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Cet article s’intéresse à la question des “choses” dans le théâtre anglais contemporain en examinant un accessoire scénique banal apparaissant dans un grand nombre de pièces: le téléphone. Après une analyse des conventions liées à l’utilisation du téléphone sur scène (en matière d’exposition et de garantie de l’intégrité de l’espace hors scène), cet article se penche sur la rupture de ces conventions, se fondant notamment sur la référence postmoderne au téléphone que propose Tom Stoppard dans The Real Inspector Hound, ou encore sur l’exploitation des qualités acoustiques et visuelles de cet accessoire dans Serious Money. La conclusion propose une lecture de The Dumb Waiter de Harold Pinter, pièce dans laquelle n’apparaît aucun téléphone mais qui propose une réflexion sur la fonction essentielle du téléphone, à savoir le statut des télécommunications sur scène.

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1The theatrical “thing” to which this essay is devoted had already in 1930 exhausted its potential and been reduced to cliché. In that year Jean Cocteau, in his preface to La voix humaine called it “l’accessoire banal des pièces modernes” (Cocteau 10). Cocteau’s play itself set out, of course, to make the telephone the indispensable accomplice to the lone female protagonist, a veritable machine for monologuing. The playwright alludes disparagingly to the conventionalised Broadway and boulevard theatre telephone with its dual function: as part of the system of signs signifying affluence and modernity and as efficient modern replacement of the age- old theatrical messenger bringing news from off-stage. Already in the word “accessoire” there is a certain disdain for an object which is “accessory” and therefore by implication secondary, a non-essential ornamentation. It is this accessory, and hence “banal” quality that Cocteau seeks to eliminate from the telephone in La voix humaine by making it the object of an intense libidinal investment on the part of the one who holds it.

2In English, the word for any object touched by an actor during the course of a play is a “property”, with “décor” reserved for anything left untouched. The term is said to refer originally to the fact that these objects were the property of the theatrical company rather than the actors. In practice, it is generally shortened to “prop”. Like the French term, then, the English one possesses a number of potentially (although by no means necessarily) pejorative connotations. As well as being a theatrical object, a “prop” can be anything that supports, holds up, or keeps in place a larger structure or edifice which, by implication, is in danger of collapse without this assistance. In rugby union it is the player (le pilier) whose special skills ensure the stability and strength of the scrum (la mêlée), protecting his team-mates, meanwhile, from lethal neck and spine injuries. On its own, with nothing to hold up, the prop is meaningless, a beamless strut. By the same token, if an edifice or person requires a prop or props, it is clearly unable to stand on its own and suffers from certain basic structural deficiencies. If we accept that it is not always easy to tell where the prop ends and the propped begins, is it possible to bring this set of meanings across to the theatrical prop? It is certainly true that without its props, more than one theatrical apparatus would collapse. This is especially the case for that theatre which treats its props as mere accessories, as subordinate aides: subordinate to the characters who use them, to the plot, to a fictional “world”, primarily exploited, that is, for their “representational” value, or iconicity.

3It is fair to say that the theatrical avant-gardes of the twentieth century were almost uniformly hostile to the conventional meaning of props just outlined. Not for them the “thing” on stage which is a faithful and docile servant to a story or to some vague ambition of illusion. Instead, in the avant-garde the object world becomes animate in its own right. Inveighing against the scenery and actors that “encumber the stage uselessly”, Alfred Jarry proposes to return the thingness to objects by collapsing the distinction between prop and décor: “toute partie de décor dont on aura un besoin special” he argues, “fenêtre qu’on ouvre, porte qu’on enfonce, est une accessoire et peut être apportée comme une table ou un flambeau” (Jarry 163–4). And Artaud, of course, suggests doing away altogether with décor, whilst introducing to the stage “des objets aux proportions singulières [qui] apparaîtront au même titre que des images verbales, insisteront sur le côté concret de toute image et de toute expression—avec pour contre-partie que des choses qui exigent d’habitude leur figuration objective seront escamotées ou dissimulées” (Artaud 116).

4In their servile role as props, dutifully transmitting a representational value, objects in theatre have, Artaud and Jarry both imply, been denuded of their theatrical or spectacular value. Which is to say, that rather than standing in for something else, things in the theatre of Jarry or Artaud are meant instead to appear there as themselves, in all their thingness: not just effects of the stage, but also affecting it. Of course, it is not only on the avant-garde stage that this happens, and Andrew Sofer has usefully enumerated the ways in which props take on a ‘life of their own’ in a range of theatres (Sofer 23–29).

5From within this problematic, then, my questions are: what sort of thing is a telephone? What sort of thing is a telephone on a stage? And in what ways does it affect or change the stage on which it rings?

6Like a prop, a telephone has a prosthetic function. As Marshall McLuhan puts it, “With the telephone, there occurs the extension of ear and voice that is a kind of extra sensory perception” (McLuhan 289). A telephone, then, is a cybernetic thing, that supplements the body, amplifying the sense organs. And yet at the same it has a way of derealising the body: Paul Virilio has described the experience of telephoning as “hearing the voice of someone alive yet not there, who may be hundreds of kilometres away, being able to rouse them and convene long-distance with them in the absence of their body, losing one’s own body in the process by becoming invisible in the eye’s of one’s partner” (Virilio 59)

7And now that we all carry one around with us, the intimacy of the phone with the human body has only increased, while that telephonic body has been more or less freed from the spatial constraints once enforced by cords and wires. That the ubiquitous mobile telephone (portable) has come to signify an almost unconscious closeness to its owner is evidenced by its already clichéd use in cinema as an announcement of guilt, ringing at the least opportune moment for its possessor, who is in some way culpable and thus exposed by the telephonic lapsus or acte manqué. This cliché of the subject who unintentionally gives him- or herself away through a ringing phone on his/her person is equally amenable to theatre and has, for example, been used unmodified by Alan Ayckbourn in Gameplan (2001). And as a number of theorists have noted, the phone also places certain demands upon us: its call interpellates us as telephonic subjects who recognize ourselves in its ring as addressees. Far from a mundane act, answering a phone, according to Avital Ronell, carries with it a series of profound implications: “You don’t know who’s calling” she writes, “or what you are going to be called upon to do, a nd still, you are lending your ear, giving something up, receiving an order. It is a question of answerability. Who answers the call of the telephone, the call of duty, and accounts for the taxes it appears to impose?” (Ronell 2) Common sense argues that new telecommunication technologies have rendered obsolete most of the mysteriousness of the “call” that Ronell describes, but the fact remains that the phone, in McLuhan’s words, “is a participant form that demands a partner, with all the intensity of electric polarity” (McLuhan 292).

8None of these cultural facts necessarily make for the telephone as a dynamic or interesting thing in the theatre. Indeed, far from it. When McLuhan asks “Why does a phone ringing on the stage create instant tension?” (McLuhan 292), his answer is that the ring rouses in the audience a sort of Pavlovian obligation to answer; but we could equally argue that this unease is the product of a basic misfit between the technological device and the stage. Indeed, we could even argue that the telephone has been a curse to the theatre, and not just because audience members so regularly fail to extinguish their phones at the start of a performance. It is easy to appreciate Cocteau’s ennui with the banal stage accessory when faced with the sort of claim made by John Brooks who enthuses that “[s]urely it must be the single most convenient prop ever introduced in to the warehouse of the imaginative writer. If the novel and the drama are basically about people talking to each other, think how the scope of those forms is increased by the existence of a device that enables people to talk without being in the same place” (Brooks 208).

  • 1 Apart from anything else, the telephone, especially in its most recent mobile manifestations, is si (...)

9As if “convenience” were one of the main criteria for fictional or artistic production, or drama is “basically about people talking to each other”. By this measure the stage telephone is at best a scriptwriter’s lazy shortcut, or at worst an accomplice in the reproduction of a theatre of words, providing a handy machine for talking. Indeed, on the face of it, the telephone is supremely un-theatrical, existing only as a tenuous link to some imagined world beyond the stage.1

10It is in this capacity as a direct line to off-stage space that the telephone has done the most theatrical service. In fact, it could be argued that the conventional stage telephone is hardly on stage at all, for its importance lies not in its physical presence so much as the fact that it testifies to whatever is happening, spectrally, off that stage. ist most common use has been as a narrative device for relaying to the audience plot elements which are not shown or acted out. It has largely been a tool of exposition, then, serving thereby as a guarantee that the fictional world extends beyond the represented space we see on the stage. The cord extending from its back may end abruptly where it joins a makeshift theatrical wall, but it bears a disproportionate responsibility for maintaining the integrity of the fictional universe. What is more, it has also proven “convenient”, to use Brooks’ term, in providing a space for the monologue in a theatrical tradition uncomfortable with characters speaking alone on stage. Cocteau, as I have already noted, has extended this logic to a full one-act play in La voix humaine.

11In modern British drama, there have been, broadly speaking, two main attempts to shake the stage telephone free from its conventional usages. The first is post-modern, in the sense that it proceeds self-reflexively, by placing the convention in quotation marks. The second sets out instead to exploit the purely theatrical potential of the telephone, by making it contribute in dynamic fashion to the stage image and its acoustic architecture.

12On the post-modern side, the main representative is Tom Stoppard. In The Real Inspector Hound (1968), two theatre critics, Moon and Birdboot, are watching the beginnings of an Agatha Christie-style whodunit, whilst the actual theatre audience watches both:

MOON: All I ever got was “Unforgettable” on the posters for. . .What was it? BIRDBOOT: Oh—yes—I know. . . .Was that you? I thought it was Higgs.
(The phone rings. MRS DRUDGE seems to have been waiting for it to do so and for the last few seconds has been dusting it with an intense concentration. She snatches it up.)
MRS. DRUDGE: (into the phone): Hello, the drawing-room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence one morning in early spring?. . .Hello!—the draw—ho? Who did you wish to speak to? I’m afraid there is no one of that name here, this is all very mysterious and I’m sure it’s leading up to something, I hope nothing is amiss for we, that is Lady Muldoon and her houseguests, are here cut off from the world, including Magnus, the wheelchair-ridden half-brother of her ladyship’s husband Lord Albert Muldoon who ten years ago went out for a walk on the cliffs and was never seen again–and all alone, for they had no children.
MOON: Derivative, of course.
BIRDBOOT: But quite sound. (Stoppard 15)

13The (unnamed) play within a play that the two critics watch and then eventually join is a murder mystery of exaggeratedly clumsy construction. In this scene the wrong number that Mrs Drudge takes is a flimsy pretext to convey to a notional audience some basic expository material such as the time, the location, the names of characters and their backgrounds. That no one would ever reveal such information to a stranger down a phone goes without saying, for Stoppard’s point is precisely to mock the ham-fisted narrative techniques of a second-rate “well-made play”. It is not the character “Mrs Drudge” who is loitering about the phone “dusting it with an intense concentration”, but rather the (also fictional) actress playing Mrs Drudge, who is uncertain of her cue, but who knows that she must deliver her lines down the telephone so as to maintain a modicum of fictional probability as she monologues for the benefit of an audience who need to be “put in the picture”. Stoppard’s post-modern move, of course, is to treat this convention with knowingness, making use of it only as a form of citation (there is a similar business with a radio in the play). If the stage phone is a prop which gives integrity to a fictional universe by guaranteeing the existence of a continuous world outside the room it rings in, Stoppard later tests this assumption and raises the stakes by having Moon step onto the stage and pick up the phone that is ringing unanswered. It is for Birdboot: impossibly, his wife has called him “at work”.

14The Real Inspector Hound is a key example of a very British sort of Pirandellism that we might call the “meta-theatrical farce”. This small but fruitful sub-genre usually involves a shambolically executed play-within-a-play which allows the playwright, in jocular fashion, to “bare the device”. The most successful of these (with audiences) has without doubt been Michael Frayn’s Noises Off (1982) in which a provincial touring company prove incapable of performing with even a modicum of competence the inner play, Nothing On. At the opening of the play we are witness to a “rehearsal” in which Dotty, like Mrs Drudge, a servant charged with delivering basis expository material, struggles gamely with a stage telephone which eventually defeats her. Meanwhile, in a more recent example, Peter Nichols’ Blue Murder (1996), the back-stage crew for the play-within-a-play (Foreign Bodies) are either malicious or bungling as they set off with increasing randomness the sound effects for a ringing phone, a doorbell, and a piano, to the consternation of a cast forced to improvise around these unanticipated technical poltergeists.

15Caryl Churchill is another contemporary British playwright who has recycled to great effect English farce traditions, but in Serious Money (1987) it is the conventions of the musical drama which allow her to breathe new life into the “banal accessory”. Here is the opening scene:

Three different dealing rooms simultaneously. All have screens and phones.
[. . .]
GRIMES and his MATE in gilts dealing room of Klein Merrick, SCILLA on Liffe floor. Each has two phones.
     I’m long on these bastards.
     3’s a nice sell. They’d be above the mark.
GRIMES (on phone).
     Scilla? Sell at 3.
SCILLA (on two phones. To floor).
     10 at 3. 10 at 3.
     (On phone 2.)
     That’s March is it?
MATE (phone)
     6 Bid.
GRIMES (phone).
     What are you doing tonight?
SCILLA (to floor).
     4 for 10. 4 fol. 10. Are you looking at me?
     4 for 10.
GRIMES (phone)
SCILLA (phone 1)
     Yes, we sold them.
GREVILLE (phone).
     What are you doing tonight?
SCILLA (phone 1).
     Going out later – hang on.
     (Phone 2.) 4 fol. 10 nothing doing. Will he go to 5?
     (To floor.) 5 fol. 10! 5 fol. 10!
GRIMES (phone 2).
     Bid 28 at the figure.
     I’m only making a tick.
     Leg out of it.
SCILLA (phone).
     Futures are up.
     (Phone.) Champagne bar / at six? (Churchill 198–199)

  • 2 Typically, Churchill also takes the opportunity offered by the multiplication of telephones to enge (...)

16Churchill more or less dispenses with the telephone’s stock function as a relay device for expository data, although the phones here are clearly instrumental in establishing the frenetic atmosphere of a trading floor in the wake of the Big Bang deregulation of the London stock exchange in 1986. What is more important is the number of phones and their coordination with each other. In the passage just quoted, there are six at issue, but if we include the other trading rooms which also feature in this telephonic overture, the number rises to between 11 and 16 depending on choices made in the mise-en-scène. This, then, is the principle of the multiplication of things. The phone is not a neutral object that quietly waits to fulfil its function when called upon, but instead, by proliferating, makes a dynamic contribution to the stage image. Not only does the orchestration of vocal and sonic elements dictate the ebb and flow of the trading floor’s staccato music, but we could also speak productively of a choreography of things that Churchill sets in motion.2

  • 3 As Élisabeth Angel-Perez pointed out to me, the telephone is here being adapted to the traditions o (...)

17The “dance” of phones can also be found in a reduced version in the press room scenes in Brenton and Hare’s Pravda (1985), but there are much earlier antecedents. Italian futurist Marinetti saw the purely acoustic potential of the telephone and combined it in his “shows” with other “sound effects such as automobile horns, saws, electric bells, and hammers” (fol. 20). In The Front Page (1928), American dramatists Hecht and MacArthur place seven telephones on a table in their fictional press room: these become the electric epicentre of the play’s action, with at one point five reporters simultaneously giving differing versions of the same news event. This manic cacophony is preserved on screen in Howard Hawks’ exuberant adaptation of the play, His Girl Friday (1941).3 What are the implications of this multiplication of telephones on stage? As the objects multiply, so their representational value is eroded by their spectacular or theatrical value. While the phone may still stand-in for a “real” phone, it increasingly takes it meanings from the sonic assemblage to which it belongs, generating visual and auditory patterns independent of any representational or expository aims. This potential, as Jarry and Artaud recognized, resides in any “thing” brought onto a stage, but the sheer proliferation of a single object deals a powerful blow to the representational theatre.

18Near the beginning of Endgame Hamm taunts Clov with a sour joke: “No phone calls? . . . Don’t we laugh?” (Beckett 16) Why are there no telephones in Beckett? As Avital Ronell writes, a telephone “presupposes the existence of another telephone, somewhere” (Ronell 3). In the terms laid out by Beckettian dramaturgy, it is not just that there is nothing outside, but that there are no things there, and the telephone, as I have explained, is the on-stage cipher of a hypothetical off-stage presence. Indeed, it may be that the most profound meditations on telecommunications in the theatre can be found in those plays which precisely do without the “banal accessory” altogether. The examples I have examined thus far reflect on the telephone as an atrophied tool of exposition or have found new ways to make use of the phone theatrically, but we have to turn to Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter (1960), which features no telephones at all, to find a play that finds a way of thematising their cultural significance whilst at the same time interrogating their conventional theatrical function.

19In this early short play, Pinter places two hired gunmen, Gus and Ben, in a non-descript basement room where they await their orders, passing the time bantering, worrying and irritating each other. Ben is quietly confident that their superior, Wilson, will communicate instructions to them, while Gus expresses a nervous anxiety about the status of this communication. They repeatedly use two idiomatic phrases from telecommunications to describe the way in which they receive messages from their shadowy boss: “getting in touch” and “getting a call”. “When’s he going to get in touch?” (Pinter 138), “Why doesn’t he get in touch?” (153) Gus querulously asks; “when a call comes, I’m ready” (134), “When we get the call, you go over and stand behind the door” (158) says Ben. Oddly, neither stops to wonder exactly by what means this “call” or “getting in touch” will take place in the apparent absence in the room of any device for communicating at a distance. Certainly, the most obvious such means, a telephone, is nowhere to be seen, although in “that last place” Gus says, “At least there was a wireless” (135). Eventually, an envelope enigmatically containing 12 matches slides under the door, and then shortly after, the hatch between their beds reveals a primitive telecommunications system: a dumb waiter which can carry notes and objects along a vertical axis, a speaking tube, which can be placed to either the mouth or the ear, and a whistle which alerts either end of this two-way connection that the other wishes to communicate. A series of food orders which they are unable to complete comes down the dumb waiter. Ben in particular is keen to obey these requests at a distance, but neither he nor Gus seem to suspect that it is in fact their superior who is sending the messages, although at the very end “the call” does come down the speaking tube, and Ben finds himself charged with killing Gus.

20In Pinter, the off-stage is never simply given, as it is in the vast majority of realist plays. But nor is it negated outright in some sort of declaration of theatrical autonomy, whereby the stage is nothing but a stage. Instead, the off-stage is a site of radical ambiguity, it is undecideable. In The Dumb Waiter, rather than being subject to a familiar convention organised around an object such as a telephone, communication from the off-stage is taken up as a basic problem and turned into the very source of the drama. This is also why the telecommunications technology that terrorises Ben and Gus must be archaic, for that archaism renders uncanny the most familiar of stage conventions, the communicative link between on-stage and off-stage. At the same time, and again without the use of the actual thing, The Dumb Waiter is able to reflect on the ethical dimensions of the telephonic subject, who, as Ronell and Virilio and McLuhan in varying ways claim, recognizes him or herself as subject (or declines to do so) when facing “a call” from an enigmatically invisible power.

21As Andrew Sofer has already shown most productively in relation to a number of key theatrical props, hunting out and isolating stage objects need not be a purely quixotic activity. Is there an alternate history of the modern stage to be written that would take as its focus the telephone as actant? Perhaps not, but such an enterprise would open up the essential and paradoxical question of telecommunications and the theatre, as well as forcing us to reconsider the agency of inanimate matter on the stage. A prop—gun, bundle, crown, handkerchiefis normally activated by the touch of the actor, but a ‘technical property’ activates itself without any intervention by the actor, who instead is called into partnership by it. This is as much the case with the phone that uncannily and impossibly inhabits two fictional fields simultaneously in The Real Inspector Hound as it is with Serious Money where the stockbrokers are so many marionettes with telephone cords as puppet-strings. And as The Dumb Waiter shows, taking away the cords is still no guarantee of autonomy.

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Artaud, Antonin, ‘Le théâtre de la cruauté (Premier manifeste)’, Œuvres complètes IV, Paris: Gallimard, 1964, 106–119.

Ayckbourn, Alan, Damsels in Distress: Gameplan, Flatskin, Roleplay, London: Faber, 2003.

Beckett, Samuel, Endgame, London: Faber, 1976.

Brenton, Howard, and David HARE, Pravda: A Fleet Street Comedy, London: Methuen, 1986.

Brooks, John, “The First and Only Century of Telephone Literature”, The Social Impact of the Telephone, ed. Ithiel de Sola Pool, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1977, 208–24.

Churchill, Caryl, Caryl Churchill: Plays 2, London: Methuen, 1990.

Ford, Mark, “Merry Kicks”, London Review of Books 20 (May 2004): 19–21.

Frayn, Michael, Frayn: Plays One, London: Methuen, 1985.

Hecht, Ben and Charles Mac Arthur, The Front Page, Sixteen Famous American Plays, ed. Bennett A. Serf and Van H. Cartmel, New York: Random House, 1941.

Jarry, Alfred, ‘De l’inutilité du théâtre au théâtre’, Œuvres complètes IV, Lausanne: Henri Kaesar, 161–7.

Mcluhan, Marshall, Understanding Media, London: Routledge, 1964.

Nichols, Peter, Blue Murder: A Play orTtwo, London: Methuen, 1996.

Pinter, Harold, Pinter: Plays One, London: Methuen, 1976.

Ronell, Avital, The Telephone Book, Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1989.

Sofer, Andrew, The Stage Life of Props, Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2003.

Stoppard, Tom, The Real Inspector Hound, London: Faber, 1968.

Virilio, Paul, The Art of the Motorr, trans. Julie Rose, Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1995.

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1 Apart from anything else, the telephone, especially in its most recent mobile manifestations, is simply too small to make any significant impact on stage. That size and visibility often determine what makes a useful theatrical object was a point made by Howard Barker at the Colloquium on “Things” at the Sorbonne, October 12, 2007.

2 Typically, Churchill also takes the opportunity offered by the multiplication of telephones to engender a stage language which departs, in its rough poetry, from any recognizable “conversational” dialogue we might encounter on the stage. I owe this point to Alexandra Poulain.

3 As Élisabeth Angel-Perez pointed out to me, the telephone is here being adapted to the traditions of American burlesque theatre. This observation is crucial, for without it we are in danger of attributing too much agency to the technological, a tendency for which McLuhan has been much criticized. Technology may bring changes to the stage, but already existing cultural forms also assimilate new technologies and give them their meanings.

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Peter Buse, « Technical Properties »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 35 | 2008, mis en ligne le 15 mars 2019, consulté le 01 décembre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Peter Buse

University of Salford

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