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

Theatre, Signs and Society

by Paul Bouissac

A Sociosemiotic Theory of Theatre. By Jean Alter, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990. Pp. 281.+XII. ISBN G8122-3054-X

For about a decade Jean Alter edited and published a bilingual (English and French) newsletter titled Forum (founded in 1979), through which all those interested in the semiotics of the theatre could find bibliographies, short reviews and various announcements relevant to this expanding domain of inquiry. Approximately 200 specialists, many of them contributors to Forum, were thus regularly informed of new developments in the field. At the centre of this network, the editor was probably the best informed person regarding the numerous and various efforts made toward establishing theatre semiotics as a specific domain of research. Confronted with such an abundance of riches and with the conceptual confusion it necessarily created -- Jean Alter obviously decided one day to meet the challenge of mapping the field, summing up the problems, laying down the data, and articulating his own theory. He has done so with remarkable clarity, building upon two decades of research, reflection and experience. The result is a timely volume, straightforwardly titled A Sociosemiotic Theory of Theatre, which provides a luminous account of the complex object it has chosen to scrutinize in the context of the epistemological and cultural crisis characterizing the last years of this century. The theoretical scope and relevance of this work go far beyond those of the static ;formalism of earlier, text-oriented semiotic approaches as well as the naive assumptions of militant sociocriticism.

The book is divided into four parts and is introduced by a theoretical essay dealing with its foundational concepts. As the author states in the prefatorial remarks "(...) the time is right (...) to go back to basic notions about theatre and semiotics, clarify their problematic concepts and propose a new theory that would strictly keep to its theoretical foundations, without concession to prevailing opinions" (Xl). He thus sets the deliberately ambitious and provocative line of argument which will lead his Cartesian enterprise to its conclusion. At a time when so many semioticlans indulge in hedonic writing, and publish inconclusive essays loosely titled "toward" some vaguely defined goals, it is both refreshing and stimulating to read a book whose unambiguous title, firm constructions, and clearly stated theory directly address fundamental problems and challenge its readers.

To clarify the meaning of the title and the nature of the project, Alter first proposes answers to two questions: "What theatre"? and "What sociosemiotics?", thus acknowledging the complexity of his subject and taking a position with respect to the various approaches which now form "the state of the art". For him theatre is defined as "the set of past, present and perhaps future public performances that are based on fixed verbal texts essentially composed by dialogues and during which live actors present the actions of characters involved in a fictional story" (12) (emphasis in the text). Alter's answer to the second question is both more complex and more challenging. Based upon a Saussurean theory of semiotics, it must come to grips with the inherent dynamism of all social phenomena. A "socially oriented examination of signs in theatre" bears upon "the impact of social factors on those features of theatre that involve semiotics: production of fixed verbal signs, transition between text and stage, production of stage signs, codes and references of signs, actors as signs, reception of signs by the audience" (13), but it also must conceptualize changes in a broader context, something that confidently does by "postulating (...) that theatre, like other arts, manifest a certain tension between a changing social reality and a lagging adjustment of ideology" (16) and that "the resulting unconscious malaise usually (testifies) to an obsolescence of the society's system of signs" (19). For him the central purpose of sociosemiotics remains "to show how all these manifestations of malaise are either generated or influenced by unconscious social tensions" (29). Rooted in a definitely iconic medium (21-27), theatre constitutes a privileged fictional world which, like a dream -- in the Freudian sense -- "will serve (...) to express these (social) problems in unconscious disguises, unconsciously seeking to solve them" (17). This is Alter's overall working hypothesis through which he will attempt to restructure and harmonize the existing body of models produced by theatre semiotics since the Prague School, and his own experience of Western classic and avant-garde plays both as literary texts and performances.

As could be predicted from such postulates, referentiality will play a major role in the development of the theory. Part I and II, respectively titled "Reference and Performance" and "A Grammar of Theatre Referentiality" form approximately half of the book (31-148). After sampling a variety of theoretical approaches from Aristotle to Richard Schechner and showing their polarization between the "referential function" and the "performance function", Alter focuses on the latter, making useful conceptual distinctions in order to sort out the dimensions and parameters of a phenomenon which, he admits, is otherwise perceived "as a complex but indivisible experience" (80).

Part II addresses the problem of the referentiality of theatre, primarily based upon iconicity but mindful of the fictional nature of the representations. Drawing from Saussure his model of the sign, Alter formulates as follows the semiotic principle which inspires his analysis: "Each vision of a fictional world, that is, the signifier, is associated by convention with all possible visions of the real world that need only a minimal transformation to achieve compatibility with the fictional world. This minimally transformed vision of the real world is only the signified of the sign. But when the code is observed, the fictional world functions as a full sign; it then refers to a specific vision of the real world that requires a minimal transformation to be compatible with the fictional world" (130) (emphases in the text). Alter does not claim that this notion is entirely new but, as he underlines in a note to the above passage, the vision of the real world is too often taken "as a given, as a stable reality by itself, and not as a referent of a complex set of internalized signs, as variable as the referent yielded by the complex set of signs in a fiction" (147).

Part III, "Transformational Processes: Production/Reception", deals with theatre as a series of transformations. The methodological decision to confront the theatre as a total process leads Alter to go beyond the mere study of the performance and to include in his purview the other stages in the process: "reception of the verbal text, including its own transformation, (...), transformation whereby that text is turned into a performance, and finally (...) reception of that performance that results in further transformation carried out by the spectators" (149). By the author's own admission (150), this is a Herculean project, probably unmanageable in its entirety, which makes some measure of arbitrary selection unavoidable, if only because according to this approach no production can ever be considered to have reached a final point. This part nevertheless examines a wide array of sorts of transformation, from intertextual processes at the production level to concretization in the reception stage, covering successively: "textual transformations of the text" (161), "conventional transformations" (161), "covert transformations" (169), "referential transformations" in relation to textual transformability (172-191), "transformational strategies of stage signs" (19S207), and, eventually, the "restructuring of imaginary worlds" (218-230).

The last part, "Playwrights, Directors, Actors and their Works" (231-269) forms a self-contained essay which provides an effective conclusion to the book. The main hypothesis is concisely reformulated(240) and the set of problems which prompted the author to undertake this task in the first place are re-examined from the point of view of the various agencies involved in the theatre process as a whole.

The book concludes with a selective bibliography and an index referring to key theoretical notions, dramatic text and authors, specific performances, and theoreticians and critics who are discussed in the text.

But this summary of the book would be incomplete if no mention were made of the analyses of plays and performances it contains Hamlet, Richard II, Le Cid, Waiting for Godot, in particular, provide numerous examples for the theoretical points made as the works unfold. For instance, the thorough discussion of Mnouchkine's staging of Richard II in the Japanese Kabukl style, which concludes the second part (132-146), is llluminating, to the extent that some readers may find it rewarding to first peruse this case study, as an appetizer so to speak, before plunging into the book's tight argumentation. Such passages are pleasurable reminders that Jean Alter is also a passionate connoisseur of the theatre.

In any developing domain of inquiry there is always a moment at which the need is felt for a work summing up the problems, models and theories which form the basics that no newcomer to the field can ignore, even if she/he does not endorse them. A Sociosemiotic Theory of Theatre is such a work. It critically builds upon the pioneering research of Pavis (e.g. 1976), De Marinis (e.g. 1981), Ubersfeld (e.g. 197n, De Toro (e.g. 1987), Fischer-Lichte (e.g. 1983) and Schechner (e.g. 1977, 1985), to name only a few representative books. At the same time Alter brings his own theoretical contribution by proposing not only an original description but also an explanation of the "why" of the theater as a socio-cultural phenomenon in the wider context of sociological and anthropological thinking. As it stands this book will undoubtedly be considered a landmark in the realm of theatre semiotics.

However, it raises some fundamental issues which, not less certainly, will remain open to questions and controversies for some time. The discussion will be limited here to two problems of method and one theoretical query.

First, Alter uses a Freudian model in order to suggest that theatre functions like a dream whose role is to collectively resolve sociocultural problems diagnosed as "tensions" or "malaises". But his perceptive- and generally convincing -- analyses are applied to a limited corpus of selected (and possibly theory friendly) examples. One may wonder, on the one hand, how this hypothesis would stand the test of a larger and random-based corpus, and, on the other hand, whether his analytical approach could yield a more explicit method which would instruct practitioners how to proceed -- not necessarily automatically -- with a systematic analysis of the data. Obviously Freudian psychoanalysis is used by Alter as a heuristic metaphor, not literally. Even though case studies are acceptable first steps in the investigative process, it seems that some formal method of analysis, possibly along the direction pioneered by Propp, Lévi-Strauss and Greimas, for instance, should be developed if the theory were to be carried beyond its initial postulates and intuitions.

Second, some might feel that there is a frustrating discrepancy between the Cartesian universalism of the theory -- in principle valid in all times and for all cultures -- and the restricted scope of its application to a small sample of the classics of Western European theatre. It is true enough that so little is known comparatively about the actual performances of the past that a theory which endeavours to encompass all the transformations involved in the total theatre process is restricted to a large extent by the ephemeral nature of its object. But, on the other hand, western theatre forms only a minute portion of world theatre and a sociosemiotic theory of the theatre should also be shown to explain, for instance, theatre in China, India, Japan and Indonesia, that is, the theatre of an overwhelming demographic mass and of a dazzling diversity of cultures. Theatre semiotics needs indeed to overcome both its ethnocentrism à la Pavis and its orientalism (in Edoudard Said's sense) à la Schechner. The Asian Theatre Journal created in 1984 provides invaluable material for this sort of research, as do numerous publications, such as the celebrated book on proletarian drama in Indonesia published by James Peacock in 1968.

Third, this book raises a fundamental issue concerning the interferences which necessarily occur between the theoretical assumptions of the method and the phenomenology of the object of inquiry. To what extent can such interferences be controlled and taken into account in the final explanation of the phenomena observed? Or is all systematic investigation of any object necessarily mortgaged, so to speak, from its inception in an unredeemable fashion? Alter takes for granted the semiotic doxa derived from Saussure and accepts the dichotomy between Signifier and Signified as an adequate descriptive and explanatory model. In so doing, he conforms to a large section of modern semiotic épistémé. But through following his argumentation -- otherwise impeccably rigorous and cautious -- one cannot help wondering whether the socio-cultural problems he identifies (e.g. semiotic malaise) and construes as the hidden cause and ultimate explanation of theater are generated by the silent assumptions made by his theory rather than by the actual forces at play in any society. The inherent statism of the semiotic theory drawn from the Saussurean tradition -- if not from Saussure himself -- is bound to create a problematic surplus whenever it is used to conceptualize not a system assumed to be stable by definition, but a process, let alone open-ended transformations. This is why many theoreticians of the sign -- and in particular theatre semioticians -- have over the years turned to Peirce or Bakhtin in search of dynamic models. It may be the case that there exist valid theoretical reasons for exclusively relying on the Saussurean tradition, but this would have to be explicitly discussed and demonstratively justified.

Reviewing is by necessity a reductive process: information needs to be condensed and selectively reordered. Blases unavoidably operate. The problems stated above are not meant to scale down the importance of this work. My intention was simply to focus on a few issues it raises beyond its own confines in the whole field of contemporary semiotics. In brief, A Sociosemiotic Theory of Theatre is an intellectually courageous book which confronts head-on essential problems. Alter is a fair scholar who lays down his arguments without a hint of Machiavellian sophistry. The straightforward wariness of his postulates are not masked by the deliberately obscure style which all too often markets itself as profundity. This is why this contribution to theatre semiotics must be taken seriously.


Asian Theatre Journal, James R. Brandon, editor. Department of Drama and Theatre, University of Hawaii, 1770 East-West Rd., Honolulu, Hawaii 96822.

De Marinis, Marco (1981) Semiotica del Teatro. Milano: Bomplani.

De Toro, Fernando (1987) Semiotica del Teatro. Buenos Alres: Editorial Galerna.

Flscher-Lichte, Erika (1983) Semiotik des Theaters, 3 vols. Tubingen: Gunter Narr.

Peacock, James (1968) The Rites of Modernisation: Symbolic and Social Aspects of Indonesian Proletarian Drama. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pavis, Patrice (1976) Problèmes de sémiologie théatrale. Montreal: Presse de 1' universite du Quebec.

Schechner, Richard (1977) Essays on Performance Theory, 1971976. New York: Drama Book Specialists.

---- (1985) Between Theater and Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ubersfeld, Anne (1977) L'école du spectateur. Lire le théatre 2. Paris: Editions sociales.

Paul Bouissac is Professor of French and Killam Research Fellow at the University of Toronto. His recent publications include The Profanation of the sacred in clown performances (1989) Espace performatif et espace médiatisé: La déconstruction di spectacle du cirque dans les représentations télévisées' (1989), and 'Incident, accident and failure: The representation of negative experience in public entertainment' (1990).

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