Friday, 26 December 2014

Madness in his Method

After they have realised that they won't be able to get me to just shut up, people often ask me why I bang on about methodology. Following the latest debacle from Anonymous - the one where they said that they had stuff on Iggy that would make Bill Cosby look like an innocent (implying that they have material on her that is worse than drugging and raping women) - I am all the more convinced that, as The Fun Boy Three reminded me, it ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it. 

Today's lecture is on theatre as semiotic system. You can jump to the post in which I talk about face sitting now.

Honzl, one of the Prague Linguistic School (once again, thank wikipedia), pointed out in 1940 that 'stage space need not be spatial... and scenery can be a text'. Apart from the obvious implication that radio plays and post visual theatre are now in the game, Honzl is opening up the possibility that the usual gubbins of theatre can be absent, and the performance can still be a play.

Since he died before Andy Arnold staged some plays in the toilets at The Arches, Honzl has to be content with pointing out how the use of sound denoted the stage in The Cherry Orchard before proudly stating 'modern theatre has had the effect precisely of freeing the stage from its previously permanent architectural constraints'. 

He'd love the NTS' theatre without walls slogan.

After a brief detour into cubo-futurist theatre (sorry, can't help you with that), he preempts Goffman by considering the theatre of everyday life, Honzl celebrates the new freedoms of scenography and metonymic scenery. Finally, he gets to semiotics.

My understanding of semiotics is that it is a system of signs that, taken collectively, represent meaning. I emphasis context as a defining quality, and my current attempt to learn French by just reading loads of it in the vague hope of getting the general idea is a holistic effort to use the semiotics of a language. 

It's not working. 

In the olden days, anyhow, the scenery of the stage tried to be complete and realistic: those bloody backdrops, the attention to detail, the changes between the scene in the bathroom and the scene in the garden. 

Honzl, had he seen Slope, would have rejoiced in the way that a single chair could be used to evoke multiple different things, depending on who was sitting on it/ throwing it across the room/ trying to use the leg as a sex aid. He talks about a plank being used to represent multiple things in those whacky cubo-futurist shows, and the way that Meyerhold used a crate in Tarelkin's Death to represent 'any number of things, but none of them without ambiguity'.

Back to Slope, where Pamela Carter and Stewart Laing used a
from Slope
minimum of props and scenery to represent Verlaine's posh home, a doss-house in London and a bog in a fancy hotel. 

And here's where Honzl gets helpful: it is the antics of the actor, he notes, that provides the context that gives meaning to the scenography. In Vanishing Point's Tomorrow, for comparison, there was no need for hospital beds, institutional walls and nurses in sexy outfits to conjure the ward. The script did the heavy lifting. 

Honzl nails the magic of Meyerhold's allusive, even indeterminate use of objects: it's not abstract because each object has a very clear function. It was 'the actor's actions' that gave the objects their 'representative function'.

Honzl goes on to give a bit of historical context, noting how the revolution in theatre had stripped away the conventions of the nineteenth century, then hits the reader with another whammy. 

It is in the changeability, he says, of the theatrical sign that the main difficulty of defining theatrical art lies. Definitions of this concept either narrow down theatricality to the manner of expression of our conventional drama... or expand it to such an extent that it becomes meaningless.

The latter is exactly what Schechner does with his 'broad school of performance' position. Once everything is theatre, nothing is. 
(That probably needs unpacking, but would require E-Prime to explain.)

In a semiotic approach, this is a pain. The traditional elements combine to create a system, I think. I know I am watching Romeo and Juliet and not a fight in Sauchiehall Street because Romeo is wearing tights and we are in the Theatre Royal. Get rid of too much semiotic context, and I am not sure whether to applaud the fight choreography or stand between the two men wailing on each other.

Honzl starts cutting away the elements that are essential for theatre. The writer goes, the actor - puppets, anyone? - then the director. He concludes that the semiotic systems change in different historical periods, but are rarely fixed to include all the elements - then Wagner turns up.

As always, I'll remind you that I do do funny posts on this blog, too. 

Anyway, Wagner's gesamtkunswerk, Honzl says, gathers together all different arts and makes theatre the sum of the other arts. In an aside, he invents the theory of post-dramatic theatre... which is kind of cool,  but not really for this article. Still, Honzl is the fucking  man.

And he boots out Wagner by mentioning those solo monologues that just have the actor in them.. no sum of arts there, sunbeam. Plus, and this really impresses me, Wagner has this madcap idea that completely ignores the subjectivity of the audience experience. 

He's too polite to say it, but most productions of The Ring involve periods where the audience either nods off or tries to ignore the music and, if they are lucky, focus on the cute woman in the Valkyrie outfit.

He spends the rest of the essay dismissing other ideas, before admitting that he just wanted to make it all a big problem: he compares theatre to the Trinity (out of Christianity) and laughs at its 'protean' dynamism. As it turned out, this article wasn't about methodology, or semiotics, really. It was about the negative capability of definition, or something. 

However, bullying woman is not a good look, Anonymous.

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