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The Functions of Language in the Theatre

  • Eli Rozik (a1)


Roman Ingarden's publication of ‘The Functions of Language in the Theater’ (1958) was a landmark in the development of theatre theory in the twentieth century. Since its appearance several methods of research have radically influenced our understanding of the functions of language within this art, particularly semiotics, pragmatics and philosophy of language. More than thirty years after publication of Ingarden's work, it is sensible to address the same question once again and to suggest a theory that reflects the state of the art today.



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1. Ingarden, Roman, The Literary Work of Art, translated by Grabowicz, G. G. (Evanston: North Western University, 1973). All quotations from this edition.

2. Rozik, Eli, The Language of the Theatre (Glasgow: Theatre Studies Publications, 1992). This is the main thesis of the book.

3. Ingarden assumes that the functions of language in the real and fictional world are the same, which is at least partly erroneous. He even conceives the theatre as an object of enquiry that can reveal the various functions of language in real verbal usage (p.391).

4. Aristotle, , The Poetics, in Butcher, S. H., Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Arts (New York: Dover, 1951), ch. VI, 2.

5. Peirce, C. S., Collected Papers. Hartshorne, C. et al. , eds. (Cambridge University Press, 19651966). Cf. Sebeok, T. A., ‘Six espèces de signes’, in Degrés, Brussels, 2. 6. 1974.

6. Actors imitate real indexes that do not refer to themselves, as real indexes refer to those that produce them, but to characters. On the fictional level, however, the enacted index is supposed to have been produced by the character. For a detailed discussion of this principle see Rozik, Eli, ‘Acting’ in Helbo, A., ed., Approches de l'Opera (Paris: Didier, 1987).

7. Aristotle, ibid.

8. Austin, John, How to Do Things with Words (London: Oxford University Press, 1962). It is noteworthy that Ingarden published his well known article in 1958 in Polish, three years after Austin's lectures were delivered (1955) and four years before they were published (1962). Both claim that they recapitulate former ideas. None of them mentions the other. These could be seen, however, as parallel developments.

9. Beware: the verb ‘perform’ is used in two senses: a) to ‘enact’ and b) to ‘do’ or ‘act’. In the theatre actors may ‘perform’ (enact) a character that ‘performs’ an act. The former meaning is currently used in theatre studies, whereas the latter stems from philosophy of language and pragmatics.

10. Van Dijk, Teun A., Text and Context (London: Longmans, 1977), p. 168.

11. Van Dijk, ibid., p. 167; Cf. Levinson, Stephen C., Pragmatics (Cambridge University Press, 1987 (1983)), p. 246.

12. Austin, ibid., p. 11; Searle, John, Speech Acts (Cambridge University Press, 1969), p. 43; Van Dijk, ibid., pp. 173 & 182.

13. Austin, ibid., pp. 55–6; Searle, ibid., pp. 20–27; Levinson, ibid., p. 231.

14. The prepositional content does not appear in the form of a detachable sentence in every speech act: certain transformations delete duplications.

15. Beckett, SamuelWaiting for Godot (London: Faber, 1970 (1956)), p. 15.

16. For a detailed discussion see Rozik, Eli, ‘Speech Acts and the Theory of Theatrical Communication’, Kodicas/Code, 12, 12 1989.

17. It might be advisable for playwrights to specify the type of speech act of which the words are part, by means of a prefix or any other conventional sign.

18. The fact that the index of an action is a verbal expression is probably responsible for a basic misunderstanding in the analysis of speech acts: viewing the response of the hearer in terms of communication.

19. Sophocles, , Oedipus the King, in Greek Tragedies, Vol.1. Grene, D. and Lattimore, R., eds. (The University of Chicago Press, 1968).

20. It seems that Ingarden discovered the ‘active’ function of language by enquiring into the theatre: ‘The existing “dramatic” literature, with its extraordinary wealth of different forms of human intercourse in speech acts, can best inform us of the manifold functions of speech in human life.’ (p. 389).

21. Carlson, Marvin, ‘Dramatic Texts and performance’. Semiotica, 821/2, 1990, p. 159.

22. Lyons, John, Semantics (Cambridge University Press, 1981), Vol. 2, p. 191.

23. For further details see Rozik, Eli, ‘Theatrical Conventions’, Semiotica, 89-1/3, 1992.

24. Rozik, Eli, ‘Theatrical Conventions’, op. cit.

25. Shakespeare, William, Macbeth.

26. The fact that Ingarden does not see a communicative function in soliloquy, (p. 382) indicates that he is not fully aware of the two axes of verbal intercourse in the theatre: soliloquy is certainly not interactive but is communicative to the audience.

27. Sophocles, , Antigone, in Greek Tragedies, op. cit.

28. We should add that the boundaries of stage and offstage are not absolute and that they shift constantly: some of the offstage components of the fictional world may appear in iconic guise at a later stage. We deal here, therefore, with permanent offstage entities.

29. The translation uses ‘vividness’, (pp. 381 and 393).

30. Euripides, , Hippolytus, in Greek Tragedies, op. cit.

31. For further discussion see Rozik, Eli, ‘Towards a Methodology of Play Analysis—A Theatrical Approach’, Assaph—Studies in the Theatre, No. 6, 1990.

32. If the play including stage directions resembles a recipe for baking a cake, as John Searle claims, it is a bad one since it lacks essential ingredients: ‘The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse’, New Literary History, 6, 1975. p. 329.

The Functions of Language in the Theatre

  • Eli Rozik (a1)


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