Editorial Introduction to the Issue

Anne Übersfeld

Université Paris III


Applying semiotics to the theatre is no easy undertaking. First of all analysis of the plot cannot be approached from the canonical point of view of the actantial schema without considerable modifications; the theatre, being by its very nature agonistic and conflictual, nearly always presents two or more such schemas. Secondly the actual theatrical practice makes use of two distinct sign systems, which, while they share some commonalities, diverge in other respects.
The theatre is not simply mime or merely a show, and neither is it just a performance or a dance - it is all these at once, plus language. Language - that which makes us humans and not animals. For this reason our analysis will mainly consist of an investigation of the dialogue, which seems to us the most fruitful starting-point in any theatrical enterprise - the dialogue as an interpersonal relation. Peculiar to the theatrical dialogue (as opposed to other "literary" forms of language, for example as seen in lyric works or prose fiction) is the way in which it demands a particular kind of reading, one based on what one might consider a natural or "savage" semiology - that of the reader who constructs an imaginary representation aided by signs produced by the dialogue, a semiology which is essentially that of the actor whose craft springs from this kind of "savage analysis." Upon what methodological procedures can such an analysis be based?

The Theatrical Relation

1. The theatrical dialogue appears as a mime of "possible" words, of "real-life" exchanges, but it is also a second text (in Bakhtine's terms), an artefact, and as such, an aesthetic object which requires of the spectator an aesthetic perception. Theatre dialogue is thus understood not only as an exchange between two or more voices, but as a poem - both as a medium portraying ideas and emotions and as a productive fusion of images and sounds lending itself to a poetic analysis.

2. The theatrical dialogue is a succession of conversational exchanges dependent upon linguistic enunciation, which is to say "the transformation of language into actual performance by an individual act of usage."

3. Language in the theatre is active. Every utterance (each line a character says) not only has meaning, but constitutes action, and modifies the situation of communication. The essential element of theatrical utterances is thus the language act it produces, which affects all subsequent dialogue. This implies both that theatrical dialogue is not simply conversation, but the creation of action, and therefore that the analysis of dialogue must be first and foremost the determination of a series of language acts. An examination of theatrical dialogue is therefore predicated upon the employment of pragmatics, or in other words the analysis of the conditions and situational functioning of communication. This will rely not only on the examination of the series of language acts in question, but also on the contracts which permit and sustain the dialogue exchange.

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