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The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama [Paperback]

Keir Elam

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Book Description

Aug. 2 2002 0415280184 978-0415280181 2
The late twentieth century saw an explosion of interest in semiotics, the science of the signs and processes by which we communicate. In this study, the first of its kind in English, Keir Elam shows how this new 'science' can provide a radical shift in our understanding of theatrical performance, one of our richest and most complex forms of communication.
Elam traces the history of semiotic approaches to performance, from 1930s Prague onwards, and presents a model of theatrical communication. In the course of his study, he touches upon the 'logic' of the drama and the analysis of dramatic discourse. This edition also includes a new post-script by the author, looking at the fate of theatre semiotics since the publication of this book, and a fully updated bibliography. Much praised for its accessibility, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama remains a 'must-read' text for all those interested in the analysis of theatrical performance.

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'The New Accents titles are of the highest interest for literary theory and General Editor Terence Hawkes represents a guarentee. I have particularly appreciated the work of Keir Elam.' - Umberto Eco

About the Author

Keir Elam is Professor of English Drama at the University of Florence.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Of all recent developments in what used to be confidently called the humanities, no event has registered a more radical and widespread impact than the growth of semiotics. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.0 out of 5 stars  2 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An essential book on the subject Feb. 4 2009
By Semih - Published on
I believe about twenty percent of the theoretical writings on the arts in the past 40-50 years have said something significant and eighty percent have pretended to say something significant (usually hiding behind excessive use of slashes, parenteses, hyphens and very many obscure charts consisting of boxes and arrows). Semiology and structuralism were analytical approaches that could actually be used by practising artists (and were used by some) just like their firm use in linguistics and communications, but they got reduced to "rhetoric for rhetoric's sake" by post-Barthes speculative writers. Now I believe that these ideas are making a come-back because they are indeed applicable methodologies.

If you are interested in learning about semiotical approaches to theatre and performance, especially if you are a practicing person "thinking" about your work, this book is a very good introduction and you may very well run into concepts you can find inspiring. It sums up the ideas, arguments and questions in a very readable, well-organized way. It may be a bit narrow in its approach to theatre (too heavy on "representational" theatre). I personally find the desperate desire to formularize a theatrical performance with tables and charts silly and Elam's last chapter is devoted to that but it can be taken as a documentation of a useless trend. First two chapters can serve as excellent guides into further information about the subject matter.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Too structuralistic to be entirely true Aug. 13 2006
By Jacques COULARDEAU - Published on
We cannot reduce the approach of a play to the text and we have to take into account one particular production, but if there are dozens of different productions of one play, each one will be different including in the meaning. The book does not really differentiate the playwright's and director's roles. But the book does not integrate the tremendous revolution postmodernism represents against or in comparison with (according to the level of anatagonism in this confrontation) structuralism. The book is exclusively structuralistic and what's more of an older period. But it has not integrated the real position of playwright, or the director's, or even the actors', and absolutely not the audience's. Page 36, and again page 39, the author and director are reduced to a source, the audience to a destination. But a playwright and a director have each of them a complete psychological, historical, ideological, philosophical, referential, symbolical, etc, heritage, and this heritage is full of contradictions reflecting in a contradictory way the very contradictory vision these creators have of the contradictory reality that they see and try to recreate in their work. A play cannot be reduced to the text or even one particular production. These are the tips of two icebergs. Ben Jonson's Silent Woman being played by a man in those days was normal and this disguised woman being revealed later as a real man is of course absolutely essential for the audience of those days, but impossible to set on a modern stage. It would not work anymore. King Lear's clown being a man is standard, but to make him a woman like in the Theâtre du Jorat, Suisse's recent production changes an essential element in whose voice the clown is. If a man he can be anybody's voice. If a woman he can only be Cordelia's voice. The playwright and director try to build first a construct that is the text of the play and then another construct that is one particular production of this play. But the audience is not a simple receiver, nor a simple destination. The audience, both individually and collectively, has a complete psychological, historical, ideological, philosophical, referential, symbolical, etc, heritage that he/she/they project into the particular production of the play they are seeing or watching. They try to reconstruct the very construct of the playwright and the director and then they project their own heritage into this first level of construction and they move to a personal construct of what they think the the play they have seen of watched is about. Here we must consider the unconscious to go beyond the competence of the audience. They will react with their complete being and not only their educated selves. If we take these three essential personae into account the fundamental dimension missing in this book is the symbolical. We have to build today a symbolical semiotics centered both on the playwright/director and the audience. We must de-center semiotics from the play itself and the communication chain that reduces the people at both ends to empty shells. This de-humanizing process of the theatre and drama is crystal clear page 74 in the graph opposing on one side the first person + now + here to the third person + then + there on the other side. The first person cannot exist without the second person and in drama it is essential : to whom is one character speaking? In the playwright's and director's minds the character is speaking to his alter ego you, but also to them and to the audience. In the actor's mind he is speaking to his alter ego you and to the audience, and also to the director for a new contract. It is just as absurd to borrow from Benveniste the idea that the third person is no person at all. Absurd in a play. A first person can be speaking to a second person about a third person, absent or present. But this third person is an absolutely real person for the audience, as well as for the other characters and for the actors, etc. To use Benveniste's remark here is a distortion. Finally the author is both locked up in the letter of the text and blind to it. His approach of Hamlet's first seventy-nine lines brings in eighteen parameters and analyses each line along these eighteen parameters. And yet nowhere is taken into account the simple things that build the music of the text : alliterations, repetitions, rhyming patterns, rhythmic patterns, etc and all of these at the level of simple phonemes, or words, or syntactic elements, syntactic structures, or semantic elements (similar or antagonistic), etc. And I am not taking into account what is essential in Shakespeare, and I think in all poetry which is music first and for all : the numerical and symbolical patterns : binary being neutral and ternary being disruptive, not to go beyond this two simple elements. The audience can feel the difference between a binary and a ternary rhythm. Any audience has been trained by simple life into such simple basic rhythms. Each member of the audience will react the way they feel proper, maybe and probably unconsciously. But this simple device used by Shakespeare is fundamental, and inherited from the Middle Ages, from the romanesque period. And why is the thrice-crowned goddess, Diana, so often referred to by Shakespeare ? And the three phases of the ominous sombre moon ? It is not by processing the text or even one production of a play into parametric slices and calling this slicing a score that you will bring up the music. Music is first of all emotion and it speaks with the one and single complex heart of every single person involved in this play from the playwright to the audience.

Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University of Paris Dauphine & University of Paris I Pantheon-Sorbonne

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