sábado, 31 de octubre de 2009

SEMIOTICS AND THEATER. By Way of Introduction


The idea for this special issue arose in the effervescent atmosphere of the "Round Table on Semiotics and Theater," organized by Anne Ubersfeld in February 1977.' Following up on the initial impetus given by a few pioneering works,2 the lively "Round Table" discussions demonstrated the interest of a semiotics of theater from a general semiotic perspective, as well as its extraordinary complexity. Today, in spite of the impressive developments achieved during the last few years,3 a semiotics of theater is still a challenge to the investigator. It owes this specific status to the peculiar nature of the pluricodified, multileveled theatrical system. Contemporary research views the theater not as a literary discourse among many others, but as a global system integrating in its own ways a series of semiotic subsystems. The interrelation of these heterogeneous components is most difficult to account for. Moreover, how is one to analyze a complex interdependence when the very elements building up this puzzling relationship are not yet satisfactorily described? An analysis of the theatrical medium presupposes a knowledge of visual and corporal communication, a theory of nonlinguistic signs, a semiology of the objects - none of which is fully available in the present state of research. Grappling with all these difficulties, an inquiry into the theatrical (poly)system is no easy task. At the same time, it is no doubt a fascinating one. Located at the junction of several semiotic fields, it cannot but arouse a general interest.

The collection of original essays presented here ranges from summaries of the situation in a given domain to presentation of new theses. At the same time, it offers a guide to those readers who, though interested in the performing arts and/or in semiotics, have not dealt specifically with semiotics of theater. Keeping these two perspecives in mind, I will briefly outline the crucial issues at stake and the specific standpoints adopted in the various articles.

In order to be an adequate object of semiotic inquiry, theater had first to be conceived of as a specific mode of communication. Mounin's exclusion of theater from the domain of semiology on the basis of a restricted definition of communication (Mounin, 1970) provoked a general outcry. Semioticians of the theater felt compelled to dismiss his point of view explicitly, thus raising the central question of the nature of the theatrical communication. Andre Helbo's essay, "The Semiology of Theater or: Communication Swamped," provides an analysis of the question. Attacking Mounin's basic assumptions, Helbo describes communication as a dynamic process inside which the "theatrical act" takes place. Countering Mounin's notion of "reciprocity" (a symmetrical exchange in which sender and receiver use the same code), other semioticians also attempt to place the concept of theatrical communication on firmer footing. In his "The Analysis of Theatrical Performance," Wilfried Passow emphasizes the importance of the "contrat theatral" based on the convention of "make-believe." He thus improves former models of theatrical interaction by distinguishing between:

a. fictitious scenic interaction (within the make-believe world)

b. interaction of the audience with the make-believe world

c. real interaction on the stage

d. interaction of the audience with the actors (as opposed to the characters)

e. interaction within the audience

Shoshana Avigal and Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan also turn their attention to the "multiplicity of communicational levels involved in the process of conveying messages in the theater." These perspectives invite further investigation into the multileveled communication of the theater, the specificity of which lies precisely in a complex scheme involving various addressers and addressees (playwright, director, actor, character, spectator).

Two extreme positions in the analysis of theatrical communication are illustrated by Cesare Segre's "Narratology and Theater" on the one hand, and Frank Coppieters's "Performance and Perception" on the other. Focusing on the text, Segre describes it as a specific kind of narrative (as distinct from nontheatrical fiction) based on its own reordering of the communication scheme.4 The model exemplified in the play thus eliminates any mediation of the "I" narrator and veils the "I"-sender-"you"-receiver relation. Necessarily, this has certain repercussions for the realization of the narrative structures. This perspective throws light on the problematic concept of narrativity in the theater by including it in the general field of narratology (as interpreted by the Russian Formalists and Lotman). While Segre's approach is mainly textual (and structural), Coppieters adopts an audience-oriented point of view. As his title indicates, he is interested in the ways in which spectators experience a concrete performance. He describes "perception" along empirical lines rather than on the basis of a given theoretical model of theatrical communication. The choice of a nonconventional spectacle (the "People Show") allows him to explore the audience's reactions on the levels of personal experience and of understanding processes.

Theater has to be examined not only as communication, but also as a signifying practice ("pratique signifiante"). More than in the dramatic text itself, meaning production takes place in the interrelations of the different "codes" used in the performance (voices, lights, gestures, objects, etc.). It is imperative, therefore, to achieve a preliminary description of the discrete subsystems constituting the theatrical (poly)system and to examine their modes of integration. In this framework, the present issue provides a contribution to a semiology of theatrical gesture, as well as to a theory of objects and space in the theater. Special emphasis is given to the status of the actor's body on stage - the corporal element in praesentia, and its peculiar relation to the verbal components is central to the specificity of the theatrical medium.

Patrice Pavis's "Problems of a Semiology of Theatrical Gesture" gives an extensive account of contemporary attempts to describe adequately a language of the body. Reviewing psychology, kinesics, and semiotics, as well as the main recent works devoted to the subject Pavis concludes that the enterprise of breaking down the gesture language into minimal units ("gestemes") and combining them into global units is an illusory one. A closer examination of Meyerhold's biomechanic exercises confirms that gestures have to be described on the level of a global "plan" or "program"; thus the notion of a code of "gesturality" including its specific syntax and rhetoric can be posited. At this point, Pavis raises the delicate question of the text-gesture interrelations. A few propositions are made, mainly with a view toward overcoming the sterile opposition between semiology of the text and semiology of the performance. Alongside Pavis's central clarification, other essays stress the importance of corporality in the theatrical medium. Passow discusses the impact of the actor's physical presence on the stage. But it is mainly in Wladimir Krysinsky's "Semiotic Modalities of the Body in Modern Theater" that the body is viewed as the essential element of the theatrical performance. Drawing on contemporary practice (Artaud, Grotowski), Krysinsky reevaluates the status of the body as instinctual energy possessing a disruptive power, and therefore able to deconstruct mimetic representation as well as a given ideology of the (psychological) subject. Theatrical history is presented from the point of view of a word-body relation, and divided into three main phases: from psychological theater, through the texts of the evolution, to autonomous theater. My own article, "Toward a Rhetoric of the Stage: The Scenic Realization of Verbal Cliches," emphasizes in its own framework the radical heterogeneity of the corporal element, and its capacity to deconstruct the verbal discourse in its ideological implications.

The study of a "system of objects" is indispensable to any proper understanding of the theatrical medium. This is the subject selected by Avigal and Rimmon-Kenan in "What do Brook's Bricks mean?" Defining the object as a "lexeme," this essay analyzes its mobility in theatrical discourse on all of its levels.The specificity of the theatrical object is presented as its capacity not only to combine in a variety of theatrical "sentences," but also to undergo numerous transformations in shape (morphological level) and in function (syntactical level). Moreover, the object can participate simultaneously in different semantic fields, and in various rhetorical figures. This mobility is suggestively exemplified in the "laboratory" of Peter Brook's performance, Ubu aux Bouffes, which offers a reflection on theatricality in its main aspects. The particular status of both object and body as participating in a rhetoric of the stage is the subject matter of a further inquiry in my own paper. The visualization of verbal frozen figures in unconventional mises en scene provides a tool for preliminary investigation into the possibilities and the problems of a nonverbal rhetoric in its specific theatrical dimension.

The examination of the corporal element in relation to the text is supplemented by two studies of theatrical space in the essays of Anne Ubersfeld and Michael Issacharoff. Space in the theater is a multivalent notion, since it is to be defined on several correlated levels. First of all, it is divided into scenic, visible space, and dramatic, nonvisible space. This distinction is clearly drawn in Patrice Pavis's dictionary (1980), where he suggests, under the entry "space" the following classification:

Invisible space:

dramatic space (represented in the text and constructed by the spectator) metaphorical spaces, such as: textual space (spatiality of poetic writing) interior space (projections, fantasms, etc.)

as opposed to visible:

scenic space (the stage) scenographic space (stage and house) play space (created by the movements of the actors on stage)

Issacharoff provides his own categorization in "Space and Reference," and il- lustrates the use of his distinction between mimetic and diegetic (discursively referred to) space by a series of interesting examples (Ionesco, Beckett, Sartre, Genet, etc.). He takes into account a history of aesthetic conceptions of stage space, as well as the specificity of contemporary forms such as radio drama. His main theoretical issue, however, is the controversial subject of reference in drama in its relation to space. (Further investigations into the question of reference in drama will be found in Issacharoff & Whiteside, forthcoming.) Anne Ubersfeld's "The Space of Phedre" concentrates on dramatic space with a special view to its problematic staging. Questioning the very notion of "repre- sentation," Racine's text, through its unique manipulation of space and body, calls for unconventional mises en scene (like Hemon's or Vitaz's attempts). The relationship between dramatic and scenic space reveals its complexity.

Text and stage: these are the main components of the "theatrical relation," and in their peculiar modes of interrelation lies the specificity of theater, or theatricality (Jean Alter suggests the term "theatrality"). The old hierarchies having been swept away, the dramatic text has to be redefined in the total system of which it constitutes (only) one (important) part. Serpieri's and Alter's articles present quite divergent views on this topic. In "Toward a Segmentation of the Dramatic Text," Serpieri assumes that a specific stage realization is imprinted in the text itself. This calls for a semiotics of the dramatic text focusing on the text's potential for staging (i.e., the "performative inscription" achieved by the playwright). Drawing on Austin's speech-act theory, Serpieri defines the semiological unit as a unit of performative discourse simultaneous with its indexical axis, and suggests that the utterance be segmented at every change of performative deictic orientation. The demonstration of this thesis, involving a number of dramatic texts, takes the actual practice of acting and staging these plays into account. Jean Alter, in his "From Text to Performance," starts not with a semiotics of the dramatic text, but instead with a semiotics of theatrality - the study of the necessary interaction of verbal and staging signs whereby the latter partly transform the former. "Theatrality" is thus located in a process of recreation through transformation, and it is the potentiality of various texts to undergo transformational processes (assuring both the permanence and the renewal of the theater) that has to be elucidated. Alter proceeds to a formalization intended to account for the operations taking place when a text becomes a performance. In such a framework, the centrality of the dramatic text is displaced, giving way to a specific conception of mise en scene, as well as to a redefinition of the text-performance relationship.

All these new orientations are set against a background of previous semiotic theories, which are either referred to, or summarized and discussed. The origins of semiotics of theater have been given special attention in Jiri Veltrusky's paper on the "Prague School Theory of Theater." Taking into account recent reviews on the Prague School's contribution, Veltrusky points out the achievements and shortcomings of a circle of which he had been an active member.

As a group, this diverse and sometimes contradictory series of essays on the crucial issue of theatrical sign(s) and system(s), meaning production and communication aspires to reinvigorate the discussion. Semiotics of theater is a fast-expanding field occupying a privileged position on the general map of semiotics. It is of interest to anyone dealing with complex sign systems and particularly to those working on the interrelation of the textual and the visual (comics, films, publicity, etc.). Simultaneously, its focus on performance in its relationship to the dramatic text cannot but attract the attention of the practitioners (playwright, director, actors, etc.). Last, but not least, playgoers will find food for thought in the attempts to account for the specificity of the theatrical medium at a time when theater is striving to redefine its uniqueness and its powers.


BOURGY, V. AND R. DURAND, eds., Forthcoming. La relation theatrale (Lille: Presses de l'universite de Lille).

ELAM, KEIR, 1920. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (London: Methuen).

HELBO, ANDRE, ed., 1975. Semiologie de la Representation (Brussels: Complexe).

ISSACHAROFF, MICHAEL & ANNA WHITESIDE, eds., Forthcoming. On Referring in Literature.

MOUNIN, GEORGES, 1970. Introduction a la semiologie (Paris: Minuit).

Organon 80, 1980. Semiologie et Theatre, (Universite de Lyon II, CERTC).

PAVIS, PATRICE,1976. Problemes de semiologie thedtrale (Montreal: Presses de l'universite de Quebec). 1980 Dictionnaire du théâtre (Paris: ed. Sociales).

SEGRE, CESARE, 1980. "A Contribution to the Semiotics of Theater," Poetics Today, 1:3, Spring.

Sub-stance 18-19, 1977. "Theater in France: Ten Years of Research," Josette Feral, ed.

UBERSFELD, ANNE, 1977. Lire le thdatre (Paris: 6d. Sociales). Forthcoming: L'Objet theatral (CNDP).

VERSUS. 1978, 21, "Teatro e semiotica."

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