Patrice Pavis: "The State of Current Theatre Research"


Lyotard's desemiotics, it seems, is even less possible and feasible than semiotics, but it is commendable in that it questions the notion of the sign, at least the fixed sign, as linked to language and taking the place of the whole materiality of the performance. This is what phenomenology also sets out to do, criticizing the segmentation of everything into signs and thus the semiological function of representation and performance. In phenomenology, the perception of the performance event is global, so all semiological segmentation is absurd. The problem with semiotics is that in addressing theatre as a system of codes, it necessarily dissects the perceptual impression theatre makes on the spectator. And as Merleau-Ponty has said, "it is impossible (... ) to decompose a perception, to make it into a collection of sensations, because in it the whole is prior to the parts."2 This is the source of anti-analysis reactions and the beginnings of a globalising phase where the aim is to provide syntheses rather than reading grids.

Global Understanding and Vectorisation

These various critiques of classical semiological analysis led, in the 1980s, to a globalising phase: performance considered as a series of syntheses or frameworks. The mise en scène, in the structuralist sense of the term, became the key notion in a new theory able to synthesize stage options, dramaturgical choices and the performance's main structures. Instead of fragmenting perception, differentiating sensations, multiplying signification, and thus, arbitrarily segmenting the signifier in order to translate it into possible signifieds, the signifiers are imagined as those which anticipate possible signifieds; the notion of individualized signs is replaced with series of signs grouped according to a process of vectorisation. Vectorisation is at once a methodological, mnemotechnical and dramaturgical method which links networks of signs. It consists of associating and connecting different signs in a network within which each sign has meaning only in relation to other signs. Let us suppose that, like in Chekhov's Seagull, a gun appears on a wall: the spectators relate it to other indices and the moment it disappears and they hear gunshots, they have no doubt that the depressed and suicidal hero has just put an end to his life. Such networks are like nets which hold the production together and prevent it from being permanently fragmented.
This globalisation, however, is not risk free, since analysis looks for a kind of secret 'key' to the mise en scène, when this term is taken in its centred and concentrated form, thereby excluding theatre practices based on "decentering," arbitrariness and chance. To avoid an all too coherent closure of mise en scène and its analysis, it should be made clear that mise en scène - both production and reception - never comes ready made, but that there is - and this is our hypothesis - a vectorisation: certain signs or moments in the performance are linked dynamically together and there is a network of meaning which links these moments and makes their interaction relevant- we can only describe the guiding lines in the dramaturgy and the main stage options without excluding those pragmatic decisions which digress from the main idea. Since it is impossible to be exhaustive, it is of interest to replace the signs and vectors in a guiding schema which constantly evolves: thus the spectator does not run the risk of being submerged by insignificant details. It is better to reconstruct the network, understanding its orientation and guiding lines than be left with a disorganised mass of surplus material or useless recorded documents. Thus the description of a performance always oscillates between a totalizing demand for synthesis and empirical individualization, between order and chaos, between abstraction and materiality.

2. Quoted by States (1987), from Merleau-Ponty in The Primacy of Perception and Other Essays..., ed. James M. Edie, Northern University Press, p.15. [Up]

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AS/SA Nº3, Article 1 : Page 8 / 16

© 1997, AS/SA

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