Humans and robots were first introduced to each other in a theatre. Karel Čapek’s play RUR, which premiered in Prague in 1921, contained the first use of the term “robot”, and featured uncannily human-looking “artificial people”. So Mark O’Connell tells us in his 2018 Wellcome prize-winning book To Be a Machine, an exploration of transhumanism, the belief that the human race can evolve beyond its limitations through technology and even thereby escape death.
O’Connell’s book has now been adapted by the Irish theatre company Dead Centre into a stage show, co-directed by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel, exploring the relationship between man and machine that has only become more vexed in the intervening century. And there will be no humans in the stalls. Instead, audiences watch from home, but have their faces pre-recorded and broadcast into the theatre on iPad screens placed in the seats, so they can be seen by Jack Gleeson as he performs the one-man show.
I spoke to O’Connell and Gleeson, mediated fittingly enough by our laptop screens, about how they arrived at this premise. Over lockdown, the team were spitballing Covid-safe ideas that would mean they could still put on a theatre production in 2020. These semi-jokingly included performing to just a single audience member, “like when Wu-Tang released that album that there was only one copy of”, said O’Connell.
The innovative format they landed on is more than a workaround forced by circumstance, though. “Not to say that it was lucky, but the coronavirus situation dovetailed really nicely with some of the concerns of the book,” said O’Connell.
In the book, O’Connell visits people at the heart of the transhumanist movement, in cryonics facilities and Silicon Valley conferences, and even in a coffin-shaped campaign bus of a transhumanist 2016 presidential candidate. But the stage show is less an adaptation of the events of the book than its ideas, such as self-alienation, the frailty of the body, the primacy of technology in our lives and our innate fear of death – concerns that have only become more topical in the pandemic era.
How does the “you” that is presented on a screen relate to your physical, flesh and blood form? Where does your identity truly reside? They’re ideas that can make you feel dizzy if you let them, and feelings that many of us have experienced through being beamed into the homes of friends and colleagues through machines over the past months. Gleeson and O’Connell both speak about being familiar with alienation from the self. Gleeson’s image is associated with a character who could not be more different than the affable person speaking to me. He is best known as the sadistic villain King Joffrey on Game of Thrones.
“That feeling of not recognising yourself,” as Gleeson put it, is something O’Connell also felt devising the stage adaptation. “I got obsessed with how much time had passed since I wrote [the book] and how I was, in a lot of ways, a different person.”
The stage show will consider transhumanism seriously, just as the book did. “It’s not just, ‘Wow these guys are eccentric nerds,’” said Gleeson. “It’s a bigger meditation on things that we all feel, about how crappy our bodies are, and how mortal.” And, ultimately, the desire to live forever can be traced back to our basic human wiring to fear death. Transhumanism is “an expression of the profound human longing to transcend the confusion and desire and impotence and sickness of the body”, writes O’Connell.
Is the answer to existential dread, made worse by a pandemic, to escape our bodies once and for all? O’Connell feels the opposite. “I’ve been thinking about how effectively flattened so much of our lives are, by being online all the time. And when I think about what it might be like to be an uploaded consciousness, it just feels like a horrific version of that.”
Being an uploaded audience member, however, is a choice we might have to continue to make as theatre-goers for some time. “One of the main ideas in the show is that maybe you can’t recreate that feeling of being humans together in a room listening to a story that’s so ingrained in us as a species,” said Gleeson. But in many ways, the team behind To Be a Machine (Version 1.0), as this first showing at the Dublin theatre festival is titled, feel that they have managed to produce something that is enhanced, rather than limited, by being online: a final product rather than a first version. For one thing, the show makes use of videography that would not be possible live.
I can’t help but be hopeful that this show and others like it work. “As long as we have been telling stories, we have been telling them about the desire to escape our human bodies, to become something other than the animals we are,” writes O’Connell in the book. And for the moment, being uploaded to a theatre crowd might be the best way to achieve that much-needed abstraction from ourselves as we consider the near future and our place in it.