Anne Übersfeld: "Thematic Introduction to the Issue"

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Saying Without Saying: The Laws of Conversation

Here we will speak of thematics only in passing remembrance to all that which, seen traditionally, springs from the content of a play. These matters are not central to our task at hand, so we shall content ourselves with a look at the laws and conditions of exchange.
We know that verbal exchange is governed by the implicit laws formalised by Paul Grice (1974, Logic and Conversation), whose principal rules are: the law of quantity, by which a speaker is required to provide the interlocutor with the needed amount of information - no more and no less; the law of quality ("let your contribution be true!") which, a fundamental and little-understood law of communication, supposes that a human being always tells the truth, and without which no relations are possible; the category of modality, which could be formulated as follows "be clear," or as "eschew ambiguity in your speech."
In addition to this we must add the entire series of unpredictable laws which depend on the customs and mores of a given society, and which, despite their variability, obey two fundamental rules (see Erving Goffman, Les rites d'interaction): do not "hit" the positive face of your interlocutor, which means do not insult him, and secondly, do not touch his negative face (do not step on his toes, do not invade his territory).
Yet it is characteristic of theatre dialogue constantly to violate these laws, flagrantly, and in so doing, to create new meaning. Such breaches exist in conversation, but in general they are rare and often involuntary. In theatre, they are deliberate and are done precisely to be seen: in this way the scene of exposition violates the law of quantity, and lies, breaking the law of quality, are meant to be perceived and understood by the spectator. Such are the lies of Iago in Othello, as well as the innocent but telling lies of lovers in Marivaux. Regarding ambiguities and the like, theatre dialogue frequently allows them, further abusing the law of quality, to the point of being a source of considerable pleasure for the audience: this is what occurs in the enigma which leaves an interlocutor confounded, and which calls on the intelligence of the spectator. Here, as in other cases, the interpersonal exchange presupposes that the "third" addressee, the spectator, is unable to modify the situation of enunciation, but is present to hear it. One source of effect on the spectator, whether comic or tragic, is the violation of conversational laws. Here we see once again how it is the job of the scene to supply sense to the dialogue, by underlining or erasing relational impertinencies.


The Implicit

The presence of conversational laws shows the importance in theatre language analysis of the domain of the implicit. This is primarily the realm of the conditions of enunciation. Certain of these are explicit: the words of a prisoner are of the prison. The words of the criminal (such as Macbeth or Othello) upon committing a murder are also explicit with respect to the conditions of enunciation. The majority, however, belong to the implicit. Language acts cannot take place independently of anterior conditions, including previous language use as well as all that which must be supposed for an utterance to have meaning.
This is the reason the implicit is so important: presuppositions and connotations give the theatrical text its nourishment. A presupposition is a piece of information which an utterance implies and which, despite not being formulated as a separate proposition is necessary for the utterance to be understood. The peculiarity of the presupposition is that whether the principal utterance is an affirmation or a denial, whether it is modalised in the interrogative or some other mode, the presupposition persists. For example the utterance "my neighbour is ill" presupposes "I have a neighbour." Whatever fate the utterance is subjected to, the existence of the neighbour cannot be suppressed from a place somewhere in the background. This is a factual presupposition. The logical presupposition is that which, for example, being the cause of an event, must have preceded it. Then there are ideological ones, whose analysis is still more tenuous.
One could not understand Shakespeare's Macbeth without a series of such presuppositions: factually, we have the existence of a feudal war involving Duncan and his heirs; logically, we see it is impossible to foresee largely aleatory historical events; ideologically, we must presuppose a certain respect and reverence of the monarch and the principles of monarchy, as well as a belief in supernatural forces and events such as divination. The phenomenon of the implicitly understood includes the baggage of allusions that the speakers, but also the spectator, hear, whether said or not. This baggage seems virtually infinite, and around it an entire dimension of play develops the psychological portraits of the characters upon which the spectator will determine their motives and intentions. The play in this sense is the business of the director and actors.






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AS/SA Nº 3, EDITORIAL : Page 3 / 5

© 1997, AS/SA

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1997.05.03