Monday, December 12, 2011

76. The Mechanical Galleon (Germany, AD 1585)

Ships! And German automatons.
This is an impressive object, not too far from the museum’s collection of old clocks, as I remember. It’s here in our history playing the role of the galleon, which changed history, as did all great advances in marine navigation in the 1400s and 1500s, by giving Europe the drop on the rest of the world. With their big ships the Europeans started the modern age. Modes of transport have obviously evolved since, but these big vessels made possible the creation of our world.

Now, this object is obviously not a 15th century galleon. (I found bits of one, at Portsmouth Historic Dockyards, the Mary Rose of Henry VIII—really a fascinating place to visit, and it’ll be better in the next year or two when they actually open the exhibit with what’s left of the ship. When I was there, between trips to the British Museum, the Mary Rose exhibit was only stuff that had been recovered from the wreck.) It’s an automaton, halfway between a puppet and a robot, made in Germany as a conversation piece, a centerpiece for the table of some early Renaissance German duke or princeling, some Holy Roman Emperor potentate. MacGregor conjectures that it was wound up and set to ‘sail’ back and forth across a dinner table, and I think it’s like one of those Swiss a certain point the captain, or the pope or somebody, comes out of the hold in miniature and tootles around and then heads back in. And since most of Germany is landlocked, it’s unlikely that anyone involved had ever been on a real galleon, or to the ocean, for that matter. But they understood that it was huge, that this discovery held the key to the future. It’s not clear what they felt about robots. More recently, German culture has demonstrated a complex fascination/terror with robots; it’s a big deal in the extremely Romantic work of E.T.A. Hoffmann, who was (I guess) writing science fiction in stories like “The Sandman,” the horror story which inspired the cutsey ballet Coppélia and the goofy Act 1 of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, or in the much more frank “Automata,” and I’m here, as spurious historian of German literature, to say that seductive robots are just as terrifying in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a hundred years later.

Sorry, that digression took me a long way away from our galleon and the spirit of new possibilities in transportation it celebrates. One last thought, a memory of an incomplete, unstaged play-fragment we had, years ago, at a since-discontinued festival of new plays hosted by ACT and Annex for several years: it was an extremely evocative scene, we were in the cabaret space in the ACT, not much light, no set, and only two actors: a Spanish conquistador-type, about to leave the next morning on his next trip, spending a last night at his crumbling ancestral castle at the edge of the sea, watching the sunset from a balcony set out over the very water, and the dark-haired Spanish beauty he was leaving behind—their failure to communicate the powerful emotions they were both feeling: his excitement, fear, sense of possibility and gravity at the start of the greatest adventure anyone could ever have, balanced by her need for him, vague hopes for his eventual return in success and inchoate fears about her own future. I went to a dozen plays or possible plays in about two days, but many years later that scene sticks in my head. An aspirational goal for historical drama—yes, it’s nice to represent history as accurately as possible so people learn a thing or two, yes it’s nice to entertain, yes it’s nice to reflect on current issues and events through the lens of a long time ago and far away...but you still need to grab us by the scruff of our souls and take us someplace real, on the deepest human level, to make us say “Hearing this play was an experience that changed me.”

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