Theatre Semiotics [ from directing semio & ] *

TOPICS: drama + comedy + postmodern + american age + space + time + chronotope + direct + event theory + present + sex + past + marxism + shows +
Martin Fortier, Theory/Theatre: "the study of signs and meaning, especially with its emphasis on the linguistic or language-like character of all signification, has been as important as any movement in twentieth century cultural theory, informing developments in perhaps all subsequent areas of theoretical endeavour." (18)

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Film-Philosophy and not Theatre-Philosophy? First, rethink the forms of philosophy (practice -- Pierre Bourdieu) -- acting, directing, design could be seen as means of metaphysical expressions (postmodernists on desire, for example). Second, we need to establish linguistic norms (semiology) to see how theatre discovers/invents EXPERIENCE of new understanding of the human universe.
Time and Space -- the 20th century drama and theatre (must separate the two for analysis).
If Dostoevsky and Camus are philosophers, why not Stanislavsky and Meyerhold?
[Back to my 4 PM master-files!]
That's why the title "Theology of Theatre"!

Terms: mostly from Bakhtin

New pages will be at; notes at first.'06
Roland Barthes: the 'polysemic nature of theatre' – its ability to draw on a number of sign systems which do not operate in a linear mode but in a complex and simultaneously operating network unfolding in time and space. (Aston and Savona, 99) [ chronotope ]

* When the history of action and performance art is written, the experimental performances of Dadaists and futurists, at the beginning of the 20th century, are often chosen as a starting point. Some art historians go back to the parades and theatre works of the renaissance artists or the symbolist theatre found in Paris during the 1880’s. A closer look at these experiments reveals that they are basically of the same type as conventional theatre or dance. The avant-garde theatre challenged the traditional narrative structure of a play, the actors acted provocatively and the subjects of the plays were often not regarded as suitable for a theatre stage. In spite of these experimental elements, semiotic actions dominated and they had the same type of fictional I/here/now as traditional theatre. The aesthetic aspect dominated avant-garde dance performances.

Theatre w/Anatoly


Featured Pages: Film Semio and Theory

Prof. Anatoly Antohin
University of Alaska Fairbanks
Theatre UAF
Fairbanks AK 99775
907-474-7751 *

With film it was easy, but where do I introduce theatre semiotics? Directing (part II)? (I do some in Playscript Analysis, Part III. Drama)
Theatre Semiotics: Text and Staging in Modern Theatre Univ of Toronto Pr; (March 1995) ISBN: 0802075894

Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama Methuen, 1980.

Patrice Pavis, (1982) Languages of the Stage; 1992. Theatre at the Crossroads of culture.

Marvin Carlson, 1990. Theatre Semiotics: Signs of Life

Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: The meaning of style (1979) was one of the first widely read and discussed applications of semiotics to the reading of CONTEMPORARY culture. The book was a study of Punk which was characterised by transgressions of style and fashion: safety-pins, shredded clothes, mohawk hair, scarification and ugly facial expressions. Hebdige read these as signs of a new youth subculture whose identity was communicated through visual signs.

This was followed by his 1988 book, Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things which includes a chapter, ‘Object as Image: the Italian Scooter cycle’ and ‘The Total package – the evolution and secret meaning of boxes, bottles, bottles, cans and tubes’.

In France and Italy semioticians such as Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco had been writing essays, many published in newpapers about the meaning of cultural signs – denim jeans, citroens, wrestling, beef steak and so on since the 1960s.


Semiotics... It is the study of signs and their meaning. Of how signs are constituted and how they communicate meaning. The study of signs and their meaning emphasises the language-like behaviour of all signification, hence we might say that semiotics enables us to read a theatrical performance in a way that is like reading a book.
The spectator receives a multidimensional spatial image 'which is, at any given moment, presenting them with a multitude of items of information which are perceived simultaneously'. We can break the total performance down into the separate bits of information that together make up the whole and this is what we do when we analyse performance.


'Semiotics can best be defined as a science dedicated to the study of the production of meaning in society' (Elam:1984:1) It is the study of signs and their meaning, of how signs are constituted and how they communicate meaning. The study of signs and their meaning emphasises the language-like behaviour of all signification.

[ semiotics w/anatoly - where? ]

Notes... ?

Semiotics traces its origins to the work of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913). His field was the study of language and the important discoveries he made about language carried over into the study of visual and other non verbal signs.
* one act fest

VTheatre [ In film, the spectator can only look at what the camera sees, whereas in theatre, the spectator has a certain control over his or her spectatorship. In theatre the spectator has a panoramic rather than a partial or pre-selected view of the stage. (A&S.101) ]

"Formalist criticism an approach to literature that focuses on the formal elements of a work, such as its language, structure, and tone. Formalist critics offer intense examinations of the relationship between form and meaning in a work, emphasizing the subtle complexity in how a work is arranged. Formalists pay special attention to diction, irony, paradox, metaphor, and symbol, as well as larger elements such as plot, characterization, and narrative technique. Formalist critics read literature as an independent work of art rather than as a reflection of the author’s state of mind or as a representation of a moment in history. Therefore, anything outside of the work, including historical influences and authorial intent, is generally not examined by formalist critics" (Meyer).

"Historical criticism an approach to literature that uses history as a means of understanding a literary work more clearly. Such criticism moves beyond both the facts of an author’s personal life and the text itself in order to examine the social and intellectual currents in which the author composed the work." (Meyer).

postmodern and vTheatre (pomo project) 2006

biblio (

The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama by Keir Elam; Routledge, 2002 - 1: Preliminaries: Semiotics and Poetics - 2: Foundations: Signs in the Theatre - 3: Theatrical Communication: Codes, Systems and the Performance Text - 4: Dramatic Logic - 5: Dramatic Discourse - 6: Concluding Comments: Theatre, Drama, Semiotics - 'Post'-Script: Post-Semiotics, Posthumous Semiotics, Closet Semiotics

2007 semio updates -- POV menu

... * NEW: goto.txt : AFTER 2009 : LUL pages : 2006 * * 100 years since Sam Beckett's birth * * 2007 : the art of theatre [flickr] * 2008 : Stoppard *

2007 astore theatre-20 * Theatre w/Anatoly Mailing List: get on!

* updates -- [ my theatre blog ]

** all blog =


The Theatre of Semiotics by Paul Bouissac (bookS review)

Theatre Semiotics: Text and Staging in Modern Theatre (Google Books)

The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (New Accents) (Paperback) by Keir Elam [amazon]

Theatre as Sign-system: A Semiotics of Text and Performance (Paperback)

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Theatre Semiology

Semiotics is the study of the way in which meaning is produced. It is concerned with the process of signification and communication. [ * ]
As usual, the most important subjects are neglected! If only we can give the students the basic of Theatre Semiotics, how easy our life could be! Because they would understand the LANGUAGE of theatre!

They don't. They even don't know that such a thing exists!

The languages of theatre (many) are the core subject in learning how to READ and WRITE stage messages.

I hope that the pages of the Theatre Theory will connect my other directories: Acting, Directing, Drama and, especially, Spectator Pages. See Spectator Directory @ Theatre w/Anatoly.

There are three areas:

I. The relationship of the text to its sources
II. The question of the text's relationship to other texts (context and intertextual)
III. The relationship of the text to its reciever ("reading" and interpretation)

Co-Textual and Contextual:

1. Co-textual analysis is concerned with the "internal" regularities of the performance text.

2. Contextual analysis deals with the "external" aspects of the permance text (including the cultural context).

Martin Esslin has divided signs into three categories: Iconic, Indexic and Symbolic signs. Signs we must remember stand in for things in theirt absense. They represent that which is absent or not present.

An iconic sign is one that bears a strong resemblance to that which is represents. It is the copy of the original, and can be realistic, photographic or highly stylised. In the case of the iconic sign, there is a high degree of verisimilitude between the sign and its referent. [A photograph or portrait is an iconic sign of the person it represents... The actor, it is said, is the iconic sign par excellence.]

Indexic signs point to something that has or is about to happen. Falling leaves, smoke, blossom are indexic signs, they point to something in a way that a pointed finger does. An omen is an indexic sign. Indexic signs are integral to the visual sign system that tells the story by advancing the plot.

Here the relationship between signifier and signified is conventional, no similitude or or physical connection exists. A cross is a symbolic sign, it stands for Christianity, in the same way as the dove stands for peace and the gun for war.

Everything which is presented to an audience in a theatrical context is a SIGN.


Austrian Association for Semiotics
Dec. 8-10 2000 [Another conference I didn't go]

Read Spectator Book and/or Research directory pages.


For now -- 3 Texts; basic languages of theatre. In order to study the subject we need to break it into several subjects -- that why this directory has three parts: performance, directing, plays. Those three languages are connected, but have their own independent liguastic lives. Performance studies talk about the first, Mise-en-Scene -- second, the third is more familiar -- dramatic language (If you understand the difference between dramatic language and English).
Mise-en-Scene is less known field and all I can do now is to redirect you to the Stagematrix pages. It's supposed to be Fundamentals of Direction class -- and this is why I try to unload the 300 level course from too much theory, hoping that The Book of Spectator (not class) could swallow it. Some of it in Biomechanics -- directing time and space, chronotope, subjective and objective times, POVs and etc. Some background in philosophy could help: structuralism, constructivism, deconstruction, later marxism (Frunkfurt School, Adorno and after). Postmodern writers work very well for my (Foucault, Deleuze, Virilio). Everything that can help you to take apart the spectacle. Next -- follow the lines of analysis: light, color, sound, shape, balance and so on.


"Dynamic Framing" in theatre (lighting the most obvious, focusing). Part V in Modern Theories of Drama (George W. Brandt, Oxford). Marvin Carlson, Theatre Semiotics: Signs of Life (Indiana Press, 1990) -- Physical presence phenomena and "psychic polyphony." One and Many in The Spectator Book.

* A sign will have a primary meaning - a denotation and a secondary implied meaning - a connotation, or a string of implied meanings.

Next: 200X Files
Is it possible to make use of my productions notes for semio analysis? (SHOWS directory)

@2000-2004 thr w/anatoly *

* Keir Elam’s [1] taxonomy of performance identifies many codes or ‘tools’ including:
linguistic -- language
paralinguistic -- vocal quality, pitch, expression, tone of voice.
proxemic -- physical distances between objects.
kinesic -- gestures, movements, facial expressions, etc.


There are 3 primary sub-systems of space in the theatre: fixed-feature; semi-fixed feature and informal space.


This is the permanent architectural design of the performance space.
ie. the theatre building itself.
La Boite is a special case—it’s a Theatre-in-the-Round—you get to see other audience members’ reactions.
In formal theatres, this also includes the shape and size of the auditorium and stage.


This includes objects that are movable such as set, and lighting, as well as the stage and auditorium arrangements in informal theatre spaces.


This space refers to the distance between individuals.


between each other, and in relation to the set (eg. different levels)


Think about the way that the actors interact with the spectators. How does this change according to the different spaces?


Notice physical boundaries that are set up between audience members by the seating in this space.

Distances between people can be divided into 4 sub-categories (ie. INTERSTITIAL distances):

INTIMATE: eg. touching or near touching

PERSONAL: eg. two-person conversations

SOCIAL: eg. small-group conversations

PUBLIC: eg. large group meetings

Most directors are concerned with "BLOCKING" a performance during rehearsals. This creates predetermined configurations of bodies on stage to create visual patterns and to emblemise relationships.


The informal spatial code relates to the movement of the body on stage including facial expression, gestures, formations of bodies (ie. patterns, shapes), and sometimes includes moving set and pieces of furniture. The principal premise of kinesics is that every culture selects a limited number of kinesic features out of an immense number of possible units of movement.

Gestures can’t stand alone.
Gestures can’t be separated from the general continuum of motion.
Gesture is the primary mode of OSTENDING (ie showing) the body on stage.

Elam identifies 3 categories of gesture:

(1) INDEXICAL (deictic) gesture

This type of gesture helps to make sense of the language eg. "He did it!"
This makes no sense unless the actor points to the culprit.


An important feature of movement is to make the speech act clear. Therefore helping to define character. eg. "I’m going" (She sits)
This movement clearly shows that the character has no intention of doing what she says she’s doing.


Indicates the character’s attitude to the world or to the addressee. eg. "Take your time" (They gaze impatiently at one another)

[ cuts ]

Eric Bentley has defined the minimum preconditions for theatre as

"person A represents X while S looks on". (Fischer-Lichte 1992. p. 7)

"In other word there has to be an actor, a representative act and a recipient. To represent X, A uses (1) a "particular external appearance", (2) a special way of acting and (3) a "certain space". (6) A's activity can fulfil conditions 1, 2 and 3, without being theatre. It is not until A uses these with the purpose of representing someone else in front of a spectator that theatre is created. Then A is acting and speaking as X, not as A would have acted or spoken himself. Everything A does is part of the representation of X and the space that is used represents the space in which X is to be found.

What are the means, the signification systems, that A uses in the representation of X? According to Fischer-Lichte’s analysis these actions include mimic, gestural and proxemic, linguistic, paralinguistic and musical signs. The outer appearance is established by means of mask, hair and costume. And the special kind of space is created by the stage conception and decoration, lightning and props. In different kinds of theatre various elements of the possible modes of expression dominate. Which means that

[the] element, the structure or function, is not only central for the totality, it also regulates, determines and changes the other elements and guarantees coherence in the totality..
(Sonesson 1992. p. 102)

In mime this dominant element is the gestural sign, in dance it is the proxemic sign, in Gordon Craig visionary theatre it is light, decoration and sound and so on. It is therefore wrong to describe theatre as a Gesamtkunstwerk, in Wagnerian terms, because only one of the possible signification systems has to be involved in the act. For something to be classed as theatre, the presence of an actor is necessary.

Theatre communicates through a system of signs, a fact that all semiotic theorists agree upon (Elam 1980, Fischer-Lichte 1992). All of the actions and other elements included in the play can be divided into two components: a signifier and what it signifies - the actions and elements have a semiotic nature (and should be interpreted in this way). According to some semioticians (Veltrusky), an actor’s or object’s presence on a stage is enough to turn him/it into a sign. Bogatyrev, another theorist, stated that objects have other qualities when they appear on stage than they ordinarily possess. The stage transforms the objects into signs, the everyday function is repressed in favour of other significant functions in the play, and praxis becomes gesture. The movement of waving away some irritating flies in ordinary life (praxis) is transformed into a gestural, indexical sign, on the theatre stage, signifing the presence of flies in the room the stage represents. Another interesting aspect of the theatrical system of signs is that an object or a movement can be transformed into a sign without being materially altered. (In a theatrical context the relation to ready-mades is unproblematic.) This is not the case in every system of signs. In poetry, for example, an object must be transformed into a word before it can be integrated into a poem. The same is true of nearly every other signification system. Elements from other systems cannot be included unless the aim is to challenge the boundaries of the system (something that has been very common among avant-garde artists throughout history) and create an intermedia work.(7) A theatrical sign is also polyfunctional, a sign can signify another sign, the semiotic function can be changed. A chair that one moment signifies a chair, the next moment can signify a mountain, a stair, a sword and so on. Finally, there is the mobile aspect of the theatrical sign, which means that a word can be a substitute for decor, props can be replaced by gestures. In the theatrical system of signs, a sign can replace signs from any other system. "In theatre, by contrast, I can in principle use any one sign instead of another." (Fischer-Lichte 1992. p. 131). This is not the case in real life, a car cannot be replaced by its sound (at least, you won’t get very far!).

Theatre practice can be divided into two major styles with slightly different ways of establishing their signification systems. In the Occident, illusionist theatre is very common, whereas conventional theatre is more traditional in other parts of the world (No-theatre, Kathakali, Beijing opera to mention a few examples). The former type uses the significance system of everyday life and no special knowledge is required to understand the meaning of the play (except understanding of the fundamental conventions of theatre). The interpretation of illusionist theatre (and film) requires a wide range of signification systems: linguistic, gestural and visual — illusionist theatre is basically a heterogeneous system of signs. Conventional theatre on the other hand has built up a special system of signification. To be able to decipher this kind of theatre you must have access to the code. The system of signs of conventional theatre can be regarded as homogenous.

Some objections must be raised to this description of the theatrical system of signs. It is not true that the stage transforms every object into a sign. A lot of the visual, observable elements during a theatrical performance are not interpreted as signs: spotlights, curtains and so on. The people on the stage do not automatically have a sign function for the spectators, before the play begins the actor is just an actor and the same goes for stagehands before and during the play. It is, however, true that things are more easily regarded as signs when they are found on a stage. This is due to the emphasised function of an object to be observed that accompanies the concept of the stage. Therefore a person dressed in black, a common sight in traditional Japanese and Chinese theatre, is often misinterpreted by the uninformed spectator as signifying a spirit or death. Audiences that are familiar with these kinds of theatre know that those dressed in black are "invisible" stagehands. In illusionist theatre there is also a degree of conventionality that keeps the audience from interfering, e.g. when the villain of the play attacks the heroine.

To which type of sign does theatre belong? In relation to Peirce’s triad of signs many semioticians regard the theatrical sign as a basically iconic sign. Fischer-Lichte writes:

"Theatre does not make use of these signs in their original function, i.e., does not put them to the purpose for which they are/were generated by the respective cultural systems. Rather, it deploys them as signs of the signs produced by the cultural systems. Consequently, theatrical sign must, at least at the level of the system they form, be classified exclusively as iconic signs."
(Fischer-Lichte 1992. p. 15.)

Göran Sonesson, the Swedish culture semiotician, argues that in theatre all of the Peircian dimensions can be realised. (Sonesson 1992. p. 297-298). It is true that in theatre people are represented by people (iconic sign function), but that does not stipulate that this is always the case. An actor, playing the king, represents the king as a conventional sign and the crown in his costume is an indexical sign of his position in the drama. "Movements from everyday life become indexical when the object that provokes them in everyday life does not exist." (Ibid. p. 297. Translation by the author). Changes in the light can function as an index, pointing out a part of the stage that is of special interest. The likeness of the iconic signs is of a special kind, not likeness in general. The furniture in the kitchen during a staging of August Strindberg's Miss Julie does not signify every table and chair in the world, but the things present in the room in which the play takes place.

In summary: The theatrical system of signs is composed of representative actions executed in a situation with an emphasised function of objects to be observed. The fictional creation of space and time is also central in theatre. The theatrical sign, which can be manifested as any one of Peirce's types, has the following characteristics: there can be a sign of sign relation, it is polyfunctional and mobile. In illusionist theatre the system of signs is heterogeneous and in conventional theatre homogenous." [ Department of Art History * Hans T Sternudd * Proposal: An adjusted sign model for action art Example o. m. theatre * Lunds U ]


Genres ShowCases: Hamlet (tragedy), Mikado (opera), 12th Night (comedy), Dangerous Liaisons (drama)

In 1897, Paul Fort opened the Théâtre d’Art and the symbolist movement was launched. This mode of performance--created in opposition to the dominant paradigm of naturalism--represented the birth of the theatrical avant-garde. In symbolist theater, meaning is no longer centered in the text and illustrated by the actors and production elements. Now it is the director who creates an independent mise en scène combining the visual arts and poetry to form a personal vision. With symbolism came ambiguity of meaning and greater connotation in sign creation. Elam refers to this type of representation as schematic. Schematic theater--in opposition to iconic theater--is diagrammatic or metaphorical and only a very general structural similitude exists between the sign and object (Elam, 24).

Symbolist theater moved the figurative elements of the text into performance--filtered through the aesthetic of the director--and thereby undermined the validity of naturalistic acting techniques. One of Stanislavksy’s protégés, Vsevolod Meyerhold, struggled to develop a method of acting that would lend itself to this new type of performance. Meyerhold, drawing upon circus techniques and commedia dell’arte sought to create a system of performative hieroglyphs that could be used by actors in a regulated manner and decoded by the audience. The result was a system he called Biomechanics.

According to Meyerhold, "movement is the most powerful means of theatrical expression." He believed that all other theatrical elements--dialogue, costume and sets--the fundamental iconistic signs of naturalistic theatre--were secondary to the actor's physical presence on the stage and to the pantomimed movements of the skilled performer. Meyerhold's system of Biomechanics sought to train actors to become acrobats, dancers, mimes and illustrators so that the actor's body would become "a word equivalent; the main transmitter of an invigorating shock and a poetic force" (Leach, 56).

Influenced deeply by the non-verbal quality of Japanese Noh theatre and Chinese classical theatre, Meyerhold believed that Western theatre needed to establish a series of clearly discernible and decipherable hieroglyphic signs. Each hieroglyph would have its own particular meaning and would replace emphasis upon text. Meyerhold developed a series of biomechanical acting exercises for his students that he later incorporated successfully into productions. Biomechanics dispensed with the psychological overtones of the system and embraced a performative, theatrical outlook. Actors were intended to be illustrative performers; highly skilled, entertaining, and imaginative.

Meyerhold, borrowing heavily from the Russian Formalists and particularly from Vladimir Propp, developed the notion that character was little more than an action-function and that there were only a limited number of "types." The goal of the actor--in conjunction with the director--was to identify his or her action type and assume an easily interpreted, or decoded, means for representation. Meyerhold embraced two means for delineating action-function; the first was the assumption of the facial mask and the second was the utilization of the Formalist notion of "deformation and estrangement." The twin goals of estrangement and masks were to reveal social rather than personal meaning. The actor does not psychologically embody the character portrayed but rather illustrates the social type. For each scene, the actor--through proficiency of craft--assumes a specific facial mask that reflects on both character and action. In keeping with the Formalist notion of estrangement and the illustrative acting method, Meyerhold s ought to render actor from character and to prevent identification and psychological assumption. He achieved this by encouraging cross-gender casting, and by consciously avoiding giving actors roles for which they were apparently well suited.

Meyerhold's aesthetic strategy--which was later adapted and popularized by Bertolt Brecht -- was predicated upon foregrounding the means of representation in order to maintain a critical distance between the spectator and performance. This strategy forces the spectator into an active role--the audience members become practicing semioticians who must analyze the encoded performance (Aston and Savona, 92). This is a radical shift away from the iconistic quality of naturalistic theatre. Theatre is no longer a mirror in which the audience sees an illusionistic representation of itself. Rather, the performance becomes an event that is startling, challenging and alienating. The actor is a technician whose craft is one of precision and competence in execution. The audience is forced to critically analyze the performance and to glean meaning from a variety of sign systems--both iconic and schematic.

Meyerhold's career as an actor and director began in 1890 and lasted until 1940 when he was murdered by Stalin's secret police. It spanned the birth of classical semiotics and continued through the articulation of the Prague School. While the semioticians developed their notions of sign systems, Meyerhold was crafting a practical schematic semioliogy of performance that ultimately undercut the comfort and accessibility of iconistic sign interpretation. Meyerhold greatly enriched the theatre by increasing the complexity and multivalent quality of performance, but in doing so ironically threatened the entire project of theatrical semiotics. By challenging the foundations of the iconistic theatre, Meyerhold insisted on the development of a new means of interpretat ion--hieroglyphs and a new means of performance--foregrounding that undermined the audience's shared ability to decode the theatrical event.

Keir Elam considers Meyerhold's system of biomechanics to be an ideolect that represents a kinesic style. An ideolect is a subcode that is associated with a personal aesthetic or the style of a particular artist (Elam, 55). Ideolects complicate the process of code breaking because the spectator must be trained to recognize and decode the inherently idiosyncratic nature of an individual's style. The ideolects of Chekhov or Strindberg -- what we now refer to as the Chekhovian or Strindbergian styles--are relatively easy to decode because both are outgrowths of Naturalism. Beginning with Meyerhold and particularly with later artists who emulated him, however, the process of decoding becomes ever more challenging because these artists are self-consciously anti-paradigmatic.

Schematic signs, which by definition contain multivalent meanings, become even more opaque when compounded by ideolects of the playwright, director and actors. Meyerhold and, later, the German Expressionists, took classical texts and contemporary works and imposed upon them a series of ideolects that affected textual organization, the physical stage space, the mode of interpretation, and the manner of enactment. The results were productions that were hailed as theatrically brilliant, but jarring, unsettling and difficult to comprehend.

This process of unraveling and diminished accessibility was accelerated by Antonin Artaud and the score of theatre practitioners from Jerzy Grotowski to Peter Brook and Robert Wilson who embraced and championed his ideas. Artaud rejected the ideolects of Meyerhold, the schematic theatre of the expressionists and the epic theatre of Brecht because he believed that they were merely reactions against the prevailing paradigm. Artaud, in contrast, sought to destroy it by rethinking the entire enterprise of theatrical representation.

In Symbolist theatre, the text is mediated by the director; additional levels of meaning--or rather semiotic layering is added. In Meyerhold and later Brecht, the text is foregrounded by performative elements that draw attention to the theatrical event as an artifice. Antonin Artaud, however, took the process a gigantic step forward by negating the text. The text is no longer a secondary or even a tertiary element. Theatre, according to Artaud must be a language in space and movement -- a language of symbols and signs that exists in performance without having to pass through or be mitigated by words. Words are simply a variation of human noise--just as screams, grunts, moans, sighs, cries, yelps are also vocal expressions. These expressions are combined with gestures, signs, dance, other movement, lights, colors, and costumes to form ideograms that convey meaning directly to the unconscious receptors of the audience.

Artaud theorized that all conventional Western theatre--from Aeschylus to Brecht--was based upon rational discourse--that an agon--an argument--was the basis for all dramatic representation. Artaud rejected this as a perversion of the original intent of theatre in the pre-classical period--when theatre was a religious and mystical experience. He insisted that in the violent and irrational times in which we live (in Artaud’s case between the two world wars) that such rational discourse was an obscene artificial construct full of "falsehood and illusion" that was "an outlet for our worst instincts." The so-called masterpieces of the past, according to Artaud, were also irrelevant to our present condition and "veneration for what has already been created petrifies us and deadens our responses."

Artaud was an early member of the Surrealist movement and though he eventually parted ways with the group, he remained a firm proponent of much of its philosophy. He sought to create a new form of theater that would be immediate and direct; that would be understandable to all; that would deal with irrational states of being and understanding. Artaud proposed that new acting and directing techniques be invented that would create a direct link between the unconscious minds of the actors and the unconscious mind of the spectator. The role of the audience at such a performance would be radically new. The audience would experience a performance as a ritual event; as a group, they would surrender themselves and live through a transformative religious and mystical experience.

Artaud proposed the creation of a Theatre of Cruelty that would draw on the collective myths and dreams of all men and women rooted in our darkest fantasies of eroticism, violence, murder, and even cannibalism. The performers would sacrifice themselves by enacting these events on a visceral level. Because the performance would be irrational and would impinge directly upon the senses and unconscious, this would truly be theatre for the people--all people regardless of their economic status or educational level. The effect of such a performance would be purgative and cathartic. The spectators would be bonded together because they would have experienced and survived collectively all the terrors of life and death. This experience would be akin to a tribal communion; a religious ceremony that would magically induce peace of mind. The audience would experience this darkness at such a heightened level that upon leaving the theatre, they would be drained of any desire to enact such brutality in real life. The Theatre of Cruelty would therefore cure society of the evil currently pervading it.

Artaud set forth a radical notion of how the actor should prepare and perform. The actor, according to Artaud "is an athlete of the heart." (Artaud, 133), who must "tap and radiate certain powers" (Artaud,134). These powers are located in the organs and must be liberated so that the actor becomes a mystical specter "from which affective powers radiate" The actor must become a healer; a mystical shaman who must unlock his or her own secret powers and display them to an audience. The secret of acting is breathing correctly from various parts of the body and the ability to scream and cry out at will so as "to take hold" of the audience and force it to confront its own fears and desires.

From a semiological perspective, Artaud's theories are extremely contradictory. Artaud asks, nay demands, that the audience surrenders itself to the performance; that it not be allowed to rationalize or intellectualize the stage event. Instead of decoding the performance, the audience is expected to physically experience it. The contradiction lies in the fact that in order to create such an experience, the director and actors must be master semioticians capable of creating signs that will be received without mitigation.

It is no coincidence that after the Second World War, when Artaud’s ideas were widely disseminated and embraced, a great deal of emphasis in theatre research included anthropological and psychological analysis. Artists attempted to create pieces that would transcend linguistic and cultural limitations; presentations, that while working on a non-verbal level, would have universal meaning. Jerzy Grotowski, Peter Brook, Julian Beck, Joseph Chaikin, Richard Foreman, Joanne Akalitis and Robert Wilson, and countless other avante-garde directors have sought to put Artaud’s theories into practice. These directors are the creators of the current post-modern avant-garde.

The problem with the current avant-garde theatre, however, is its over dependence upon the cognitive level of the receiving audience. Specific meaning is elusive and even metaphoric interpretation is dependent upon cultural experience. Perhaps the best example of this is an imagistic art piece by Joseph Szajna entitled Replika. Szajna, a Polish survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald created a non-verbal theatre piece that investigates the horrors of the death-camps. Replika has been performed around the world--from Tokyo to Caracas. In each city, however, the piece has been interpreted in radically different ways. In New York and in Tel Aviv, the audiences understood and decoded the deathcamp symbolism. In Mexico City and Caracas, however, the entire point of the piece was reduced to a statement about totalitarianism. Many post-modern critics look at this inherent failing as a major success­They insist that Replika should be interpreted by each audience in a manner that is culturally relevant.

This is the crisis of the post-modern avant-garde that Patrice Pavis is concerned with. There can no longer be specificity in meaning; no rational discourse, and no didactic message if the intention of the author is irrelevant and meaning is solely derived in the reception of it. Theatre can no longer be an arena where the great social issues of the day can be debated. The enterprise under these circumstances is reduced to a purely physical, visceral and sensual experience. It is no mere coincidence that many post-modern theatre pieces are now being mounted in fine art museums such as the Guggenheim. This bellwether change in theatre aesthetics, initiated by Meyerhold, championed by Artaud and completed by his successors, threatens to undermine 2,500 years of theatre history. I concur with Pavis that a new paradigm must emerge--either in semiotics or in theatre creation that will rectify this current disjunction between intention and meaning.


Artaud, Antonin The Theater and its Double. Translated by Mary Caroline Richards. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1958.

Aston, Elaine and Savano, George Theatre As Sign-System. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Elam, Keir The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. New York: Methuen 1980

Leach, Robert Directors in Perspective: Vsevolod Meyerhold. New York Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Pavis, Patrice Languages of the Stage New York: Performing Arts Journal, 1982.


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