“Reading” the text
It is an obvious fact that any spontaneous “reading” of a dramatic text and its performance in the theatre will be made in accordance with the interpretive code which the reader-spectator has been taught. Thus in former ages operagoers paid particular attention to the technique and vocal feats of the singers. If one asks high-school students what they have found of interest in a theatrical performance, they will reply: the psychology of the characters. They may not believe a word of what they say, but that is what they are expected to notice in virtue of the code they have learned.
For this reason, it is useful to teach a different method of “reading,” one which opens up an understanding of the dramatic text as an artistic object, the product of an act of writing, and of the performance as a second text, the product of complex stage practice. The assumptions underlying the semiotic approach have the advantage of presenting the text as a set of (linguistic) signs and the performance as another set of (linguistic and non-linguistic) signs, sets of signs which not only interact, but can also be applied one to the other in accordance with laws which are, however, too complex to be considered here.
We are well aware of the fact that the majority of the reading strategies envisaged in the pages that follow are structural procedures which, accordingly, are subject to the inherent weaknesses of any structural method: putting all the elements on the same level without taking into account either the hierarchy of the signs, or the referential worlds of the transmitter and receptor respectively. It will therefore be necessary to consider these procedures as a preliminary exercise to analysis proper, indispensable but requiring to be both interpreted and corrected: interpreted in the light of the relationships to be established between the various patterns of the text (text in the broadest sense of the word), corrected in accordance with the conditions of transmission and reception and with the referential worlds of the writer and the reader-spectator.
The starting point
The first question that arises is “Where to start?” At once we are faced with a difficulty: the analysis of the text and that of the performance cannot be superposed. Reading the text means a linear reading of details in which it is always possible to go back; following the performance implies a global, polyphonic form of reading which inevitably highlights the succession of events that make up the fable. Paradoxically, what is overlooked in the reading of the written text is precisely what is not overlooked by the spectator, that is, the fable and the main conflicts; on the other hand, the reader registers the details of the discourse without perceiving the totality of the overarching structures.
The reader should therefore start by analyzing the overarching structures, which alone make the discourse “readable.” It is well known that the dramatic text normally has the status of unreadability. Whereas the conditions of enunciation underlying the discourse are perfectly and effortlessly apparent to the audience in a production, a reader, on the contrary, is obliged to reconstruct (or construct) these conditions. Hence the need first to study the fable and the actantial model.
Conversely, the spectator who knows the fable and who is aware of the conflicts, should proceed from the diachronic reading of events to a synchronic reading of theatrical signs; and what will be foregrounded in his/her reading are the composition of the stage space, the utilization of the space by the actor, and the use of light; in other words, all the synchronous signs of stage practice.
In the first case, the analyst grasps the discourse as a mise en signe of a fable and a conflict (this is a dramaturgical activity); in the second, s/he studies a network of visual-auditory signs as conferring meaning upon a narrative (a critical activity).
A. Reading the text
In order to elucidate the detail of the didascalia and dialogue, the reader should begin by constructing the fable and the actantial model, or rather models.
(A) THE FABLE
Following Brecht, one can say that the fable is the diachronic sequence of the events presented by the dramatic text, regardless of the order in which the text presents them.
1. The first procedure might be to establish the initial and final state of affairs—a particularly interesting exercise, in that it enables one to determine the change brought about by the dramatic action: thus, for example, the dénouement of Phèdre, by a process of subtraction, demonstrates the elimination of both the subject and the object of the adulterous passion and at the same time that of the two outsiders (Phèdre and Hippolyte); conversely the seal is set on the reconciliation of the two representatives of legitimacy, Thésée and Aricie. Many of Shakespeare’s plays by differentiation between an initial and a final point mark the passage from feudal anarchy to equitable, centralized monarchy (Henry VI and King Lear).
2. A second procedure, related to the first, which is pedagogically most rewarding is to make a summary of the action in one sentence: a single sentence with a finite verb (it is not therefore a matter of supplying an alternative—fuller or cleverer—title). This necessitates the selection of one principal character (the actantial subject) and one main action. The relatively arbitrary nature of this procedure helps the student to realize (a) that any procedure is always a construction, never the discovery of something given, and (b) that any reading of a text, and particularly a reading of it by a producer with an eye to performance, inevitably means exercising a preference: thus, in the case of Le Misanthrope, it is not impossible to construct a sentence, with Célimène instead of Alceste as subject, showing the triumph and defeat of a kind of female Don Juan.
The possibility of constructing several sentences summarizing the action is by no means to be excluded; on the contrary, this may help to elucidate the various explicit or implied conflicts.
3. As for the construction of the fable itself (in the Brechtian sense of the term), this implies making up a story, a kind of micro-novel constructed from the episodes that compose the action, narrated in chronological order. This procedure has the advantage of highlighting the logic of the events and of rearranging the dramatic discourse as a coherent story; it also facilitates taking into account the past events from which the action flows; lastly, it makes it possible to situate the characters in their socio-historical context (this, for Brecht, was the point of the exercise). In certain cases (where the temporal sequence of the drama is broken by anticipated or simultaneous action) the construction of the fable encourages awareness of the way time has been handled. On the other hand, there are instances (ancient tragedies of the static kind, such as The Persians or Prometheus Bound, or modern works of the “muscial” species) in which constructing the fable is not a very rewarding procedure.
One practical difficulty is how to determine the starting point of the fable (a point which does not necessarily coincide with, and may precede or follow, the beginning of the play); in most of Racine’s tragedies, for example, the event that gives rise to the disequilibrium from which the action stems has already occurred before the rise of the curtain, and it is worth while tracing it so as to pinpoint what causes the imbalance and engenders the tragedy. Conversely, in many of Shakespeare’s works (King Lear, Macbeth), the starting point is subsequent to the opening of the play.
(B) ACTANTIAL STRUCTURES
It is not possible to summarize here, even in general terms, Greimas’s theory of an actantial model;1 suffice it to recall that what he proposes is a syntactical model deeply anchored in both grammar and anthropology. The supposition is that there is a subject of the action, whose desire propels him/her actively to conquer an object (syntactical structure: subject, verb, predicate). The action may be aided by a helper and/or hindered by an opponent (who may be sufficiently important to be the subject of another actantial model, an anti-subject). It can be seen that almost by its very nature, all theatre, and in particular all theatre based on conflict, may be read in the light not only of one, but at least two actantial models.
The quadrilateral of subject-object-helper-opponent is not, however, sufficient. The subject is not alone in the world, s/he is caught up in a social network: if s/he goes forth to conquer his/her object, it is because someone or something is inciting him/her to do so; behind him/her, there is a sender (his/her social group, the political and familial worlds, or even Eros, though in the shape of an already socialized desire). Secondly, the action may be undertaken for the subject’s own gain, but it may equally well be for the benefit of a group, an environmental world, or a community. These constitute the receiver with a whole range of possibilities from the individual (even the anti-social) to the multiple and social.
It will be seen that the actantial model with its appealing simplicity and clarity is, in fact, far from easy to construct for a variety of reasons:
(a) the possibility of motivations on the part of the subject and the sender as well as in the relationship between the two, and the necessity of a sociopolitical analysis, without which one falls into sterile formalism;
(b) the difficulty of making a correct analysis at the first attempt, whence the need to adjust the model by means of a fresh analysis, after all the other procedures have been carried out;
(c) the plurality of possible models and the need to link these opposing models to each other;
(d) the possible modification of actantial roles during the course of the action (the helper who becomes an opponent, or the reverse; a change of subject, etc.): hence, the need to make a careful analysis, sequence by sequence.
The following is a possible order of procedures:
(a) determine the actantial subject(s) of the actantial model(s), with the arrow of desire which impels them toward their object;
(b) analyze the play of antagonistic forces (helper(s) and opponents(s)) directed against either the subject or the object;
(c) determine the complex forces (whether personalized or not) which figure in the actantial role of sender and through which, consequently, the action is linked to the whole socio-cultural context implied by the text (Corollary: identify the receiver of the action);
(d) show how the actantial positions evolve in the course of the action: a change in the principal subject, substitution of an “anti-subject” for the subject, changes in the actantial roles of the helper or opponent, a change (less frequent) in the object or receiver, or a change of sender (for example, substitution of the monarchical order for the feudal order in Le Cid).
The point of the operation is to show the dramatic action as a complex and mobile, basically conflicting, interplay of forces; to reduce the play of psychology to the one arrow of desire; to establish the links between the action and the referential world of the author as well as with the relevant fictional world; and, finally, to construct an intelligible model which, if limited, is nevertheless usable and generally clear.
B. Conditions of enunciation
Obviously our concern here is with an enunciation which is that of the text, not of the performance, and the conditions of enunciation are fictional: in other words, the space and time of the dramatic discourse are those of fiction, not of the stage.
1. Space as inscribed in the dramatic text is indicated in the first place by the didascalia. Let us recall that the didascalia form the only textual layer of which the enunciator is expressly the writer her/himself: it is the author X who addresses the practician (or the reader, a potential practician), enjoining him/her to construct such and such a set of spatial conditions of enunciation: “a hall in the palace, a lounge, a kitchen, a street. . .”. The didascalia therefore construct an imaginary location conditioning the action. But this is not their only spatial role: often they specify the way the space is to be utilized by the characters: occupation of the playing area, movement within it, and gesture; a whole fictional space is brought into being.
2. The above concerns the explicit didascalia, which frame the dialogue; there is another kind, customarily called internal didascalia, which may be extracted from the written dialogue itself. Most of the didascalia in editions of Shakespeare are simply taken from the dialogue. The interest of the internal didascalia lies not only in the fact that they greatly enrich (when they do not entirely constitute) the sum of didascalia in the text; they encompass both the spatial indications stipulated for the concrete stage and the entire spatial universe of the play, including what need not necessarily be represented: for example in Phèdre, not only Troezen (where the action takes place) but also Athens, Crete and the Labyrinth, the Empire of the Dead, and the shore where the Monster appears.
3. Space as icon. The paradigmatic whole which may be built up with the aid of the lists mentioned below enables us to create an image of an actual location, but it can equally well be the image of a psychological structure, the Freudian other stage, whose divisions may reproduce, so to speak, the spatial structure constituting instances of the psyche. A good example is Maeterlinck’s Intérieur.
More commonly, space so constructed reproduces social divisions or class oppositions (such as servants’ space opposed to the masters’ space in Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro); in Musset’s Lorenzaccio, the space created is a sort of figuration of the city, that is, of a whole society; a list of the spatial indications proves this to be the case. More subtly, the way space is handled can impose an image which is like a figuration of the text itself as a whole (Ubersfeld 1977, 153-164).
Finally, in many instances the kind of space which emerges from the text relates to a referent which is not (or is hardly) a place in the real world, but the stage itself: in this case the space becomes theatre; this covers not only instances in which we have a play within a play as in Corneille’s L’Illusion comique, but also all those cases in which what is represented can be nothing else but theatre. One could perhaps cite all the plays of Racine and, among modern plays, Genet’s Les Paravents (The Screens) or Les Nègres (The Blacks). In this case, as we shall see, the stage should be set up as a platform.
4. The poetics of space. It will be found that some of the lists mentioned below result in the creation of literally imaginary spaces. Thus the reiteration of the word bord (“edge,” “limit”) in Racine’s Phèdre (Ubersfeld 1981) functions as a nodal point of the imagery, an imaginary center. The spatial lexicon (which forms a paradigmatic whole) is thus linked to the totality of the syntactical structures derived from the actantial analysis previously mentioned.
The internal didascalia contain a specific textual layer—that of verbal spatialization—comprising predicates of place and verbs of movement which can help the reader to construct the space of the dramatic text.
(B) SUGGESTED PROCEDURES
1. From the foregoing one can deduce the preliminary procedures for constructing such a space:
(a) make an exhaustive list, following the order of the text, of all spatial information given in the didascalia;
(b) make a similarly exhaustive list, again following the order of the text, of the spatial information in the dialogue, without making any distinction between what can be represented on the stage and what cannot: it is impossible to foresee exactly what will be represented in a particular production. To prejudge the issue by attempting to make this distinction at the outset is just bad methodology; include, therefore, every piece of spatial information;
(c) make an exhaustive list (however long it may be) of all the predicates of space and all verbs of movement, even if this procedure does not seem to be of any immediate utility.
One will thus have at one’s disposal three lists which will probably be rather long and confused. (While they may be simple and clear for a certain number of texts, such as those of Racine or Beckett, they are likely to be complicated for those of Hugo, Claudel, or Genet.) In any event, they will not yield any useful result until they have been processed in various ways.
2. Space as text. What these lists provide is a spatial lexicon which makes it possible to produce a number of patterns or significant oppositions. In other words, what can be established in this way is a textual space which functions both as a sign (or icon) of an actual location and as a complex text referring to psychological space, social structures, the whole of the textual space—but a text whose structures are autonomous.
The dramatic text allows the reader to construct a whole series of significant oppositions: on stage / off stage, near/far, open/closed, etc.; it also allows for the construction of spaces reserved for particular characters. But perhaps the most important thing to look for is spaces in opposition/conjunction which represent at once two zones in potential conflict with each other and a constantly fluctuating relationship between modes of signification, such as the opposition between space of incorporation and space of non-incorporation which runs through the entire dramatic literature of the nineteenth century: here poetics and meaning intersect, and the inventory of spatial elements is a decisive procedure.
Needless to say, taking the same inventories as a point of departure, a plurality of readings can and ought to be attempted. This follows from what has already been said: separate readings or confrontations of different readings allow for a variety of spatial constructions on the stage and leave room for the creative imagination of practicians, scenographers, and producers.2
C. The object
Space should not be thought of as empty form: to the different inventories already mentioned must be added an inventory of objects, discrete signs occupying space in competition with the actors. What is a theatrical object if not something that can potentially be manipulated, figuring both as a lexeme in the text and as something that can (or could) find its place in the stage space? More than a sign, an object in a dramatic text is already a semiotic whole and, as Umberto Eco says, a “text.” By its very nature every “thing” in a dramatic text is called upon to become an object (signifier).
1. The first procedure as regards objects must be to make an exhaustive list of them, in the order in which they appear in the text (including those “objects” which can hardly be handled or detached, like parts of the human body or distinct elements of the set). Nothing should be omitted from this list, which may be extremely meager (Racine) or astonishingly rich (Shakespeare). No distinction should be made between what is meant to be represented on the stage and what cannot be. As staging is not a translation, it is important to note the often rich semio-lexical paradigms which speech may be sufficient to convey but of which the staging could or should, perhaps, take account by other means: thus, for instance, the incredible plague of repugnant small animals that punctuate the text of King Lear (mice, rats, cockroaches, dirty or stinging insects).
2. The second task of the reader is to construct semio-lexical sets, noticing how they change in the course of the text: hence the need for the list to follow the order of the text. It is impossible to determine in advance what the pertinent semio-lexical fields will be. This operation is no more mechanical than that relating to the analysis of textual space; this is particularly true in the case of an older text, in which the connotations will inevitably have been modified by the course of history. One may, for example, note the importance given to the lexical fields relating to the parts of the body in Racine, to clothing and finery in Marivaux, or to food in contemporary writers (Beckett, Vinaver), sometimes including the pertinent opposition raw/cooked (nature/culture).
3. It remains for us to identify one or several objects characteristic of a text or an author: the mirror in Marvaux, or the significant constellation of silver coins, coats of arms, torches, and moon in Hugo.
(B) FUNCTION OF THE OBJECTS
The task of the analyst is to determine the function of these objects:
(a) They may be basically functional (a sword if there is a duel, a tumbler if there is drinking).
(b) The object may indicate an actual location or situation: ovens and cooking utensils will indicate a kitchen, particular furniture will provide information of a spatio-temporal nature. A textual object can both create an impression of reality and perform a referential function.
(c) The object may symbolize aspects of reality or people; thus the moon may be a symbol of death; the crown, like the sceptre and the throne, is a traditional symbol of royal authority; consequently, in a dramatic text, it can be argued that the words “throne” or “crown,” even when used in their “derived” or “metaphoric” senses,3 do indicate an object (which may or may not appear on the stage).
(d) In a more general way, and more interestingly, one can say that any object in a dramatic text is caught up in a poetic network: it is a metonymy of this or that element of reality (a bunch of wild flowers for the country, a bottle for the drunkenness of a protagonist), or a metaphor (a black costume for “blackness” of soul; the moon, a metaphor of death). Beyond such self-evident examples, an entire rhetoric, an entire poetics, comes into being thanks to the objects in the text, far beyond what can be materially represented: for example, in Racine’s Phèdre, the astonishing recurrence of parts of the body prefiguring the scattered limbs of Hippolyte in the dénouement. If dramatic poets are indeed poets, they earn this title with the aid of a network of objects whose components and often complex interplay must be laid bare.
This analysis of the poetics of the object also serves to elucidate the poetics characteristic of the playwright: an elucidation both of a poetic lexicon and of the way the text functions.
It is obvious that whereas space is always, or almost always, precisely delineated, the temporal dimension is almost always blurred; with the exception of classical tragedy (in which the duration must be specified because of the twenty-four hour “unity” of time) the duration of the action remains imprecise, all the more so since one does not see time on the stage (the signifier of time on the stage is always spatial) and since, with very few exceptions, the time of the fiction greatly exceeds performance time. However, it is important for the reader to take precise cognizance of the supposed duration of the action, and especially, perhaps, of the pauses in the action, for it is the latter (more or less loaded with events) that establish the temporal rhythm of the text. The total length of the action depends on these pauses, and the reader should undertake an exhaustive listing of all the references which may assist in constructing this duration of the fiction.
(B) HISTORICAL TIME, MYTHICAL TIME
Any dramatic action can take place either in accordance with progressive, irreversible historical time, or with circular, recurrent mythical time. The reader should endeavor to pick out the signs enabling him/her to see in the story, for example,
(a) a closed fable, mythical time;
(b) a fable in which the future is already written into the present in the form of announcements, prophecies, dreams, etc. (for example in Racine or in Shakespeare’s Macbeth);
(c) possible indications of circular (carnivalesque) time or a sacred rite.
Conversely, the logical, continuous, irreversible progression which denotes historical time, can be found in Shakespeare’s chronicle plays or in Corneille’s Le Cid.
An important element that must always be taken into account in the analysis of time is the ending. Does it mark the completion of the action in the closed circularity of myth, or remain open to a historical future? Or, as is fairly often the case, does it bring into play theatrical time, that of the performance itself? There is sometimes hardly any point, however, in making a radical distinction between these three possibilities, as they are, at times, combined: the dénouement of Beaumarchais’s Le Mariage de Figaro is both open and theatricalized. Likewise, the ending of Hamlet, which is of the historical kind, is not without elements of a specifically mythical circularity.
(C) INTERNAL RHYTHM
An extremely important analysis to be made is that of internal rhythm:
(a) the succession of sequences: major sequences (acts of tableaux) with numerous subdivisions giving an internal succession of minor sequences, or, on the contrary, major sequences sparsely punctuated and containing continuous developments, giving the impression not of a rapid succession of events but of static duration. One of the features of contemporary theatre is the succession of short sequences separated by a blackout, creating an impression of discontinuous time, a disjointed kind of life, but also suggesting the passing of time, the days going by;
(b) within each sequence of medium length (or scene), it is important to notice the rhythm of the dialogue, whether it is made up of long tirades and set speeches or, on the contrary, of rapid exchanges, or even stichomythia.
In this way a precise impression is gained not only of the general rhythm which a particular author gives to his texts, but also of the specific rhythm(s) of a particular play, or even a particular episode.
(D) THE MOMENT
It is worth while, where relevant (as it frequently is) to note the exact moment of the action or actions and, in particular, the time of day: for instance, the morning of victory, the triumphant dawn of the last two acts of Le Cid after the nocturnal roaming of Act III. Likewise, in Hugo’s theatre, the succession of nights in Angelo, or the way the successive acts of Ruy Blas make up a kind of day (from morning to midnight), though their “objective” duration is different; or the succession of days and nights in Hamlet or King Lear. This type of research is an important preparation for the visual and psychological climate of the performance.
(E) THE HISTORICAL MOMENT AND THE REFERENT
The writer by means of his/her text constructs a possible world; this world exhibits two systems of reference, the world of the time of the action and that of the writer her/himself. It can happen that these two systems coincide, if it is his/her own world that the writer is evoking; but more often there are two different moments within the same text, that of the fiction and that of the writing, even though they may be very close.
It must be emphasized that referential worlds comprise a temporal component; there is a whole spatio-temporal complex operative within the dramatic text, which the reader must analyze.
S/he will therefore have to list the textual elements which refer to a specific historical moment, as well as those which pertain to the “present” referential world of the writer. This is not always easy, as the author often takes pains to cover up the traces of his/her own moment in time. But s/he cannot prevent these traces from showing up somewhere, in the form of intentional or unintentional anachronisms (or achronisms), which are all the more important to note as they give the text its special “relief” and its meaning. Thus when Shakespeare writes Antony and Cleopatra, trying as he may to follow Plutarch faithfully, he actually gives us a reflection of feudal struggles; and, in Othello, love as it is dreamed and lived by Desdemona has nothing Mediterranean about it; it is the courtly love of the North.
E. The character
It has been possible to maintain, without being too paradoxical, that the real semiotic unit in the theatre is the character. This is a view which perhaps does him/her too much honor, inasmuch as one of the features of the stage character is to be in some way indeterminate; otherwise s/he could not be impersonated by a potentially unlimited number of actors. How indeed can one define the stage character and how can one characterize him/her? By a name, but this is hardly true: a character with a speech to make may still be anonymous. The best definition might be that s/he is the enunciator of a discourse (or an action in the case of a silent character who is required by the didascalia to perform it). S/he is characterized in the first place by a certain number of speech acts, the enunciation of which s/he is said to be the subject; to this may be added a certain number of distinctive traits indicated by the didascalia or contained in the dialogue. This is all one can say in the abstract about a character in drama.
The ambiguity of the character’s status derives from the fact that a reading habit inculcated mainly at school turns the character into a substitute for a real person (hence the unfortunate metaphors used to speak of him/her as a “living being”). And so the habit is formed of searching the didascalia and the dialogue for all the details that enable the student to reconstruct the character’s personality and the story of his/her life—as if the main task of dramatic literature were to create or recreate imaginary “persons.”
(A) HOW TO READ/CONSTRUCT THE CHARACTER
In fact, the procedure by which the character is analyzed should be exactly the reverse: one ought not to be looking, in the dialogue particularly, for a supply of information that will allow one to decipher the character’s personality, but rather, given the discourse/actions attributed to the character, with all his/her indeterminacy, look for whatever may elucidate his/her discourse, in other words, the conditions that govern the character’s speech. The procedures for reading the “character” will then not lead to the construction of a complete, autonomous person, not even a complete enunciatory subject, but to a certain number of elements which are meaningful only in relation to the dramatic action and the discourse of which the character is the enunciator.
(B) ACTANTIAL POSITION AND DISTINCTIVE TRAITS
The first investigation to be undertaken concerns the character’s actantial position within the pattern of forces written into the dramatic text: What are X’s actantial position and role? And as a corollary, what are the distinctive features that characterize him/her? The link between the two aspects is clear: just like the character’s sex or age, his/her position as actantial subject or object is a predicate of X, who is also the enunciator of a discourse. In other words, character X can be studied according to
(a) his/her actantial position and actorial role;
(b) the distinctive features that characterize him/her;
(c) the discourse of which s/he is the enunciator.
These three modes of analysis are, naturally, linked with each other and convergent.
To analyze a character is, in the first place, to investigate his/her position in the general syntax of the text and to consider whether this position remains fixed or how it changes. Note, for example, how in Le Cid Chimène takes over Rodrigue’s position as actantial subject, while in Cinna, it is rather the other way round, the male subject stealing the show from the female subject during the course of the action; or how Macbeth, during the course of the play, reassumes the position of actantial subject which his wife had temporarily usurped.
(C) THE ACTORIAL “PROCESS”
Besides his/her actantial position, the character has an actorial “role”: the valet’s role is to serve (I-valet serve), in the same way that the fundamental process of the lover is to love. Analysis will demonstrate the relation between the actantial position and the main process of the character, with the possibility of conflict between processes: for Rodrigue in Le Cid, conflict between the actorial role of Lover and that of Avenger; likewise for Macbeth, opposition between the role of King (process: to rule) and that of indiscriminate murderer. Successive roles, conflicts between roles, within the same character or from character to character—analyses of all these are required to construct the syntactic configuration of the text.
Futhermore, there is a direct relation between the main process of the character and the coded nature of his/her role: the more readily the character can be defined by his/her process, the more s/he appears as coded: a stock type, such as Harlequin in the traditional Italian comedy, is defined by a certain number of processes (as well as of fixed, distinctive traits); likewise the Matamore, or in the old Latin comedy, the Slave or the leno (the go-between, characterized by the fact that he “plays the go-between”).
(D) DISTINCTIVE TRAITS AND COMPONENTIAL ANALYSIS
A stage character is generally not alone, and even if s/he were, s/he would still be opposed in imagination to the rest of mankind. A particularly fertile mode of analysis is the one that makes it possible to define the “stock” of characters in a dramatic text by a certain number of distinctive traits in conjunction/opposition, from the most elementary (sex or family status) to the most particular (such as belonging to a very specific social group). Even so, it is necessary to select the relevant traits: reflection and choice are no less necessary for this mode of analysis than they are for any other in the field of theatre. It is, for instance, not difficult to see that all the characters in Le Misanthrope have the same distinctive traits; they are all young, unmarried, apparently with no family ties—they have neither parents nor children—they are rich and (probably) noble (in any event, in a position to frequent the court). There is thus no opposition between Alceste and the others: they all belong to the same clan of “golden youth”; the only split within the group is between those who go to court and those who do not.
A componential analysis of King Lear would reveal the two characters Lear and Gloucester as doublets with practically the same distinctive traits, except that of royalty.
Concerning the choice of components, it may be remarked that, whereas in the tragedies of Corneille the element of royalty is essential, in Racine the decisive question is power, and the key opposition, working in conjunction with the secondary oppositions loving / not loving, loved / not loved, is powerful / not powerful. The important thing for the analyst is to identify the oppositions that are relevant.
One can then construct a componential table, marking the distinctive traits horizontally and the characters’ names vertically. Figure 1 is a particularly simple example, that of Bérénice. We can see at a glance that simple as it is, this table rids us of certain false problems, in particular, having to ask ourselves if Titus is not perhaps seeking to be rid of an unwanted mistress: it is quite evident that the real problem is that of the incompatibility of passion and power.
(E) SPEECH DISTRIBUTION
1. Another necessary investigation relates to the exact quantity of speech given to a character. Surprising or illuminating results are sometimes obtained: in Racine’s plays, with the sole exception of Phèdre, the title roles are the ones that have the fewest lines; in Molière’s Le Misanthrope, Alceste talks as much as all the other characters put together; he is literally a master of words. It is consequently important to calculate the quantities and proportions of speech allotted to the various characters.
2. Furthermore, it is interesting to show how a given character’s speechallocation is apportioned between different points in the action, and the different forms it takes: for example, Don Juan may appear not to talk very much because his speech is reserved for certain moments in the action and because he hardly deigns to reply to the other characters, but he does express himself in compact masses of discourse, generally addressed to Sganarelle.
It is thus important to examine the total distribution of speech among the characters in order to understand not only the way the character functions, but also his/her differential role in the text.
(F) A CHART OF THE PLAY
It is worth while to construct a picture of the text as a whole by drawing up a kind of chart in which the proportion of speech allotted to each character is shown in the form of differently colored rectangles of quantitatively proportionate length, one line being given to each of the sequences of medium length—indicated by the segmentation (découpage) of the text4—which make up the major sequences (acts or taleaux). In Figure 2, bands 1, 2, 3, 4 are the first four sequences of the major sequence I, and A, B, C, D are the characters. In this way one can obtain a general view not only of the relations between the characters, their degree of presence and co-presence, but also of how their speech functions; naturally the information so obtained has to be weighed in the light of what has been learned from other procedures.
F. Dramatic discourse
(A) THE DOUBLE ENUNCIATION
We shall not repeat the classical definitions of discourse here; let us simply recall the cardinal fact of writing for the theatre, which is that it involves a double enunciation: the enunciator of dramatic text taken as a whole is the writer; s/he is the speaking subject of all the utterances that occur in the text (didascalia and dialogue); but s/he delegates his/her speech to other, mediate enunciators, who are the characters: when character X speaks, it is s/he who speaks, and at the same time it is the writer.
There are thus two possible modes of analyzing dramatic discourse, one of which considers the text as a whole, the enunciator of which is the writer. This mode of analysis is not restricted to the theatre: studies of Racine’s “style” or the philosophical content of his work are not fundamentally different from those which could be undertaken on the works of La Fontaine. This kind of stylistic or semantic analysis of content bears on the text as a whole, not taking into account the distinction between dialogue and didascalia or the division of the dialogue among different speakers.
(B) THE CHARACTER AND HIS/HER ENUNCIATION
The above does not apply to the character’s enunciation, which requires a specific analysis: an utterance placed in the mouth of a character has strictly no meaning apart from the conditions of its enunciation. This is the case of human speech in real life: if the theatre has any mimetic function it is not in regard to conditions of existence, but to conditions of speech.
The task of the analyst will be to pinpoint the conditions of enunciation of the character’s discourse, remembering however, that these conditions are imaginary, fictional.
The conditions of enunciation are:
(a) place and time (see above);
(b) the situation of the character in relation to his/her world as well as in relation to other character-speakers: for example, Cinna in Corneille’s play of that name is both friend and counselor to Auguste (as well as being the leader of the conspiracy plotting his death) and in love with Emilie (who is the soul of the conspiracy)—a sociological and psychological situation in relation to the other characters. Componential analysis is clearly of direct use here.
(c) the moment and more specifically the new situation created by every former part of the dialogue.
(C) ANALYSIS OF THE CHARACTER’S DISCOURSE
Two methods are available:
(a) analysis of the signifier: rhythm of the discourse, vocabulary, syntax, rhetoric of the character; for instance insults, injuries of Alcest in Le Misanthrope.
(b) analysis of content: the recurrence of themes and the frequency of keywords or expressions characteristic of a particular group or formative background (Pécheaux 1975); thus the vocabulary, turns of phrase, themes and images used by the little painter Tebaldeo in Lorenzaccio are characteristic of the reactionary idéologues of the beginning of the nineteenth century (Bonald and Joseph de Maistre).
These two types of analysis are not peculiar to the theatre, but can be illuminating when applied to a specific portion of the text, namely one which, having a character as enunciator, will necessarily enter into a relationship of likeness, difference, agreement, or conflict with parts of the text attributed to some other character.
(D) THE UNSAID (LE NON-DIT)
A third mode of analyzing a character’s discourse is, perhaps, more important and more specific: this concerns the “unsaid” layers of the discourse (it being understood that what characterizes the unsaid is that it is said nevertheless). It involves:
(a) identifying the implied meanings of the discourse; that is, everything the characters understand from their mutual discourse without anything having been directly stated, and which is therefore potentially ambiguous to the reader “listening” to the discourse;
(b) identifying the presuppositions: a presupposition is an unformulated utterance underlying the discourse, which remains true even if the formulated utterance is denied or questioned; for example, the utterance “My brother is ill” presupposes that I do have a brother and, if my interlocutor replies “No, there’s nothing the matter with him,” this does not call into question the existence of my brother. Now all theatrical dialogue, all communication between characters is conditioned by a whole battery of presuppositions, some relating to historical or fictional facts (such as the Trojan War or the enmity between the Montagues and the Capulets), others depending on the referential or ideological worlds of the protagonists (for instance, the aristocrats’ right to live without having to work in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard or, for Shakespeare’s characters, the imprescriptible majesty of kings). The presuppositions underlying the world of Marivaux’s characters constitute a particularly stimulating field of investigation.
(c) analyzing, in the light of both what is actually said and its underlying presuppositions, the discursive position of the character-speaker (a position of power or weakness, of attack or defense, of entreaty or demonstrative assertion, etc.)
(E) SPEECH ACTS AND DIALOGUE
1. The discourse of a dramatic character, then, ceases to be ambiguous once we are aware of
(a) the context of the enunciation;
(b) the underlying presuppositions and implied meanings.
However, it is not only the sum total of a character’s utterances that needs to be clarified, but also the way in which the dialogue works; and the latter depends on the interplay of forces established between the speakers, to which language is the key. We now know that the rules governing particular languages are not the only ones, and that there are also rules governing the way language functions in speech.
The basic hypothesis (which is that of the linguists of the Oxford school: Austin, Dearle, Ducrot) is that speech is saying, well adapted for conveying information to the interlocutor, but that speech is at the same time doing, since
(a) it acts upon others, and that is its goal;
(b) at every moment it establishes a contract with the interlocutor—a contract that creates, modifies, or maintains a certain relationship between the speakers. Actions, contracts, and relationships are the very basis of dramatic dialogue and it is by studying them that we can understand it.
2. Illocution. If we recall that any utterance can be analyzed according to three components—a locutionary element (the totality of the signs making up the utterance itself), an illocutionary element (the force of the utterance itself), and a perlocutionary element (the effect it has on the interlocutor)—it will readily be understood that the essential thing here is illocutionary force. We know that there are verbs (the performatives) which, by their nature, enact what they describe: one cannot say I promise without promising, I curse without cursing, and even I deny without denying. But performativity, that is, the power of enactment through speech, is not restricted to performative verbs. One can say that any utterance contains a performative component; this is obvious in the case of an utterance with a conative function (in Jakobson’s terminology) such as commanding, advising, or requesting, but hardly less so in the case of assertive utterances. Let us take the example of a question: the implication is that the speaker has taken up a position in which s/he has the right to ask a question, the interlocutor remaining free to answer or not, that is, to accept or refuse the linguistic contract proposed. It can thus be understood how any speech in a dramatic text establishes, modifies, maintains, or destroys a contract between the contractors.
This mode of analysis is extremely useful and illuminating. For example, in Racine’s Britannicus, Agrippine—stripped of her power by her son Néron—summons him and, with her first words, tries to establish a linguistic contract which will ensure her superiority: “Asseyez-vous, Néron, et prenez votre place” (Sit, Néron, and take your place). The addressee is required to submit—or to respond with a blatant refusal.
(a) The reading of the dialogue should, therefore, following the order of the characters’ speeches as they appear in the text, take account of the nature of the successive speech acts as well as the linguistic contracts proposed or entered into, thus making it possible to grasp the movement of the different scenes and of the action, and to identify micro-sequences within the scenes in the light of the changing nature of the speech acts.
(b) It will be appropriate to show the relation between the propositional content of the utterances and the functioning of the speech acts (between the semantic and the pragmatic).
(c) The perlocutionary component must not be overlooked, that is to say the effect on the interlocutor and, indirectly, the anticipated effect on the audience (emotion, laughter, tears).
(d) These analyses leave out the poetic element, which should be the object of yet another analysis (which we cannot provide here).
A. A few preliminaries
(a) It must not be forgotten that the text of the dialogue figures as part of the performance, in phonic form, that it is heard and must be taken into account in analyzing the performance, but that, for this very reason, the performance must never be thought of as the translation of a text which it contains.
(b) Whereas the text consists entirely of “digital” (linguistic) signs, the performance consists of both digital and “analogical” (non-verbal) signs.
(c) Consequently, the modes of analysis will be different: analogical signs exist in only one form and so are more difficult to analyze.
(d) An important fact: the spectator (at least in the more familiar forms of theatre) is sensitive to the fable, the story which s/he can easily grasp; the diachronic, horizontal dimension is something s/he takes for granted, and this also includes the people in the story. The natural inclination of the spectator will therefore be to take an interest in the story that is told and in the feelings of the characters. The task of the analyst will be to make him/her aware of the “vertical,” tabular aspect of the performance. Whereas in dealing with the text, we start with the fable, obscured during reading by the details of the discourse, when it comes to the performance, we have to start with the materiality of the visual-auditive signifier (space, objects, music).
Analysis of the performance should doubtless begin with space and the work of the scenographer.
(A) PLAYING AREA AND SPATIAL MODE
The first question concerns the relation between the space allocated to the audience and the space of the theatrical performance. We shall ignore the problem of the relation between theatrical space and the space of the world outside. But the form of the stage space is an important element, fluctuating between the Italian-style frontal form and the platform stage with its various possible configurations (rectangular or circular, centered or placed to one side). As has been shown (Ubersfeld 1982, 56-58), the Italian-style space implies a rupture with the public and lends itself to performances directed toward imitation (with representation of a fictional location), extending in imagination beyond the limits of the stage and so implying a stage space homogeneous with the real world. The platform stage on the other hand implies less importance attached to the fiction and more to the performance, the element of play and the materiality of the stage. It is interesting to study all the mixed or composite forms, intermediate or multiple in relation to the two main types; these mixed forms are precisely those found in contemporary performances.
(B) COORDINATES OF SPACE
The concrete stage space offers a number of alternatives, and it is important to study the choices that have been made: closed space or open space; shallow or deep; a vertical dimension or not; furnished or empty space, continuous or broken, homogeneous or subdivided, imitative or neutral, ordinary or theatricalized. All these options have precise connotations, and the extent to which they agree or conflict with what is in the text will be significant: a strange effect could be produced, for example, by performing a naturalistic play on an empty stage.
The audience looking at the stage does not do so naïvely: it is not devoid of culture, and the scenographer’s work serves to establish contact with the culture of the audience. The stage space may, for example, make reference to the contemporary world as in the Athalie staged some years ago by Planchon, which evoked the Sinai War; it is almost impossible to conceive of a production that does not refer in some way to the present world of the spectator, and it is important to examine the use of space which ensures this reference.
Culture: The observer must note the various cultural references, for example the figuration (set, depth, costumes) borrowed from Paolo Ucello by Yannis Kokkos for the version of Hamlet staged by Vitez. Connections with the decorative arts of our time or with artists of the past are always worth noticing.
Finally, there is a third type of reference: that pertaining to theatrical forms and in particular to the types of stage used in earlier times or in other places—to the Elizabethan or kabuki stage, for example.
In all cases the observer must note not only the reference itself, but also the way it is conveyed in a particular performance, and the meaning taken on by both the reference and its manifestation on the stage.
(D) POETIC FUNCTIONING OF SPACE
In the first place, the use of stage space is a creative activity involving in particular the creation of a stage form which the student must not only describe, but also relate to the action (that is, to the totality of relevant indications in the text), and so demonstrate its meaning, whether simple or many-sided.
Stage space may function in a fundamentally metonymic way; in this case one must show not only the connection with such and such a place, but also how the metonymy works: by a selection of samples, by an accumulation of details that make it possible to identify a particular place, or by indirect allusion. A single glass can be used to represent a café (an example of synecdoche), but one could also use a counter with its whole stock of bottles: this too would be a metonymic image, but a different one.
Metaphors: Space can also be made to function in an infinitely more complex way, as a metaphor of aspects of the world or of the mind. Metaphor implies the confrontation and conjunction of different elements to form a new reality, in this case a stage reality. The analyst will have to try to show both the way different elements work together and what their metaphoric conjunction adds to the performance. For example, in a particular Kantor production, the door at the back opens onto what is at one and the same time the vestibule of memory and the railway carriage taking prisoners to the concentration camp: a completely new place, created by an operation which is typically poetic.
It can happen, too, that the metaphoric effect is achieved by juxtaposing several different spaces which are simultaneously present on the stage.
(E) MULTIPLE SPACES AND THEATRE WITHIN THE THEATRE
This leads to another question: Is there just one single space or is it broken up? And, if it is divided, separated into compartments, is it just temporarily made to function in that way, or is it so by “nature,” so to speak, from the beginning to the end of the performance? And what, in either case, is the particular function of each sub-space? Or, on the contrary, is the space polyvalent (as it was, for example, in the Molière plays staged by Vitez)?
A particular case is that of theatre within the theatre: in certain instances (which may or may not be provided for in the dramatic text) part of the stage is occupied by an internal audience of performer-spectators, who—by mirroring the status of the real audience—paradoxically give what happens on the inner “mini-stage” the value of truth. Such cases may or may not be obvious and need to be picked out by the analyst.
(F) THE PLAYING AREA
Another important point, linked to the study of the actor, is the use of space for acting and the relation of space to the actor’s body. It is useful to consider the stage space not only as offering an aggregate of signs to be looked at and understood, but as providing a place for a certain number of activities which pertain to the actor. A space may, for example, imply a specific activity for which it seems to be expressly designed and yet, at the same time, be shaped and transformed by that activity. Thus the classical drawing room of bourgeois theatre, devised for conversation, or the vaudeville bed where people will change partners, or the area left clear for fighting. But equally, a crowd of supernumeraries can transform an intimate setting into an arena.
(G) TRANSFORMATION OF SPACE
An essential procedure is to list the spatial transformations which occur during the course of the performance, linking them to the development of the action and dialogue, and noting the nature and number of the transformations deriving from:
(a) modifications in the shape of the space: changes of playing area, extension or reduction of the surface used, substitution of a different principal acting space, or even changes in the positioning of the audience (movement of the audience during the performance, for example in Mnouchkine’s L’Age d’or or Engel’s Dell’ Inferno);
(b) changes of lighting which can alter not only the “atmosphere” of the stage but the shape of the playing area itself. A striking example was the simple set constructed by Yannis Kokkos for Vitez’s Hamlet, which was modified not only by the use of curtains and an interior partition, but by a variety of lighting effects indicating not only the time of day, but also changes of scene.5
(c) sound effects and music making for a change in the stage space, by conjuring up, for instance, extra-scenic spaces or suggesting a change from indoors to outdoors (for example, the heath in King Lear suggested by the sound effects of a storm).
The list of transformations makes it possible to construct spatial sequences which can be related (noting the degree of conformity or difference) to the segmentation of the text.
C. The stage object
If there is any element in the performance which lends itself to semiotic analysis, it is surely the stage object, with its characteristic finiteness and semic richness, its discrete nature, and the relative ease with which it can be picked out.
It is fairly simple to make:
(a) an inventory of objects present together on the stage;
(b) a list of the successive appearances of objects during the course of the performance;
(c) possibly also, a comparison with the corresponding lists derived from the text.
Here again we have elementary procedures which make research and analysis possible, but which can never be an end in themselves.
(B) ORIGIN AND NATURE OF THE OBJECTS
The next investigation will involve:
(a) a typology of the objects according to the same type of semantic classification as that used for the objects named in the text (nature/culture, etc.);
(b) noting the origin of the objects (including their immediate provenance): new or second-hand; purchased, borrowed, or made;
(c) a classification according to material (natural materials such as stone, wood, leather, wool, and silk—or synthetic and artificial materials such as plexiglass and synthetic fabrics);
(d) a sociological classification, which may or may not overlap with the previous ones.
These investigations will yield a kind of chart of the concrete world that emerges from the performance, building up a possible world which the spectator cannot fail to compare with the world of his own experience.
(C) FUNCTION OF THE OBJECTS
The prime function of objects is utilitarian: objects are necessary for the action and, in this sense, are purely denotative; one might expect them to be indicative of nothing but the use to which they are put, a glass for drinking, a dagger for killing. In fact, as we know, this is not the case, and the preceding investigation will show clearly that the dullest utilitarian object forms part of a meaningful semiotic whole.
The object is thus always a source of both metonymy and metaphor: metonymy of a particular physical or sociological space, metaphor by conjunction of semes, of distinctive traits pertaining to different entities. On these various points, the analysis of the object on the stage is not fundamentally different from that of the object in the text.
(D) TOWARD A SEMIOTIC ANALYSIS OF THE STAGE OBJECT
1. To start with, the object is not a sign; it becomes one on the stage through its function within the totality of signs in the performance. From the very fact that it does not serve a purpose in the real world, it becomes a sign of the real world.
2. Because of this, it acquires a double semiotic status. As a sign of an object in the real world (standing for an object in the world), it is an icon of that object, and has a more or less mimetic relationship with the object it represents (in other words, it resembles it more or less); but, as an element of the performance, it has an autonomous existence: an aesthetic value within the performance, and a semantic value in the building up of meaning in the performance.
3. By a kind of extrapolation, one may consider the stage object the visual, concrete equivalent of a lexeme in the dramatic text. In fact, its structure is much more complex than that of a lexeme.
4. From a more strictly semiotic point of view one can regard a stage object as a sememe, that is, an organized body of semes (one or more semes corresponding to a distinctive feature). For example, a chair does not only have the distinctive features of any chair (a seat with backrest, etc.), but it also has the features relating to material (wood, metal, plastic, etc.), features of style, of state (new, used), etc. (the list is unlimited).
(E) OTHER POINTS
1. One can examine the degree of iconicity of the object, that is, the way in which it resembles the object for which it stands (duplicate, replica, or simply a stimulus, such as a drawing of a horse in relation to the real animal); the degree of iconicity tells us something about the mode of performance (Eco 1978).
2. One can look into the status of the object as a lexeme, that is, its relation to other object-lexemes, to form a tightly woven text; one can thus consider the object-lexemes something like words in the great “text” of the performance: one can study their syntactical organization (functioning as predicateobject or instrument) and their rhetorical and poetic effect (see above, C, c).
3. As sememes composed of semes, objects can form part of several sets, which they help to constitute and organize: for example, a jar of caviar on a table forms part of the set food and also the set luxury goods; if it is a present from a rich young man to a young courtesan, it will be part of the set objects of corruption; it could even possibly form part of the set Russia or Iran.
4. It is useful to ask who (which character and also which actor) is the enunciator of the object, who picks it up, handles it, uses it; in this way we construct a paradigm of the objects linked to this or that character.
5. Finally, it is appropriate to study the transformations of the stage object throughout the performance; proliferation, reduction in size, appearance-disappearance-reappearance, change of color, shape, or use; wear and tear, deterioration, or replacement by another which is newer or of better quality.6
(F) THEATRICALITY OF THE OBJECT
One of the most interesting aspects to study is the polysemy of the object and—by the way of corollary—the different images it can present: a famous example is the ubiquitous stick and suitcase, put to all sorts of unexpected use, in the Molière plays staged by Vitez.
An important aspect of the actor’s work which can be noticed is the way s/he handles the object (see below), using it, transforming it, or being transformed by it.
Finally, it is important to notice those objects that contain the seme theatre or show (mirror, make-up, mask, etc.) or that have been used in this or that theatrical form and are thus part of the code of that particular form.
If we make a synthesis of the system of objects used in a particular performance, we see that it will give us a fairly complete impression of the mode of representation: “realistic” or symbolic, concrete or abstract, theatricalized or not. It is useful to show in the final resort, but only as a complement, what the use of an object is in the performance as compared with its use as envisaged in the text, not at all from the (absurd) point of view of measuring the extent to which the production is faithful to the text, but to show what solutions have been found here and now, compared to other solutions that have been previously suggested or worked out.
D. The actor
The most important and the most difficult field of analysis is the one pertaining to the actor. The most important, because on him/her depend the fable, the dialogue, the fiction, and the performance of which s/he is mediator. The most difficult, because of the arbitrary and uncertain nature of the notation available, the mobility of the details to be noted, their variability from one performance to the next, and the multiplicity of codes operating simultaneously (voice: diction, prosody, and intonation; and gesture: kinesics, proxemics, and facial mime). The different notatory systems for gesture or facial mime are all far from perfect. Furthermore, the actor’s work involves a great deal of subjectivity, an element of invention that is difficult to describe in words.
A fundamental difficulty is the obsession with the character: as if all the signals transmitted by the actor had as their sole or principal purpose to signify a complex “human being,” the character. Everything takes place, deceptively for the spectator, as if what is presented on stage were a reality, that of the specific character, in all his/her psychological and other richness.
(A) THE FUNCTIONS OF THE ACTOR
The essential functions of the actor are those of enunciation and monstration. S/he has to speak and show. And indeed, it is high time to reverse direction and show the actor first of all as a producer of discourse and stage actions, an enunciator and an “actor”: the enunciator and “demonstrator” of complex realities, her/himself, but also the character, the theatre, ideas, feelings, the fiction, and the performance: s/he is the point of intersection of all these.
Analysis will first have to disentangle the different verbal and non-verbal codes and show how they interact. In regard to the actor, even more, perhaps, than in regard to other elements of the performance, the analyst must take care not to jump straight to the meaning, passing with all speed from the semiotic to the semantic, all the more so since the performance is not only read in accordance with a combination of codes, but in accordance with a combination of “actors.”
Two methods should be used in succession:
(a) first an inventory of the actor’s “resources,” that is, the signs s/he produces;
(b) then a diachronic study of what s/he does in the performance.
The analyst will therefore have to note how the actor
(a) conveys a story;
(b) demonstrates the conditions of its (imaginary) enunciation;
(c) delivers a fictional discourse;
(d) demonstrates a stage performance.
What should therefore be attempted is a review of the resources brought into play in accordance with the various codes, never forgetting that the actor never shows only one thing but always at least two, and that s/he produces at the outset a certain number of “permanent” signs.
(B) PERMANENT SIGNS
1. Some of these pertain to the physical person of the actor: physique, facial features, vocal timbre. To this must be added the fact that s/he may have become associated with a certain acting code as a result of his/her previous performances in the theatre or cinema and that the audience may consequently recognize him/her by physical appearance.
2. The remainder are produced for a specific performance: gait, physical bearing, costume, constituting a kind of complex of signs which may convey the character s/he is playing, but which must be identified as what they are, as signifiers. However, it is not always easy to distinguish signs of the first group from those of the second.
The modes of analysis of an actor’s use of gesture are derived from a certain number of methods: kinesics (Jousse) which is concerned with sequences of body movements; facial mime, which studies facial expressions, a form of analysis which has long been the subject of attempts at codification, but without much success; and finally proxemics, initiated by T. E. Hall, which consists in the analysis of the postures assumed by people in one another’s presence. We know that generally speaking, gesture
(a) is very difficult to note down;
(b) depends on the whole socio-cultural context. It is true that all gesture is potentially coded, otherwise gestures would not be noticed, but very often their coded character goes unnoticed: the gesture seems “natural,” universal.
In certain far-Eastern theatrical forms (Indian theatre or the Peking Opera), the coded character of the gestures is perfectly clear to the spectator, who interprets the mudras (gestures of the hand in Indian theatre) as utterances. But even in Western theatre, gesture is somehow coded, and the relevant gestural code must be taken into account.
(D) DISCOURSE AND PARALINGUISTICS
The actor being the enunciator of the discourse, it is necessary for the analyst to note not only the permanent elements of the paralinguistic dimension (that is, everything that gives the utterance not solely its “signification” but its “sens”7), but also the mobile elements: pronunciation, rhythm, intonation, vocal intensity (to which can be added changes in permanent elements, such as timbre or accent).
The actor’s use of the paralinguistic dimension thus allows him:
(a) to specify the meaning (sens) of the utterance (a “vague” utterance such as “I love you” can convey adoration or exasperation);
(b) to ensure the perlocutionary effect of the discourse (emotional or comic);
(c) to demonstrate the illocutionary force of the utterance, and show the wordact in action: commands, promises, curses, etc.
(Notice that it is the paralinguistic dimension which makes it possible to understand a theatrical performance in a foreign language, even though the paralinguistic aspects themselves are also coded.)
(E) PROCEDURE: STAGE ACTS
It will be understood that the essential procedure for noting and analyzing the work of an actor is the one that concerns stage acts: in each sequence there will be for each actor a number of stage acts composed of the speech acts and physical actions which s/he carries out in the course of the sequence in relation to the stage acts of the other actors.
The stage act:
(a) is a complex text which must be read in accordance with the various codes just mentioned;
(b) necessitates in principle, in order to be more clearly understood, a return to the written text (didascalia and discourse); even though this return is not indispensable, since it is sufficient to analyze the dialogue during the performance, it is nevertheless useful.
It is, then, a complex act for which, in the absence, at present, of any really scientific procedures, descriptions that are as accurate as possible will have to suffice, taking into account:
(a) the paralinguistic-gestural relation for each stage act, a relation quite complex in itself (redundancy or opposition);
(b) the relation that the stage act of a particular actor bears to the other stage acts of the same actor, and to those of other actors in the same sequence.
The fundamental question is how to determine the sequences, but the stage act, far from being determined by the sequence, in fact contributes to determining it. Examples of stage acts: King Lear tries to revive his daughter Cordelia; Hamlet kills Polonius; the emperor Auguste delivers a speech to his counselors; Hermione curses Oreste who has avenged her; in the Don Juan of Vitez, Don Juan caresses a dove while Elvire’s brothers try to tear each other’s guts out. In most simple cases, the stage act can be defined in a few words; its description will be done in accordance with the various paralinguistic and gestural codes and in relation to the utterances of the discourse; and since the description must necessarily take account of the semantic context of these utterances, it will be situated at the point of intersection of the semantic and the semiotic.
(F) STAGE ACTS AND CONSTRUCTION OF THE CHARACTER
If one takes a panoramic view of the stage acts and their sequence, one sees that it is possible to construct sets of gestural or vocal signs which will define not only the activity of a particular actor, but also the corresponding character. Study of the character should therefore be left until this stage of the investigation, when the actor can be seen constructing the character with the help not only of his/her permanent signs, but also of his/her successive stage acts. It can be seen that the character, provided the actor’s work is well done, is understood not at the start of the analysis but at the close.
A few remarks:
1. The work of the actor and the construction of the character constitute wholes formed by the recurrence (Corvin 1985) of the same or similar8 (gestural-vocal) signs and by differences progressively introduced by changes in the signs: the character develops, the actor’s activity changes.
2. We do not distinguish at this stage between what pertains to the character and what to the actor, because at this point of the investigation we do not have the theoretical means to differentiate between them, except in obvious cases (the trembling of a character gripped by fear, for example); what enables the distinction to be made is comparison with the text and the fact that the signs peculiar to the actor form a recognizable whole which is also found in other performances by the same actor.
3. The presence of stage acts not prescribed by the text makes it possible to measure the inventiveness peculiar to a particular interpretation or production; thus the actor who played Don Juan in Vitez’s production gave intermittent signs of chronic illness: coughing, fainting fits; this Don Juan was a condemned man.
4. Description does not suffice: it is indispensable to give meaning not only to a particular, isolated sign, but to semiotic wholes.
(G) DIACHRONY OF STAGE ACTS
The succession of stage acts produces not only a series of paradigmatic wholes but also a significant sequence, a syntax: it tells a story which may not be quite the same as the fable constructed by reference to the text, thus showing a difference between the textual fiction and the acted fiction. It may therefore yield a parallel story which will form a pair with the fictional content of the text.
E. The production
It is only at the end of his/her enquiry that the student can form an idea of the work done by the producer. It is therefore only after the preceding analyses that s/he can ask her/himself questions about this aspect. This is the opposite of the strictly “journalistic” approach, which consists of comparing two signifieds: the one deduced from the performance perceived as a whole, and the one which the reader has constructed for her/himself from the text.
(A) COMBINATION OF CODES
To “read” a production is to perceive how the different codes have been constituted, how the producer has constructed the tabular system of the performance. It is the comparison of the ways in which the codes are handled that makes it possible to understand the producer’s work in regard to the continuity or rupture of codes—continuity and rupture which are naturally not total: the analyst investigates the points of rupture which s/he has managed to pick out in his/her preceding analyses.
(B) THE PRODUCER’S WORK
The producer carries out a double operation:
(a) s/he indicates the broad lines to be followed in the production of signs by the various practicians, and judges the signs which are in fact produced;
(b) s/he combines the signs to produce an aesthetic effect on the spectator; it is interesting to show how the producer gathers the different bodies of signs into tableaux and movements.
One can, since it is impossible to take into account every moment of the performance, choose a few of the sequences in order to analyze the convergence or distortion (the montage) of the different networks of signs produced by the scenographer, wardrobe master, and electrician, the final aesthetic result being the product of the choices made by the producer (of his/her judgment).
(C) REFERENCE TO THE REAL WORLD
From the outset the construction of signs has been directed by the producer in relation to the referent (or referents) s/he has chosen. The choice of referent involves, in particular, the choice of the historical moment and/or of reference to the present. In practical terms, however, whatever the choice, the reference is always at least double: however “archeological” it may be, the performance necessarily reflects the contemporary world, if only by the inescapable presence (even if transposed) of the prevailing fashion in clothing—a pregnant code.
Procedure: To look in the performance for the signs which refer to the past (which past, that of the writer or that of the fictional reference?), as well as those which refer to the present of the performance, noting the (more or less) subtle interplay between the references to the past and the references to the present.
(D) THE CONSTRUCTION OF MEANING (SENS)
It will be seen that in the final analysis, what is asked of the analyst is reflection on both the meaning (sens) of the performance and the mode of representation. S/he in turn must construct, with the aid of all the elements now at his/her disposal, a meta-discourse both on the meaning (sens) of the production (in general) and on the work done by the producer.
This constitutes a kind of conclusion to his/her research: it is only at this point that the meaning (sens) can appear: it cannot be sought at the level of isolatated signs (there is no “dream book” for signs) but only in a total context—it being understood, for the rest, that the meaning, the meanings, in their open-endedness and multiplicity
(a) cannot be compared to a hypothetical meaning of the dramatic text (a strictly meaningless comparison);
(b) are never more than proposed meanings, whose richness and, so to speak, “probability” depend at once on the richness of the performance and on the perseverance of the analyst and the appositeness of his/her work.
1. A.-J. Greimas, Sémantique structurale, Du Sens, ‘Actants, acteurs, rôles,’ in Sémiotique narrative et textuelle; for its application to the theatre, A. Ubersfeld, Lire le théâtre, chap. 2.
2. Not forgetting that the textual space(s) thus defined cannot but reflect references to a world different from the original referent: in the theatre history modifies the meaning and the functioning of space (see below).
3. In fact, it is generally a matter of metonymy.
4. Segmentation which may be textually indicated or arrived at by analysis.
5. The changes in lighting produce a reviviscence of the signs emanating from the space occupied by the set, which are now perceived differently by the spectator.
6. Compare the famous example of Mother Courage’s wagon (Brecht), which becomes bigger and bigger as the situation of its owner deteriorates.
7. See preceding discussion of the relation between signification and meaning (sens).
8. Signs may be said to be similar when they have a majority of semes in common.
J. L. Austin, 1970, Quand dire c’est faire, Paris, Seuil.
Michel Corvin, 1985, Molière, Lyon, Presses universitaires de Lyon.
Oswald Ducrot, 1972, Dire et ne pas dire, Paris, Hermann.
Umberto Eco, 1978, “Pour une reformulation du signe iconique,” in Communications, 29, Paris, Seuil.
T. E. Hall, 1971, La dimension cachée, Paris, Seuil.
1973, Le langage silencieux, Paris, Marne.
1979, Au-delà de la culture, Paris, Seuil.
Marcel Jousse, 1974, L’Anthropologie du geste, I, Paris, 1975; La manducation de la parole, II, Paris.
Michel Pécheux, 1975, Les vérités de la Palice: linguistique, sémantique, philosophie, Paris, Maspero.
John R. Searle, 1972, Les actes de langage, Paris, Hermann.
Anne Ubersfeld, 1977, Lire le théâtre, Paris, Editions Sociales.
1981, “The space of Phèdre,” in Poetics Today, 2, no. 3, Tel Aviv.
1982, L’Ecole du spectateur, Paris, Editions Sociales.