from Royal Opera House Covent Garden

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Royal Opera House Covent Garden London

January 2004

There was a real Hoffmann, Ernst Theodor Amadeus, (1776-1822) a German author and failed composer, whose love life was as disastrous as his fictional counterpart.

During one of the most unsettled periods in European history E.T.A Hoffmann penned a series of stories and became something of a cult figure in the literary world of his time. But to us he is probably best known today for his tale "Der Sandmann , which focuses on young Franz who has mades the mistake of falling in love with a beautiful mechanical doll called Copplia.

This story also formed the basis of Delibes ballet, and follows pretty much the same narrative line as that told by Offenbachs fictional Hoffmann at the beginning of Les Contes.

All three incarnations of the tale have a similar moral; heartbreak attends on boys who fall for toys, real women are much more reliable.

Despite her cogs and springs, Olympia - the great mechanical love object of Offenbachs Hoffmann - is able to convince many people that she is human. In fact the young poet is convinced she must be the daughter of his master Spalanzani, rather than merely Spalanzanis invention. Unfortunately things go wrong as soon as Olympia is test driven at a coming out party held in her honour. When young Hoffmann finally gets the chance to waltz with his beloved, she flies out of control. Subsequently she is smashed to pieces by Copplius, Spalanzanis embittered ex-partner and fellow inventor.

It could be argued that young Hoffmann should have chosen more carefully where he was going to bestow his heart but the idea of falling in love with a machine is not as bizarre - or rare in literature - as we might think.

The late 1700s and early 1800s was a time when Europeans were very taken with the idea of creating life independent of the reproductive process. Giacomo Casanova, in his unreliable memoirs, actually claimed to have fallen in love, and wooed, a mechanical doll of this kind. Such creatures were urban myths of their time, fantasies of the Enlightenment - a period when the notion developed that human skill would one day be perfected to a point where we could imitate the divine architect.

The Universe was ultimately knowable and akin to a vast pocket watch. All we had to do was work out how all the cogs fitted together.

Such promethean ambition led to the popularity of stories that foresaw machines sufficiently lifelike that men would actually fall in love with them, and also to counterblasts, like Mary Shelleys Frankenstein, where the act of creating life through artificial means was shown to be reckless, hubristic and fatal.

Even in stories as fantastical and innocent as "Der Sandmann," loving dolls was proved to be seriously bad for your health. Hoffmanns mechanical wizard, Dr. Coppelius, cynically exploits Franzs devotion to Copplia, trying to siphon off the young mans life force in order to energise his doll.

Fortunately Franzs fiancee, Swanhilda, breaks in and rescues him just in time.

This attempt to grant life to an inanimate or mechanical object has continued to fascinate us, even though we no longer look upon the Universe as a complex, but knowable, piece of clockwork and - since Einstein and Hawking - have had to admit that most of us will never even begin to understand how the cosmos operates.

One question that invariably arises - most recently in Spielbergs film AI - is whether a robot can really have emotions? Stanley Kubrick, who would have directed AI had he not died, had already essayed similar territory in 1968 with his 2001, A Space Odyssey in which a talking computer not only develops a personality but has a nervous breakdown.

Spielberg and Kubrick have both essayed the emotional responses of male machines but this is not unfamiliar territory. Science fiction has always been particularly taken with fembots (as Austin Powers calls them) The long list of emotionally charged female machines includes not just Olympia and Copelia but Pris, the basic pleasure model" in Bladerunner who uses her allure to try and get more life than the span programmed into her.

There is also Annalee Call, the android waif played by Winona Ryder, in Alien 4 who suffers acute self-loathing for her mechanical heart and Futura, the female heartbreaker in Fritz Laings Metropolis. This subject matter has even found its way into comedy with Austin Powers discovering on his honeymoon that his new wife Vanessa is a Fem-Bot (The Spy Who Shagged Me 1999)

Meanwhile Disney has had two box office hits with male mechanicals who have issues around their artificiality - Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story and the original aspirational boy toy, Pinocchio.

Through all these stories run common threads of denial or ignorance. The mechanoid either believes itself to be real or the mechanoids lover suffers such a delusion. The drama that ensues tends to evolve in one of three ways; education (Buzz learns to accept that he is not a real astronaut but a mass produced action figure) disillusionment (Pris finds that she will never live a human life) or transformation (Pinocchio is rewarded by the Blue Fairy and becomes a real boy).

What is particularly interesting is our common assumption, underlying all these narratives, that machines and inanimates would prefer to be like us.

This can be found in one of the first modern stories on the subject, Golem , a 16th century Czech tale in which a lump of clay is animated by Rabbi Loew to help with tasks around the ghetto. While the Golem does not fall in love, or engender love in naive human beings, it does grow envious of children running and jumping. "Why can't I be like the children? I want to have fun! I want to be happy! he cries.

This theme is echoed in The Wizard of Oz, in which Tin Man wants a heart, and in Terminator 2 in which Arnold Schwarzeneggers mechanical killer develops compassion, sacrificing himself in the films final act with the words I know now why you cry - but I cannot.

Occasionally, the theme becomes one of acceptance, although the best film on this subject Edward Scissorhands , inverts our expectations. Edward is a mechanical boy built by a mad inventor (Vincent Price) who has been slowly turning his creation human. Piecemeal transformation was not a good idea however, for the inventor dies leaving Edwards hands untransformed. They remain long, metal and scissor-like. When the film opens Edward is lonely. He seeks out company but never tries to be what he is not. He wishes to be accepted which, eventually, he is - as the best hairdresser and hedge-trimmer in the town.

A bizarre sweet comedy Edward Scissorhands is a rare example of a movie in which human beings adjust to accept the mechanical rather than the mechanical yearning to be like us. Unfortunately Edwards acceptance is only temporary as he falls in love with Kim Boggs(Winona Ryder again) and is run out of town by Jim, her jilted lover, and ends up taking refuge in his castle again.

Love, perversely, remains the commonest theme in these mechanoid narratives. Hoffmann and Young Franz are severely disappointed when they discover that machines cannot love them back and the poet in Fritz Langs Metropolis is devastated by his failure to woo the robot maiden, Futura. David, the boy robot in AI, spends his entire life seeking love. Spielberg chose His Love Is Real, He Is Notas the films strap-line.

What lies behind our fascination with the idea of machines inability to love? In AI the semblance of love is programmable into David via a coded sequence but, unlike all other aspects of his robotic personality, it cannot be deprogrammed once his owner no longer needs Davids undying adoration.

In all probability what underpins the popularity of such stories is our human belief that what marks us out - not only from animals but also from androids - is our erotic and empathetic skills. These, we think, cannot be replicated. Perhaps it is what makes us uniquely human, even if some of these androids (Gigolo Joe in AI, Pris and Roy in Bladerunner and the Terminator himself ) are stronger or more beautiful than we are.

Curiously, one of the first myths on this theme posits a much happier ending. Pygmalion, King of Cyprus, is remembered now solely for the ivory statue he carved of a beautiful maiden. Legend has it that Pygmalion then prayed to Aphrodite, goddess of the island, that his statue should become human. Eventually his prayer was answered, the two of them married and she even had a little ivory child by the name of Paphus. But this is a rare example of man and artefact living happily ever after and is probably more a metaphor for the transforming powers of Aphrodite, than a contribution to the debate about what it is to be human.

More often such stories end sadly - and with a moral twist. When Fellini made his 1978 film of Casanovas memoirs he used the incident with the mechanised doll as an ironic counterpoint to Casanovas very mechanical sexual technique. Finding true love only in a machine was what the relentless sexual athlete deserved. Hoffmann and young Franz also suffer heartbreak and J.F.Sebastian who befriends Pris is killed by her vengeful fellow android, Roy Batty.

So how did it come about that love was chosen as the factor that distinguishes Hoffmann from Olympia, Franz from Copelia, man from machine? In all likelihood this probably grew out of the European Enlightenment itself. Not only was society -and the human body- increasingly shown to resemble a well-ordered machine, but such rationalism radically undermined orthodox Christianity. With religion ceding ground to the concept of a mechanistic Universe, the idea that it was a unique and immortal soul which distinguished us from animals and inanimates also came under suspicion. Maybe man was just a machine and a cog in some greater machine called society - a view that was depicted in Fritz Langs Metropolis and which came to grim fruition in the communist experiments of the 20th century.

It should not be surprising then that the theme of living dolls gained popularity at a time when Europe was embarking on a prolonged period of doubt and debate about what it was, in essence, to be human. Stories like Hoffmanns love affair with Olympia remind us that without a soul human life can never prove truly fulfilling. Only Pygmalion and Pinocchio lived happily ever after.

(c) Adrian Mourby 2004

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