like so many cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible.” The structure of the panopticon related to a performer being on stage because when a performer is on stage, there are normally stage lights right above the audience that are pointed to them, which means that the performer’s view of a lot of the audience is obstructed by the light, and therefore, they can’t see who is watching them, but the audience can see every little thing that they say and do. If an actor is in the spotlight, they are visible to the audience. They are trapped by the eyes of the viewers even if said spotlight is making it next to impossible for the actor to see them. Foucault even states in Discipline and Punish that “visibility is a trap”(Foucault 226). The actor is trapped in a sense that they must perform well under the spotlight in order to please the eyes that they can’t see. The audience members observing are the ones who hold the power. The audience members are the ones who determine the success or failure of the show. They decide whether or not it is worth paying for a ticket to see the show, and they influence the opinions of those who have not seen the show if it is worthy enough of others’ time to see it. The reputation of the show, its actors, writer(s), and director(s) are also on the line. If the show is a bust, no one else will want to come see it, and it is very likely that any other shows put on by the same people of the failed show will want to be seen.

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Another connection that theatres and Bentham’s prison have is the fact that Bentham was inspired by the structures of certain ancient theaters when he was coming up with the concept of the panoptic prison. This similarity was pointed out by scholars Michael Chapman and Michael J. Ostwald explain in their article “Circularity, Power and the Technologies of Seeing: Panopticism and its Antithesis as Spatial Archetypes of Visual Contraception in Space”, how Bentham took inspiration from the ancient, circular-shaped Greek amphitheatres. Chapman and Ostwald stated, “The Panopticon represents an impotent and dysfunctional model of vision which is essentially empty and inconclusive. Power flows throughout the building via perception, rather than vision. Vision operates like a contraceptive in Bentham’s building: isolated, contained and jealously guarded. Vision, like the prisoner who inhabits the building, is organised, categorised and isolated.”(Chapman and Ostwald, “Circularity, Power and the Technologies of Seeing”) Chapman and Ostwald are making the connection that Bentham had decided to take the concept and structure of the amphitheatre and change it so that instead of making whomever is on watch in the tower the center of attention, the prisoners would be the ones who have the spotlight on them. Although theatre seems to be relating more to the panopticon itself as opposed to panopticism as a whole, it’s relating to Foucault’s fundamental aspects of panopticism since theatre shares similarities with Bentham’s panoptic prison, the concept that Foucault based panopticism on. Foucault states in Discipline and Punish, “We are much less Greeks than we believe. We are neither in the amphitheatre, nor on the stage, but in the panoptic machine, invested by its effects of power to which we bring to ourselves since we are part of its mechanism”. This statement contradicts Chapman and Ostwald’s observations since Foucault said that people should not compare the panoptic machine to being in the amphitheatre or being on stage, yet in Foucault’s book he also states, “Our society is one not of spectacle, but of surveillance” which does apply to actors being on stage and observed by an audience. However, it would be foolish to overlook the fact that the structure of the theatre is similar to that of the panopticon, and that the pressure put on actors as well as their constant surveillance by an audience makes it an effective example of modern panopticism.

Even though prisoners were not concerned with impressing the one(s) that held power, they knew, or at least assumed that they were being closely observed and chose to act appropriately and not “act out” to avoid being punished by the ones who held the power; the ones they cannot see. Writer Jeremy W. Crampton, author of the book Space, Knowledge and Power Foucault and Geography, agrees that the Panopticon includes elements of theatre from the very beginning in both Bentham and Foucault’s works (Crampton 254). It is obvious that Bentham was inspired by the structure of theaters when creating his Panopticon, which further shows that theatre itself is an effective example of modern panopticism.

The fact that the actor must go along with their script and act accordingly to what their director tells them to, is also why theatre is an effective example of panopticism. An actor is always under pressure that if they do not perform well then the show will not do well. Not only are typical audience members present watching the show, but there is a possibility that there are critics sitting in the audience as well, which would add more pressure to the actor to do well since they are being watched by someone who will end up writing a review of the show. If the actor does not perform well, then the show might get a bad review and in turn, no one will want to go see it, thus making the show unsuccessful.

A statement found in David O’Shaughnessy’s William Godwin and the Theatre provides an interesting relationship that is shared by the performers on stage and the members of the audience, which further supports why theatre is an effective example of panopticism. The author introduces a connection between not only the audience and the performer, but everyday life. O’Shaughnessy states, “Theatre remains bound by its context precisely through the unique relationship images create between audience, performer and everyday life” (O’Shaughnessy 59). O’Shaughnessy’s statement shows that the “magic” of theatre relies on participation from both the audience and the actors. The audience must go along with the show and believe that the characters are real and that whatever is going on stage is real or else the show will not be as enjoyable. The actors must follow the script and stay in character from the beginning to the end of the show to make the performance believable. Both parties have to believe that the performances are real in order for them to come off as genuine. This statement provides another reason why theatre is an effective example of panopticism.

One example that shows how theatre is an effective example of panopticism is introduced in Alan Read’s Theatre and Everyday Life: An Ethics of Performance. Read discusses the practice and theory or theatre and how theatre transcends into modern-day life and ties in Foucault’s Panopticism as well. Read claims that the different forms of theatre can “stimulate debate and pleasure, provoke reaction, provide resources for living, engages emotions for intellect, and confounds expectations” (Read 60). Read points out these aspects of theatre which show that there is depth to the performances that the actors are putting on for the audience and that there is more the theatre than people just appearing on stage and spewing words to people. People have to commit to their roles and become the character that they were cast as. If they do not put on a believable performance and provoke the aforementioned forms of theatre like bringing out emotions in the audience, then the show might get bad reviews from critics and the actor might not get cast in future productions.

In theatre, the actor is at the mercy of multiple factors, which does affect how they choose to behave whilst performing. Actors are given a specific role that they must portray in order for the show to make sense and run smoothly, all while making the right movements and expressions that the character they are playing would do and make, therefore, training and disciplining their bodies to fill the mold that they are given in order to make the show work.

The actor is under the constant pressure of being observed, which is what William B. Worthen’s Modern Drama and the Rhetoric of Theater briefly discusses. Worthen states, “Seeing, watching and looking at the theatre do not begin to explain what happens between an audience and a performer. Regarding theatre is both the vision of theatre and the care the body takes in the presence of theatre to understand and value what is happening, to have belief in it” (Worthen 58). Worthen’s statement contributes to theatre being an effective example of modern panopticism because he brings up the point that there is a lot of underlying pressure for an actor to perform since there are many things at stake. The reputation of the actor and the director is at stake and an actor can slip up in multiple ways. They could endanger the show by missing or forgetting a cue, skipping a line, or forgetting to say it. And if this happens, and they or other present actors are not able to improvise or cover for them, then the show would be at jeopardy, especially if there are critics present in the audience, who would use their power and high position to spread the world that people should not see the show, which would not make the show become successful.

Therefore, an actor is similar to a prisoner because while on stage; they are “imprisoned” within certain boundaries of the fictional work that they are acting in and must act as though there is not a large audience of spectators watching them. Actors are completely aware that they are being observed as well as judged, yet they cannot show that they have knowledge of that or else they would be breaking the fourth wall. The fourth wall is a metaphorical wall that divides the production and the audience. If a character in a show breaks that wall then the magic of the show is ruined, since that character makes the viewers aware that they are being observed. This is not good because if the magic of the show is ruined, then the show may get bad reviews and therefore be unsuccessful.

Even though Foucault stated that performing on the stage is not like being a part of the panoptic machine, there are multiple aspects of theatre that make it alike panopticism in many ways. It is true that actors make the decision to be observed by an audience, and that eventually, the production comes to an end, which means that their “surveillance” ends as well, but from the moment that the curtain opens to the moment right before it closes after the final scene, the actors on stage embark on a short journey through the panoptic machine. The reputation of the show and director all ride on the performance of the actors. Although the actors may be under the pressure to please various critics, agents and friends and family members, if they are able to take the pressure that they are under and push through and in turn deliver an amazing performance that entertains the audience and pleases critics, then the show will be successful.


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