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Porter Institute for Poetics and Semiotics

Semiotics and Theater: By Way of Introduction Author(s): Ruth Amossy Reviewed work(s): Source: Poetics Today, Vol. 2, No. 3, Drama, Theater, Performance: A Semiotic Perspective (Spring, 1981), pp. 5-10 Published by: Duke University Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1772461 . Accessed: 14/03/2013 06:57
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SEMIOTICS AND THEATER By Way of Introduction


The idea for this special issue arose in the effervescent atmosphereof the "Round Table on Semioticsand Theater,"organized by Anne Ubersfeldin February1977.' Followingup on the initialimpetusgivenby a fewpioneering the interest of a works,2the lively"Round Table" discussionsdemonstrated semiotics of theater from a general semiotic perspective,as well as its extraordinary complexity.Today, in spite of the impressivedevelopments achievedduringthe last fewyears,3 a semiotics of theater is stilla challengeto the investigator. It owes this specific status to the peculiar nature of the multileveled theatrical research viewsthe pluricodified, system. Contemporary theaternot as a literary discourseamong manyothers,but as a global system in its own waysa seriesof semiotic The interrelation of integrating subsystems. these heterogeneous is most difficult to account for. Moreover, components how is one to analyze a complex interdependence when the very elements this are not described?An buildingup puzzlingrelationship yetsatisfactorily of the theatrical medium a analysis presupposes knowledgeof visual and a of corporal communication, theory nonlinguistic signs,a semiologyof the none of is which in available the objects fully presentstate of research. with all these an into the theatrical Grappling difficulties, inquiry (poly)system is no easytask. At thesame time,itis no doubta fascinating one. Located at the junctionof severalsemioticfields,it cannot but arouse a generalinterest. The collection of original hererangesfrom of the summaries essayspresented in a givendomain to presentation situation of new theses.At thesame time,it offersa guide to those readerswho, thoughinterested in the performing arts and/or in semiotics,have not dealt specifically with semioticsof theater. in mind,I willbriefly outlinethecrucialissuesat Keepingthesetwo perspecives stake and the specificstandpoints adopted in the variousarticles. In orderto be an adequate object of semiotic theater had first to be inquiry, conceived of as a specificmode of communication. Mounin's exclusion of theater fromthedomain of semiology on thebasis of a restricted definition of communication of the (Mounin, 1970) provokeda generaloutcry.Semioticians
'The "Round Table on Semiotics and Theater,"Paris, February 1977,was organizedbythe"Institut d'Etudes Th'idtrales" of theUniversite de Paris III-SorbonneNouvelleand theCNRS. It was one of the first and mostprominent manifestations of therevivalof semiotics of theater. (The papershave been published in fulllength either or briefly in a specialissueof Degres(1978, No. 13). summarized 2Helbo, 1975; Pavis, 1976; Ubersfeld,1977. For a review of Ubersfeld see Issacharoff in thisissue. in thisissue]); Pavis 3See Substance18-19(1977); Versus21 (1978); Elam (1980, [see Alter'sreview (1980, includingan extensivebibliography[See Hays's reviewin this issue]); Organon (1980); Ubersfeld(forthcoming); and Bourgy& Durand, ed. (forthcoming).
? Poetics Today, Vol. 2:3 (1981),5-10.

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RUTH AMOSSY

theaterfeltcompelledto dismisshis point of view explicitly, thus raisingthe centralquestionof thenatureof thetheatrical AndreHelbo's communication. essay, "The Semiologyof Theateror: Communication Swamped,"providesan analysis of the question. Attacking Mounin's basic assumptions, Helbo describes communication as a dynamic act" processinsidewhichthe"theatrical takes place. CounteringMounin's notion of "reciprocity" symmetrical (a use the same code), othersemioticians exchangein whichsenderand receiver also attemptto place the concept of theatricalcommunicationon firmer WilfriedPassow footing.In his "The Analysis of TheatricalPerformance," of of the"contrat based on theconvention emphasizestheimportance th6a.tral" interaction He thus improvesformer models of theatrical "make-believe." by between: distinguishing themake-believe scenic interaction a. fictitious world) (within with world themake-believe of theaudience b. interaction on thestage c. realinteraction with to thecharacters) theactors of theaudience d. interaction (as opposed within theaudience e. interaction to also turntheirattention Shoshana Avigal and ShlomithRimmon-Kenan in theprocessof conveying levelsinvolved of communicational the"multiplicity intothe further invite These perspectives investigation messagesin thetheater." of whichliesprecisely thespecificity of thetheater, communication multileveled and addressees(playwright, various addressers in a complexschemeinvolving actor, character, director, spectator). Two extremepositions in the analysis of theatricalcommunicationare and Theater"on the one hand, and illustrated by Cesare Segre's"Narratology and Perception"on the other. Focusing on Frank Coppieters's"Performance the text, Segre describesit as a specifickind of narrative(as distinctfrom of the communication nontheatricalfiction) based on its own reordering of the in theplaythuseliminates The modelexemplified scheme.4 anymediation this relation.Necessarily, "I" narratorand veils the "I"-sender-"you"-receiver This structures. for the realizationof the narrative has certainrepercussions in thetheater throws conceptof narrativity lighton theproblematic perspective it in thegeneralfieldof narratology by theRussian (as interpreted by including Formalists and Lotman). While Segre's approach is mainly textual (and point of view. As his title Coppietersadopts an audience-oriented structural), a concrete in which in theways experience spectators indicates,he is interested on the than lines rather He describes along empirical "perception" performance. of a The choice of communication. model theatrical theoretical basis of a given the to him allows explore nonconventionalspectacle (the "People Show") and of understanding audience'sreactionson the levelsof personalexperience processes. but also as a Theater has to be examined not only as communication, textitself, in the dramatic than More ("pratiquesignifiante"). practice signifying
'See also Segre, 1980.

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INTRODUCTION

of the different "codes" meaningproductiontakes place in the interrelations used in theperformance It is objects,etc.). imperative, gestures, (voices,lights, to achieve a preliminary therefore, descriptionof the discretesubsystems the theatrical (poly)systemand to examine their modes of constituting In the present issue providesa contribution to a integration. this framework, of to theatrical as well as a of and in theory objects semiology gesture, space the theater.Special emphasisis givento the statusof the actor'sbody on stage the corporal element in praesentia, and its peculiar relation to the verbal is centralto the specificity of the theatrical medium. components Patrice Pavis's "Problems of a Semiologyof TheatricalGesture"gives an extensive accountof contemporary to describeadequatelya language attempts of thebody. Reviewing and semiotics, as wellas themain kinesics, psychology, recentworks devoted to the subject Pavis concludes that the enterprise of breaking down the gesture language into minimal units ("gest'emes")and theminto global unitsis an illusoryone. A closer examination of combining biomechanic exercises confirms thatgestures have to be described Meyerhold's on the level of a global "plan" or "program";thus the notion of a code of its specificsyntaxand rhetoric can be posited. At this "gesturality" including A few interrelations. point,Pavis raisesthedelicatequestionof thetext-gesture propositionsare made, mainly with a view toward overcomingthe sterile of the performance. oppositionbetweensemiologyof the textand semiology otheressays stressthe importance of Alongside Pavis's centralclarification, in thetheatrical medium.Passow discussestheimpactof theactor's corporality physical presence on the stage. But it is mainly in Wladimir Krysinsky's "SemioticModalitiesof theBody in ModernTheater"thatthebodyis viewedas the essentialelement of the theatrical performance. Drawingon contemporary reevaluates the statusof the body as practice(Artaud, Grotowski),Krysinsky instinctualenergy possessing a disruptivepower, and thereforeable to deconstructmimetic representation as well as a given ideology of the is presented from thepointof viewof (psychological) subject.Theatrical history a word-body relation,and dividedinto threemain phases: frompsychological theater,throughthe textsof the evolution,to autonomous theater.My own article,"Toward a Rhetoricof the Stage: The Scenic Realization of Verbal the radical heterogeneity of the Cliches," emphasizesin its own framework and its to deconstruct the verbal discoursein its corporal element, capacity ideologicalimplications. The study of a "system of objects" is indispensable to any proper of thetheatrical medium.This is the subjectselectedby Avigal understanding and Rimmon-Kenan in "What do Brook's Bricksmean?" Defining theobject as a "lexeme,"thisessay analyzesits mobility in theatrical discourseon all of its levels.Thespecificity of thetheatrical as itscapacitynotonly object is presented to combinein a variety of theatrical but also to undergonumerous "sentences," in shape (morphologicallevel) and in function(syntactical transformations theobject can participate level). Moreover, in different semantic simultaneously This mobility fields,and in various rhetorical is suggestively figures. exempli-

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RUTH AMOSSY

fiedin the"laboratory" of PeterBrook'sperformance, Ubu aux Bouffes, which on theatricality in its main aspects. The particular offers a reflection statusof in a rhetoric both object and body as participating of the stage is the subject in myown paper. The visualization of a further matter of verbalfrozen inquiry figuresin unconventionalmises en scene provides a tool for preliminary intothepossibilities of a nonverbal in its and theproblems rhetoric investigation dimension. specifictheatrical The examination of the corporal element in relation to the text is bytwo studiesof theatrical space in theessaysof Anne Ubersfeld supplemented is a multivalent and Michael Issacharoff. notion,sinceit is Space in thetheater it of is divided into scenic, on correlated levels. First to be defined several all, is nonvisible This distinction drawnin and visiblespace, dramatic, space. clearly the where he under Pavis's Patrice entry "space" the dictionary suggests, (1980), classification: following Invisiblespace: in thetext and constructed dramatic bythespectator) space(represented of poetic writing) space(spatiality spaces,suchas: textual metaphorical interior fantasms, etc.) space(projections, as opposed to visible: scenic space(thestage) and house) space(stage scenographic of theactors on stage) bythemovements playspace(created and ilin "Space and Reference," Issacharoff provideshis own categorization mimetic and between the use of his distinction lustrates diegetic(discursively referred Sartre, examples(Ionesco, Beckett, to) space by a seriesof interesting of stage of aesthetic conceptions Genet,etc.). He takes into account a history suchas radio drama. His forms of contemporary space, as wellas thespecificity in is the controversial main theoretical subject of reference issue, however, of the into to in its relation drama question space. (Furtherinvestigations & Whiteside,forthcoming.) in drama will be found in Issacharoff reference on dramatic "The Space of Phedre"concentrates Anne Ubersfeld's space witha of "reprethe notion its to view staging.Questioning very problematic special and of its Racine's body, space manipulation unique text,through sentation," The misesen scene(like Hemon's or Vitaz's attempts). calls forunconventional betweendramaticand scenicspace revealsits complexity. relationship of the "theatrical relation," Text and stage: theseare the main components of theater,or lies the specificity and in theirpeculiar modes of interrelation The old hierarchies theatricality (Jean Alter suggeststhe term"theatrality"). in the total has to be redefined text the dramatic having been swept away, and Alter's of whichit constitutes part. Serpieri's (only)one (important) system viewson thistopic. In "Toward a Segmentation articlespresent quite divergent of the Dramatic Text," Serpieriassumes that a specificstage realizationis in the text itself.This calls for a semioticsof the dramatictext imprinted

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INTRODUCTION

on the text'spotentialforstaging focusing (i.e., the "performative inscription" achieved by the playwright). on Austin's Drawing speech-acttheory, Serpieri definesthe semiologicalunitas a unitof performative discoursesimultaneous withits indexicalaxis, and suggeststhat the utterance be segmented at every of orientation. deictic The demonstration of this change performative thesis, a numberof dramatictexts,takes the actual practiceof actingand involving staging these plays into account. Jean Alter, in his "From Text to starts notwitha semiotics of thedramatic Performance," text,butinsteadwith - thestudy a semiotics of theatrality of thenecessary interaction of verbaland the latterpartlytransform the former. is stagingsignswhereby "Theatrality" thus located in a process of recreation and it is the transformation, through of various textsto undergotransformational potentiality processes(assuring both thepermanence and the renewalof the theater) thathas to be elucidated. Alterproceedsto a formalization intended to accountfortheoperations taking In such a framework, thecentrality place whena textbecomesa performance. of thedramatictextis displaced,giving of miseen way to a specific conception of the text-performance scene, as well as to a redefinition relationship. All thesenew orientations are set againsta background of previoussemiotic whichare either referred and discussed.The origins theories, to, or summarized of semiotics of theater have beengivenspecialattention in Jiri VeltruskV's paper on the"Prague School Theoryof Theater."Takingintoaccountrecent reviews on thePrague School's contribution, and Veltrusky pointsout theachievements of a circleof whichhe had been an activemember. shortcomings As a group,thisdiverseand sometimes seriesof essayson the contradictory crucial issue of theatricalsign(s) and system(s),meaning production and communication the discussion.Semioticsof theater is a aspiresto reinvigorate field occupyinga privilegedposition on the general map of fast-expanding to anyone dealing withcomplex sign systems semiotics.It is of interest and to thoseworking on the interrelation of the textualand the visual particularly its focuson performance in its (comics,films, publicity, etc.). Simultaneously, relationshipto the dramatic text cannot but attract the attentionof the practitioners (playwright, director, actors,etc.). Last, but not least, playgoers will findfood forthought in the attempts to account forthe specificity of the theatrical mediumat a timewhentheater is striving to redefine its uniqueness and its powers.
RUTH AMOSSY REFERENCES V. ANDR. DURAND, BOURGY, La relationthidtrale eds., Forthcoming. (Lille: Pressesde l'universite de Lille). ELAM, KEIR, 1920. The Semioticsof Theatreand Drama (London: Methuen). HELBO,ANDRE, ed., 1975. Semiologiede la Reprisentation (Brussels:Complexe). ISSACHAROFF, MICHAEL & ANNA WHITESIDE, eds., Forthcoming. On Referring in Literature. MOUNIN, GEORGES, 1970. Introduction ii la simiologie (Paris: Minuit).

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" (Universit6 de Lyon II, CERTC). Organon80, 1980. Semiologieet Theatre, de PAVIS,PATRICE,1976. Problkmesde semiologie thedtrale (Montreal: Presses de l'universit6 Quebec). 1980 Dictionnairedu Thedtre (Paris: ed. Sociales). to the Semioticsof Theater,"Poetics Today, 1:3, Spring. 1980. "A Contribution CESARE, SEGRE, Sub-stance18-19,1977. "Theaterin France: Ten Years of Research,"Josette Feral, ed. UBERSFELD, ANNE,1977. Lire le thedtre (Paris: d. Sociales). (CNDP). L'Objet thddtral Forthcoming: VERSUs.1978, 21, "Teatro e semiotica."

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