31 January 2010

Eisenstein’s Theory of Attractions

Almost anyone who’s been to a movie in the past 85 years has seen a montage sequence, and it’s likely most of us know what one is even if we can’t actually define it. It’s such a common movie technique, one of the first developed in film, that it almost seems an attribute of cinema itself rather than a contrived technique that was once an innovation. But it was. Film pioneers such as Lev Kuleshov (1899-1970), Dziga Vertov (1896-1954), and Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893-1953) introduced the use in early Soviet cinema and, of course, the great filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) made it almost a personal signature in his films in the early ‘20s. The word ‘montage’ derives from the French verb monter, ‘to set up,’ ‘to assemble,’ or ‘to organize.’ Simplistically, a film montage is a succession of pictures, often of unconnected moments, edited together into a rapid sequence. It can have many uses in a movie, such as indicating the passage of time or speeding through distances. In the hands of a master filmmaker, of course, it can accomplish much more as well. Eisenstein and his colleagues in Soviet film standardized the use of montage, a technique employed masterfully by others like Fritz Lang, Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Stanley Kubrick.

Before montage was a filmmaking tactic, however, it was the foundation of an innovative stage technique. Eisenstein, mostly known today for his film work, was first a stage director and he developed a practice he eventually called “the montage of attractions.” Eisenstein described this idea, sometimes also called the “theory of attraction assembly,” in his essay “The Montage of Attractions” which first appeared in LEF (Left Front of the Arts [Moscow] 3 [1923]: 70-75; the essay’s also reprinted in many books, including Eisenstein’s own Film Sense). The concept was named and defined by the renowned filmmaker in 1923, but Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1942), the innovative Russian stage director who’d been Eisenstein’s teacher and mentor, was clearly employing the technique as early as 1918 (notably in Mystery-Bouffe, 1919 and 1921) and even before. As a stage technique, montage of attractions has appeared in the work of contemporary companies like the Living Theatre, the Performance Group, and the Wooster Group, among others; one contemporary director used the term to mean “one thing after another . . . like a sideshow.” In fact, Eisenstein found the models for the technique not in film but in music hall and circus, two forms to which Meyerhold had also been drawn. Eisenstein coined a term, the ‘circusization’ of theater, which he applied to his 1923 production of Aleksandr Ostrovsky’s Enough Simplicity in Every Wise Man by staging an actual circus performance, a montage of attractions comprised of tightrope walkers, jugglers, acrobats, clowns, music hall comedy, and other circus acts.

Eisenstein, having observed how popular entertainments at fairs and circuses held the attention of the spectators, defined an “attraction” as “any aggressive aspect of the theatre; that is, any element of it which subjects the spectator to a sensual or psychological impact.” ‘Attraction’ is the same word, not coincidentally, that we use to designate the elements of a sideshow, vaudeville, or a circus; in fact, the Russian noun attraktsion also means ‘sideshow.’ (One of Meyerhold’s seminal essays, published in 1913, was called “The Fairground Booth” or “Balagan” in Russian.) The OED defines an attraction in this sense as a “thing or feature which draws people by appealing to their desires, tastes, etc.; esp. any interesting or amusing exhibition which ‘draws’ crowds.” But it also offers, “The action of drawing forth interest, affection, or sympathy,” and, “The action of causing men or animals to come to one by influencing their appetites or desires.” An attraction can be anything, in other words, that “attracts” the audience’s interest, including gimmicks and tricks--as long as they’re “calculated to produce . . . certain emotional shocks” in the spectator. (Eisenstein denied that gimimicks could be attractions, but they clearly can be if used for a purpose.) Each attraction is discrete and complete in itself, selected and presented to have the strongest effect on the spectator, and doesn’t depend on any of the others either for its meaning or for its presence on the stage. As Meyerhold explained it:

I have come to regard the mise en scène not as something which works directly on the spectator but rather as a series of ‘passes’, each intended to evoke some association or other in the spectator . . . . Your imagination is activated, your fantasy stimulated, and a whole chorus of associations is set off. A multitude of accumulated associations gives birth to new worlds . . . . You can no longer distinguish between what the director is responsible for and what is inspired by the associations which have invaded your imagination. A new world is created, quite separate from the fragments of life from which the [piece] is composed.

The attractions are then arranged or “assembled” to guide the audience to “the ultimate ideological conclusion.” The spectators then connect the dots, so to speak, filling in the lacunæ for themselves, generating an understanding they hadn’t known before. The “dots” are the attractions and their arrangement’s the “montage of attractions.” The purpose, said Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)--who knew Eisenstein, was attracted to film technique, and employed his own form of montage of attractions, notably in Man Is Man and Galileo--is to guide the spectator “to draw abstract conclusions.” A well-known example of how Eisenstein’s theory works states that by showing someone first a fragment of a photograph of a woman in black and then a second fragment showing a grave, the viewer, supplying the missing continuity, will conflate the two discrete images into the representation of a widow.

The arrangement of the attractions isn’t a logical or chronological sequence, pursuing an Aristotelian or Stanislavskian causality that’s “self-contained and all-determining,” but a theatrical one. It’s not illogical, but alogical, “with a view to establishing a certain final thematic effect” which is more than the simple sum of the fragments. Eisenstein drew an analogy with the way Chinese ideograms combine to form meanings different from the separate symbols: The sign for ‘dog’ plus the sign for ‘mouth,’ for example, combine not to mean ‘dog’s mouth’ but ‘bark.’ In Brecht’s 1930 chart comparing “dramatic” and “epic” theater, the playwright included “each scene for itself” in contrast to “one scene makes another”; he further explained, “The episodes must not succeed one another indistinguishably but must give us a chance to interpose our judgment. . . . The parts of the story have to be carefully set off one against another by giving each its own structure as a play within the play.” Most of Brecht’s plays are constructed from various elements such as action, songs, music, slides, captions, and stylized acting which create their impact through juxtaposition and contrast. The scenes are often disparate and succeed one another rapidly, essentially presenting a journey of experience episode by episode. In Brecht’s dramaturgy, this structure forces the spectator to draw comparisons and consider the inconsistencies between the images presented on stage and not become immersed in the fictional narrative without thinking about it.

The selection of the attractions, however, isn’t haphazard or serendipitous, as Eisenstein instructed: each element is carefully and purposefully chosen from all the possibilities to generate the desired response. How each attraction rubs against the ones around it, creating tension or conflict, determines the selection and juxtaposition and how they effect the audience, the same way Vincent van Gogh believed that one painting, say a blue one, is more resonant when hung next to another in a complementary color, such as orange. Describing the effect of two sequential scenes in his production of The Wiseman (as Eisenstein’s adaptation of Ostrovsky’s play was known), the innovative director observed: “The surprising intersection of the two dialogues sharpen the characters and the play, quicken the tempo, and multiply the comic possibilities.” While Eisenstein, also likening the theory to the relationship of musical overtones to melody, intended montage to generate an emotional, psychological, or ideological response in his audience, Brecht applied the technique to engender an intellectual reaction. Since the juxtaposition of multifarious attractions, drawn from the many resources of theater, art, and technology, necessarily means that the production will break away from the linear continuity of conventional storytelling, as it did in Meyerhold’s Mystery-Bouffe or D.E. (1924), it permits, even forces, the spectator to take time to analyze and examine what she’s experiencing. In Brecht’s view, causal inevitability makes the audience complacent; an audience cannot be passive when confronted with a non-linear theatrical structure, but must actively participate to connect the dots, to become critical observers. For Meyerhold and Eisenstein, then, montage was a way to a theater removed from what Eisenstein called the “illusory imitativeness” and “representationality” of Stanislavskian Naturalism. “In the theatre the spectator’s imagination is able to supply that which is left unsaid,” Meyerhold declared. “The stylized theatre produces a play in such a way that the spectator is compelled to employ his imagination creatively in order to fill in those details suggested by the stage action.” Eisenstein believed that the strength of montage was that “it includes in the creative process the emotions and mind of the spectator”:

In fact, every spectator, in correspondence with his individuality, and in his own way and out of his own experience--out of the womb of his fantasy, out of the warp and weft of his associations, all conditioned by the premises if his character, habits and social appurtenances, creates an image in accordance with the representational guidance suggested by the author leading him to understanding and experience of the author’s theme.

On the other hand, while some spectators found the new, non-linear presentationalism exciting and stimulating, others were confused and complained about the excess of abstractions and symbols. The fragmentation of montage, if the director isn’t careful about carrying the audience along with the images, can lose them in a welter of unconnected moments. The attractions may not be linked causally in Eisenstein’s technique, but if they aren’t connected thematically in some way, the dots will never coalesce in the spectators’ imaginations.

Just as Jerzy Grotowski (1933-99) wanted to pare away all of what he saw as unnecessary spectacle in theater, Brecht wanted to strip theater down to its intellectual minimum--putting on stage only what was necessary to show his audience what he wanted them to understand. For Brecht, theater wasn’t a medium to present a series of events, but to focus the audience’s attention on the truths beneath the facts portrayed and lead them into an intellectual debate the conclusion of which the spectators themselves would determine. Narrative connectives, psychological justifications, character development were all superfluous and would interfere with the spectator’s ability to judge critically. The effect wasn’t intended to be literary or dramatic but theatrical and thematic. By following Eisenstein’s lead, plays like Mystery-Bouffe and Mother Courage keep the distractions to a minimum and give the audience only what the author and director think is necessary for them to make the pertinent connections.

Meyerhold, however, suspended both the causality and the temporality of individual scenes, which he equated with Eisenstein’s attractions and treated as discrete episodes, so that the actions and objects would no longer seem familiar. In the filmmaker’s application, since the attractions are in themselves unconnected to one another, the spectators’ preconceptions are constantly shaken by the juxtapositions. This tactic, like Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, allows the audience to observe and comment on the situation. The individual episodes generate an impression of continuity in the minds of the spectators because they’re held together by the director’s “concept.” One result is that by showing two concrete (that is, visible) images, a third, abstract (invisible) one is revealed. “Two pieces of any kind, placed together, inevitably combine into a new concept, a new quality, arising out of that juxtaposition,” said Eisenstein, who described this process thus:

The woman [and] the mourning robe she is wearing . . . both are objectively representable. But ‘a widow,’ arising from a juxtaposition of the two representations, is objectively unrepresentable--a new idea, a new conception, a new image.

(Playwright Sergei Tretyakov [1892-1939], on several of whose plays Meyerhold had worked, introduced Brecht to both Meyerhold’s work and the concept of priyom ostranneniya [literally, ‘device’ or ‘method for making strange’], a phrase coined in 1914 by Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky [1893-1984] which Brecht rendered in German as Verfremdungseffekt.)

For Eisenstein, the realization of the theory isn’t just the juxtaposition of disparate elements, but the clash of conflicting images that’s the most effective kind of montage. Indeed, he called his technique “collision montage,” which Meyerhold described as “the conflict of episodes, each one conflicting with the next.” The effect is generated by a clash of contrasting components in a kind of thesis-antithesis-synthesis dialectic. Brecht also disparaged the causal through-line of Stanislavskian theory, both in his dramaturgy and in the work of his actors, whom he admonished not to try to connect the separate moments made up of the actions enacted on the stage. In Brecht’s theory, the spaces between the moments are as meaningful as the moments themselves. The connections, Brecht insisted, become visible both despite and because of the interstices.

This notion is remarkably similar to “plastic space,” an art concept Tennessee Williams (1911-83)--who absorbed several Brechtian influences both from the German writer’s own theories and through Brecht’s early mentor, Erwin Piscator (1893-1966), with whom the young American had studied and worked--ascribed to painter and teacher Hans Hofmann (1880-1966). Williams, who had an affinity for film himself, explained that the empty space in an arrangement of objects is as significant to the total assemblage as the space in which there are objects. Though Hofmann never actually used the term “plastic space,” he did describe “positive” and “negative” space in terms of the presence or absence of “visible matter” and defined “plasticity” as the communication of a three-dimensional experience in the two-dimensional medium of a painting. Plasticity derives from the tension between the forces and counter-forces created by the separate elements of the painting--the juxtaposition of negative space and positive space, for one. Like the conflict of images in Eisenstein’s montage of attractions, Hofmann’s plasticity generates a response in the spectator that’s more than just the depiction of reality. (For more on Williams’s ideas on plastic space and plastic theater, see my essay “’The Sculptural Drama’: Tennessee Williams’s Plastic Theatre” [Tennessee Williams Annual Review no. 5 (2002), http://www.tennesseewilliamsstudies.org/archives/2002/3kramer.htm].)

Since Eisenstein’s concept owes its inception in part to Constructivism, the director’s emphasis, too, was to reduce theater to its fundamental productive essentials--the parallel of Grotowski’s search--as if it were a machine which the engineer (for which profession Eisenstein had studied) designed with only the parts necessary for producing the desired product. Toward this end, Eisenstein kept the barriers between the spectators and the performers minimal. Like circus, too, such performances are “more real” (as one circus artist phrased his comparison of circus and traditional theater): Eisenstein, himself, observed that the application of the theory of attractions results in a performance of “immediate reality.” As Meyerhold wrote, both he and his former student “were looking for a new type of stage, free from anything which might get in the actor’s way.” Indeed, all of the artists who practiced some version of the montage of attractions--Meyerhold, Eisenstein, Piscator, Brecht, even Williams--were seeking a new theatrical form, and the relationship between the spectator and the performers is key. Theater audiences start out as a mass of individuals and the traditional Aristotelian theater lulls the individuals into a sense of privacy and isolation--they’re alone in the dark, separate not only from the actors on the stage but from everyone else around them, not to mention everyone outside the theater. The activist theater artists, wanting their audiences to respond directly, need to resist this separateness and create a sense of commonality, a community among the spectators.

From an artistic perspective, Meyerhold was, like Eisenstein, earnestly searching not only for a new stage but for a new theatrical form--an echo, perhaps not coincidentally, of Konstantine Treplyev in Chekhov’s The Seagull, the part Meyerhold played in the Moscow Art Theater’s 1898 production: “What we need is a new kind of theatre. We need new forms.” This urge parallels the call for a “new plastic theater” by Tennessee Williams (in his “Production Notes” to the text of The Glass Menagerie), who may be seen to have used his own adaptation of Eisenstein’s theory of attractions in plays like Glass Menagerie (which, in the playwright’s original concept--not realized in the Broadway première--is startlingly Brechtian) and, especially, Camino Real--performances that came together from elements which weren’t only causally unlinked, but structurally unconnected. There’s an apparent correlation between plastic theater, which draws on all the stage arts to generate its theatrical--as opposed to simply literary--effect, and Hofmann’s idea of plasticity. In a plastic theater, the tension among the disparate attractions creates the plasticity of the performance and, just as the viewer of a plastic painting has a three-dimensional experience from a two-dimensional work of art, the audience of a plastic theatre work has a theatrical experience beyond the mere image of actual life. Meyerhold also writes of plasticity, by which he means not just three-dimensional settings, but three-dimensional acting (“plastic movement”); Williams was, in a sense, going to the next level, using plasticity to create multi-dimensional plays and productions.

Meyerhold made theater out of disparate elements as opposed to “illustrating” dramatic literature. Productions like D.E. and The Inspector General (1926) were composed of scenes which each had its own mood, tempo, atmosphere, rhythm, mode, plot, development, and climax. In D.E., for instance, Meyerhold included elements of Kabuki, Expressionism, music hall, military drill, Chaplinesque pantomime, biomechanics, wild dancing, jazz, and calisthenics. Eisenstein, in fact, made the point that a dynamic work of art, as opposed to a “lifeless” one,

is not fixed or ready-made, but arises--is born. The image planned by author, director and actor is concretized by them in separate representational elements, and is assembled--again and finally--in the spectator’s perception. This is actually the final aim of every artist’s creative endeavor.

The multi-dimensionality of a montage production owes much to the pioneering work of Piscator. Unlike Grotowski, Piscator sought to use all the technological and staging arts he could apply to create the images and effects he wanted for his audience. Piscator’s impact on Brecht and his own development of political theater, along with Brecht and Meyerhold, in the early decades of the 20th century mean that his ideas would filter down half a century later through the work of groups like the Living Theatre, whose co-founder, Judith Malina, had been a student of Piscator. In his “Total Theatre,” Piscator made extensive use, for instance, of film clips, projections, loudspeakers, and other technology available--even innovative--in his day for his political spectacles. These, too, are attractions in the Eisensteinian sense. Let the filmmaker sum it all up:

And now we can say that it is precisely the montage principle, as distinguished from that of representation, which obliges spectators themselves to create and the montage principle, by this means, achieve that great power of inner creative excitement in the spectator which distinguishes an emotionally exciting work from one that stops without going further than giving information or recording events


  1. A great article and overview. Thanks!

  2. Interesting article. It would be very helpful if you cited your quotes.

  3. "ROT" doesn't really accommodate footnotes and naming the sources, which I have done occasionally, can result in a long list. I have offered at the conclusion to several articles to supply the sources if anyone wants them (no one's ever asked before). I won't post the list of references here--it would be too long--but if you're really curious, provide your e-mail address or another way to contact you, and I'll send you the list.


  4. This is a wonderful summation of the subject and a great melding of the filmic and theatrical aspects.
    Please send me the list of references to bwarburton@msn.com

    Many thanks