Anne Übersfeld: "Thematic Introduction to the Issue"


4. The functioning of theatrical communication is particularly complex for the reason that these interpersonal exchanges between characters are not the only ones at hand. The theatrical dialogue is twofold, being articulated not only between speaker x and speaker y (or others still) but at the same time between all of these roles and a second class of addressee, the spectator. Analysis must therefore take stock of the textual marks of this hidden presence, the virtual addressee, both in such forms as the soliloquy or chorus and within the actual dialogue.

In addition to the fact that the reception of the dialogue utterance is doubly-structured, we find that its production is as well: when the spectator present at the performance sees/hears two characters in dialogue, he or she is in fact witnessing two forms of enunciation: behind the character-speaker lies the invisible authorial articulation. This authorial voice creates its own absence, leaving behind only indirect traces. And the character-speaker is relayed on stage by the actor, who takes this enunciation into account. The speaker in the widest sense is thus a triple entity, the writer-character-actor, as is the receptive instance, the character-actor-spectator.
What is more, theatrical writing, by definition, is dependent on the public it is intended to address in the most immediate sense. Writing for the theatre is a production in the immediate and for the immediate, and admits no suffrage to posteriority. But to write for the people of the present supposes the possibility of hearing them, listening to their questions, their requirements. All theatre texts are a response to the needs of the present spectator: we can therefore say quite correctly that the instance of reception is indeed present at the very moment of writing. Yet this "requirement" of the public is the object of an historical inquiry: it is one of the ways in which this historicity meets semiotics.

Theatrical Enunciation

From the initial point of view of writing, certain constraints are imposed by the theatrical form:

1. The writing of theatrical language is restricted to the present tense. Though the play itself may be in the past, the verbs must respect the system of the current day with respect to their writing: enunciation is both personal and current, which excludes, for example, the use of the preterite in modern French, such that anything written for current ears must be uttered by present tongues even if the act in question is of another time. Any instance in which this rule is not respected takes on meaning precisely in terms of the breach.

2. The crucial analysis is that of deixis, the net vector of all these empty signs which are so many shifts or clutches; these are the adverbs of time and place which locate the speech situation, demonstrative pronouns and articles indicating the rapport between persons and objects and, especially, the personal pronouns which set not only the relationships between the speakers, but between a given speaker and the world, in short the character's identity - with the play advancing and evolving these rapports. For example: the confidantes in neo-classical French theatre never say "I" - except the nurse Oenone in Racine's Phaedra, where it refers to a different aspect of the character.

3. A principle task for most theatrical writings is to determine the idiolect of the characters; it is indeed fascinating and difficult to establish which peculiarities of vocabulary and syntax characterise the individual language use of each subject. This task is a crossroads, then, of linguistics and stylistics. Thus the idiolect of Alceste in Molière's Misanthrope, which bears the marks of a certain archaism reflecting the character's bent toward some past era, also shows signs of aggressivity - swearwords, invectives and exclamations. The analysis of the idiolects penetrates the characters' individuality with more clarity and pertinence than any conjectural psychological reconstruction could offer.

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AS/SA Nº 3, EDITORIAL : Page 2 / 5

© 1997, AS/SA

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