Dr Joseph Bitney is a University Assistant Professor in the Faculty of English at the University of Cambridge, UK, where he is also a Fellow of Selwyn College. His research focuses on classical Hollywood cinema, film criticism and theory, and the modern novel, and he is currently writing a book on melodrama and the commodity form. His recent article ‘Rethinking the Family Melodrama: Thomas Elsaesser, Mildred Pierce and the business of family’ appears in Screen.
During my time at CRASSH, I will be beginning work on a new book project, tentatively titled ‘The Long History of Mise en Scène’.
The concept of ‘mise en scène’ is one of twentieth-century film criticism’s greatest inventions. Originally deriving from the theatre, the term literally means something like ‘putting on stage’ or ‘stage setting’, referring initially to the scenery and props of a theatrical production. In the hands of a number of film critics of the 1940s and 1950s, however, mise en scène began to mean something much more. If at its most basic the term described the arrangement of things before the camera, it also came to signal something elusive and atmospheric—something to do with the viewer’s fascination with the worlds created onscreen. At its most fundamental, the film critic Robin Wood suggested in 1961, mise en scène might ultimately be considered what makes ‘film, as an art, so much closer to music than literature’.
If more than sixty years later mise en scène is still often thought to distinguish film from literature, it is thus rather surprising to find that, beginning in the late nineteenth century, the term started to be regularly used as an evaluative category for literature itself. My project thus proposes a new archaeology of this crucial and elusive concept, showing that mise en scène has a much richer and more expansive history than has often been assumed in film and theatre studies. While the last two decades have seen numerous scholarly re-evaluations of mise en scène, particularly in film studies, I want to suggest that these recent attempts at a more expansive definition actually deserve to be more expansive still. For if theatre scholars have long acknowledged that, beginning in the 1880s, a shift occurred in which mise en scène began to refer not just to scenery and props but to the art of directing itself, the fact that this very same period also saw the rise of mise en scène as a significant category in literary criticism has never been seriously examined.
By tracing this larger history of mise en scène, my project asserts, we can ultimately gain new insights into the literary creation of fictional worlds, generating new ways of thinking about categories like ‘character’ and ‘setting’ that have long been staples of theories of the novel. And while film and literature are today routinely studied in tandem—and concepts originating in literary theory have often been applied to the cinema—the use of concepts from film criticism to read literary texts remains much less common. However, my project hazards the notion that film and literary criticism might actually be taken to be mutually illuminating—that the version of mise en scène generated in film criticism, precisely because of its connotations of ‘atmosphere’ as much as ‘setting’, might have something to teach us about the modern novel as such.