Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Death of Representation and the Representation of Death: Ionesco, Beckett, and Stoppard

Academic journal article Comparative Drama

The Death of Representation and the Representation of Death: Ionesco, Beckett, and Stoppard

Article excerpt

The crisis of representation as a feature of late modernist art in general, diagnosed by T.W. Adorno in Aesthetic Theory, finds its most striking expression in the field of drama in Eugene Ionesco's and Samuel Beckett's plays. This crisis results from the contradiction hidden in the late modernist poetical demand to represent the unrepresentable, which threatens to destroy the means of representation. Drama that follows this demand holds out, either on account of the ineradicable representational capacity of language and theatrical conventions, or via its evolution into metadrama. Ultimately, however, the demand to represent the unrepresentable brings drama to self-annihilation qua genre. In the first part of this article, I examine the unfolding of this process in Ionesco's and Beckett's plays, and afterwards, interpret Tom Stoppard's play Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead as an implicit answer to the crisis of theatrical representation brought about by late modernist radicalism. I seek not to unearth authorial intention in Stoppard's play, but rather to contribute to the broader picture of twentieth-century drama history. In cases like this, Wolfgang Theile's warning should be remembered: if "to say" and "to understand" are to be applied in the field of aesthetics, the appropriate question can never be "what should have been said" or "how can it be understood," but only "what could be reached in terms of poetics with this utterance and these possibilities of understanding?" (1)

I

At the very end of Ionesco's The Chairs, after the Orator has left and no one remains onstage, the audience witnesses an unusual scene: "For the first time human noises seem to be coming from the invisible crowd: snatches of laughter, whisperings, a 'Ssh!' or two, little sarcastic coughs; these noises grow louder and louder, only to start fading away again. All this should last just long enough for the real and visible public to go away with this ending firmly fixed in their minds. The curtain falls very slowly." (2) The fictitious, invisible audience onstage reacts as theater audiences would in such a situation, when left to await the continuation of the stage action. Meanwhile, the actual audience watching Ionesco's The Chairs is probably calm and does not fidget: as far as it is concerned, something is happening onstage. There is no one onstage, yet the attention of the actual audience is riveted by what would be its own reaction in a similar situation; its own reaction is separated from itself and broadcast from the stage. There is no audience on the stage, but its voices are heard. The audience is in the auditorium, but voiceless. The audience and its usual reaction have been split and have assumed independence. The reaction of an audience faced with an empty stage has assumed complete autonomy and is now represented to the theater audience. This emancipation is the central experience of Ionesco's play. This is why it must "last long enough" if it is to force the viewer, without recourse to rationalization and interpretation, to face it and to carry it from the theater as his or her final impression.

It corresponds structurally to the key point in The Chairs: the arrival of the Orator and his address. There is no meaning and no important message in his words--where we traditionally locate meaning, there is now only a gaping emptiness. The absence of meaning in the Orator's words, and thus in the world represented in the play, coincides with the absence of an audience on the stage. Like meaning, the audience is awaited and welcomed, but the actual audience sees that in fact, there is nothing, and that to await either the audience or the meaning of the Orator's speech is a delusion. Whether inexpressible in itself, or inexpressible by the Orator, or simply nonexistent, meaning is not located in speech. Meaning is absent, but speech remains. The disappearance of meaning does not result in the disappearance of speech: speech is still there, it is represented, it fills the world and the play, but it is now autonomous, uncommitted to anything whatsoever, and free of all meaning. …

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