Acoustic Theater, 1750-1930

In 1762, the art critic Francesco Algarotti argued in his Saggio sopra l’opera in musica that the time was ripe for a new public building in which theater, knowledge and science existed in harmony with each other. “It would then become clear,” he wrote, “that a beautiful, splendid theater is not a place for bringing together a noisy crowd of human beings, but rather a solemn lecture hall, in which Addisons, Drydens and Daciers [...] would gladly be present.” With his desire to bring the theater and the lecture hall closer together, Algarotti aligns himself with the European tradition of the “Theatrum”: the term was used in the early modern period to describe not only playhouses, but also a series of different spaces for ordering, archiving and representing knowledge. Up until the early eighteenth century, however, the design and reception of such spaces was oriented towards the definition of the “theatrum” as a “showplace,” that is, as a site for the production of visual evidence. Instead, with the topos of the “lecture hall” (udienza), Algarotti in 1762 pursued a concept of education that advanced the ear as the central epistemic organ. Whereas Algarotti’s demand for an acoustically ideal theater architecture remained unspecific, towards the end of the eighteenth century, theater architects (such as Pierre Patte, George Sanders, Carl Ferdinand Langhans etc.) began to undertake theoretical and experimental research on spatial acoustics – long before the twentieth century, when the field was established as a scientific discipline.

Proceeding from this insight, my research project is dedicated to exploring the links between the history of European theater and acoustics from 1750 to the present. This period corresponds to the gradual establishment of physical acoustics and its differentiation into numerous subdisciplines, among them the subdiscipline of architectural acoustics. I wish to show thereby that the history of acoustics was not limited to the emergence of an exact science, but instead must be located in a history of the ‘acoustic’ that extends to media and cultural history and the history of the arts. The ‘acoustic’ is therefore of interest in its dual function as a) producer and b) as object of science/knowledge. It is first of all important to ask why extent theater praxis, beginning around 1750, did not simply seek out new ways of organizing space acoustically, as Algarotti demanded. Rather, an upswing in experimentation with new acoustic media technologies and transformed acoustic communication practices can be observed starting around this time. Did this make other forms of the production and transfer of knowledge, beyond the limits of the visual techniques of theater, possible? Additionally, I wish to investigate whether theater theory and practice also anticipated specific insights of acoustics, thus promoting the establishment of the discipline and later implementing its findings. My interest is thus focused here on the transfer of acoustic knowledge, media, and practices between theater and the acoustic disciplines.