Thursday, 19 October 2017

Thinking Theatricality

It is interesting that in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the two terms, Theatricality emphasises the more negative association of the term, rather than the aesthetic connotation. 


Theatricality, as a notion, relates to lies and falsehood, all the way back to Plato’s suspicion of mimesis. Even Nicholas Ridout writes that there is ‘an antitheatrical prejudice within the discipline of theatre studies itself.’[1] And Stanislavski urged his students to ‘act simply and naturally, without theatricality.’[2] But even to ‘act naturally’ in a theatre production is still theatrical as the self of the character is not the self of the actor. They are not-not-I[3], which is a theatrical device.

While both Theatricality and Performativity are fluid terms and resistant to a singular definition, I found clarity in the writing of Josette Féral who writes that ‘Theatricality seems to be a process that has to do with a “gaze”…’[4] that semiotically reads the space, recognises the ‘other’ and allows theatricality to takes place in the gap between the self and other. It is a result of either a body (the other/an etic view) claiming the space as a theatrical space, and/or a spectator (the self/an emic view) framing a performance or performative as a theatrical event. This imposition on the performer, the other, can happen willingly, as in the case of an actor acting, or unwillingly, as in when the spectator impose a theatrical narrative on an event or action.

Our attempt at coming up with some definitions or explanations of Theatricality

Theatricality is, therefore, found in the space of spectatorship: when an action or performance is deliberately interpreted as removed from the quotidian.
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Davis and Postelwait posit that ‘Theatricality is […] a way of describing what performers and spectators do together…’[5] Theatricality is a relationship – a spectatorship. Does this mean that theatre, and theatricality is ‘more true’ because it relies on this bearing witness? Theatricality is, at least, a conscious choice imposed on a body (emic or etic), aware of its falsehood, aware of its own performance, rather than performativity which appears to be, in part, unconscious.

Reinelt writes of ‘theatre’s capacity for creating a new real, making manifest the real, embodying the real…[and]… Theatrical tools can be useful for decoding social reality…’[6] which reflects Victor Turner’s cultural feedback loop. Theatricality provides us with a model for performativity, and theatre can provide us with a blueprint for social action.

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Writing of rituals, the display of emotion at grand events, parades, etc. Reinelt states that ‘It seems clear that the public life’s theatricalization is no longer a contested issue’.[7] We prize theatricality over ‘reality’, the falsehood over the truth, and entertainment over evidence. However, Ridout writes that ‘In becoming aware of this framing up we are invited to see what lies not outside the frame but beneath or within it…’[8] Theatricality is an awareness of falsehood, which invites us to look for the truth beneath it. Only by framing the theatre as separate, as ‘other’, can we recognise what is outside it, and recognise the ‘self’.

Is the theatre more ‘true’ because you know it’s not?



[1] Nicholas Ridout, ‘Introduction’, in Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.15.
[2] Stanislavski, quoted in Tracy C. Davis and Thomas Postlewait, ‘Theatricality: An Introduction’, in Theatricality, ed. by Davis and Postlewait (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p.21.
[3][3] Richard Schechner, ‘Restoration of Behaviour’, in Between Theater and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), p.112.
[4] Josette Féral and Ronald P. Bermingham, ‘Theatricality: The Specificity of Theatrical Language’, SubStance, 31.2-3 (2002), p.97.
[5] Tracy C. Davis and Thomas Postlewait, ‘Theatricality: An Introduction’, in Theatricality, ed. by Davis and Postlewait (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p.23.
[6] Janelle Reinelt, ‘Towards a Poetics of Theatre ad Public Events in the Case of Stephen Lawrence,’ TDR: The Drama Review, 50.3 (Autumn 2006), pp.71-83.
[7] Ibid., p.71.
[8] Nicholas Ridout, ‘Introduction’, in Stage Fright, Animals, and Other Theatrical Problems (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p.13.

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