Today, we wonder about theaters, computers, and the
deus ex machina. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Two Greek words swirl about
the things we make. One is techni.
Techni is the art and skill of making
anything from an engine to an etching. It's a
wonderful word. It acknowledges that engineers and
artists are yoked in the same enterprise.
The other word is mechane, from which
we get machine. It's a less noble word. It tells of
devices -- of gears, pulleys and such.
Mechane tells of manipulation, while
techni tells of art.
The word mechane comes down to us in
the Latin expression deus ex machina,
or "god out of the machine." That's what we call
any cheap theatrical device. An unexpected god
steps out of a clever stage machine to save the
hero at the last second. A fairy godmother appears
in a puff of smoke to pay the mortgage.
But good stagecraft is far more than cheap stunts.
Every set designer who's ever done
Faust or Samson has
wondered how to carry Faust down into Hell or how
to bring the temple down on Samson. Think about the
staging demands of Wagnerian opera.
Now I thumb through my latest issue of
Mechanical Engineering. I scan
articles on heat pipes, turbofans, fibre optics,
and, right along with all that, computer-aided
The New York Metropolitan Opera recently staged
Bela Bartok's opera Bluebeard's
Castle. The set designers changed
Bluebeard's ship into a spaceship. Worse yet, they
wanted us to approach Earth from space. They did
that by heaving a huge wall of stone back to reveal
Earth girdled by swirling clouds. The wall had to
stay rigid. If it fluttered, so would the illusion.
The task was formidable. In the end, it was solved
by a group of engineers armed with the latest tools
of computer design.
Of course, those same engineers have also tackled
Wagner. The Flying Dutchman's ship must descend
from the dark sky to set its cursed captain on the
stage. Then it must rise back into the mist. Easy
enough if you're willing to paint a ship on a
backdrop, lower it, and let the captain walk out
through a door in the side! But modern opera-goers
demand better, and they get it.
Stages are large, and so are the sets that fill
them. Designing a set goes far beyond specifying
what it'll look like. Sets pose terrible structural
problems. The Dutchman's ship may not satisfy
physics, but the machinery of storytelling must.
Theater sets are illusions. Computers also deal in
illusion. Yet they are techni. They
are the stuff of our dreams. Computers manipulate
what we first dream. The theater hones our vision
of reality by mirroring our dreams. Neither
welcomes the lesser god of mechane,
sprung from a secret box.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds