The actor as a semiotic narrator
New Bulgarian University,
In this paper I will investigate the constitution of the actor as narrator from а semiotic perspective. The actor is by no means a "tabula rasa" as is claimed by some theoreticians.
The actor contributes to the narrative and drama with all of his personal qualities regardless of the purpose of the author. I see the actor as an iconic sign which represents the ideas of the text, but also creates a new dimensioned reality.
Symbolist theatre 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 Stanislavsky'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.
It seems that some theoreticians of theatre are going slightly further than just provoking in a peaceful way the senses and breaking of the spectator's thinking. Such as Lehmann's theatrical poetics: the creation of a situation in which the spectator is delivered to feelings of shame and anxiety, in which he is thrown back on his own emptiness (see Van den Dries 2004). But more than this almost metaphysical appreciation, Lehmann's notion of post-dramatic theatre is a necessary comment on the traditional, limited interpretation of the "text": it shows us the necessity to expand the textual notion and the field of application of narratology, as the interpretation of a whole series of hybrid theatre and dance forms, in which disciplines and media are intermingled, is no longer possible with the traditional tools of dramaturgy and narratology.
In his work on Heiner Müller, Luk Van den Dries, drawing on existing performance-oriented theories, developed a radically dynamic and coherent model for analysis, taking into account the specificity of the theatrical sign. In this model the traditional threefold distinction between the analysis of the actual performance, the analysis of the production – which would then be situated on the level of the intended performance – and the analysis of the spectatorial reception are fused into one model: the analysis of the theatrical product in interaction with the socio-cultural climate. For Van den Dries, the specificity of the theatrical interaction is the immediate consequence of the double status of the actor who acts both as an "I-identity" and a "role-identity" (Van den Dries 2001: 26). To handle this double identity the audience should be familiar with the prevailing sociosymbolic praxis which should be considered as a bilateral social agreement, an agreement which is largely dependent on the context in which performance and reception take place. Theatre should then be considered as "the production of human (inter)action in a common operation executed by both actors and spectators, in the course of which both partners could be considered as producer and product of the other" (Van den Dries 2001: 26).
Patrice Pavis has suggested that "the language of the actor is iconized in being spoken by the actor", i.e. what the actor utters becomes the representation of something supposedly equivalent to it, "discourse" (Pavis 1976, p. 13). In naturalistic performances especially, the audience is encouraged to take both the linguistic signs and all other representational elements as being directly analogous to the denoted objects.
From a semiotic perspective, the act of performing, signifying reality is pure semiosis. When an actor plays on stage he activates the ancient need of man to watch spectacles of metaphysical transformation of signs and objects in the waves of meaning and sensations. That is how the actor gains the power of the priest and could recreate the world anew. It is a matter of no great importance what actually the actor plays, but how. Usually when we speak of someone's performance we engage into our emotional description words as "fantastic", "mesmerizing", "gorgeous", "wonderful" etc.
These all concern emotional part of the event Art-I-Culating the Message Art is pure form. Nowhere in life has pure form existed, nor does pure content. In architecture: even a single line does not repeat nature. It is an original symbiosis of thought and the surrounding reality. In music: even a single accord does not literally reproduce the sounds of nature. The sound in music passes through the soul prior to vanishing. In fine art: even the most realistic paintings cannot reflect virtually the real world. Either story or characters are mythological, or the portrait expresses in its own way the spiritual life of the model and its author. Even cinema is not a pure analogue reality, because from the whole variety the authors have made a selection, arranged a plan, the visual in such a manner that it is ultimately personal.
In scenic arts: The process of semiosis in scenic arts should be exemplified as it varies a lot. It is important because there must be an accomplished message to the audience, not only parts of the paroles, aphoristic sentences, which will initiate immediate admiration and after a moment it will be forgotten, before even the performance reaches the end.
Through tight and actively developed system of effective symbols, even illustrative samples and incorporated in action visual complexes – whether they will represent the inner life of the character, whether as precisely collected examples from reality, that stimulate and exemplify the oration it is possible to achieve a total impact of the view or ideas of the preaching character. That is how they attempt to leave a significant trace into the mind of the audience.
Of course such an act should be fully synchronized with the author's way of thinking, if the performer is a personification of the author.
The art of interpretation is not commensurable with verses learned to perfection, but with the potential which a text instigates for the most precise sensual or visual reflection.
The essence of art is in its exclusiveness. Art lives more into the quality rather than into quantity. It has more importance in co-being rather than the affiliation. For instance – when you study poetry you should know and understand its meaning but you cannot be a remarkable poet if your verses are similar to someone else's – even though he is highly acclaimed.
When one writes, takes photos, draws, dances, plays, one performs acts affordable to the gifted, and who could be anyone. But what is done by the master performer is instantly distinguishable with its mighty uniqueness, which often lies within the fields of the inexplicable and strikes the senses, while rational understanding is pushed to the background.
The way to perfection bends through endless exercises, through the long periods of apprenticeship, observation, repetition etc.
Striving for mastership, an actor develops the gift of trans-formation. Under his dominion are all the possibilities of the human race, the world of flora and fauna. The imitation conceives similarity which goes beyond the resemblance. It has somehow a real link between the actor and the creature which he represents. The ancient techniques of shamanism have much to do with this idea. The opposite is the internal space of the author – silence. There is a concentrated gazing at the world and ability to re-make the contemplated. Then already realized, incarnated in cognizable form - a form that everyone could comprehend. Not profane and downgraded to the popular, but a spectator attracted by the message. Incarnating harmony between the earth and the heavens, between physical and meta-physical, haute and quotidian, light and darkness, joy and sadness, explained and inexplicable – the Actor achieves state of ecstasy and brings the rapture to his spectators. His creation is similar to explosion of a lightning – it is gleaming and momentary. The actor is a guardian of the sacred fire, which roars in mankind. In order to be understood and not to stay in front of unplumbed abyss or wordless crowd, the spectator should stay on the right side and endure. But this could be done only if the spectator has: (1) the general background knowledge, (2) the conventional knowledge and (3) the ad hoc knowledge that is acquired during the temporal-linear development of the performance.
The actor reveals the good and the bad in equal manner. He does not emphasize on neither the one nor the other perfectly knowing that this would bring him to loose the truth. Those who walk on the trampled roads and follow the set rules are, reflectors, but not really actors.
Actor and narration
Narration is a process of production, and involves an agent who produces the text. Furthermore it is gradually approaching closer to the methods of visual semiotics. As a matter of fact, the notions of "narration" and "narrativity" are enriched with a new definition, which liberates them from their literary frame. Second, one can ask oneself whether or not a post-narratological dramaturgy could be developed analogous to that of the post-dramatic theatre. Of course we should choose whether we look at the theatre as in the frame of a text-centered approach (in which theatre is in the first place a drama text) an exclusively performance-centered approach. On this level, the narratologist then operates on the level of the intended performance, his analysis being a "performance-oriented textual analysis, a stage-centered reading" (Jahn 2003: D.1.5.3), studying the drama text as a text but also taking into accounts the potential performative elements within the textual structure. Jahn's Reading- Drama model is with no doubt the most synthetic model. Third, in the ultimate stage of this process of theoretical transformation, narratology could become an indispensable theoretical tool in contextual theatre historiography. (Karel Vanhaesebrouck, 2004).
It is no more disparaging a reception, to the actual reader and spectator. How does he or she derive signification from the narrative network to which they are exposed while reading or watching? What is the role of the "receiving" entity in the constitution of signification? Without a doubt this exchange is a bilateral one: we shape the narratives by choosing and combining specific units and the narratives shape our world and our "framing" attitude (cfr. Goffman 1975), they determine the schemata we apply to what we see on stage. Just remember this line from Wittgenstein: "The limits of my language mean the limits of my world" (TLP, 5.6).
The actor actually produces signification through his performance. It is non-classical process of narration if one defines narratology as the theory of narrative texts, or more specifically as "the study of their features (the delineations as distinct from non-narrative texts) and the description of the narrative system and its possibilities for variation in the concretization of that system" (Van Gorp 1991: 256), it is clear that narratology has a limited usability within the context of performance analysis. However, recent developments in postclassical narratology such as cognitive narratology and in theatre studies such as Lehmann's theory of post-dramatic theatre reveal a new and dynamic use of narratological theories - a use which is activated both on levels of dramaturgic analysis and visual semiotics. (Karel Vanhaesebrouck, 2004). Within the theoretical realm of performanceoriented theatre studies narratology traditionally occupies a marginal position as it has always been associated with a logo-centric approach of performance analysis (Pavis, 1997).
Moving beyond the structuralist goal of a "positivistic" (i.e., "objectively knowable") model]. The point of narratology, defined as reflection on the generically specific, narrative determinants of the production of meaning in semiotic interaction, is not the construction of a perfectly reliable model which "fits" the texts. There is no longer any reason to give privilege to narratology as an approach to texts traditionally classified as narrative.
One may then want to replace the approach by a different one, be it ideological, psycho-analytic, or rhetorical, but one may also want to mobilize narratological insights for other objects. The narrator is the most central concept in the analysis of narrative texts. Seeing, taken in the widest sense, constitutes the object of narrating [and is thus dependent upon the narrating instance: focalization—the deployment of "seeing" and more broadly perception within the narrative—is for Bal an aspect of the story signified by the text] an (implied) narrative can unfold from metaphors, or, cultural allegory may be embedded in the terms of argumentative passages] (Mieke Bal, Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative, 2nd ed. (Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1997)) "In a certain sense every dramatic performance (be it on stage or on screen) is composed by two speech acts. The first one is performed by the actor who is making a performative statement—"I am acting." By this implicit statement the actor tells the truth since he announces that from that moment on he will lie. The second one is represented by a pseudo-statement where the subject of the statement is already the character, not the actor . . . Through the decision of the performer ("I am another man") we enter the possible world of performance, a world of lies in which we are entitled to celebrate the suspension of disbelief"1.
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 1 Umberto Eco "Semiotics of Theatrical Performance." The Drama Review. 21.1 (1977): 107–117.115 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, signifying 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. A theatrical sign is also poly-functional, a sign can signify another sign, and 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).
Of immediate importance in this type of theatre semiotics is the Peircian notion of semiosis in which the role of the interpreting instance and of the context in which this "interpretant" operates, is of major importance. The process of semiosis and by consequence the handling of narrative material are thus radically embedded in their context. The importance of the historical, social, artistic … context directly ensues from the very nature of the theatrical sign itself which is, again according to Van den Dries, doublefold. Firstly the theatrical sign is multi-channelled (see also Elam 1980: 44) which implies it can be brought into action within other sign systems. Secondly, Van den Dries stresses what he calls "the non-specificity of the theatrical sign" (Van den Dries 2001: 56) which means that the difference between the theatrical sign and the sign in a general, cultural context can only be apparent after the installation of a theatrical frame (cf. Goffman 1975, see also Vanhaesebrouck 2003) which is, again, culturally determined. Two layers can thus be discerned in a theatrical production: the theatre-specific codes and the codes that are valid within a given society. Following this contextual logic the underlying (narrative) code is all but immanent: it is the continuous subject of a constant process of negotiations in which not everyone can determine what makes sense and what not. Not all signs are readable and what is readable is determined by the context and consequently by the frame which is activated by the spectator. In each performance there is a constant interaction between the theatrical system and its context; the narrative 'barriers' of the fictional world are constantly crossed.
As Versteele points out, cognitive narratology could be an adequate answer to these new contextual ambitions. Cognitive narratologists stress the importance of the context in which the spectator operates as a watching entity, as the cornerstone of the analysis of artistic products. During a performance, during a theatrical event, existing knowledge that has been acquired before the performance interferes with the information supplied on the spot. And exactly this interference creates meaning – in this logic, meaning is not the sole result of an author's, even a director's ambitions. Meaning then largely depends on the cognitive structure of the spectator or – in Goffmanian terms – on the nature of the frame used: it is contextually defined. Versteele's model is in a very interesting way related to the matrix developed by Luk Van den Dries in which he depicts the different contextual layers that determine the process of semiosis and through which a performance operates (Van den Dries 2001: 83): (1) the climate (the political and ideological context), (2) the landscape (the specific socio-cultural organisation of a theatrical tradition or – in poly-systemic terminology – the position of a performance vis-à-vis such notions as centre and periphery), (3) the typus (the ensemble of style-specific conventions), (4) the corpus (the previous history of a company or a maker) and (5) the text (ranging from the material which served as inspiration to the actual performance).
In both models the importance of the context in which the performance takes place is of major importance. Whereas Van den Dries stresses the interference with the larger socio-cultural context, Versteele's model, drawing back on cognitive narratology, emphasizes the importance of the foreknowledge of the individual spectator. However, both models confirm that not only the inherent, narratological elements constitute the actual performance but that each performance is a hodgepodge of intra- and extra systemic factors that are activated together with a particular frame through which the performance is perceived and interpreted, a frame which – unconsciously or not – has been chosen by the interpreter. As a consequence, the emphasis has radically shifted from the production side, where a play is required to be a coherent arrangement of narrative elements, to the reception side of the communication schema, in which the viewing of the actual performance – and not the reading of a text - acts as the drive for interpretation.
Acting or act thing The cinematic actor is somehow closer to the character of a film than the actor of a play to the dramatic character.
One difficulty with cinematic narrative is the concept of the narrator. The narrator is less of a problem with written narratives, as the idea of telling a story is somehow inherently associated with narratives encoded in language. However, cinematic narratives, have an important visual element in them, and are more remote to the telling of a story in language. Thus, a pertinent question to ask in relation to cinematic narratives is whether the narrator exists in them at all? Furthermore, a narrator in written narratives which have been related to cinematic narration is the objective third person narrator: in spite of this connection, the concept of the narrator, strangely enough, seems to disappear once we try to transfer the same concept to film. Theoretically, the term narrator, for instance, cannot be used, without encountering some conceptual difficulties, even when a so-called written objective third-person narrative is directly used as a film script.
In Symbolist theatre, the text is mediated by the director; an additional level 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.
From a semiological perspective, Artaud's theories are extremely contradictory. Artaud demands, that the audience surrenders itself to the performance; that it is not to 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.
As Brook writes, "the actor is not drawing on any deep creativity. He is reaching inside himself for an alphabet that is also fossilized...." (Empty Space, 112).
It seems that during all ages of existence, theatre has been performed on stage as a real battle between drama, active performance or passive gazing the Umwelt and on the other side – reading literature and performing words.
However, the point of view, i.e. the way a sign is perceived as such, strongly influences the content of that very same sign. On top of this dynamic, multidirectional approach, it goes without a doubt that a sign in theatre is far from exclusively textual, which brings us back to visual semiotics. But even within this paradigm which has traditionally occupied itself with painting, photography and sculpture, a new openness is needed. The traditional bias between a linguistic analysis mainly emphasizing the temporal linearity on the one hand and visual semiotics with its traditional stress on spatial simultaneity on the other hand would thus be counterbalanced by an integrated approach which would combine the insights of both narratology and visual semiotics.
Therefore the actor becomes the crossroad of contexts, intentions and meanings. Keeping all this in his mind he manages to produce narration, but not as a one-way relation. Rather, he enters implicitly or explicitly in an ongoing communicative collaboration with all the elements of the semiotic system. It is not the text, context, etc that enable the narrative but this very collaboration that more or less (by convention) constitutes the actor as narrator.
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