“FORBIDDEN PLANET” AND “THE TEMPEST”
James Burbage towards the end of the sixteenth century, having built the successful “Globe” using the wooden frame from his original playhouse “The Theatre,” acquired a stone-built hall at Black Friars. The building stood on the grounds of the old Dominican Monastery which had been used variously over the years. Rather than an open air theatre, where the actors were subjected to the elements and limited to a wooden scaffold in the center of the viewing public, Black Friars was the precursor of what we today would consider a modern stage location. The Black Friar’s allowed for performances sheltered from the elements and where for the first time the use of stage magic or, in Hollywood parlance, special-effects could be utilized with full impact. The Hall – according to contemporary accounts – was shadowed and lit by candles; the stage decorated with elaborate screen sets and the plays themselves accompanied by musicians. The ambience of the location along with the atmosphere created by the players would have been beyond anything an Elizabethan audience had thus far witnessed; the development of the play via the utilization of stagecraft undoubtedly stunning.
There is evidence within “The Tempest” of significant stage-direction which would have allowed a writer a broader scope with regard to character development and so, it’s little wonder that this Shakespearian play, perhaps more than any other, contains evidence of technological manipulation. This giant leap forward one could argue is akin to the C.G.I manipulation of modern film makers. Now the sixteenth century playwright had the facility to bring his characters to life and rather than simply have a Chorus implore a crowd “to make imaginary puissance” or to “piece out the imperfections [of a play] with [their] thoughts.” At last the playwright could do more than just stimulate the workings of the – now comfortably seated – groundling’s “imaginary forces.” Although “Henry V” would have benefitted from close exposition within the confines of Black Friars “The Tempest” would’ve been literally embellished by that which was now possible. Clearly Shakespeare wrote the play with this in mind; hence the numerable sequences which elicit the use of some form of stage manipulation. It’s because of these proto special effects that the play is so easy to conceive within the framework of “Forbidden Planet.” A film which, although loosely based on the play, translates Shakespeare’s magical realism into the technological advancement required of the science fiction genre. Therefore, those special effects which were vital to the success of “The Tempest” have lent themselves to the longevity of “Forbidden Planet” without which it would’ve been impossible. The technology used to exhibit these effects in both productions is of course planets apart but the results are none the less stunning and are particularly apparent in the characterization of both Robbie the Robot and Ariel.
The play opens with the supposed drowning of a ship however, with manipulation of torches, swinging ropes and discrete lightning to represent flames it would’ve been an easily achievable scene inside of Black Friars. The fantastical portrayal of the plays characters on the other hand would have been a challenge. Ariel is an ethereal being, a willow-the-wisp character that can fly around the world in seconds, appear at will wherever it chooses and carry out the most arduous task with the greatest of ease. With a system of ropes and cranes Ariel could have been seen to fly to the delight of the audience as with little effort from Elizabethan riggers, the character could magically have be whisked from one part of the stage to another. In an era when magic was considered to be a very real phenomenon and the explanation for the world at large, the audience would have been astounded to see proof of the unseen realm for just the mere price of admission. Ariel is the enslaved embodiment of Prospero’s desire who without him – not dissimilar to the advanced knowledge left to Morbius – would not have been able to achieve the magic he did. Although he has the book, the staff and the wardrobe to paint himself a magician, Prospero is a base alchemist who utilizes the abilities of another to achieve his own ends.
In the 1950’s rendition of the same play, Ariel appears in the form of Robbie the Robot and although light years apart in appearances, performs exactly the same role. Robbie is a sophisticated piece of electronics; a mobile, mechanical being that serves at the behest of his designer and master Morbius. He’s a swirling sophistication of flashing lights and rotating sensors who is able to perform all manner of tasks thanks to the usurped knowledge left by the planets predecessors. Robbie is both a protector and servant; a mechanical being of great strength that can produce any quantity of any material at will. Able to carry tons of sheet lead and yet unable to harm any living being thanks to his programming he is the embodiment of Ariel. An unwitting captive of Morbius’ design who without complaint fulfills every request and performs any task demanded of him. Just as Ariel is unable to free himself from the bonds of Prospero so Robbie is destined to exist only to serve. Robbie is the poster-child of 1950’s prophesized, future, technological development just as Ariel is the manifestation of the ethereal. Both Shakespeare and Wilcox are able to create magic thanks to the application of the special effect. In both instances the illusion for the audience is a persistent one as, rather than merely imaginary, Ariel and Robbie are living, breathing or electricity consuming, stage-crafted phenomenon.
Using trick photography and film cuts Wilcox was able to create optical illusions that to a 1950’s audience must have seemed very real indeed. His superimpositions of models to show what appear to be highly advanced technology are extremely successful and from an artistic stand point very authentic. In particular, the attack of the Monster of Id upon Morbius’ residence where in order to protect themselves, steel shutters slam – as if by an unseen hand – into place. Likewise his renderings of the underground structure – which in reality are probably plastic models – when properly lit and filmed with superimpositions of tiny human figures, appear to be extremely lifelike. Wilcox presents a film that the audience is able to readily accept thanks to the success of his many special effects. “Forbidden Planet” isn’t particularly well written or acted and yet thanks to its cutting edge sophistication is unforgettable.
Similarly Shakespeare doesn’t rely on the ability of his actors nor his words to achieve success. In the stage direction we can clearly see the intent of the play was to amaze and surpass that which had already become quotidian. Tales of star struck lovers, revengeful kings and ubiquitous twins surviving shipwrecks were in want of fresh paint and it was the machinations developed at Black Friars that allowed “Theatre” to take the necessary leap. In two places in particular we are shown the ingenuity of the players. In the first instance, the banquet scene, where the survivors of the ship wreck are offered a bounteous table and yet thanks to the harpies are unable to partake. Ariel is seen to suddenly appear in various parts of the stage; finally ending up on the table itself. “Thunder and lightning. Enter Ariel who like a harpy clasps his wings; and with a quaint device the banquet vanishes.” The notes suggest “an ingenious device of stage mechanism.” Shakespeare has included a flying harpy, sound and lighting and to conclude, an apparatus of some mechanical genius that renders the banquet gone. Secondly at the wedding of Miranda and Ferdinand, Prospero is in want of a “corollary” of spirits. This event is preceded by “soft music’ which choruses the arrival of Ceres, Juno and Iris. The stage direction once again bears witness to the ingenuity of the author. “Juno descends;” suggesting some type of winding mechanism. The footnotes even suggest that the direction is given too early and that this may be to take into account the limitations of the “machine.”
Clearly the utilization of special effects to enhance characterization is nothing new and if one considers the theatre of Ancient Greece then we gain insight into the notion of Deus Ex Machina; where the god would have been lowered to the stage to turn wrongs to rights. Similarly Shakespeare was able to adapt to his new surroundings and given the embarrassment of riches the new location offered was able to adjust his plays accordingly. Likewise Wilcox using the malleability of film was able – without a single advanced mechanism – to make an audience believe that they had landed on a distant planet by means of space ship, only to discover that a far superior intellect awaited them.
Both creators utilized everything at their disposal to create an illusion that enabled a willing suspense of disbelief. Just as Robbie the Robot is no more than a man dressed in a suit and Ariel a man on a wire, both characters are gilded by the use of special effect. It is the advent of Elizabethan stage craft that has taken Shakespeare’s “flat unraised spirits” from the “unworthy scaffold” and translated them into Wilcox’s “beautiful Cinema Scope” with “Amazing Color.”