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Sign functioning in performance

Drama Review T84, 1979, pp. 231-256.

Drama Review T84, 1979, pp. 231-256.
Between May 12, 1664 and March 15, 1669, there took place one of those battles of the theatre without the understanding of which it would be difficult to correctly evaluate the force of the theatre, its ability to adapt, and the limits of its evolution. The premiere of L’lmposteur – written by Moliere who, after a none too easy career, was finally being spoiled by the muses and his king (without whom the contribution of the muses would have had less effect) – resulted in the banning of the play and a series of events that finally led to royal permission granting that a completed text be published and presented onstage, a permission under whose grace we still find ourselves. Between the possible premiere and the version considered acceptable, the text was changed several times, proposing ever more variants for performance.
So we can say – in order to place ourselves in a semiotic context from the very beginning – that sign processes took place that were determined in a broad context, itself characterized through signs. To a great extent, we have the opportunity of get. ting a concrete picture of what this is all about. That is, we benefit from that system of reference to which any new act of semiotic (but not only semiotic) interpretation can be related. Within this system falls Moliere’s text – in the meantime become known under the title of Tartuffe – as well as the royal ban (that is, the semiotic and ideological system behind its justification), the secret papers of the Compagnie du Saint Sacrament de l’Autel (which vowed to do ail in its power to have the play prohibited and its author humbled before the Church), a letter concerning the comedy (actually a review of a performance that took place on August 20,1667), the notice of excommunication, signed by the bishop of Paris, for all who dared to read the play or to participate in the private performances that Moliere continued to present at court, Moliere’s letters to the king (the famous Placets au Roi, the second of which raises a semiotic problem: however much the author tried to hide the true identity of the leading character, it often came to light), the text that was printed (with the author’s dissimulating preface), and all the literature that accompanies the play’s evolution. This is an enormous amount of material and cannot be wholly taken into consideration.
The premiere that took place on January 13, 1979 at the Residenztheater in Munich under Ingmar Bergman’s direction takes this reference system into account, at least through an obvious stylistic suggestion of the way of presenting theatre in the epoch in which Tartuffe appeared. We should state at the outset that his is no attempt at historical reconstruction. Rather, it is a question of a polemic interpretation that tries, however, to find its motivation from within the play’s system of signs – signs forced to function in a new fashion, to fulfill another meaning through which the very performance of the play in the present can be justified. I shall point out this polemic sense in the actual semiotic analysis and also attempt to see to what degree it is justified in relation to the text and to the context of its historical appearance and fulfillment.
I undertake the semiotic analysis of this performance not as an end in itself, not even to discuss a great production (because, as I shall show, it is not a masterpiece), but to point out a singular perspective, a perspective that permits overcoming critical subjectivism as well as petty factualism in order to make room for more precise understanding of the theatrical act in its complexity without overestimating some factors (usually literary) to the detriment of others. Semiotics actually presupposes an analytical technique, hence a concrete (in contrast to abstractly cultural) competence and also the need to define the context in which events (artistic or otherwise), studied in their aspect as sign processes, come about. It does not reduce itself to an algorithm (a series of operations through which a problem is solved), neither does it present itself as an exclusive universal method through the application of which problems of criticism (theatre criticism in particular), theory, or practice would be solved. In order to carry out the task I have set for myself – that is to present a distinct semiotic analysis whose object is the theatre in its dynamics (the theatre’s only authentic reality) – I shall proceed relatively didactically, as follows:

  1. Introduction of the specific terms to be used and definition of method (terms in current usage are considered known by the reader or can be easily found in reference material).
  2. Presentation of the object of the analysis, a presentation in the semiotic system of written language completed by photographs from the performance that complement the analysis with signs of a visual nature.
  3. The actual application. IV. Determination of the usefulness of such a means for the interpretation and evaluation of theatre.

After almost 20 years of experience with the theatre (from writing theatre to directing, acting, criticism, theory, history and esthetics of performance), I am naturally conscious of the limits of schematic presenation as well as of the fact that resistance to one method or another stems mainly from a misunderstanding of terms. The unfortunate reality of approximate, sometimes false, utilizations of terms that are intended to be semiotic obliges me to be cautious. Those who desire to know semiotics and to apply it to the theatre (or to some other domain) must begin by understanding the (semiotic) principle of the ethics of terminology.
I. The semiotic system I would like to use is characterized by its triadic struc sure. Its model and reference terms come from Charles S. Peirce and are based on a definition of the sign that is the premise for this application.
I.1.”A sign is . . .something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity.” The terms of the sign are: representamen (sign as sign), object (for which the sign stands), interpretant (to whom it stands). Siqns are divisible by three trichotomies: according to the relation of the sign to itself (representamen), which may be termed as Qualisign (a quality which is a sign), Sinsign (an actual existent thing or event which is a sign), or Legisign (a law that is a sign), according to the relation to its object, which may be termed as Icon (likeness to the object it denotes), Index (directly affected by that object), or Symbol (association of general ideas causing the reference to the object); according to its relation to the interpretant, which may be termed as Rhema (sign of qualitative possibility), Dicent (sign of actual existence) and Argument (sign of a law).
In order to make these distinctions, I find it useful to refer to the logic called of possible worlds, not in its generality but adapted to the reality of the theatre. Therefore, in order to be more specific:
I.2 Theatre is performance.
1.21. The performance is a dynamic semiotic system that lasts exclusively for the duration of its realization, and we refer only to its “traces”; that is, to the dominantly indexical signs that it leaves behind. The theatre’s reproducibility is relative (even within a series of performances, reproduction is relative, the performance being an especially context-sensitive reality), so its unique nature has the peculiarities of a Sinsign (unique, singular sign). In the case of performances that follow a given staging, this nature is partially transcended.
I.3. Interpretation is a process that takes place in man’s generic semiotic field. The interpretation realizes one identification, i.e., only one of the possible values (out of a practically infinite number) of the pretext, whatever this may be: dramatic text in the classical sense, action script, open spatial-temporal theatrical structure, psychodrama, game, etc.
I.3.1. In the particular case of performing a text, the interpretation realizes one out of the possible functionings of the signs participating in the theatrical act. The mediate nature of theatrical interpretation – here appear the play’s signs which can constitute a narrative structure (story), the signs of the performance which can follow a given structure or be opposed to it, destroying the logic of the narrative from within or blocking it, etc., the signs that intervene between the performance and the public, etc. – explains why, until now, semiotic research has not been concentrated on signs but on characters, viewed as real persons who do not know what is going to happen. In theatre, one always knows what will happen, but not always how it will happen. Our model is based on the paradigm that in the performance, signs function with the aim of producing a meaning/family of meanings (which also include nonsense, with the expressive and cognitive value we know it has). These signs are not homogenous. They belong to doubly articulated language (the signs of dramatic literature: lines, parenthetical notes, etc.) as well as to musical and visual language, to the language of human movement (kinesics), of mimicry, etc. The theatrical sign is a syncretic sign that participates in the dynamic realization of the performance’s meaning.
We can always start out from a sequential project: the series of scenes, actions, and their internal connection. This static model represents the extension of the possible performance. If the creators deem it suitable to leave out one or another of the drama’s moments, a possible sequence or a series, they modify the extensional model; that is, they realize one of its intensions.
I.4.Theatre is the unit between model (extensional development) and interpretation, realizing one possible world from among a number of possible worlds.:
I.4.1. The performance is one intension from among the number of those possible. The extensional model can be represented schematically (as a series of boxes indicating how the action unfolds and what its connection to the following action/actions is) or can be described (compression of text through concentration on the narrative). Each sequence in particular can be characterized semiotically, and the whole represented by the model can be “calculated” semiotically by totaling the signs (a non-mathematical operation which can be formalized, however). Opposing the sequential model to the real sequence produced in the performance, we have a first image of the way in which the possible world of a performance is constituted.

Another possibility is to consider the whole sign of the performance and to establish how its synthesis was brought about. No matter what course is followed, making a semiotic analysis of a sign (simple or compound) means to see what its ob ject is and how the sign stands in unity with this object in respect to the interpretant. Thus, the following explanations should be made:
I.5. In the spirit of Peirce’s semiotics, we should distinguish between the immediate object (“which is the object as the sign itself represents it”) and the dynamic object (“the reality which by some means contrives to determine the sign to its representation”) of the sign.
I.6. We should distinguish between the immediate interpretant, the dynamic interpretant, and the final interpretant.:
I.6.1. The immediate interpretant is the interpretant as it is revealed in the right understanding of the sign itself It is ordinarily called the meaning of the sign.
I.6.2. The dynamic interpretant is the actual effect that the sign as a sign really determines. (This permits a subdivision which will not be reproduced here.)
I.6.3 The final interpretant refers to the manner in which the sign tends to represent itself in relation to its object. (I shall return to the further division of the final interpretant in the actual analysis.)
I.7. The sign can be understood only as a triadic unity, thus continuously implying the object for which it stands, the representamen (the sign as such) and the interpretant.


II. Between the premiere that provoked the banning of the play and the publication of the script, a lot was changed in the play’s contents. Initially, the text closes with Tartuffe’s victory (Orgon’s final lines in Act III: Et puisse l’envie en crever de depit!) and produces a functioning of signs similar to that of George Dandin. The two acts that later complete the comedy have a direct didactic nature: the unmasking of Tartuffe (the scene set into motion by Elmire in order to offer Orgon the chance to convince himself and ending with the revelation of Tartuffe’s real nature, which evolves from imposture to hypocrisy) and the apology to the king. Moliere was conscious of the fact that the initial signs were thus submitted to changes in condition, that another functioning was required in order to dissimulate the sense that aroused hostility, especially in clerical circles. For example, in the version performed to obtain approval for presentation, the main character is called Panulfe and the focal point is changed from sham to deceit, from imposture to hypocrisy. In the first case, the defining signs have the nature of a Sinsign. And the blindness of Orgon, who in the face of evidence hands over all his possessions and his daughter’s hand to Tartuffe, shows that he himself cannot master these signs, that a coherent thought system (level of Legisigns) cannot oppose them. The second case constitutes a sign system that dominates the Sinsign: that is, the symbolic system of laws, signs of an enlightened monarchy that is opposed – as a real, organizing ideology of the possible – to the Indexes of its degradation. The hypersign represented by the play as a whole in the initial version is of the nature of a Dicent Symbol Legisign. The hypersign represented by the version that is performed with modifications of one kind or another, even to this day, is of the nature of an Argument Symbolic Legisign (a sign process that affects only the subsign interpretant.)
Bergman’s presentation exhibits the following significant peculiarities in respect to its relation to the text and its initial presentation:
photo1.jpg Photo 1

  1. he carries out the project of the argumental hypersign (play in five acts);
  2. he indicates the object for which this sign stands through a performance represented by a new sign in which, however, reference signs from Moliere can be identified: it is known that Mme. Pernelle (Orgon’s mother) was initially played by a male actor who was lame (to suggest a type of embittered, nasty personality while avoiding the model of someone old through temperament). In Bergman’s production, a man is also cast (see photo 1), but the sense conveyed is different, that is, a lack of affection between mother and son;
  3. the stage setting (done by Charlotte Fleming) makes a stylistic allusion to the gravures of Moliere’s epoch, but Bergman integrates it into the dynamics of the play and uses it as a conventional system (the non-aesthetic side of the panels with their technical inscriptions for backstage direction are also used, (see photos 2 and 3) with the aim of not allowing a sign system peculiar to illusionistic theatre to be established. This procedure is semiotically characterized by the transition from Iconic subsigns to indexical subsigns. Speaking in a strictly esthetic fashion, the performance is dualistic – it mixes elements of the subjectivist living theatre with elements of the objectivist theatre of representation;
  4. a final aspect of the relationships in question concerns the real text preserved or – none the less significant – the text that was omitted. A minimum of omissions were made, in general attenuating Tartuffe’s relationship to the Church.

photo2.jpg Photo 2
(Observation: In the case of this production, it is useless to make an exact inventory of the omitted text. In the cases in which the director assumes responsibility for deeper intervention, the semiotic analysis is obliged to analyze which signs are spared and which are sacrificed.)
photo3.jpg Photo 3
In short, Bergman believes that the universe of the characters in Tartuffe presents the consequences of human alienation that has as a direct result Orgon’s extreme credulity and the almost unanimous artificiality of the others. Tartuffe’s bigotry, which caused the Compagnie du Saint Sacrement de l’Autel to prohibit the play, seems uninteresting to Bergman in this age. He is attracted by the aggressiveness with which the play denounces the lack of feeling in society, coldness, and apathy (a constant theme with Bergman). He believes that only in such a society can a man be seduced by a hypocrite.

Orgon, frequently presented in scenes suggesting a certain tendency to somnambulism (see photos 4 and 5) and thus unconsciousness, seems to be exploited and oppressed by the members of his household, even by his mother. So the moment he is offered, with a falsity evident to all, Tartuffe’s attention, care, and love, he becomes a victim because society has denied him these things (indices of moral values.)
photo5.jpgPhoto 4 photo5.jpg Photo 5
Bergman explains Tartuffe himself as the symbol of the parvenu, a character who makes use of an impressive erotic potential and great verbal agility. Elmire, Orgon’s young wife, even has a kind of pleasure in the game (but only respect for her husband), a game which ends up in a scene that takes on the proportions of a horrible revenge (see photos 6 and 7).
photo6.jpg Photo 6 photo7.jpg Photo 7
It is this view of society that explains the attribution of a certain stupidity to Damin, Orgon’s son – heir, so the performance says, only to his father’s stupidity – and a certain preciosity to Mariane, as well as the evolution of the moralist Cleante, Orgon’s brother-in-law. The latter utters his moralizing in the beginning supported by a cane, then on crutches, and at the end in a wheelchair (see photos 8 and 9). Self-destructive, impotent demagogy is embodied through this progressive ankylosis. The only lucid character, the only one capable of human warmth and devotion, is Dorine, in contrast to all, as impertinent as the truth. This seems to be the interpretation Bergman gives the text.
photo8.jpg Photo 8 photo9.jpg Photo 9
III. The model (story) of Tartuffe is known. Bergman’s interpretation preserves the sequential chain intact – that is, the signs of the narrative structure can be practically wholly rediscovered. There do appear, however, several new signs represented either through action (for example, the attempt to suggest the theatrical environment of Moliere’s epoch, an attempt that the signs of the stage scenery point out but which is later contradicted by the abrupt emphasis on convention, or Cleante’s going from cane to crutches and to wheelchair) or through particular theatrical procedure (one sole example: the monolog of the king’s attache is uttered in French. Bergman knows that such a text no longer convinces anyone and parodies: “It is known that arias sound better in their original language.” The nature of this monolog is thus changed from the sign of an ideology – Dicent Symbol Legisign – to a sign with an indexical nature – more precisely, a Dicent Indexical Sinsign.)
We now remain with two possibilities:

  1. to consider each theatrical sequence in the extensional model and to characterize it as sign – a simple operation in theory but relatively laborious in practice and of little significance for anyone who has not actually seen the performance – and so constituting the sign of the performance from these particular signs or
  2. to consider the whole as a given hypersign and to break ii down into its constituent parts (the one making the analysis fulfills the function of the final interpretant subsign).


Each of the two possibilities mentioned has its advantages and drawbacks. In fact, in the theatrical act, the author of the performance (and this is not just a question of the director) establishes its signs step by step, relates them, and observes what functioning they can fulfill, thus synthesizing an expressive whole The act of analysis, with its critical, historical, theoretical, didactic, or whatever end, tends to follow the opposite direction. Below, I shall give examples taking the second possibility into consideration. This is not an exhaustive study (for that, I would have to resort to details such as word-sign, movement-sign, light-sign, sound-sign, color-sign, the specific scenic context, the context of the auditorium, the context of the performance, etc.) but an attempt to view, at the esthetic macro-structural level, how codification and decodification are brought about; in particular, how the function of signification specific to the theatrical act is carried out. Finally, a semiotic analysis should specify the object that the sign stands for to the interpretant – the unique, perishable sign of the performance.

Performance is the interpretation of the Argument Symbolic Legisign repre sensed by the play. This interpretation is a semiotic process: in particular it is produced in a complex language that negates the text’s verbal condition and transforms it into a sign system in which the word is only a component of the new sign – a syncretic sign – specific to the theatre. The problem of principle that presents itself is the determining of the interpretant subsigns that cause theatre to exist The interpretant, being a sign itself, has in its turn an interpretant, and so on – a fact that demonstrates the idea of the inexhaustible nature of the interpretation of a text. The immediate interpretant sees only the immediate object represented by the sign and is the unanalyzed effect produced by the sign The first part of the performance, ending with the line of the all-believing Orgon, evidently isolated from his family, produces a Rhematic Indexical Legisign; its object is Orgon’s inability to see the truth. The second part, taken by itself, has the nature of a Rhematic Symbol Legisign arousing associations to events of a similar moral (and moralizing) nature. The composition of the two signs leads to a Dicent Symbol Legisign – that is, the meaning expressed in one phrase: “Truth has been re-established.”
The dynamic interpretant consists of the real effect on the spirit produced by the sign In this case, the composition of signs is made in the same manner, with the understanding, however, that I now have in mind the possible inductions from particular to general – that is, the Dicent Indexical Sinsign of the first part, likewise composing a Dicent Symbol Legisign: “Things could be repeated with Valere,” (One of the last images of the performance shows us Orgon leaving together with his future son-in-law in a movement that recalls the relationship between Orgon and Tartuffe.) This is a question of an induction from what was seen to what might continue. The dynamic interpretant produces the paradigmatic extension of the production.
The final interpretant is systematic (in fact, what is presented here stands for such a final interpretant). It has three levels:

  1. general habit acquired through a coliective experience of interpreting signs. In respect to Bergman’s production, it points to the composition between a Rhematic Indexical Sinsign and a Rhematic Indexical Legisign (the fact of the betrayal of Orgon’s good faith and the ideology opposed to that fact) leading to a Rhematic Symbol Legisign. There is no real judgment of values but an open option .
  2. the specialized habit of interpretation, experimentally verified. For example, the theatre critic composes a sign (the sign of the production) which can be: the symbolic intention (ideology) of alienation is not realized (or the symbolic intention of alienation which generates fraud is realized) – that is, the Dicent Symbol Legisign.
  3. the deductive model, resulting from experience and thus establishing an argumental sign (Argument Symbolic Legisign). Here the actual context (through its signs – that is, man’s mutual indifference, the mercantile nature of his relationships, the hope for a deux ex machine type of action that will settle everything, etc.) as well as the historical context are implied.

If the spectator (immediate interpretant) cannot, for example, catch Moliere’s allusion to the Saint Compagnie, the final interpretant approaches it step by step. The performance throws into relief the sign embodied in the alexandrine “Pour la gloire du Ciel et le bien du prochain” – once the motto of the Compagnie – in a flagrant context for its demagogy (Orgon asks forgiveness for the suspicions of the others), not making a sign per se out of it but setting it in the framework of the sign of its ideology: the neighbor (“Love thy neighbor . . .”) as a generality and not as a concrete reality.
Patrice Pavis has affirmed that didactic theatre is the preferred place of indexical signs. Bergman’s production has tried to free itself from the didacticism implicit in Moliere’s text and to put the final monolog into derision (and to generally reduce the dimension of the monologs) while replacing it (consciously or not) with another: the didactic monolog of the sense he has tried to bring about through Moliere. Indeed, the stereotypical indexical signs have disappeared. Tartuffe’s religious mien, even his costume, follow a line different from the one so often discussed in the era of the premiere. (Is it a soutane or not? See photo 10.)
photo10.jpg Photo 10
But other signs have appeared. Each character speaks for himself – mutual relationships are merely apparent – becoming a spectacle within a spectacle. (The scene with Marianne and Valere is the most evident example. See photo 2 and 3.) Bergman tends to reduce the importance of linguistic signs and often has actions negating words. The production has many visual signs (representamens), in particular a real repertory of Dicent Indexical Sinsigns characteristic of Tartuffe and especially of his valet Laurent (see photo 11), who appears onstage and is made to play in obvious complicity with his master. The initial sense of fraud and hypocrisy, which one interpretant of the premiere was able to establish, passes to a secondary level.
photo11.jpg Photo 11
More precisely, the explanation of this moral phenomenon, or one of its explanations, becomes the new sense of the performance. We have the good fortune of being able to make a connection between the interpretant of one performance (held on August 20,1667) who is specifically referred to in critical anthologies and the current interpretant. In the famous Letter concerning the comedy The Imposter (Lettre sur la comedic de l’lmposteur), the former interpretant points out that the hypersign of the performance is produced through a series of signs having a predominantly iconic nature: the allusions to the representatives of the Church determine a manner of acting (intonation, movement, mimicry, costumes, lighting) that suggest associations. We thus find ourselves before a set of Iconic Legisigns; pre-esthetic, one could say. The functioning of these signs is constrained on the one hand by the imposed likeness and on the other by the attempt at generalization (the field of Legisigns specific to ideology as an organizer of the possible).
In the new production, practically any tendency to the iconic sign is abandoned. However, the aesthetic is brought about, semiotically speaking, inconsistently: on the one hand, there are the traditional comic signs (especially scenic gags – that is, a Rhematic Indexical Sinsign) and on the other, the accumulation of the signs that tend towards demonstration. The signs exercise the action of retrosemiosis – that is, from meaning to sign (representamen) with the effect of refining it – relatively inconsistently.
I have already given Cleante as the embodiment of demagogical self-mutilation. The sense of self-mutilation is the motive behind the sign (cane, crutches, wheel chair) as the interpretant has perceived it. Likewise, the sense of conventionalization introduced by utilizing both sides of the panel props in all their dimensions is also an example of retroaction from the meaning to the sign that is motivated, functioning freely in relation to the usual constraints of stage props. The sign of the “aria” that sounds better in the original language – that is, the text uttered in a pretentious French with an obvious Bavarian (not merely German) accent – completely changes the sense of the text. lt declines from Legisign to Qualisign and, through its functioning in the context, also fulfills an iconic function with a hint of sarcasm.
photo12.jpg Photo 12
IV. Semiotics does not invalidate analyses made through other means of knowledge and judgment. It does, however, fulfill the interdisciplinary nature of theatre research that corresponds to the syncretic nature of the theatrical sign. The semiotic perspective of creator and theoretician (critical, historical, etc.), motivates to a point that not even the literary, cultural, or ideological perspectives have attained. Semiotics has an integrating nature, places the theatrical sign in a broad context, and is completed in value judgment, because there is no value which does not reveal itself through its signs and which is not justified except through the way it participates in human practice. The specialization of vocabulary that an authentic semiotic analysis presupposes can be understood in direct relation to the need for competence in approaching any sign process (that of the theatre not among the last). Semiotics does not make anyone more talented, but it can impart that consciousness of the knowledge that more clearly distinguishes between the subjective and objective content of the theatre, eliminating sterile arguments (such as the primordiality of the text, the role of the director, the application of Stanislavsky or Brecht, etc.). As in any other field, there is always the risk of overestimating possibilities and results, and especially of expanding dilettante, incompetent, or unfounded attempts. In the final analysis, theatre is not made for semiotics, but semiotics can be developed and applied in order to understand theatre better. Finally, it is not just a method, but always implies a philosophy, that is, an interpretive system. Without this, semiotics would be reduced to a new game among the initiated.


Mihai Nadin is a professor (at the University of Bucharest and the University of Munich and theorist who has published numerous books and articles on theatrical subjects.
Erratum
We are informed by a reader in Paris that two of the dates in the article ‘~Paul Margueritte and Pierrot Assassin of His Wife” (Autoperformance Issue, T81, p.. 109) are not correct. Margueritte’s performance at the Theatre Libre took place in March 1888 (rather than February) and the “Manifesto of the Five” was published on 1 February 1888 (rather than in August).


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