jueves, 20 de septiembre de 2012

Drama and Theatre

Beginning my course on English drama....

Literature is by and large a discursive phenomenon, a collection of texts, a set of linguistic practices. Literary works are made of words. Now, if literature is defined by its medium, written or printed discourse, drama is multimedia. Of course there is also "oral literature" (—a contradiction?) which is linked to live performance, and may therefore have a theatrical quality. But a book, a written text, is a well-defined medium. Drama may be written or printed—and read, just like any other poem or novel. In that sense we may speak of drama as part of literature, as a literary genre. But drama is also composed to be staged, and there it is multimedia: the words of the literary text interact with the presence and body of the actors, with gestures, acting, with staging conventions. In that sense, drama is literary, but theatre is multimedia. This ambivalence will be found everywhere; we may stress the literary aspect of drama, or its theatrical potential; we may read a play, or we may watch a performance, and we shall be experiencing drama in different ways. Some theories of drama emphasize its literary side, others emphasize spectacle and performance. Some dramatists are more literary, some are more theatrical. And some dramatic companies, too, are more literary and attentive to the text, while others emphasize theatricality, spectacle and acting. So the issue of mediality has to be acknowledged every time we encounter drama and theatre.

Here we shall use both terms interchangeably in many contexts, but when we need to emphasize live performance we will speak of "theatre" and when we emphasize the linguistic or literary aspect we will speak of "drama".

The twentieth century saw a certain reaction against "wordy" theatre or literary drama—although it was an age of powerful and innovative literary drama. But many directors and actors (and dramatists themselves) emphasized acting, spectacle, visual symbolism, creative staging and nonverbal communication; other semiotic dimensions apart from language are discovered and emphasized: lights, gesture, music, objects, space…

In studying a play, therefore, we may focus on the text or on the text in a specific performance—or a kind of performance, for instance, on the typical performance in a given theatrical tradition. That is, we may focus on the drama as literature, or on the theatrical aspect of the play. From a semiotic viewpoint, we may also speak in this case of the theatrical text, only we use here text in an extended sense, meaning not words but other kinds of signs.

Some aspects of the written play point to the theatrical text: these are called the stage directions. They may be missing in some authors or traditions; sometimes they are supplied by editors, not by the playwright. In many modern dramatists, such as Valle Inclán, Beckett or Tennessee Williams, the stage directiosn may be quite elaborate, showing that the author wants to control not only the text, but also the way it is performed; not suprisingly, sometimes such modern dramatists direct their own plays, or express annoyance when a company keeps the text but disregards the stage directions—part of the theatrical text as the dramatist understands it.

The main text in drama consists in the direct presentation of characters' words (and their actions, in the case of theatre). The author is silent, present like an invisible God in the world, but letting his characters speak and act without his intervention. Of course there may be exceptions: in "epic" drama (epic in the sense of narrative) there may be a narrator, a kind of author-figure whose discourse mediates the world of the stage and the world of the audience.  Sometimes a non-dramatic work may be adapted to the stage (e.g. Don Quijote) and then many options are open: the character's words may be preserved, or expanded and supplied where they are missing; the narrator's discourse may be suppressed or kept usually in a more marginal position as an epic or voice-over narrator.

In narrative the narrator's voice acts as a mediator between the authorial creation and the characters' world. For instance, sometimes the narrator is a kind of author, reading the characters' minds, but still he is "in the middle" in the sense that he presents the world of the characters as fact and not fiction—Although there are many possibilities and variations. In drama, such mediating figures may appear, too, between the world of the interacting characters and the world of the audience. Sometimes a chorus or narrator will address the audience; Shakespeare uses this device in some of his plays.

It is only to be expected that the most "literary" dramas will be those which work best as literature. Theatrical spectacles which rely on acting, situation, gesture or music rather than drama will belong to the history of the stage, or to the history of music, but not to literary history. For instance, opera combines music, song, story, text and acting, but operatic librettos are rarely considered significant works of literary art. The same goes for pantomimes or music-hall spectacles. The works which we study in this course are important literary texts which were also theatrically successful., for the most part (exceptions like Milton's Samson Agonistes).  Milton's text is an instance of closet drama, drama written to be read, not performed, although of course nothing prevents its being performed. Seneca's plays in the Roman period were influential instances of closet drama, much studied and imitated by the Elizabethan dramatists for their own theatrical plays.

A performance may complete or supplement the words of the dramatic text into significant action and gesture. Sometimes the acting and staging are so significant and prominent that they not only illustrate or "translate" the dramatic text—they may also interpret it, complete it or add to it, sometimes enter into a complex relationship with it, perhaps adding to the performance a number of meanings which are not to be found in the dramatic text as originally written by the author. A dramatic work may be written by one person, although sometimes we collaborate with others without even knowing it. But a theatrical performance is like a film, it is not the work of one person but of a whole team: author, adaptor, translator, director, manager, actors and the rest of the team behind the scenes—makeup, music, sound, light, stage hands, etc.





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