This past weekend City Theatre in Pittsburgh’s South Side began staging The Medium, a performance inspired by the work of Marshall McLuhan.
The production was developed by New York-based SITI Company beginning in 1993 and was first presented at City Theatre in 1996. This means that The Medium was created during a unique moment in McLuhan’s legacy, in the early days of the Internet when technological optimism predominated and McLuhan’s media theory was retrieved for its perceived explanatory power. This was the era in which WIRED magazine named McLuhan the patron saint of the Internet Age, and even published dialogues with a McLuhan simulacrum.
I was interested in the play for a number of reasons, one of which was the opportunity to see McLuhan’s persona and ideas remediated in a new form. The mediation of McLuhan’s figure (as a personality, not just his ideas) is part of what drew me to his theories in the first place. I first remember being introduced to McLuhan as a college undergraduate in a Communication Theory course. When we got to the class covering McLuhan the professor included a range of pop culture artifacts to illustrate the public impact that McLuhan’s media notions had. We read the transcript of the scene in which he cameos in Annie Hall, listened to a cowboy-style song called “The Ballad of Marshall McLuhan”, and watched some sort of choreographed performance on the theme of “the global village” that I haven’t been able to find online.
The mediation of McLuhan is of course a testament to his ability to tap into the zeitgeist of the emerging electronic media age and the sixties counterculture trends with his “far out” media guru proclamations. It is an idea of McLuhan, rather than McLuhan’s ideas, that has proliferated so vastly through pop culture. The “global village” has currency as a buzzword or marketing slogan. And “the medium is the message” has endured not only for its neatly encapsulated central insight but its form illustrates its key idea: an ideal soundbite perfectly attuned to transmission in the electronic media age, a precursor to theories of memetic cultural transmission.
So I went for the first night of preview performances of The Medium, not really knowing what to expect. In that way the performance unfolded as a pleasant surprise, and I was thoroughly engaged for the duration. One of the first things that struck me was the impact of hearing words and phrases that I was familiar with, but hearing them delivered as dramatic performance for the first time. The primary way that I’ve interfaced with McLuhan’s work is literate, through reading books and essays. While watching the play I realized how powerful and evocative it was to hear this words about oral culture, or speech as the primary mode of communication prior to the phonetic alphabet, or how the hot ear is hyperaesthetic compared to the cool eye, in the form of live performance rather than on the printed page. In fact it seems like a necessary way of engaging with his ideas in as many different mediums as possible, to experience how the content is transformed when the form of delivery is changed. The play also does a great job of evoking the all-at-once-ness of acoustic space through the repetition of phrases and instances of overlapping dialogue.
It was a really cool way of revisiting and engaging with McLuhan’s legacy, and the performance is particularly well suited for playing with his ideas about spoken communication and oral culture. I had wondered beforehand how “intellectual” and distanced a play based on McLuhan’s ideas might be, but The Medium was engaging throughout due to the excellent performances and a dynamic choreography and physicality.