Anne Übersfeld: "Thematic Introduction to the Issue"


The Spectator's Part

What the spectator hears is intended to be heard - yet the characters' words are, primarily, directed at each other: whether they speak to express their feelings or to comment on politics, everything they say is addressed to another, who is the primary receptor. The spectator, by virtue of a communicational trope, is second, and thus additional.
There are, however, two domains in which reception belongs only to the spectator: these are the domains of the poetic and the perlocutory. The perlocutory, whether tragic or comic, is the effect of the theatrical enunciation as a whole on the spectator. The poetic is the product of a textual and scenic craft which creates, through signs, a second, artistic language. But if we allow ourselves to speak of the poetics of the theatre, this is because the theatre demands the spectator not only listen to the dialogue, and apprehend its conceptual and emotional messages, but also that he conjure his imagination into action. Whatever the merits of visual scenographic construction may be, the dialogue recounts something one cannot see, which is the entire extra-scenic time and space: such scenes are never shown - the Caesars' Rome, the Crete of Phaedra, the seashore where Hippolyte perishes, the Japan of Rodrigue's memory in Claudel's Soulier de Satin, the ruins of Troy: "I see only the towers that the ashes have covered," says Pyrrhus in Andromaque. And the spectator's imagination conjures Hiroshima. Imagination, indeed, but not only imagination: imagination and memory, as we shall see. In addition to this is the truly aesthetic perception of the signifier. And in Combat de Nègres et de Chiens, the suffocating, smothering Africa of Koltès is presented to us purely through language, as is the mansarde in Genet's les Bonnes, like the livid no-man's-land that Clov examines through the ceiling window in Beckett's Fin de Partie.

The Poetic

As Roman Jakobson defines the poetic, "the emphasis put on the message for its own sake, [...] the function which stresses the palpable side of signs, thus deepening the fundamental dichotomy between signs and objects." This dichotomy is redoubled in the theatre by another: it is paradoxical to stress the poetic function in a literary language defined in terms of communicational functions. We must constantly examine both the poetic and the communicational. An analysis focusing on the poetic goes beyond looking at dialogue as mere lines or utterances and takes the text as a whole to be examined as such. But, paradoxically, understanding the essentials of the poetic in the theatre requires a focus on the moment in the total discourse.
Question: what can we glean from the poetic in theatre? Is it possible to apprehend the detail in poetic expression by examining aspects of time in the performance, when theatrical performance is limited inherently to the single dimension of the present? The answer is yes and no. No because one cannot seize everything in the "blink of an ear." But yes, also, insofar as unconscious and subconscious apprehension operates intensely during perception of the performance in a manner similar to examples in everyday life. What operates in theatre is not only subliminal perception, but also memory - the capacity to recall "similar" events which occurred previously, but also phonic memory whose recall ensures the metaphoric relationships between diverse elements, analogous to the musical leitmotif.

The Poetic Moment

While poetic expression is sown everywhere throughout a great theatre text, there are certain special moments. Suddenly one perceives something different, a crystallisation allows us to hear the message as such, in terms of its signifier. In such an event it is the enunciation which has changed - its interpersonal dimension has weakened. The poetic is both a signal and a sign. The spectator is told by a change in the writing, such as moving from prose to verse, or the multiplication of tropes, the emergence of traditionally poetic themes, a distancing from the dramatic situation itself, to the mythical universe, as though the speaker ceased to appreciate urgency, ignoring the need to address others. What we see at such times is the voice of the writer, rather than that of the speaker, directly addressing the spectator.
Poetic writing is characterised throughout the theatre text as the multiplication of tropes. Indeed tropes and rhetorical figures of speech find their rightful place in any literary text, but metaphor in theatre has a peculiar role - due both to the fact that theatrical language not only bears meaning (like poetic ornaments) but also realises action (as poetic tools), and the fact that the fundamental means by which the poetic functions, namely parallelism and repetition, have a special importance in theatre that we can attribute to the perception of the play as a whole by virtue of memory's active role.
In addition, there is a kind of phonic poetics which functions on the level of the audible signs: here we are dealing first and foremost with phonemes, and with their meaning and effect, and next with lexemes, and their recurrences and parallelisms, the rhythm which engages the diverse structural modes of sound organisation of words, and of their versification. It is interesting to consider the way in which these three elements cooperate in the explicitation of such effects as rhyme and assonance.

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AS/SA Nº 3, EDITORIAL : Page 4 / 5

© 1997, AS/SA

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