Second Reel

A Chorus' Lines

Branagh and the Muse of Arc Light

The Chorus shouts "Our play!"
The Chorus shouts "our play!"
What struck me the most about Branagh's Prologue was the way the Chorus loudly (angrily?) shouts the last two words of the Prologue — "our play!" — in noticeable contrast to his more subdued presentation of the previous lines, as he throws open the doors which lead, presumably, to some part of the on-camera set, with great and sudden energy. This burst of energy and what sounded to me like frustration or anger seemed very sudden, certainly unexpected.

In reexamining this scene later, a few things caught my attention. One was the "behind the scenes" setting in general, which is similar to that of some of the early shots in Olivier's film. But while Olivier's behind-the-scenes shots were of the backstage of a theater production, Branagh's are behind the scenes of a movie set. Like Olivier's backstage moments, which establish that what is about to be shown is a play, not an attempt to reproduce reality, Branagh's backstage Prologue references the fact that his production is produced and manufactured, too.

"O for a Muse of fire..."
"O for a Muse of fire..."
The Chorus delivers the Prologue while wandering among the trappings of film production — extra props, large lighting rigs, plywood sets. The fact that implements of lighting are very prominent among these trappings also caught my attention: the large lighting rigs, certainly, but also the various large candlesticks which not only decorate the sets we are soon to see, but provide the lighting (at least the diegetic lighting) so vital to Branagh's method. This juxtaposition of fire light and electric light recalls the very opening seconds of the film, where the Chorus, after making the first shot appear from the darkness by striking a match, throws a switch that fills the soundstage with the light and electric hum of the overhead rigging. I am almost certain he then gives a certain knowing look to the camera, perhaps a subtle comment on the light overhead, as if he realizes something about it that he expects us to realize as well.

The Chorus gives a look The Chorus walks among the electric lights The Chorus and the candles
The Chorus looks at the camera after throwing the switch The Chorus walks past electric lights... ...and then past candles

This look, and the exclamation that follows, frame the Prologue and its instructions to imagine that which can not be shown. They give the impression that the Chorus is frustrated, as if he knows that his match — his "muse of fire" — is meager power compared to that of the lights above, to the power of film. He may also realize that his place as expositor is very precarious in the film — as he throws the electrical switch he sees that film with its electric light has the ability to show everything, while he and his fire have the ability to show only a relative little. Branagh allows his Chorus to make the demonstration of the great power of electric light, though I suspect the Chorus is aware that the true control of that light rests with the filmmaker, and that he is given only a token role, maintained merely by the filmmaker's wishes. (Another image occured to me upon re-watching, that of the Chorus as an employee caught in a corporate takeover of stage by screen, an employee who must adapt to the latter to survive, regardless of his disdain for it.)

It could be, though, that the Chorus realizes the limitations of film itself, and is frustrated that even film, with all its ability, with its power of arc light — a light brighter than the light of fire shown by the match and subsequent candles — can be revealed as artifice. Throwing the light switch reveals the implements of film production, exposes the film as unreal, and shows that with too much light, the fantasy is betrayed (imagine the overhead lights in a movie theater being turned on in the middle of a screening). It reminds us that despite any cinematic realism that may follow, this, too, is not real, and therefore not as spectacular as the actual events depicted.