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It is well known that theatre semiotics follows the metamorphoses of theories of semiotics in general and, like them, draws on Charles Peirce and American pragmatism, Saussurean linguistics and the linguistics of the Prague Circle, Russian formalism and French structuralism. These currents converge in the theatre semiotics of the 70s, producing a methodology that is highly scientist, technical, self-reflexive and abstract. This type of theatre semiotics may no longer be an up-markettopic, nor is it stone-dead. Its fundamental principle of ‘abstract objectivism’, as Bakhtin/Voloshinov describe it, survives despite the greater flexibility provided by its attention to such areas as reception theory and theories of cultural systems. Its inclusion of reception theory acknowledged of the fact that spectators exist in the construction of semiosis. Ideas concerning cultural systems and, thus, primarily those concerning codes were used to indicate the importance of cultural contexts in the processes of signification.
In her analysis of interculturalist theatre practice, Erika Fischer-Lichte has developed a theory of productive reception, in which the subsuming of a source culture's codes and conventions into a target culture's production has a telos of solving problems (political, aesthetic, cultural) and/or of filling gaps. In The Dramatic Touch of Difference: Theatre Own and Foreign, Fischer-Lichte sites the practice's operation: ‘An intercultural performance productively receives the elements taken from the foreign theatre traditions and cultures according to the problematic which lies at the point of departure’. The theory also extends to the act of reception by the spectator in that it implies a reading which is non-oppositional between source and target cultures, which demands the interculturalist performance be read as a monoculturalist product. The Théâtre du Soleil's Greek tetralogy Les Atrides (1990–3), directed by Ariane Mnouchkine, is an example of intercultural performance with which one can engage Fischer-Lichte's theory in relation to the reading and classification of signs.
The theory of mise en scène we are trying to establish allows us to eschew impressionistic discourse on the style, inventiveness and originality of the director who adds his so-called personal touch to a precious text regarded as closed and inviolate.
In an interview with Richard Schechner in 1988 Karen Finley commented on her performance style by stating, ‘I'm really interested in being a medium.’ It is with this simple remark that she illuminates the most compelling aspect of her work as a performance artist. Finley's work is both frustrating and enlightening, and it is the conflicting tensions her performance style evokes within me as male spectator that I find so engaging. I am drawn into the performance via the bodily exhibitionism that permeates so much of her work, only to be pushed away by the tone and subject matter of her narration. At the end of her performance I am left with no easy answers, only disturbingly caustic questions.
Actors typically create characters and thereby appropriate the time of the performance and the space of the stage. As a common denominator to the words spoken and actions performed, the character correlates dramatic time with real performance time. When Kant says of the human subject ‘the “I think” must be able to accompany all its representations‘, the actor might say of the character ‘it must be able to accompany all my presentations’. Similarly, the stage as a hostile, indeterminate, and empty space makes room for the character, it is appropriated as a necessary platform for the realization of the character or as the medium for the production of its history: in the name of the character the actor can step into this space as into a costume; it clothes, contours or profiles, and physically projects the character.
Omri Nitzan's direction of Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters at the Israeli National Theatre Habimah in 1993 was one of the most ingenious and locally-bound contemporizations of a classical play that I have ever seen, as well as one of the most dependent on a correlatively attuned recipient. Nitzan sets out from the viewpoint that Goldoni's comedy of errors, derived from the commedia dell'arte and negating it, is not a stylized refined and exclusively theatrical pastime, set in the never-never locus of a glamorous stage Venice, as implied by Strehler's famous precedent, but is rather a kind of socially critical and realistically inclined play, ‘dealing with crime, class-distinctions and the capitalist structure of society’. ‘As I repeatedly read the play’–maintains Nitzan–‘I felt myself attracted to its human tale. I have seen suffering, miserable characters, relentlessly striving for unattainable happiness. There are three suicide attempts in the play […], which sometimes seems like a nightmare.’ Nitzan's production is set in a derelict square, a cross between a contemporary shabby Italian piazza and the backyard of a ramshackle, old Bauhaus building in a Tel Aviv suburban slum. The set of enclosing walls, lit by harsh Mediterranean lighting, and its multiple doors including a revolving one, vaguely alludes to the traditional setting of a farce. However, this impression is contradicted by the very theatrical and yet lifelike signs of depravity, instability and aggression: the thin paper walls, which are punctured and vandalized throughout the performance, are smeared with hostile graffiti expressing the pent-up feelings of its emotionally mute inhabitants. Heaps of trash lie scattered. The performance does not start with Clarice's engagement to Silvio, but with an invented mimed scene of Federigo Rasponi's murder by his sister Beatrice's lover, Florindo Artusi, performed to flickering disco lighting and accompanied by the shrill music of a Gothic horror melodrama. The actors speak a brilliantly processed vulgar slang; their body language is erratic and violent, including in the love scenes; these are lovers who swiftly resort to blows or pull out knives with long blades resembling shabarias, the weapon of Palestinian terrorists in 1993. Truffaldino wears the stained blue overall of a delivery boy, with an empty money pouch, typical of many such lads seen driving third-hand scooters in the streets of Tel Aviv. He is no smart comedy servant, but a hungry, humiliated and bitter unemployed youngster, although some remnants of the traditionally stooped posture are still vaguely in evidence. The archetypal attributes of the commedia masks are also belied by the performance of other characters such as Pantalone, who appears here as a small-time Levantine merchant, clad in a cheap suit, an unlit cigarette butt between his lips, bragging with his car keys in the typical macho gesture of working-class Israeli males.
In his essay entitled ‘Poetry and Drama’, T. S. Eliot states that ‘a mixture of prose and verse in the same play is generally to be avoided’. The reason, says Eliot, lies in the fact that ‘each transition makes the auditor aware, with a jolt, of the medium’ (p. 13). Alternating use of prose and verse within the same work of art is justified, he adds, only when the author's specific purpose is to produce just such ‘a jolt’ in his audience. The case of Lorca's Blood Wedding and its recent 1990 Israeli production calls for a reassessment of Eliot's analytical approach.