A letter from the antechamber

Philipa Rothfield

Morphing from Brian Lipson to Francis Galton, A Large Attendance in the Antechamber

Morphing from Brian Lipson to Francis Galton, A Large Attendance in the Antechamber

Dear Reader,

The Author is desirous to address the provocations of Mr Brian Lipson’s A Large Attendance in the Antechamber. The piece, written by same, is based upon the life of Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911). The portrayal of Sir Francis fluctuates between the Actor’s representations of the Man, and the Man’s attempts to speak through the Actor. The latter project—the emergence of Sir Francis’s genuine voiceover and above that of his representative—is doomed to fail. After all, unless the Actor is clairvoyant, History can only speak through a veil of artifice.

Not only that, we, the Audience, have the benefit of hindsight with respect to Sir Francis’ dubious scientific theories. This is less the fault of the Man than that of his Time. It wasn’t until quite recently, last century, that scientific experiment became a matter of teamwork, and that the topics of experimentation were not simply reflections of individual interest. Thus, Galton’s demography of pretty girls in Great Britain or physiognomy of Semitic noses in London would not, in its day, have attracted any controversy on the basis of its racist and sexist tendencies. Mind you, I would not be surprised to see such theories welcomed today in some quarters.

We are thus presented with somewhat of a paradox. How are we to judge the Work, the Man and the Actor? From the present point of view or that of the past? Is it a question of authenticity, pure amusement or, to sup with today’s Devil, infotainment?

If we are to regard the project from the perspective of the past, the vicissitudes of Time and all its insights must disappear. Furthermore, under such conditions, it would be impossible to appreciate the Actor’s efforts, and include the reactions of the contemporary viewer.

If, on the other hand, we are tempted to judge the matter from the present, then the very heart of Galton’s integrity appears absurd. This is the man who conceived of eugenics. He scientifically investigated the making of tea, the attractiveness of women, the physical appearance of Jews, and went to Africa (twice) to participate in the annihilations of colonialism.

The Author raises these matters for your deliberation because they are raised within the performance itself. The work is not presented as a seamless historical window upon reality, and yet, neither is it completely alienated from its Victorian mise en scene. In Melbourne, In the Antechamber was performed in the Royal Society of Victoria’s lecture theatre. The halls of this building are lined with photographs of bearded men, presidents past of the Royal Society.

The Author understands that Galton himself was president of the Royal Society of England. A moment of Victoriana in the State of Victoria. Is this what Lyotard meant when he said that the postmodern was already contained within the modern? Are we to suppose that the present is already contained within the past; that the serpent’s egg is ready to hatch and bite its own tail?

I put to you two metaphors by which we might approach the matter. The first is a Victorian device—the diorama—in which a layered reality is presented to the viewer. The set of In the Antechamber is an impossibly small Victorian study, wood panelled and lined with books. It is placed inside the Royal Society’s lecture theatre, itself wood panelled and lined with books. The Audience views a world within a world, one real, one virtual, the effect of such layering being an infinite regress.

The second metaphor by which we might approach the matter is a contemporary device—the hologram-in which the viewer witnesses the collapse of Space and Time. Accordingly, In the Antechamber can be located beyond the categories of reality, both in its time, and in our time. Its performance is both authentic and apocryphal; the product of research and fancy. The Audience is witness to both the Actor and the Man; and the Author is both real and a proper name alongside a series of marks on a page.

In this, I remain your most faithful servant,

Philipa Rothfield

Author’s Note: I have chosen to write from the present in the manner of the 19th century because A Large Attendance in the Antechamber itself plays between its own Victorian style and a postmodern treatment of the paradoxes of performance and authentic representation. My own vacillations between past and present are intended to mirror those offered by the performance itself.

A Large Attendance in the Antechamber, An Encounter with Francis Galton, director/writer/performer Brian Lipson. Royal Society of Victoria, Melbourne, January 15-19; Sydney, January 15-20

RealTime issue #41 Feb-March 2001 pg. 25

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2001