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Code Play: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Alive Inside a Computer

Code Play: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Alive Inside a Computer

Code is a language. Code is written and code is read. Code is a text.

All languages create. Code is only an exception in that it does so more literally than others (or what we perceive to be more literally than others). For example, I have long been fascinated by the notion of speech acts: utterances of promising, requesting, greeting, warning, inviting, etc., whose utterance comprises the act itself. An argument is often made, especially as it pertains to forms of writing, that every utterance is in fact a speech act, or as we more commonly say, performative (J.L. Austin). It is easy to see the ways in which code appears to be an actualization of this very philosophy. Although, I would argue, it was not the first.

Plays, like code, create worlds. I have long been fascinated by plays for the ways in which their scripts actualize the concept of the speech act, taking the notion of speech performativity to an entirely new level. One could easily say that playwriting is the closest creative medium to code writing, the execution of its script constructing the 'interface' of sound and image that constitutes the consumable form of the play itself. If this is the case, then we must ask ourselves: what can a code learn from a play? What can a play learn from a code? My final project set out to explore these questions.

The aim of the project was to take the theories and practices behind coding and translate them into a play. This included both form and content, using the "9 Rules of UNIX" along with other stylistic tendencies of code highlighted in Tara McPherson's essay, U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century: The Intertwining of Race and UNIX, as a guide to good code playwriting, while simultaneously using the content of the play to discuss various topics in digital media studies, specifically notions of modularity, digital memory/storage, gaming, and digital self-representation. 

My research copy of McPherson's essay

The play had two objectives. McPherson argues that the same ideology behind UNIX has influenced, or at least been mirrored, in the realm of present say social ideologies. The first objective of the play was to gauge whether or not the process created a product that mirrored the style of present day rhetoric surrounding race, identity politics, and academic organization, as analyzed in McPherson's essay. The second goal of the project was to facilitate commentary on this very process. This was accomplished by allowing the play to remain highly self-reflexive and aware, in so attempting to "develop common languages that link the study of code and culture," as McPherson encourages in the conclusion of her essay. 

Preliminary Drawings and Ideas

My first struggle was attempting to decide what to make the play about. The problem with the project was that its objectives could be obtained using relatively arbitrary content (an encouraging sign I reasoned, further likening my play to code). I finally found my answer in two of my favorite "ELIZABETHANS, passing the time in a place without any visible character." Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were perfect for multiple reasons. ROS and GUIL, as I will call them from here on out, are perfect variables for coding: as far as Stoppard's play portrays them, they are wonderfully blank slates with very little "visible character" of their own—they have absolutely no idea where they are, what they are doing, or where they came from. Lacking internal context yet highly operational, they are two majestic pieces of code. 

Day in the life of Code Play research

I had actually reasoned this relatively early on in the project, using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as an example of a "code play" that has already been written (I hypothesized that McPherson’s UNIX ideology had long since made its way to the world of theater, the structure and themes of Stoppard’s play the perfect example). As I already knew I wanted to riff on the notion of a theater being itself a "black box," once I found my characters, the plot become relatively straightforward. This is how I arrived at the title of the play, Code Play: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Alive Inside a Computer. The project ended up working quite nicely as a sequel to the original: ROS and GUIL disappear into a black darkness at the end of Stoppard's play. So who's to say they aren’t sucked inside a computer?

The "character" list from Code Play

In doing research for the play I spent the greatest amount of time learning basic Java script via Kahn Academy, and translating the ideas voiced in various theoretical essays into potential dialogue for my characters. I ended up using less actual code notation in the script than I would have liked, however the lessons ended up influencing a significant portion of the play's content, which I hadn't originally expected. I decided to set up the stage to mirror the type of "split screen" I used in my Kahn Academy tutorials, with the "coding" side of the stage projecting the script for the play, while the "generated interface" side of the stage was reserved for the action of the players. The goal was to give the viewer "double vision," allowing them to see the unseen, masked, and hidden "code" of the interface before them, simultaneously mirroring the process of coding while challenging implicit notions of modularity and information hiding at the heart of coding practices. 

A VERY rough sketch of Code Play's stage setup 

The original intended use of the projector screen was to use it to give context to the events happening on stage, challenging the notions of modularity and information hiding in an even more extreme way. This would have been the job of SIMON, a program (who is really an actor), who would type comments live, similar to the way in which one would type and send messages in an instant message programs. However, I worried that too much explication would "give the game away," making the play less engaging for audience members who wished to "make up their own minds" (and theories) as to what was happening on stage. In the end time won out and I decided to keep the projection limited to the script of the action. However, in retrospect I believe that to project SIMON's commentary would be much more inline with the project of the play, and certainly worth inserting into a second draft. After all, good coding is not about being clever (about the hardest rule of UNIX to stick when one is writing a play). 

As to whether or not the project succeeded, like all noteworthy pieces of criticism, I will have to argue both yes and no. At times form was highly neglected in favor of content. However, I found that the conventions of playwriting as a medium, specifically the kind of "absurd" playwriting I was attempting, naturally lined up with the conventions of code writing I was attempting to explore. Perhaps this is why, even though I felt as if I was privileging content throughout the process, in retrospect, the form of the project did not suffer. As to whether the play mirrors the contemporary social ideologies in McPherson's essay, I have to acknowledge that the project ultimately begs the question: in writing a play in a style that I believe to be the theater equivalent of the rhetoric surrounding the social ideologies discussed in McPherson's essay, the play inherently mirrors rhetoric of such a style. Ultimately, I am in no way disappointed with the outcome of the project. From the start I have been more concerned with the play's potential for self-reflexivity and its subsequent ability to facilitate critique and commentary about the issues at hand. In this area, I feel that the play has succeeded, and I hope, has done so entertainingly.

*The link below is to a rough, uncompleted draft of the play. Please do not cite without permission.*

https://docs.google.com/document/d/15Lh5l5lSsUxqfDulnOMMtPriSov2g2kx682NWSIzot4/pub

Project Sources:

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. "The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory." Critical Inquiry 35.1 (2008): 148-71. JSTOR. The University of Chicago Press. Web. 8 Mar. 2015. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/595632>.

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 2006.

McPherson, Tara. "U.S. Operating Systems at Mid-Century: The Intertwining of Race and UNIX." Race After the Internet. New York: Routledge, 2012. 21-37.

Walker Rettberg, Jill. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 

Projects that inspired this one:

-http://stanford.edu/~mkagen/codepoetryslam/

-http://blog.anguscroll.com/if-kerouac-wrote-javascript

-http://samanthagorman.net/Body-As (for the ways in which it examines the feedback loop between two mediums, specifically visual performance and language)

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