The Silent Viewer

This semester in Dr. Fallon’s English class, I’ve read multiple pieces of literature involved with the concept on worldmaking. For instance, our class read works on early European exploration and famous tales of utopias. Every reading the class has encountered plays with the notion of a new or different world. In addition to these stories of exploration and utopias, we read William Shakespeare’s famous play, The Tempest. The Tempest applies to this worldmaking context due to the formation of a new society on an isolated island after a shipwreck. I enjoyed engaging in Shakespeare’s work in Dr. Fallon’s class. Little did I know I would be looking back at The Tempest as parts of it apply to Dr. McCoy’s class as well.  

Last Friday in African American literature, our class was broken into smaller groups, and each was assigned a phrase to look up. My group was assigned the phrase “rich and strange.” After researching “rich and strange,” we found that it came from a song sung by the spirit Ariel in the play The Tempest. The stanza in which the phrase “rich and strange” is found conveys the unrecognizable transition of a person. The song follows:  

 “Full fathom five thy father lies. 

Of his bones are coral made. 

Those are pearls that were his eyes. 

Nothing of him that doth fade, 

But doth suffer a sea-change 

Into something rich and strange. 

 Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell” (Shakespeare, 1. 2. 397-403) 

Ariel sings this song to the incredibly sad Ferdinand, who at the time believes his father is dead after the being shipwrecked. Ariel is unable to be seen, as he is a spirit, yet sings to Ferdinand and makes him feel slightly better about his father’s fate. Readers and the audience of The Tempest could argue that Ariel is a “fly on the wall” or someone who can see and experience another person’s world without being noticed. However, once Ariel sings, his presence as a spirit is noted. Ariels short status as a fly on the wall calls on Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, which also deals with an unknown viewer.   

In Park’s play Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom, The Naturalist, later known as Dr. Lutzky, watches a family and their experiences from a far. After watching this family as a quiet and unknown fly on the wall, the Naturalist states, “Thus behave our subjects naturally. Thus believe our subjects when they believe we cannot see them when they believe far far away our backs have turned.” (Parks, 29) The Naturalist points out the importance of watching someone when they are unaware that they are being gazed upon: they act natural. Similarly, without inserting himself into Ferdinand’s life, Ariel could see that Ferdinand was naturally sad. It is after the fact that he decides to act. Like Ariel, eventually The Naturalist engages in their life, still undercover, by acting as an exterminator. One may argue that this unrecognizable transition The Naturalist undergoes is similar to the “sea-change” that Ariel mentions in his song. As Dr. Lutzky continues to engage in their lives, Verona, a lady he is watching, seems to become more panicked, and possibly aware of someone watching her actions. Near the end of the play Verona states, “Don’t touch this phone. Its bugged.” (Parks, 35) Here, the term “bugged” is interesting. While the play deals with a literal bug problem, it also sounds like Verona is aware that she is being listened to. Additionally, the term “fly on the wall” involves a bug. Therefore, Verona could be noting her awareness of this fly, or Dr. Lutzky.    

While both of these plays have flies on the wall, every play ever performed has a silent viewer as well: the audience. When people go to see plays live, they sit down in comfortable seats and watch another world for a short period of time. While in most cases, the audience is a silent fly on the wall, and stays away from engaging like Ariel and Dr. Lutzky did at first, at times, the audience or silent viewer can be called upon to engage in the play.  

In the epilogue of The Tempest, Prospero, one of the major characters, asks for audience’s assistance. At the end of the play, Prospero asks the audience to clap, in order for him to escape confinement and be free. Prospero states, “But release me from my bands / With the help of your good hands.” (Shakespeare, Epilogue, 9-10) Different from a normal play, Shakespeare decides to call upon the silent audience and allows them to engage in, and quite possibly alter, the direction of the play.   

As discussed in class, the recognition of a silent audience can be weird. I for one would be bugged out.  When people go to a play, they take the passive role, enjoying what is in front of them without having to interact. There is comfort in being a quiet fly on the wall for a few hours, viewing an entirely new world. However, when the world you are viewing calls upon you and recognizes your existence, the reality of the world you are living in comes back. It is interesting to consider that at times, we are the Ariel and we are the Dr. Lutzky. More than often, we can be a fly on the wall.  


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