Academic journal article Style

"Little Is Left to Tell": Beckett's Theater of Mind, Ohio Impromptu, and the New Cognitive Turn in Analyzing Drama

Academic journal article Style

"Little Is Left to Tell": Beckett's Theater of Mind, Ohio Impromptu, and the New Cognitive Turn in Analyzing Drama

Article excerpt

The focus of this article is a further investigation into the already existing intersection of research in cognitive science and literary studies. Special attention will be paid to the specificity of the dramatic text, seen as both verbal and performed. Drama, a term which has traditionally been applied rather loosely to describe texts written for the theater, is characterized by dialogue between at least two actors. It presupposes conflict and its resolution; hence it is often linked to high emotional friction. Stylistic studies of dramatic works, both as text and as performance, have been scarce. (1) Most exhaustively until now theater has been studied by semioticians, who have commented not just on the linguistic aspects of a dramatic work but paid attention to the nonverbal modes of expression in this genre. My aim in this article is to utilize insights from the emerging field of cognitive poetics for an analysis of drama that engages its verbal and nonverbal aspects as well as the complex interaction between actors and audience in the act of performance.

1. The Specifics of Drama

It has been noted by theorists that although theater has been intensely studied since the Greeks, no consensus has ever been reached as to what constitutes its theoretical and critical description. (2) I follow Marvin Carlson in taking "theory" in theatrical studies to mean "the general principles regarding the methods, aims, functions and characteristics of this particular art form" (Theories 9). Another important issue to be addressed is the distinction between "drama," understood as the written text of plays, and "theater," which describes the performance or staging of these written texts. The former is then a mode of fiction, written specifically to be staged and, hence, subject to specific conventions. The latter involves the totality of the performance itself and includes consideration of actors, staging, lighting, and spectators. Traditional stylistic analyses of dramatic works have understandably examined the written texts of particular authors (Culpeper, et al.) or discussed the very specificity of dramatic discourse; that is, the particular dramatic conventions of the genre (Herman; Short).

A certain priority of the written text over its physical enactment has thus been assumed, if not often explicitly mentioned, by critics and stylisticians alike. The obvious fact that the written play always precedes its performance chronologically and, hence, ontologically, should not detract from the importance of its very realization in the contextualized space of the stage. Semioticians of theater have argued that this very contextualization of a dramatic work, understood as "the physical conditions of performance" including "the actor's body and its ability to materialize discourse" (Elam 209) is the defining factor for any piece of drama.

Studied from these two perspectives (namely, the literary/stylistic and the semiotic), critical work on drama does not constitute a unified field, despite Keir Elam's provocative and, in retrospect, somewhat over-optimistic challenge to bring about such unification. (3) My aim in this article is to substantiate the claim that the emerging field of cognitive poetics, with its emphasis on experientiality and embodiment in meaning construction, is particularly well-suited to articulate the interpretive strategies necessary to make such a unified sense of theater, the most experientially real of the arts.

Theater semiotics owes its origins to the structural linguistics of the beginning of the twentieth century, in particular to the Prague Linguistic Circle. The study of signifying systems at that time included investigations of ordinary and poetic language, art, cinema, and, of course, theater (Matejka and Titunik; Elam 5-27). Due to space limitations, there is little to say here about the disadvantages of a conception of language as a disembodied system of signs. …

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