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For a Semiotics of the Theater Author(s): J. F. and Karen Woodword Source: SubStance, Vol. 6, No.

18/19, Theater in France: Ten Years of Research (Dec. 1, 1977), pp. 135-138 Published by: University of Wisconsin Press Stable URL: Accessed: 09/03/2010 04:20
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For a Semiotics of the Theater

An analysis of the sign in respect to the theater, its characteristics, and its functions, supposes an a priori agreement that any theatrical performance is a system, a structure of signs. And every performance is, in fact, just that, from the very moment of conception of its staging. Director and actors collaborate on an equal footing to produce the same end, borrowing from other systems--which have already been organized functionally and socially-the elements of what will become a specific sign on stage: speech, gestures, elements of the setting, props, music, tone, mimicry, movement on stage, headdress, costumes, makeup, lighting, sound. Tadeus Kowzan, in Litterature et spectacle, attempted to establish a comprehensive list, which pays homage to Wagnerian "Gesamtkunstwerk," in which art is conceived as "collective," producing a collective effect due to the combination of differing materials, each one of which possesses its own specific method of functioning and its own autonomy. Music, text, actor, and setting, each brings to the theater its particular semiosis; the director is charged with distributing equitably the numerous impressions which strike the spectator at various moments of the diachrony and with integrating them into a harmonious whole. We would like to depart from this view of the dramatic work as a sum of varying forms of expression which co-exist on the stage, each one autonomously, not in order to contradict it-for the theater does in fact derive its specificity from a multitude of other semiotic systems which kinesics, proxemics, and paralinguistics propose to examine-but rather because we are confronted with the impossibility of affirming the unity of theatrical representation and of determining the characteristics of a specificity which differs from the simple recognition of the multiplicity of semiotic systems composing it. By continuing along the first course, too often taken, the semiotics of the theater is condemned to follow in the wake of other systems of signs, awaiting their advances in order to take a step forward itself, always remaining a tributary of the others, eternally in second place. Moreover, nothing allows us to affirm that the discoveries of proxemics, kinesics, or paralinguistics will be able to find an application in the realm of the theater. Each of these systems, conceived as an autonomously functioning entity, is established on the base of a uniform corpus without taking into account the interferences from other systems with which it interacts constantly. Thus the results obtained remain specific to each system and are not always applicable to the stage. The fundamental reason may be found in the fact that each of these systems invoked by the theater is necessarily defined in relation to other systems, and also in the fact that the sense of the play is produced dialectically by the convergence or shifting of the different significations conveyed by the various systems rather than within the framework of a single one of the systems involved. Thus every theatrical sign-gestural, temporal, spatial-must necessarily be read in terms of its relation to the global structure which incorporates it rather than in terms of its more limited relation to the semiotic system to which it belongs, according to the demands of the theory.
Sub-Stance NO 18/19, 1977



Josette Feral

In other words, we shall have to consider signs in terms of the structureswhich integratethem into the play and in terms of their context and no longerby isolating them from their concrete manifestations. In fact, most fields of semiotic research remain closed to any other manifestationof a system which might become parasitic or contradictory;therein lies the prime necessity for constituting a uniform corpus. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the discoveries to which this researchmay lead, whatever they may be, will be able to assure a scenic operation in which the role of a gesture, a tone, or a movement in space relates not only to the sum of the other gestures, tones, and spaces of the play but rather to all of them individually,not to mention the other semiotic systemswhich overlapeach other and incorporatethem at the same time. Thus word, gesture,prop, and setting depend not only on their particular semiotic system and on a single field of investigation,that is, linguistics, kinesics, proxemics, but rather on all of them at one and the same time, whence the difficulty of establishing a uniform corpus appropriateto the theater. From this assumption derivesalso the necessity of finding a means and principlesof selection differentfrom uniformity of form of expression, in order to delimit a field of researchcapable of securingthe specificity of theatricallanguage.This step still remainsto be taken. Certain members of the Prague School of Linguistics attempted to explore this problem as early as 1933, in articlespublishedin Slovo a Slovenost and in the Travaux
du Cercle Linguistique de Prague, but their efforts were interrupted by the war and

have infrequentlybeen followed up. (Formerlyinaccessibleto a public unfamiliar with the Czech language, these articles have recently been translated,collected, and published under the direction of Ladislav Matejkaby the Universityof MichiganPressand
MIT Press, entitled respectively, Sign, Sound and Meaning [1976] and Semiotics of

Arts [1976]). These articles undertake an exploration of the whole problem of the theater,beginningwith an inquiryinto the notions of sign and structure. Wewould like to take up a position within this line of research,in orderto profit by the spirit with which it has been conducted, rather than to take advantageof its conand clusions, since they concernmore often art in generalthan the theaterin particular relate more to the esthetic sign than to the specifically theatricalsign. As opposed to of the late nineteenth century, who sought to the theories of the neogrammarians introduce positivist principlesinto what:was at that time purely historical linguistics, the Prague School attempted to study languageas a functional system governednot only by the immanent forces of nature but also by culture and the subject itself, allowing room in their theory for the personalexpressivityof the subjectand for the Phenomena"). creativity of language(cf. Mathesius,"On the Potentiality of Language The dynamic characterof languageprevailedover the notion of its state as static, as and was accompaniedby a theory of the sign propounded by the neo-grammarians, viewed in a non-mechanisticway, to the extent that this theory opened the way to the possibility of variationsin structurewhich would account for the functioning of the esthetic sign and of the subject. In another respect, and in contrast to critics who accused them of severingart from reality, the members of the Prague School emphasized the necessity, for any synchronic analysis of a work of art, of also taking into considerationits diachrony; thus they stressed the fact that art is not self-sufficient but rather constitutes an important component of the social structurewith which it is associatedin a dialectical

Semiotics of the Theater


relationship, while remaining in constant contact with all other semiotic systems. There too the accent is on dialectical dynamism and not on an examination which would confine the work of art in order to grasp its nature more readily. It is easy to recognize the importance of such explanations for the semiotics of the theater, which endeavors to delineate theatrical discourse within its specificity (the notion of discourse is here taken in its widest acceptance, that is, including both discourse in the literal sense and also staging and the entire arrangement of the dramatic space as well as all gestures, music, costumes, makeup), given that theater, in contrast with a pictorial work, implies above all movement, dynamism, a dialectic of various systems of signification among themselves. What we must try to specify is, therefore: 1. The characteristics of the theatrical sign which distinguish it from the purely linguistic sign. This theatrical sign, once defined, must be analyzed in terms of its relation to the surrounding reality and to the objects it introduces onto the stage, since the theater still suffers from a presumption of reality which it is unable to shed. 2. The structure which incorporates the theatrical sign and its functioning, by taking as an example, in order to remain in touch with practical experience, the case of a play which has been produced and whose "text" and staging are available through documents or direct experience. We shall show how a purely synchronic study in this field would be of no avail and how diachrony intervenes inevitably in the establishment of meaning. 3. The last point would aspire to show that the stage functions as a text and staging as an act of writing.
* * *

The text of Keir Elam, "Language in the Theater," attempts to respond to the first point of laying the general foundation for a problematic study of the theatrical sign: the author endeavors to determine the specificity of the theatrical sign in relation to the linguistic sign. The second question is answered by the texts of Danielle Kaisergruber and Andre Helbo, each with its own approach. While Danielle Kaisergruber's "Reading and Producing Theater," written in a didactic vein, is limited to the semiotic problems of the written theatrical text, Andre Helbo's article, "The Semiology of Theatrical Production," treats the stage more as performance, or spectacle. As regards the text of Anne Ubersfeld on A. Adamov, "Adamov Today," we wished to include it in this section, although its approach is not strictly semiotic, since it demonstrates that any staging ("mise en scene") is an act of putting into writing ("mise en ecriture") which appeals to the fantasy of the subject (in Kristeva's sense of the word), whether this subject be represented by the director or an actor, a warning which reminds us of the limits of any semiotic analysis. As for the third problem, the present inarticulate state of the semiotics of the theater does not yet allow its solution. It remains open to speculation and future research. Finally, by way of conclusion, the reader is referred to two books which mark the first phase in the establishment of a method of semiotic research specific to the


Josette Feral

theater: Lire le theatre, by Anne Ubersfeld, and Problemes de semiologie the'trale, by P. Pavis (see our book reviews). These works do not claim to be comprehensive or to resolve the entire problem posed by the need for a more scientific and less historical method of approach to the dramatic text, but they do take a new look at the stage for the first time.

Translated by Karen Woodward

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