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This review appeared in Volume 4 (2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

The Theatre of Semiotics

by Paul Bouissac

The Semiotics of Theatre. By Erika Fischer-Lichte. Translated by Jeremy Gaines and Doris L Jones. 1992. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-32237-5.

The Semiotics of Performance. By Marco de Marinis. Translated by Aine O'Healy, 1993. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-31686-3.

One of the reasons for the relative success to date of semiotics in the humanities and, to a lesser degree, in the social sciences, seems to be the modelling capacity of the various conceptual constructions which semiotic theories afford. For instance, in the domain of artistic productions -- traditionally experienced as both singular and complex and thus, pertaining to the epistemological realms of history and transcendental philosophy -- semiotics provides a few descriptive models, which are both immanent and deterministic, and which can be (and have been) applied to practically all forms of art. With lesser or greater degrees of intellectual sophistication, semioticians have used one or more of these models to structure their phenomenological field of investigation and construct their object of inquiry. The tools at their disposal include, for instance, Saussure's dichotomies, Peirce's trichotomies, Helmslev's and Greimas' tetratomies, Burke's pentatomies and Jakobson's hexatomies -- if the latter's modelling of linguistic communication into six functions can be thus designated. Each semiotician whatever his/her domain of investigation, espouses either one of the above, or most often, an eclectic combination of them to fit to the particular object being investigated. There is no doubt that these models -- quite independently of the philosophical commitments they imply -- have made it possible to conceptually sort out a number of variables in the cultural phenomena which have been thus methodically examined; but it is equally obvious -- as witnessed by the abundant criticisms which have been addressed to these enterprises -- that the complexity of these phenomena has been so improperly reduced in the process of semiotic modelling that the results often turned out to be cognitively trivial or theoretically caricatural. Modelling the complexity of the cultural life of societies is a truly daunting task, and one of the most serious dangers for the investigator is to let the model become a parasite, so to speak, on the object. The semiotics of theatre -- whose history goes as far back as the 1930's -- has progressively constructed, through successive modellings, an epistemological object which has itself become the phantasmatic object of further modellings and which could appropriately be called "the theatre of semiotics".

Erika Fischer-Lichte's The Semiotics of Theatre is a densely printed, weighty book which is an abridged translation of a monumental work originally published in three volumes as Semiotik des Theaters by Gunter Narr Verlag, Tübingen, in 1983. The author, who is Director of the Institute of Theatre Research at the Johannes Gutenberg University (Mainz), conceived her enterprise as a contribution to the broader study of theatrical arts. "If a semiotics of the theatre is to examine how the theatre functions as a system which generates meaning, then it must allow itself to be integrated as a subcategory of the three different areas of theatre science: the theory of theatre, theatre history, and the analysis of performance." (12). This book is comprised of three parts: "The Theatrical Code as a System" (1-141), "The Theatrical Gesture as a Norm" (145-169), and "The Theatrical Code as Speech" (171-256). Since the first part is complemented by some forty pages of endnotes (257-296), the bulk of the work which bears upon "theatre as a language", evidently focuses on the langue according to the Saussurean tradition which moulded European Semiology between the 1930's and the 1960's. Moreover, given that Part II is devoted to the case study of a particular normative code ("Gesture in Eighteenth-Century German Theatre") and therefore pertains to the range of problems addressed in the first part, this leaves about a third of the book (including the relevant endnotes) for dealing with parole, that is the processes through which particular instances actualize the system in "performance as theatrical texts".

Fischer-Lichte's basic assumption is that there is a universal, canonic definition of theatre: "A represents X while S looks on" (13)1, a proposition which is often reasserted in various forms throughout the book (e.g. "actor A's gestures denote character X's gestures" (25), "actor A portrays character X, while observer S looks on" (93), "actor A represents a character X while spectator S looks on" (228).Therefore, theatre is fundamentally conceived as a form of mimesis, and the meaning it generates is directly dependent upon the "systems", alternatively referred to as "code", of the culture within which it "functions". We will address later the issue of the validity of such an assumption, but let us examine first the theoretical and methodological consequences it entails for the contents and general economy of the book. Since "theatrical signs are (...) always signs which may be characterized by the fact that they have the same material construction as the primary signs which they signify -- a crown can signify a crown, a nod of the head can mean a nod of the head, and a scream a scream, etc."(9), it follows that making an exhaustive inventory of theatrical signs (i.e. those signs which signify through mimesis) amounts to making an inventory of cultural signs. Indeed, the total system formed by theatrical signs coincides, according to this view, with the total system formed by cultural signs.

This approach leads Fischer-Lichte to produce a rich, state of the art compendium of cultural semiotics, including sections on "Language based signs" (18-30), "Kinesic signs (30-50), "Proxemic signs" (58-63), "Appearance" (64-92), "Spatial signs" (93-113), "Non-verbal acoustic signs" (115-128) with incidental mentions of their use on stage. As expected, when she reaches the point where she feels the need to specify her concept of "Theatre as a Semiotic System" (129-141), she has little to say other than to reassert that "theatrical signs function (...) as signs of signs"(emphasis in the text) and to summarize in a dozen pages the various attempts made by other theatre semioticians to specify what differentiates "theatrality" from both everyday life and the other arts, a question which indeed demands to be addressed in view of the assumptions made earlier. As a meaning producing system, theatre is contrasted, on the one hand, with non-aesthetic systems such as those whose primary function is communicative (a category in which Fischer-Liche lists language, traffic signs and Morse code as representative examples) and those which are "geared primarily to exercising practical functions, such as clothing, building, tool manufacture, etc."(129), and, on the other hand, with other aesthetic systems with respect to which theatre is assigned a unique status -- both ontological and semiotic.The specificity of the theatrical signs (i.e. the fact that they function as signs of signs) whose discovery is attributed to Bogatyrev needs however, according to Fischer-Lichte, to be defined more precisely because this early definition is too inclusive since it applies to all aesthetic systems. For her the crucial difference is in the nature of the signifier: "(...) poetic or musical sign (...) can only point to other signs in their capacity as linguistic or musical signs -- i.e., they differ in terms of material from all the non-linguistic and nonmusical signs they may be intended to signify. Theatrical signs, by contrast, can in principle be materially identical with the signs they are meant to signify" (130). It ensues that: "The transformations of an object into a theatrical sign (...) can occur without any alterations to its material nature" (130). Furthermore, theatrical signs show "mobility", i.e. they are mutually substitutable because of their polyfunctionality" (131). But a structuralist approach, with its overwhelming phonological dominance, necessarily raises the issue of hierarchy, more specifically the duality of patterning -- hence the quest for two levels of minimal units -- and requires a conceptual organization of the signifying material along the paradigmatic and syntagmatic dimensions. Clearly the specificity of the theatrical "language" as defined by Fischer-Lichte cannot fully accommodate these theoretical requirements since the minimal units are signs of already constituted signs whose combinatorial rules show plasticity, versatility and polyfunctionality. Confronted with this difficulty, and having rejected the approaches which promote "an atomization of the theatrical code into a number of small individual units whose coherence is at risk of disappearing in the process" (132), Fischer-Lichte draws the conclusion that theatre language is made up of "heterogeneous units" which "refer to the respective culture in its entirety" and therefore is fundamentally different from both non-aesthetic and other aesthetic systems.

Having declare it impossible to divide the theatrical code into homogeneous units, her problem is then to express the combinatorial rules which govern the textualization of these heterogeneous units. This naturally leads to the notion of hierarchy, but since the combinatorial freedom the heterogeneous signs (principle of mobility) supercedes all other syntagmatic rules, hierarchies will be variable and will merely serve to define somewhat loosely, various theatrical genres (e.g. "dance theatre is dominated by proxemic signs, pantomime by gestural sign (sic), and opera by musical signs" (135)). Such variations which pertain to the "internal theatrical code" (129) further constrain theatrical communication (136-139), understood here as a special case of aesthetic communication in which signs are generated and interpreted simultaneously with the particularity that "the constitution of meaning via the realization of signs and that via the interpretation of signs are completely parallel processes" (138). It ensues that the latter can coincide with the former only to the extent that both encoder and decoder draw from the same code. But this is not what Fischer-Lichte identifies as the main defining feature of theatre, which she locates rather in "the tension between existence and the signified, between being as nature or as objects and the character of signs", (140) and in the fact that, by referring "from the outset to the respective culture as a whole", theatre "identifies the respective culture in turn as a set of heterogeneous systems of generating meaning" (141).

In Part III, the focus of attention is shifted from the code (system, langue ) to the "text" of the performance (instance, process, speech) and its interpretation. For this, Fischer-Lichte relies on two basic models which she endorses with minor modifications and adjustments in view of the multi-media nature of theatrical performance: Lotman's formal concept of text (i.e. explicitness, delimitation and structuredness) and Gadamer's theory of understanding (i.e. historical determinacy of all processes of interpretation and the model of the hermeneutic circle). But whatever the respective merits of these approaches, and Fischer-Lichte's occasional reliance on Peirce (194-195), Kristeva (182-185) or Greimas (214-215) in order to clarify a point of theory or method, the nature of the reception process was already implicit in her original conception of theatre as a code. For the audience, making sense of the performance can only consist of "decoding" the theatrical text. For this the receiver must meet four requirements: "(1) The theatrical text has to be related to the underlying semiotic system. (2) It has to be divided into several levels of semantic coherence. (3) It has to be examined with regard to the specific selection and combination of theatrical signs undertaken in each case. (4) The various kinds of generating meaning have to be ascertained and their respective functions determined."(222) This procedural view of understanding at least has the merit of being consistent with her initial assumptions, if not entirely with the spectator's lived experience.

One of the most obvious shortcomings of this semiotic theory of the theatre is that it does not take into consideration -- and still less accounts for -- the interest that audiences take in theatrical performances in their many, variegated forms, all over the world. "Interest" refers here to both cognitive motivation and emotional involvement, or conversely boredom and indifference. Would theatre have remained for so long such a productive institution if all it had offered to audiences to "look on" were mere combinations of "signs of signs"? Are not these signs subsumed by a narrative structure which commands and orients the cognitive experience of the spectators? Is it even possible to conceive the signifying material which unfolds on the stage as signs of signs, independently of the broader framework of the institution, and of the dynamic structure of the plot? How could the procedural decoding of theatre as normatively described by Fischer Lichte account for the deep, often passionate involvement -- both positive and negative of the spectators?

It is symptomatic that "play", "plot", "drama", "narrative", "ideology" and "ritual" are given so little attention that these terms do not even appear in the index (334-336). The problem of what makes a successful performance as opposed to a failed one is not addressed either. If the author considered such issues to be beyond the scope of theatre semiotics, she should have stated her arguments at the outset of the book, if only because her position is obviously at odds with the general approach taken by other theater semioticians (e.g. Alter 1990, Carlson 1990, Helbo 1987, de Marinis 1993, Schechner 1985). She might have preempted this criticism by explicitly restricting her domain of inquiry to the semiotics of staging -- a title which may have been more appropriate for this book -- as did the Prague School semioticians who focused their analysis on gestures, costumes, props, objects and the like. But her prefatory claim is unambiguously more ambitious: "Theatre becomes a model of cultural reality in which the spectators confront the meanings of that reality (...) an act of self-presentation and self-reflection on the part of the culture in question" (10).

It is precisely this notion of transparency or reflection, in the optic sense, which may be the most questionable aspect of Fischer-Lichte's theoretical approach. The mimesis assumption, which certainly can be argued for many aspects of artistic productions, including some forms of theatre, seems hardly defensible when applied to acting. With the possible exception of impersonating -- a minor genre of entertainment which many would consider only marginal in the theatrical art -it seems difficult to equate acting with "representing", "portraying", or "denoting" a pre-existing character, who, at best, is a virtual entity in the written play. The great variety of interpretations which can be documented regarding the main characters of the Western classical repertoires should suffice to show that acting is a constructive and creative process, which is not only sensitive to the ideological context but also can subvert this context. The root of the problem in Fischer-Lichte's handling of the notion of representation may be her own concept of culture which is assumed to form a stable background for theatre. On this account, Alter (1990) has convincingly argued in favour of a more dynamic understanding of the theatre, seen as an agency rather than a passive cultural reflection. But there is more; Fischer-Lichte's analysis, which probably can be defended to a degree when applied to the realist or naturalist bourgeois theatre, loses most of its relevance with respect to non-Western traditional theatres. The culture-dependency of her approach is particularly obvious when confronted with the Indian traditional theatre so aptly documented by Schechner (1983).

The mimesis assumption is not the only questionable feature of Fischer-Lichte's model of the theatre. The actor's and spectator's poles are artificially disjointed. She construes their interface as uni-dimensional, merely visual -- not voyeuristic (more on this later) -- coincidental if not almost accidental. In her many reformulations of her canonic definition of theatre, the spectator's function remains unchanged: A represents/portrays/denotes/imitates character X while spectator/observer S looks on. In spite of her affirmation that "The audience is in fact a constitutive part of the theatre" (7), this part is mostly passive in her model, like the receiver pole of early schemata of communication. It may be the case that an infelicitous translation from the German accentuates the lack of mutual commitment and transformation which her model conveys. The persuasive orientation of the acting, the contractual nature of theatrical events, the involvement of the spectators and the transformative process of performance are glossed over as if they were unessential, nonconstitutive features of theatre.

The theatre thus constructed by semiotics bears little resemblance with the experience of theatre, both for actors and spectators, but, more importantly, cannot account for this experience. Does the actor's "individual corporeality (become) thoroughly transformed into a symbolic order" (187) by the clustering of signs of signs -- those he/she wears (garments, objects, hair-style, etc.)? This is doubtful. Actors have more or less charisma, but behind their attires which are often designed to enhance their physical presence -- they often capture the erotic attention of their audience, or become the focus of hatred or repulsion. The director's choice of an actor is foremost the embodiment and "voicing" of a virtual character. Theatre explicitly "markets" the seduction of actors' physical presence and personality irrespective of the characters they embody. In a not so remote past, theatre was an intense locus of amorous intrigues, an interface between the cultural world of bourgeois respectability and the liminal realm of natural attraction and disorderly passion. The history of Western theatre is a chronicle of marginalization, representation, and scandal. The subversive presence of the actors' bodies is alive through both the natural signs they may unwittingly emit and the cultural signs of seduction which are often an important component of their parts. The erotic, or otherwise emotional investment of the spectators, the voyeuristic dimension of their experience, cannot be discarded as unessential. By focussing on staging through the lenses of her semiological model, Fischer-Lichte misses the complexity of the phenomenon she studies. Her analysis is certainly valid and useful within its ethnological limits, but fails to enable her to formulate a comprehensive semiotic theory of theatre.

Marco de Marinis' The Semiotics of Performance addresses the same issues as Fischer-Lichte, but does it in a more stimulating and promising manner. Rather than deriving his expository strategy from a canonic definition of theatre, he develops his arguments toward the heuristic frontiers of his domain of inquiry and concludes on the problem-oriented mode, suggesting a blueprint for further research. Although both authors situate their reflections within the semiotic doxa of their time, de Marinis' account is more complete and up-to-date. To some degree, he achieves for his topic what Göran Sonesson did for visual semiotics with his celebrated Pictorial Concepts (1989), a state of the art review of the various approaches relevant to a range of related problems. For instance, rather than taking the notion of "code" for granted de Marinis selectively confronts the diversity of conceptualizations produced during four decades of semiotic speculations on this subject (e.g. 97-103 and 213-215,notes). In addition, his scope is not limited to the "realist-illusionist" theatre, but includes not only discussions of ancient as well as avant-garde performances, but also reflections on noneuropean forms of theatre and the theoretical works they inspired (e.g. 144-147, 225-227).

The book comprises seven parts introduced by a brief and lucid essay titled "Theatre or Semiotics" (1-14). The parts address four major topoi of the semiotic episteme: (1) the relation of written texts to staging "Dramatic Text and Mis-en-scène", 15-46); (2) the extension of the concept of "text" to non-verbal or multi-medial events ("The Performance Text", 47-82 and "The Textual Structure of Performance", 83-96); (3) the analysis of a "text" in terms of codes ("Performance Codes and Theatrical Conventions", 97-120 and "Performance Text, Cultural Context, and Intertextual Practices", 121-136) and (4) the pragmatics of communication ("Toward a Pragmatics of Theatrical Communication", 137-157 and "The Spectator's Task", 158-188).Each part is supplemented by extensive endnotes (189-236). The bibliography shows a slight bias toward Italian, French and American publications (237-266). Regretfully, there is no index.

Broadly speaking, the book comprises two parts of unequal length. The first five sections deal with various aspects of the "performance text", its immanent organization within its cultural context. The last two sections address the issue of the conditions of its production and reception.

The first part duplicates in many respects Fischer-Lichte's semiotic model of theatre what I have called earlier "the theatre of semiotics" -- although with more sensitivity to the problems which this approach creates. The notion of codes occupies a central position in both scholars' analytical strategies, thus focussing on the cognitive organizations and transactions implemented by performances. They are undoubtedly correct. However, the issue is whether this aspect is definitional. Upon reading their development, one cannot help notice that what they say about performance also applies to other types of social events which are not considered as "theatrical performances" in the contextual culture. A case in point is de Marinis' specification of "the two basic conditions that any theatrical events must fulfil in order to be included in the class (theatrical performance): (1) physical co-presence of sender and receiver, and (2) simultaneity of production and communication"(137). These conditions may be useful to distinguish, in communicational terms, theatre from cinema and television, but they apply to such an array of other social events that they are actually trivial with respect to the type of performance which is the focus of de Marinis' attention. This is a general reproach which can be addressed to the semiotic doxa of the past decades. The communication model -- more particularly Jakobson's version -- acted as a revelator by showing how a wide range of events and objects which were previously considered unrelated could indeed be construed as communicative processes, but proved to be unable to account for the specificity of the classes of socio-cultural phenomena which map everyday experience. By contrast to Fischer-Lichte, whose general approach is confidently unproblematic, de Marinis seems acutely aware of this theoretical difficulty (e.g. 137-144) and attempts to come to term with it:

I believe that my examples make abundantly clear that theatrical performance involves something that goes far beyond the narrow, traditional understanding of communication as a simple conveyance of information, i.e. as the objective, aseptic transmission of contents from a sender to a receiver. I would like nevertheless to clarify my conviction that this acting/doing performed by theatre, its tendency to be deployed within a complex network of emotional and intellectual transformations, cannot be assessed as a purely extra-semiotic phenomenon, and hence relegated to the ineffable and the unanalyzable. Quite on the contrary, the issue should be taken up by semioticians wishing to attempt a more complex analysis than was hitherto possible (for obvious reasons) of the theory of communication, the phenomena of the production and manipulation of meaning, or their rules and mechanisms (147-148).

This lucid and courageous "clarification" leads him to a"fundamental theatrical problem that has barely been explored up to now" (149), that is why and how theatre seduces and charms its audiences within the framework of its institutions. The great merit of the book's last two sections is that de Marinis outlines in them a dynamic program of research, in full awareness of the daunting complexity of this new semiotic frontier, a territory which, incidentally, has been effectively prospected by Marvin Carison whose Theatre Semiotics, Signs of Life (1990) addresses most of the issues raised by de Marinis in his concluding pages.

In brief, the two books under review offer a detailed flashback on the development of the semiotics of theatre since the 1960's. Read in the order in which they have been considered here, they give a sense of the theoretical and methodological achievements as well as shortcomings of the prevailing approaches. While Fischer-Lichte focuses on the doxa of the "theatre-as-communication" model in a thorough but mostly uncritical manner, de Marinis's problem-oriented work clearly points to important, indeed crucial, aspects of theatre which this model seemingly cannot handle. He rightly concludes that the model is, if not totally misguided, at least only partially adequate. But, more importantly, he does not exclude from the semiotic purview those aspects which cannot be fully accounted for by a particular range of semiotic models. On the whole his book persuasively conveys a sense of direction in this complex field of research.


Alter, Jean (1990) A Socio-Semiotic Theory of Theatre. Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania Press.

Carison, Marvin (1990) Theatre Semiotics, Signs of Life. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Helbo, André et al. (1991) Approaching Theatre. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

Hess-Lüttich, Ernst (ed.) (1982) Multimedial Communication vol. 2. Theatre Semiotics. Tubingen: Gunter Narr.

Schechner, Richard (1977) Essays on Performance Theory. New York: Drama Book Specialists.

Schechner, Richard (1983) Performing Circumstances From the Avant Garde to Ramlila. Calcutta: Seagull.

Schechner, Richard (1985) Between Theatre and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennslyvania Press.

Sonesson, Göran (1989) Pictorial Concepts. Lund: Lund University Press.

Paul Boussiac is Professor of French at the University of Toronto. His recent publications related to the semiotics of performance include: "The Marketing of Performance" (1987), "Incidents, Accidents, Failures: The Representation of Negative Experience in Public Entertainment" (1990), "The Circus: A Semiotic Spectroscopy" (1991), and "Ecology of Street Performance" (1992). He reviewed Jean Alter's A Socio Semiotic Theory of Theatre in SRB 11-2 (1991).

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