From Prague to Paris: The Beginning of Theater Semiotics and Sartre's Early Esthetic of Theater

Article excerpt

At a time when a "return to Sartre" is being heralded in France and elsewhere in preparation for the celebration of the centennial of his birth, it seems appropriate to ponder the nature and tenor of this renewal. To which aspects of Sartre's work are we returning as the centennial approaches, and are we doing so with flesh eyes or with the same critical prejudices that have obscured our appreciation of this work in the past? If one looks for answers to Bernard-Henri Levy (aka BHL), the principal instigator of this current renewal, with specific regard to the genre that interests us in these pages--the theater--one is going to be sorely disappointed. For while Levy considers Sartre "the first [writer]--the only [writer]--to know how to split himself equally well between being a theoretician and an accomplished storyteller," (1) he lavishes this praise solely on the theory and practice of Sartre's novels: "The concept of engagement is not a political concept stressing the social duties of the writer; it is a philosophical concept highlighting the metaphysical powers of language.... Sartre ... has never really written a novel with a [totalizing] thesis or message" (BHL 85, 86).

According to BHL, the same acknowledgment cannot be made for Sartre's plays, the practice of which does not merit extensive discussion in terms of this renewal: "The theater, in the Sartrean specification of genres, is not exactly a literary genre" (BHL 87). (2) More troubling still is BHL's lack of appreciation for Sartre's dramatic theory, his esthetic of theater, which BHL denigrates by stating that, in this theory, "[The theater] is no longer completely an art form ..., it is a tool; it is not a genre, it is a vehicle" (BHL 87-88). This belief that Sartre's theoretical foundation, his philosophy, does not support the theatrical genre as an esthetic object is not unique to BHL; it originates in a generational conflict that has sought to exclude Sartre from being taken seriously as a true theoretician of theater. (3)

For example, when referring to the various intellectual movements that reacted to Sartre's work during the 1960s and 1970s, contemporary theorists tend not to differentiate between semiology or semiotics and structuralism. This association is certainly clear in the work of Jonathan Culler, who states with regard to the study of signs and systems: "Stress may fall on one or the other of these propositions--it would be in these terms, for example, that one might try to distinguish semiology from structuralism--but in fact the two are inseparable." (4) To this assertion, Vincent Descombes adds the following development: "The opposition between the prevailing post-war doctrine and what was soon to acquire for the public the name of structuralism appeared to be--or would have sought to be--total." (5) According to Descombes, then, semiotics and structuralism are opposed to any remaining currents of pre-1960 thought in France, best represented by phenomenology and existentialism. It would therefore seem impossible, or at best tenuous, to compare Sartre's thought with these former terms. However, when one separates the ideology of structuralism (the work of a specific generation of French theorists) from the study of the sign, one is better able to understand semiotics in its most general sense: a stress not on "what" one says but on "how" one says it. Or, as Keir Elam puts it: "Semiotics can best be defined as a science dedicated to the study of the production of meaning in society. As such it is equally concerned with processes of signification and with those of communication, i.e. the means whereby meanings are both generated and exchanged." (6) In this light, one is better able to compare certain elements of Sartre's theoretical work with semiotic practice, "the one discipline which has attracted a great deal of academic attention since the 1960s," (7) as this practice pertains to dramatic theory and theatrical esthetics. …