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In the introduction to his posthumous book on acting, Max Herrmann, a pioneer of European theatre studies, addresses the problems of exhibiting stage models, costume sketches, and blueprints of theatre buildings in theatre museums and points out the difficulties for a visitor in relating to past theatrical events: "How telling are the words of a lady on leaving such an exhibition! Asked by her husband about her impressions, she replied: 'Very nice, indeed, but you know, it's like fishbowls and no fish in them.'" While ordinary people are interested in seeing the fish, it seems theatre scholars are destined to study fishbowls. Put another way, the fundamental concern of all theatre researchers is with the very "object" of theatre itself.
Many analysts offer minimal descriptions of the necessary elements of theatre, the most famous being Eric Bentley's formula "A impersonates B while C looks on." Shorthand definitions of this kind always provoke debate, though not always very fruitful, and most scholars agree today that the pursuit of a definition is not the greatest priority. A more recent concern is how "theatre" can be distinguished from almost synonymous terms like "drama" and "performance." Marvin Carlson makes reference to this in his Theories of the Theatre. His distinction between "drama" as the written text and "theatre" as the process of performance certainly is a simplification, but seems acceptable as such. His use of the term "performance" follows an anthropological path, including "dance and opera, not to speak of happenings, circus, ritual, festival and ultimately the performance elements of everyday life." It reduces the term "theatre" to a description of certain genres, the foremost being spoken drama, which seems a less productive limitation, since opera and dance, at the very least, have always been considered part of theatre history. This has been the case in Europe; and, as far as I know, such a distinction between spoken, sung, and danced performances is irrelevant outside the Western world.
I do not wish to investigate such definitions and distinctions any further, but rather to survey the research which has been carried out by European scholars in the twentieth century. This discussion does not include any statistics on the frequency of certain genres or periods, dramatists, or theatre buildings; my concern lies with the concept of theatre at various times and places in Europe. The "object" of theatre studies is considered an essentially phenomenological problem: is it a question of materiality, people, relationship; is it an idea or a condition; is it permanent or transitory? How do scholars conceptualize theatre, and how does it affect their writing about theatre?
A Paradigm Shift
An overview of European theatre studies in the twentieth century allows me to observe a transition in the conceptualizing of theatre: a shift from the idea of theatre as a "work of stage art" (or simply "a piece of art") toward an understanding of theatre as a "communicative event." This shift signifies to me a paradigmatic change of emphasis, which has not gained full recognition by theatre scholars worldwide. It is the purpose of this essay to demonstrate the motivations and consequences of historical traditions as well as their gradual replacement by new concepts. This is not an exercise in the historiography of theatrical scholarship, but a necessary reflection on the basic role of scholars in the world of theatre. My point of departure is the fact that in today's world an abundance of electronic media compete for the attention of "customers." Electronic games, electronic mail, mobile telephones, the internet, databases, hyperspace, and virtual reality are becoming etched in our lives. This explosion of new communicative devices calls into question the function of theatre, as the new technologies easily could replace theatre's outmoded means of production and distribute the results to an unlimited number of purchasers. Through computer games, our desire for influence on the dramaturgical structure of our entertainment can be satisfied easily. Film and television have already raised serious questions about theatre's place in society. These media have had a direct effect on both theatre and theatre scholarship. At the start of a new millennium, it might be time to reconsider the meaning and the future possibilities of the art of theatre. With this in mind, let us retrace our steps.
In his history of the German theatre during the medieval and Renaissance periods, Max Herrmann emphatically proclaimed the necessity of reconstructions. Since the theatrical productions of the past are gone, this must be the first task of the theatre historian, according to Herrmann. Reconstructions included all theatrical elements: the space in which a production was performed, the stage design, the costumes, the acting style, the playscripts, the auditorium, performance times, and so on. To carry out such reconstructions all kinds of documents had to be discovered and interpreted. It is still amazing how much material was gathered and collected in theatre museums and archives during those early years. Herrmann himself focused on Hans Sachs' Carnival Stage in Nuremberg. Scholars such as John C. Adams and Walter Hodges devoted their lives to the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Other scholars, such as Wilma Deierkauf-Holseboer, Donald Roy, and Graham Barlow, have calculated of the measurements of the Théãtre du Marais from carpenters' bills. The list of examples is endless, but here we must focus on the purpose behind these reconstructions.
Therein lies the specific problem of the then young discipline of theatre studies which our older colleagues had to solve. The neighboring aesthetic disciplines all had their objects at hand: literary historians read poems and novels; art historians studied paintings, sculptures, and buildings; archaeologists excavated cities and palaces; and even musicologists had access to scores and period instruments. In a sense they could all communicate with their aesthetic object in a direct manner. Theatre historians, however, first had to re-create the objects of their studies and then convince other disciplines that theatre studies as an academic activity was built on scientific principles. In their struggle, two issues were at stake: first, they had to prove that there was a solid object-although reconstructed-and, second, they had to convince their colleagues that this object was theatre and not drama.
Theatre scholars held differing positions as regards drama, and a distinction between a central European and an Anglo-American tradition can be made. In the Germanic-speaking countries of central and northern Europe in particular, a strong defense of theatre as theatre, as opposed to theatre as the performance of drama, was launched quite early. Once more Max Herrmann provides a convincing example:
Drama as poetic creation does not concern us as theatre historians at all or only insofar as the dramatist, while writing his play, also considered the conditions of the stage, or insofar as the play provides information about past theatrical conditions.... Specific poetic qualities remain outside our considerations; an artistically worthless playlet, under certain circumstances, might be more important than the greatest masterworks in world literature.
The English-speaking world seemed more attached to drama than were Continental scholars. There are a number of reasons for this, not least the overwhelming dominance of Shakespeare, which certainly no English scholar can escape. The discipline, as taught in English and American drama schools, usually combined theoretical studies and the practical education of actors, directors, designers, and so on, thus emphasizing the production process, the page-to-stage approach, always taking the written text as the point of departure.
A third aspect of British and American theatrical life during the first half of this century which might have contributed to the dominance of drama was that no director achieved fame to equal that of, for example, Max Reinhardt, Leopold Jessner, and Erwin Piscator in Austria and Germany, the Cartel des Quatre in France, August and Per Lindberg in Sweden, or Vsevolod Meyerhold, Nikolai Evreinov, and Aleksandr Tairov in Russia. These great directors had a dual effect on the development of the discipline. First, they proved the absolute autonomy of theatre as an art form, including its independence from the dramatic text. (It is against the background of Reinhardt's spectacular productions that we have to understand Herrmann's statement on the importance of "inartistic" texts within the framework of theatrical performances.) Second, these highly creative directors functioned as "auteurs" comparable to novelists, poets, painters, and composers.
Early theatre historians, of course, were all informed by a positivist attitude to scholarship. It was quite natural, therefore, that they believed in theories of evolution, by which specific periods were held up as ideal fixed points in the history of aesthetics; they developed solid instruments for the criticism of sources, thus assuming that documents provided "true" facts; they hesitated to judge past productions in aesthetic terms. These well-known consequences of positivism should not blur our view of other useful ideas, which survived positivism, including the concept of theatre as a work of stage art and the focus on its creator, the director.
This scholarly attitude toward theatre has prevailed for many years. Professor Gösta M. Bergman, Stockholm University, published a handbook on theatre studies in 1973, in which he wrote about the necessity of what were then called "attempts at reconstruction" as the basic skills of theatre researchers. Reconstructions remained the nucleus of theatre scholarship. Furthermore, most publications in theatre as opposed to drama are devoted to directors and critics, who are primarily concerned with the dramatic text and its interpretation by the director. This same view, I contend, affected structuralist and semiotic theories when a new generation of scholars entered the arena in the 1960s.
Semiotics-The Production of Meaning
Under this heading I include all brands of structuralism and semiology: the Russian Formalists at the time of the First World War, the contributions of the Prague School in the 1930s, the rediscovery of Ferdinand de Saussure's and Charles Peirce's linguistics and their transformation of theatre theory mainly carried out by French and Italian scholars during the 1960s, the broad interest in semiotics in the 1970s, and the definitive inclusion of communicative aspects in the science of the sign in the 1980s. The history of the semiotic movement is quite well known and needs no introduction.
Three major contributions by semiotics to European theatre studies deserve mention. First, semiotics instigated an awareness of the importance of theory in theatre studies. The theoretical frames of the positivist tradition rarely were discussed openly-even Marxists accepted them, albeit on their own terms. Semiotics shifted the debate within the discipline from methodologies and research strategies to a level of profound theoretical thinking. For some time it seemed as if semiotics not only provided a most interesting theoretical approach, but represented the only possible theory of theatre. A second achievement of semiotics has already been mentioned indirectly: a radical break from theatre scholars' fetishization of historical documents. The finding, describing, and evaluating of sources-mainly pictorial and written documents-had become their main occupation, impairing a discussion on the nature of the object which they were so desperate to reconstruct. A third aspect I would like to emphasize is that semiotics put the theatrical performance right back in the center of the debate. Instead of depicting possible frames and references, through which the (lost but "reconstructed") past performance should be considered, semioticians asked themselves in what theoretical terms such past and present performances could be described. The whole field of performance analysis, which today should be well established in all theatre departments, received its basic impulses from semiotics, although many scholars subsequently moved on to alternative approaches.
Semiotics, however, was not the savior of the discipline, as I have made it out to be. One of its main failings was that many of the most prominent semioticians were not theatre scholars, and they used the complex structure of theatre to illustrate general theses without attempting to present a coherent semiotic theory of theatrical performance. Those who were concerned with constructing such a semiotics of theatre restricted most of their writing to "pure" theory-often having a most conventional theatre in mind-and never even attempted to relate theory to live performance.
Another failing, which concerns my specific perspective in this essay, was one-sided concentration on the production itself: the making of meaning through the structures, signs, and codes of the stage. At its most introverted, semiotics sought for a "grammar of theatre," thus revealing its linguistic roots and the fallibility of its concept of theatre as a product. Other semioticians were well aware that the theatrical sign is part of a communicative process and that someone must interpret the signs. There was also an insight into the complicated patterns of interpretation, as Erika Fischer-Lichte points out in The Semiotics of Theater:
Even though these processes [of producing and interpreting signs] occur parallel to each other, one cannot conclude, that they are analogous to each other: The actor and the spectator may not at all attribute the same meaning to the signs, which the actor has produced. Very often there is a discrepancy between the meaning, which the actor thought to constitute, and the meaning, which the spectator constitutes during the process of reception.
It is significant that this quote appeared in a footnote when published in German in 1983. Even if there was an awareness of the communicative aspects of theatre, they were rarely included in the semiotic systems. A very good example is offered by one of the early theatre semioticians, Tadeusz Kowzan, whose 1968 article "Le signe au théâtre" became most influential. Kowzan divides a theatrical performance into thirteen elements then regroups them into visual and auditive signs and signs unrelated and related to the actor. He does not include the rhythm of a performance or other dynamic categories; nor does he make mention of the space in which a performance takes place. His focus is solely the spectacle on stage and the way in which meaning is produced. The spectator and the process of reception are completely ignored, as was the case in many books on theatre semiotics.
Semiotics tended to "over-sign" everything that happened on stage. By attributing signifying functions to every detail, semioticians risk missing communicative elements which are not connected to the fictional world-since everything on stage is simply not a fiction. It is true that semioticians have brought the actor back onto the stage, and there is very little mention of directors. Has the above-mentioned focus on the director as "auteur" of the theatrical art work disappeared? It is obvious that the art work was more important to semioticians than its creator, at least as long as they were occupied with theory. As soon as performance analysis entered the field, the question of there being a "true" or a "near truthful" interpretation of a production was raised. At this point, the director reappeared in theatre studies: a valid interpretation would be one which gets close to the intentions of a director. In practical work it was difficult to describe the intentions of directors other than through interviews, while semiotic analysis hardly could offer valid answers. Nevertheless, theatre scholars with a semiotic approach continue to focus their energies on the work of directors rather than that of actors, stage designers, musicians, and so on.
In 1982, a conference in Amsterdam brought together semioticians and reception researchers under the heading of "Performance Theory." At that time, I was engaged in constructing theoretical frames and methodological approaches which attempted to combine performance analysis with the analysis of spectator response. Because I was no semiotician, I found myself quickly labeled an "empiricist," like everyone else who had engaged in any practical experiment. Since that conference, I believe some considerable changes have to be taken into account.
Excerpted from The Theatrical Event by Willmar Sauter Copyright © 2000 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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