In terms of its interpenetration with the rest of our lives, theatre should be the most approachable of the arts. Every child knows the pleasure of pretending to be something one is not, of acting a role in a world of the imagination, and countless modern studies in sociology and anthropology have emphasized how pervasive elements of theatricalization and performance are in our social and psychological actions and interactions. At the same time, the very ubiquity of the theatrical in human life and culture—and, conversely, the apparent ability of theatre, as a human activity, to absorb all other human activities into itself—make it so varied and complex a phenomenon as to test the limits of any mode of critical understanding.
How then can we approach the theatre critically, with any hope of gaining some useful insights into it? The first and by no means the easiest task is to determine, despite inevitable ambiguities, the object of investigation. What is the theatre object? Although elements of theatricalization and, even more broadly, of performance can be traced throughout our social and cultural structures, this study focuses upon the still very broad field of theatre in its traditional interpretation as a specific sociocultural phenomenon involving physical enactment, normally of a pre-existing text, before a group of spectators. Even so broad and general a definition suggests a variety of complex theoretical concerns. What are the psychological, phenomenological, and semiotic implications of enactment? What is the actual relationship between enactors and spectators? What is the contribution of each to the “meaning” or “understanding” of the theatrical event? And, perhaps most debated in discussions of the theatrical object, what is, or should be the relationship between the enactment and any pre-existing written text?
Traditional theatre scholarship has privileged the written dramatic text, and the many tools developed for literary analysis have been applied to it with considerable success. The theatrical performance, on the other hand, has been frequently neglected, or thought of as a mere illustration of the literary text. Although what semioticians have called the “performance text” has received much more critical attention in recent times, tools for its analysis are still far less developed than those for literary analysis, and the critical relationship between literary and performance text remains an area of much controversy. This is not only because the performance, operating on so many more channels than the written text, provides a more complicated object for analysis, but also because the performance is so much more clearly an unique event, and thus less accessible to the sort of analysis designed for the more stable written text. When one adds to this theoretical complexity the further problems of how to relate the theatre meaningfully to other media or to the broader concept of performance, the question of how to approach “the theatre” becomes a difficult one indeed.
The present volume attempts to provide an overview of some of the most promising recent work in this area. Its assumption is that so complex a phenomenon as theatre is best approached from a variety of directions, differing methodologies offering insights that will both complement and supplement each other. This is therefore a multinational and multidisciplinary endeavor, assembled by some of Europe’s leading theatre scholars, and offering a general introduction to theatre study by combining recent insights from a variety of methodologies. It has a general orientation toward semiotic analysis, but complementary approaches—historical, sociological, and anthropological, for example—are utilized as well. The central concern is with analysis of the theatrical event as constructed on the stage and in the auditorium, with attention to the contributing elements of this event—the text, the actor, the space, the spectator, the social circumstances, and so on.
A number of features in addition to its wide range of critical methodologies distinguish this work from other recent theoretical studies of the theatre as a phenomenon. One is the concern with placing the theatre within the overarching world of the related media—radio, television, cinema, video. The interdependence and interaction of the various media is discussed and the media are compared across a broad spectrum of distinguishing features in subject, material, and function.
Another important feature of this study is a detailed application of critical analysis to a variety of specific recent performance events, both in theatre and in dance. Despite the great interest in theoretical analysis of performance in recent years, such analysis has tended to be abstract and general or, if focussed, has tended to focus upon the dramatic script rather than its stage realization. In Saussurian terms, langue has been almost always privileged over parole. The reasons for this are obvious. The script provides an accessible and relatively stable artifact for analysis, and has moreover been the traditionally privileged part of theatre, the authenticating basis for both performance and performance analysis.
This study directly confronts this problem, not only with a discussion of the complex relationships between written text and performance, but with a specific analytic strategy for the elusive “performance text.” A detailed questionnaire for the guiding of performance analysis is proposed, and its usefulness demonstrated by its application to a variety of productions by major figures in the modern theatre, such as Peter Brook, Antoine Vitez, Pina Bausch, and the Royal Shakespeare Company. The resulting analyses are unique case studies suggesting how the range of theoretical approaches offered in this book might be profitably applied to specific studies of theatrical performance. Perhaps the most challenging single problem in developing a working methodology for theatrical analysis is the combined complexity and fugacity of the individual theatrical event that must remain at the heart of such study. The production analyses in this book should provide useful models for the further development of such a methodology.