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Absence, Presence, Indexicality: The Mise en Scène of ‘the Heart of Neolithic Orkney’


I sketch those characteristics of the mise en scène at the Ring of Brodgar stone circle and associated sites that might solicit within the visitor something like a dynamic performance. Drawing on surrealism, Robert Smithson and archaeology, I argue that the mise en scène at Brodgar – and the visitor's response to it – is characterized by a sense of presence which exists in a dialectical tension with the perception of that which is absent. Brodgar is indexical (like a photograph) and hauntological, in semiotic terms. The Neolithic site is, at some level, unknowable. The visitor becomes aware of coincident yet incompatible manifestations of time and space (heterochronia) and imagines the potential return of unknown, cryptic ritual performances (metatheatre). This solicits within the viewer something akin to Max Ernst's model of frottage. As Breton put it, ‘The imaginary . . . tends to become real’.

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1 Pearson, Mike and Thomas, Julian, ‘Theatre/Archaeology’, TDR, 38, 4 (Winter 1994), pp. 133–61, here p. 142.

2 Burl, Aubrey, Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland, and Brittany (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), pp. 6876 .

3 Marshall, Jonathan W., ‘Flatness, Ornamentality and the Sonic Image’, World New Music Magazine, 10 (2010), pp. 102–32, available at (all URLs accessed August 2016); Emily Duncan, ‘Waipiata: A Practice-Led Exploration of Heterotopic Script-Writing’, doctoral thesis, Otago University, Dunedin, 2016; Nora, Pierre, ‘Between Memory and History: Les lieux de mémoire ’, Representations, 26 (Spring 1989), pp. 724 .

4 Elsewhere I argue that the structure of the viewing subject's own sensorium and subjectivity can be seen as a product of the mise en scène within which it is placed. Pavis, Patrice, Contemporary Mise en Scène (London: Routledge, 2013); Marshall, Jonathan W., Performing Neurology: The Dramaturgy of Dr Jean-Martin Charcot (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

5 Knabb, Ken, ed., Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), p. 5 . Emphasis in original.

6 Melissa Sanford, ‘The Salt of the Earth’, New York Times, 13 January 2004, p. E1.

7 Marshall, Jonathan W., ‘Corporeal Spectacle and Sublime Annihilation’, Double Dialogues, 14 (Summer 2011), at; Lippard, Lucy, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object (Berkley: University of California Press, 1973).

8 For example, Lunberry, Clark D., ‘Quiet Catastrophe: Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, Vanished’, Discourse, 24, 2 (2002), pp. 86120 .

9 Flam, Jack, ed., Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 250 .

10 Ibid., pp. 146, 298.

11 Olsen, Bjørnar, ‘Roland Barthes’, in Tilley, Christopher, ed., Reading Material Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), pp. 163205 , here p. 199.

12 Coverly, Merlin, Psychogeography (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006), pp. 72103 ; Smith, Phil, ‘The Contemporary Dérive’, Artigo, 2 (2009), n.p.

13 Richards, Colin, ‘A Choreography of Construction’, in Cherry, John, Chris Scarre and Stephen Shennan, eds., Explaining Social Change (Cambridge: McDonald Institute, 2004), pp. 103–13, here p. 110.

14 Breton, André, Earthlight (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1993), p. 90 .

15 Breton, André, Nadja (New York: Grove, 1960), p. 19 .

16 See Ritchie, Anna, ed., Neolithic Orkney (Cambridge: McDonald Institute, 2000), pp. 120, 91–100; Renfrew, Colin, ed., Prehistory of Orkney (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1985).

17 Renfrew, Prehistory, p. 260.

18 Ritchie, Neolithic Orkney, pp. 101–6; Renfrew, Prehistory, pp. 118–30, 248–56.

19 Smith, Roff, ‘Before Stonehenge’, National Geographic, 226, 2 (2014), pp. 2749 ; Card, Nick, ‘The Ness of Brodgar’, British Archaeology (January–February 2013), pp. 1421 .

20 Richards, Colin, ‘Monuments as Landscape’, World Archaeology, 28, 2 (October 1996), pp. 190208, here p. 197.

21 Renfrew, Prehistory, pp. 83–117; Ritchie, Neolithic Orkney, pp. 185–7.

22 Pearson, Mike and Shanks, Michael, Theatre/Archaeology (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 125 .

23 Ritchie, Graham, ‘The Stones of Stenness’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 107 (1975–6), pp. 160, here p. 29.

24 Ibid., pp. 30–4.

25 Richards, ‘Monuments’, p. 205.

26 Ibid., p. 203; Flam, Robert Smithson, p. 146.

27 Graham Ritchie, ‘Ritual Monuments’, in Renfrew, Prehistory, pp. 118–30, here p. 199; Jane Downes, Colin Richards, John Brown, A. J. Cresswell, R. Ellen, A. D. Davis, Allan Hall, Robert McCulloch, David Sanderson and Ian Simpson, ‘Investigating the Great Ring of Brodgar’, in Richards, Colin, ed., Building the Great Stone Circles of the North (Oxford: Windgather, 2013), pp. 64118, here p. 22.

28 Krauss, Rosalind, ‘Notes on the Index’, October, 3 (Spring 1977), pp. 6881 ; 4 (Autumn 1977), pp. 58–67, here 4, p. 58.

29 Richards, ‘Choreography’, pp. 107–8.

30 Lunberry, ‘Quiet Catastrophe’, pp. 86–95, 118.

31 Flam, Robert Smithson, p. 256.

32 Richards, ‘Choreography’, p. 108.

33 Downes et al, ‘Investigating the Great Ring of Brodgar’, p. 12.

34 Nick Kaye, Site-Specific Art (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 97. Emphasis in original.

35 Amelunxen, Hubertus, Hubertus Amelunxen and Florian Rötzer, eds., Photography after Photography: Memory and Representation in the Digital Age (Amsterdam: G+B Arts, 1996).

36 Krauss, ‘Notes’, 3, p. 70.

37 Ibid., p. 75.

38 Krauss, Rosalind, Jane Livingston and Dawn Ades, L'amour fou: Photography and Surrealism (New York: Abbeville, 1985), esp. pp. 31–5, 86–112.

39 Ibid., p. 31.

40 Krauss, ‘Notes’, 4, p. 65.

41 Barthes, Roland, Image Music Text (London: Fontana, 1977), p. 44 . Emphasis in original.

42 Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill & Wang, 1981), p. 15 .

43 Ibid., p. 31.

44 Ibid., p. 32.

45 Olsen, ‘Roland Barthes’, p. 199.

46 Crary, Jonathan, Techniques of the Observer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990).

47 Rebecca Schneider, Keynote Address, Performance Studies international conference, Melbourne, 9 July 2016, transcript courtesy of the author; see also Marshall, Jonathan W., ‘Accepting the Agency of the Non-human’, RealTime, 134 (August–September 2016), at

48 Pearson and Shanks, Theatre/Archaeology, pp. 54–5, 127; see also Tilley, Christopher, The Materiality of Stone (Oxford: Berg, 2004).

49 Tompkins, Joanne, Theatre's Heterotopias (London: Palgrave, 2014), p. 15 .

50 Marshall, Jonathan W., ‘“The World of the Neurological Pavilion”: Hauntology and European Modernism “mal tourné”’, TDR, 57, 4 (Winter 2013), pp. 6085 ; Derrida, Jacques, Spectres of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994).

51 Pearson and Thomas, ‘Theatre/Archaeology’, p. 143

52 Flam, Robert Smithson, p. 103.

53 Ernst, Max, ‘On Frottage’ in Chip, Herschel, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), pp. 428–31, here p. 429. Emphasis in original.

54 Tompkins, Theatre's Heterotopias, p. 184; see also Duncan, ‘Waipiata’.

55 Marshall, Jonathan W., ‘Vertigo: Between the Word and the Act’, RealTime Australia, 35 (2000), at, p. 10.

56 McAuley, Gay, ‘Place in the Performance Experience’, Modern Drama, 46, 4 (Winter 2003), pp. 598613, here p. 602.

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Theatre Research International
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