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The Magic Lantern - The Device Which Would Not Die

There is no question about it. The magic lantern is a splendid looking beast- all shining mahogany and gleaming brass. But what does this strange object mean to us in our high tech digital world? Beyond a kind of steam punk charm, what does it have to offer a modern audience of today?

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Lasers and plastics and slides, oh my!

What do you get when you put together an international group of artists, a media archaeologist, a team of makers, laser cutters and 3D printers? Magic lantern slides 200 years in the making.

Over the course of its long and colorful history, magic lanterns have appeared in wide variety of contexts, ranging from faux seances in Parisian crypts to scientific lectures at the Royal Polytechnic Institute in London to evangelistic meetings in the South Pacific and Africa. As the content of lantern shows shifted over time, projectors and slides also evolved to incorporate the latest technology. The debut of Carpenter and Westley’s copperplate-printed slides in the early 1820s made lantern slides widely available for the first time, empowering amateur and professional projectionists alike. In an effort to make these images move, the Victorians marshalled a cadre of ingenious wood-and-brass devices that slid, rotated, and rocked pieces of painted glass. Place these devices in a projector, and poof-- figures dance, float, and lunge across the screen.




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What is a Magic Lantern Today?

The magic lantern has been around for 350 years. This little glowing box that threw pictures on screen was one of the world’s most important ways of sharing images. It lived on the backs of travelling entertainers, and in the mahogany parlours of wealthy scientists, it was shown in palaces and pubs and is still with us today. A magic lantern is only a projector—a light-sealed chamber with an illuminant inside and a series of lenses—and it fell into lots of unexpected places.



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Using technology in theatre

Technology has been a part of theatre almost from the beginning: we might think of Ancient Greek drama as theatre at its purest, but the auditoria were carefully designed to focus the actors’ voices towards the audience. The later addition of masks were also a form of technology – it is believed that they acted as resonators for the actors, enhancing their voices and giving them a greater sense of presence. 

Technology became increasingly important in theatre, though, in the late 19th century – the possibilities of electric lighting and increasingly sophisticated stage machinery were even partially responsible for the emergence of the role of the director. With all those possibilities, someone needed to take charge of how they were deployed.  Nowadays, theatre without some sort of technology – whether it’s lighting, amplified sound, projections or music – is almost unimaginable. 

But how to use technology in theatre without it overwhelming the direct communication of actor to audience? How to avoid the problem encapsulated in the famous (and possibly apocryphal) dismissal of Camelot that “the audience came out humming the scenery”?  By making it essential to the telling of the story. In our 2014/15 show A Walk at the Edge of the World, we used projections in two concurrent ways: firstly, for the narrator to illustrate his description of the places he had visited, secondly to act as a visual sub-text. The first set of  images came from a 35mm slide projector which the narrator operated, the second set were projected behind him – at first supporting his narrative, then counterpointing it, then contradicting it. This was a theatrical way of employing the literary device of the unreliable narrator, and the story could only be fully understood by hearing the story and seeing the images at the same time. 



Our forthcoming Edinburgh Festival Fringe production of Erewhon counterpoints two technologies from different eras. The magic lantern represents the era of the original book, while the iPhone is a technology of today. When playwright and performer Arthur Meek began looking at Samuel Butler’s 1872 book Erewhon as a source for a new play, he quickly recognised the connection between the 19th century magic lantern and PowerPoint, the medium he used in his 2016 fringe hit On the Conditions and Possibilities of Hillary Clinton Taking Me as Her Young Lover.  The magic lantern was the technology that led to cinema: a machine capable of projecting images large enough for hundreds of people to watch at the same time. Live-streaming from an iPhone is as new and startling to many of us today as mechanical magic lantern slides were to Butler and his contemporaries – why not use both technologies?  

In Butler’s book, technology has been outlawed in Erewhon for hundreds of years because its inhabitants feared it was taking over their lives. The book’s narrator is regarded with suspicion because he has a pocket watch, which is taken from him and destroyed. In the development of the play, we looked at how the Erewhonians’ fear of technology’s power mirrored our own current concerns, and the ubiquitous iPhone seemed to be the quintessence of that fear – the desirable, addictive piece of technology many of us spend far too much time staring at every day.  Our Erewhon employs a fair amount of technology - including live music from electronic instruments, which would have been unimaginable to Butler in the 1870s – but we hope that its supports and amplifys the storytelling rather than replacing it.

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Beware geeks bearing gifts

Erewhon, New Zealand playwright Arthur Meek’s collaboration with Edinburgh’s own Magnetic North, will have its UK premiere at Summerhall from 1 August.  The new multi-media play brings together technologies separated by a century in a very contemporary investigation of our relationship with artificial intelligence and machines.  

Adapted from Victorian science fiction novel Erewhon by Samuel Butler, Erewhon premiered at Christchurch Arts Festival in 2017. This imaginative production shines new light on Samuel Butler’s satirical novel about Victorian society. Published in 1872, Butler's fictional account tells the story of a young colonial British explorer who discovers a remote community living in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. They’re the descendants of a technologically-advanced culture that had to destroy all their machinery after it became artificially intelligent and malicious. What first appears to be a utopia - where happiness is paramount, and machinery and inventions are forbidden - soon turns out to be a society filled with hypocrisies and blind-spots just as severe as any other.

Read the full Erewhon media release (PDF).

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