WHY THEATRE SEMIOTICS?
Before mapping out the ground we propose to cover in this study, we need at the outset to clarify our own position in relation to theatre semiotics. Fundamentally, we view theatre semiotics not as a theoretical position, but as a methodology: as a way of working, of approaching theatre in order to open up new practices and possibilities of ‘seeing’.
This is not, however, a view which has been widely held either by theatre departments in higher education or by the theatrical profession at large. Theatre Semiotics: An “Academic Job Creation Scheme?”’, for example, was the provocative title of Brean Hammond’s retrospective reflection upon the theatre conference held at Crewe and Alsager College in 1983 (1984). This title hints at the palpable hostility towards semiotics expressed both by a number of the conference panellists, who came from the academic world and the theatrical profession, and by participants speaking from the floor. Given this persistent and broad-based attack, one is tempted to ask, Why a book on theatre semiotics?
At one level, some of the criticism which theatre semiotics attracts is, in our view justified. The dangers of establishing a jargon-laden language accessible only to academics, of a dialogue between theoreticians and theoreticians, have not always been heeded. Martin Esslin (post-Alsager, a born-again semiotician) laments as follows in his preface to The Field of Drama: ‘What struck me as unfortunate, however, from the outset, was the obscure language and excessively abstract way in which the, in many cases, outstandingly brilliant exponents of semiotics presented their findings’ (1987: 11). The degree of obfuscation has been such that the benefits of the ‘findings’, of understanding theatre as a sign-system, have tended to be eclipsed and the considerable advantages of studying theatre through a semiotic approach overlooked. It is our intention, therefore, to provide in this volume an introduction or guide to some of the most useful ‘findings’ theatre semiotics has to offer, and to do so in relatively straightforward terms. Furthermore, it is important at the outset both to identify what it is that theatre semiotics is reacting against and to indicate what its uses are.
In most academic institutions drama has, until relatively recently, been taught as a branch of literary studies, as dramatic literature and hence as divorced from the theatrical process. Such approaches to reading a play as were generally on offer did not significantly differ from the ways in which students were called upon to read a poem or a work of prose fiction, i.e. as literary objects. At best, a student might be invited to become an armchair critic or to imagine a theatrical space in her or his ‘mind’s eye’. Rarely, however, did drama leave the written page. Neither did discussion move beyond the boundaries of the text, in which characters were ‘read’ as ‘real’ people (and by implication could be psychoanalysed as such), and in which the key objective became the identification and analysis of a play’s literary qualities, in order to establish what a play ‘meant’ via the reflexive application of the intentional fallacy. Theatrical consideration did not enter the frame of theoretical or critical practice.
The imposition of such approaches has proved singularly negative for the advancement of theatre studies, inasmuch as they fail to consider drama in its theatrical context: as a work which exists not only to be read but also to be seen. To examine a play for its literary qualities alone ignores its fundamental function as blueprint for production, a theatrical event which is to be realised in two planes (time and space), not one. Once the ‘doing’ of theatre is reinstated, then the notion of individual authorship is also challenged, given that the ‘doing’ also requires the collaboration of the performers, director(s), technical staff, and so on, all of whom contribute to the making of the theatrical event. At this point, one begins to grasp the plurality and complexity of the theatrical process, and to understand why it has been easier to abandon or relegate theatre to the province of dramatic literature for so long.
It was only when twentieth-century thought and approaches to literature and language radically shifted from the traditions of the nineteenth – the shift crudely recognised as the move from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’ – and attempted to understand the structures of ‘artistic’ language, that the primacy of the focus on the aesthetics and thematics of the text was displaced. This shift was achieved through the advent and development of what are now recognised as structural and semiotic approaches to literature (a brief history of which is offered below). The structuralist focus on the ‘parts’ of a work that make up a ‘whole’, and the semiotic enquiry into how meaning is created and communicated through systems of encodable and decodable signs, have changed the nature and function of literary criticism, in theory and in practice, and have had wide-ranging implications for all three literary genres: for poetry and prose, as well as drama. In the case of drama, this has involved both the development of new ways of interrogating the text and the generation of a methodology or language’ with which to tackle the complexity of the theatrical sign-system. In this study we propose to document both of these areas, to see how meaning is generated through the elements involved in the scripting of drama, and how meaning is created within a performance context.
Linking the semiotic approaches under examination to specific dramatic texts and performances is, in our view, a vital way of avoiding the problems of obfuscation which were cited in the opening paragraphs of this introduction. Where the analysis of theatre as a sign-system has become divorced from the object of its enquiry, i.e. theatre, the sense of difficulty and frustration is intensified, and rejection of the semiotic approach is likely to follow. Two earlier studies which propose dramatic and theatrical analysis, J.L. Styan’s The Dramatic Experience (1971
) and Ronald Hayman’s How to Read a Play
(1977), texts which still have currency as introductions to theatre, are written in seeming ignorance of the relevance of semiotics to theatre studies, despite the development of this approach since the turn of the century. This rejection is further reflected in the cross-section of recently published works which come under the umbrella of how-to-study-theatre
guides, and which equate accessibility with a rejection of the semiotic ‘how’ and demonstrate an empiricist return to the seemingly unproblematic ‘what’ (see Griffiths 1982
, Kelsall 1985
, Reynolds 1986
As the impetus for a semiotic enquiry into theatre has derived primarily from continental Europe, the difficulty of establishing and developing theatre semiotics in English-speaking countries has been exacerbated by the problems of translation. Difficult terminology is compounded by the need to find equivalents in translation, thereby unhelpfully increasing the number of new terms brought into the semiotic vocabulary. Aside from reception difficulties, certain key texts have remained untranslated, thereby hindering the advancement of the field (see Bassnett 1984
: 38–9). Or, when these are finally translated, the field may have moved on, and what may appear to some as a startling revelation is already viewed by others as passé
. The one, seminal, study which has attempted to outline both the history of theatre semiotics and current areas of theory and practice for an English readership is Keir Elam’s The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama
, published in 1980. While this has filled a need for published documentation of theatre semiotics, it has nevertheless been greeted by students of theatre at first-degree level or below, as complex, difficult, and obscure to the point of inaccessibility. In the wake of Elam’s publication, attempts to match accessibility with a mapping out of the semiotic field, such as Esslin’s The Field of Drama
, have unfortunately proved simplistic, reductive, and ultimately misleading. It is with these reservations in mind that we have set ourselves the task of achieving a more productive balance: to be both readable and informative.
The reply to ‘Why theatre semiotics?’ perhaps needs one final word of defence. Practitioners have constantly queried the need for a semiotic methodology of theatre, since this is viewed by them as a wholly academic enterprise. Hammond’s postseminar article summarised the view of the practitioners John Caird (director) and Peter Flannery (dramatist) who claimed ‘that they had never heard of theatre semiotics before the Seminar and that they were none the wiser now that they had – they could do their jobs quite nicely without it, thank you’ (Hammond 1984
: 78). Of course, there would be no attempt on our part to argue that a grasp of semiotic theory is essential to
the making of effective pieces of theatre. However, whether we are involved in the making of theatre or whether we go to the theatre as spectators, the usefulness of the approach lies in its potential to make us more aware of how
drama and theatre are made
. As so much of British theatre operates as a commercial enterprise, the rationale for putting on plays is often reduced wholly to financial considerations, with an inevitable emphasis on product rather than process. The aim is to be successful (in commercial terms), not meaningful (in artistic/creative terms). Rehearsal techniques rooted in the blocking of moves and the learning of lines and little else are responsible for so much of what Peter Brook has identified as the all too prevalent mode of ‘deadly theatre’ (1968). Moreover, if we are in the business of ‘seeing’ theatre, whether for academic or professional or recreational purposes, surely we need a base from which to assess what we have seen? How often, when leaving a theatre, do we hear an uncertain voice saying, ‘Well, I liked the scenery’, or The costumes were nice’? Adopting an approach which invites us to look at the how
can only serve to make us more aware of the potential of drama and theatre, whatever our interest, and more critical of how that potential is being ignored or abused.
STRUCTURALISM AND SEMIOTICS: A BRIEF HISTORY
At the turn of this century a new approach to the study of language was pioneered by the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure. His Course in General Linguistics
, published posthumously in 1915, advocated a structural study involving both the diachronic
(historical) and synchronic
(current) dimensions of language. Saussure’s binary approach to the structural properties of language further posited the distinction between langue
, a duality which has remained central to structuralist approaches and has been simplified to an understanding of language (in the abstract, i.e. as system) and speech (as concrete utterance). What emerged from Saussure’s work was an understanding of language as a sign-system, in which the linguistic sign was further presented in binary terms as signifier
or ‘sound-image’ and ‘concept’. The two sides of the linguistic sign are arbitrary, which enables language to be a self-regulating, abstract system, capable of transformation. It is through the interplay of similarities and differences between signifiers that meaning is created, and, in order to understand this, a structuralist approach is required in which the ‘parts’ of language are considered in relation to the ‘whole’. In the light of this, it may be understood that language is the sign-system by which people mediate and organise the world.
A second turn-of-the-century pioneer in the field of sign-systems was the American philosopher, Charles S. Peirce. From Peirce’s work on the complex way in which we perceive, and communicate in, the world by sign-systems, his classification of sign-functions has proved the most important and widely cited legacy in the field of theatre semiotics. His second ‘trichotomy’ of signs consists of: (i) icon
: a sign linked by similarity to its object, e.g. a photograph; (ii) index
: a sign which points to or is connected to its object, e.g. smoke as an index of fire; (iii) symbol
: a sign where the connection between sign and object is agreed by convention and there is no similarity between object and sign, e.g. the dove as a symbol of peace. Some of the earlier semiotic studies of theatre posited theatre as an iconic activity, or the actor as icon. However, subsequent analysis has pointed towards the difficulties of attempting to adhere rigidly to these categories when it is clear that theatrical signs are characterised by overlap and complexity (see Elam 1980
Structuralist thinking was further advanced in the early twentieth century by the school of literary criticism identified as Russian Formalism. It was suppressed in the 1930s, given the growth of Marxist criticism and its emphasis on the sociological, but not before its two centres, the Moscow Linguistic Circle and the Petrograd Society for the Study of Poetic Language (OPOYAZ), had established a significant legacy for linguistic and literary studies. The Formalists – who included Boris Eichenbaum, Roman Jakobson, Victor Shklovsky and Boris Tomasjevsky – were primarily concerned with literary structures, and distinguished between ‘poetic’ or ‘artistic’ language and ‘ordinary’ language in an attempt to show the construction of ‘literariness’ (literatumost
to this was the notion that art exists to reawaken our perception of life, the means to achieving this posited as the process of defamiliarisation: ‘Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony
’ (Shklovsky 1965
a: 12). This the...