4- Text & Performance

Antar Abdellah
This chapter looks into texts designed for performance.
Performance does not simply represent a change of mode from writing to speech.
Any consideration of literature in performance needs to take account of how the text
is performed, and this brings into play a range of factors such as manner of delivery,
facial expression and body movement, dress, possibly scenery and lighting effects,
that work alongside the verbal text and contribute to the meaning and literary value
of the performance.
Analyses of text in performance tend to be multimodal, looking at the combination
of different verbal and nonverbal elements in the creation of meaning.
Furthermore, this chapter explores the stylistic analysis of dramatic
texts , and a conventional distinction between literary text, production
and performance will be highlighted.
‘Text’ tends to be found in one of two senses first, text considered
outside of a particular performance.
The object of analysis here is usually a play script, or any other written
text such as a poem, story, and so on. This may have been written to be
performed, or it may have developed out of performance.
Second, there is the text uttered as part of the performance itself,
whether or not this is pre-scripted.
Stylistic analysis of dramatic texts suggests that it is possible to
gain a great deal from the analysis of a text outside of any
performance of that text.
This argument is made explicit in a discussion of dramatic text
and performance by the stylistician Mick Short (1998, p. 7)
arguing that ‘sensitive understandings of plays can be arrived at
through “mere reading”’ and, furthermore, that ‘dramatic texts
contain very rich indications as to how they should be performed’.
Mick Short's "FawityTower" was written as a television series
and has a single widely recognized performance that is also
freely available as a recording.
It is likely that most people who read the script will be familiar
with this performance. It may therefore be harder to separate
this kind of script from its televised performance than it is to
consider independently a play produced for the theatre, and
which will have many different performances.
Mick Short [1989pp 8.9] lists the following points in support of his
argument about the value of studying dramatic text independently of
1 Directors and actors need to read and understand a script before
performing it.
2 Each production of a play can be seen as the play plus an interpretation of
3 If plays could only be understood in the theatre, it would be problematical
to have any discussion of a play except by people who had seen the same
4 Different productions of the same play do not necessarily constitute
different interpretations
5 There is pressure on modern directors and actors to ‘do something
different’ with plays that have been put on many times before.
6 There are further problems in restricting analysis/discussion to
performance, since each performance of the same production of a play will
differ in some respects from other performances.
7 Even if you haven’t seen or read a play before it is possible, in many
respects, to distinguish the contribution of the playwright from the
contributions of those involved in the production of the play.
An audience can decide:
 (a) whether the production was a reasonable rendering of the play;
 (b) whether the play was a good play;
 (c) whether the theatrical experience was good or not.
8 There are advantages and disadvantages both in reading and watching
plays. For instance, in reading a play you can imagine and try out different
interpretations; this isn’t possible in watching a performed play, but the
performance itself (acting, lighting, etc) can provide a more vivid
experience of the play.
(Adapted from Short, 1998, pp. 8—9)
In light of the above Short's arguments , it is possible
to distinguish the scripted text of a play from its
production and performance, and that study of the
text alone is worthwhile and productive.
 Short also notes that it is possible to make judgments
of value separately about plays and their production/
performance .
 Faithfulness to the text is not necessarily directly
related to the perceived value of a performance. Short
gives an example of a production of Shakespeare’s
King John in which the actors pretended to be puppets
but, for Short (1998, p. 9), still ‘an interesting and
enjoyable theatrical experience’.
In terms of dramatic text analysis, Vimala Herman analyses an extract from John Osborne’s
play Look Back in Anger. In fact, she borrows from conversation analysis researching spoken
interaction and specifically its from.
Conversation analysis is an approach to the study of natural conversation, especially with a
view to determining the following: Participants’ methods of turn-taking constructing
sequences of utterances across turns , identifying and repairing problems, and employing gaze
and movement , how conversation works in different conventional settings , such as interviews,
court hearings, telephone conversations.
In view of Swann et al [ 2004] conversation analysis (CA) is a tradition of enquiry
concerned with the empirical study of ‘naturally occurring’ spoken interaction both
formal and informal.
In CA, speech is viewed as a form of activity, and analysts investigate how
participants ‘get things done’ interactionally: how they open and close
conversations, manage the smooth exchange of speaking turns and carry
out activities such as giving and accepting or rejecting an invitation.
Conversation analysts are interested in the overall structure of
conversation, its sequential organization, and how this is cooperatively
managed by participants.
Vimala Herman examines the concept of ‘the turn’: when someone
speaks, they take a turn at speech, and when speech alternates, turns
alternate as well.
Drama as dialogue is a multi-input form, and this raises the issue of the
distribution of turns and their management. After briefly reviewing the
work of the Conversation Analysts, Herman considers the contribution
that turn-taking patterns make to the understanding of situation and
character in plays.
She conducts an analysis of an extract from John Osborne’s Look Back in
Anger, and shows how turn-taking choices , such as who speaks to
whom, length of turns, pauses, interruptions.. affect the reader’s
interpretation of the characters’ speech.
“Turn” is the enactment of a speaker’s right to
speak by taking an opportunity to speak in a
speech event or situation.
 Turn-taking has been described as a process in
which when participant A talks , then stops ,
participant B starts , talks , stops and so we
obtain an A-B, A-B, A-B A-B distribution of talk
across two participants .
 Dialogue is by far the most frequently types of
speech in drama.
Vimala Herman’s analysis in "Look Back in Anger" play
by Osborne investigates how turn-taking is
organized between the different characters .
 According to Vimala Herman, turn-taking patterns
indicate something about speakers, and therefore
about characters in a play, for instance, a speaker
who is consistently interrupted and unable to gain the
floor may be seen as less powerful than other
 In "Look Back in Anger" Herman focuses on 4 aspects
of turn-taking:
 turn-grabs’, ‘turn allocation’, turn order and ‘turn
size and texture’:
Turn-grabs occur when one of the participants interposes himself or herself
into an interaction uninvited and against the rights of the invited speakers.
2-Turn allocation
Allocation implies allotment and distribution; thus, turn allocation occurs
when a turn is allocated by the speaker’s selection of next speaker.
3-Turn order
Turn order reveals unequal distribution of turns among those present. One
participant among all the interactants appears to be central to all the
interactions and the participant structures in force; all interactants address
him or her , and ,thus, acts as the focal point of their speech.
4-Turn size and texture
This type of turn-taking is related to size of the turn of the participants, and
it is specifically confined to the participant whose turns are occasionally
longer throughout the interaction. It also refers to the multi-clause turns
which such a dominant participant uses to develop or to intensify some
personal points to be delivered to his interactants.
Plays are invariably intended to be performed,
and artistic decisions need to be taken that will
affect the literary value of the performance
Some of these relate closely to the verbal text of
a play, but other aspects of staging, i.e.
characters’ actions and activities, costumes,
scenery, lighting affect how a play is received
and understood, and will sometimes be more
salient than the dialogue.
Patrice Pavis sees the production or staging as the bringing
together of different signifying systems along with costumes,
lighting, and so on.
 Dramatic dialogue therefore seems to be the product of stage
utterance and at the same time the text used by the mise en scene
to envisage a context of utterance in which the text acquires a
 For Pavis, however, the scripted text provides the starting point
for a play as a work of art, and the starting point for meanings that
may be conveyed.
 The text only acquires full meaning in performance, after
creative input from director, actors, and so on. In Pavis’s
conception, it would make little sense to consider the literariness
of a dramatic text independently of its performance. This suggests
also that meanings may change with different mises-en-scène;
more generally, the interpretation of a play is likely to shift over
time and in different social or cultural contexts.
In contrast to Mick Short, Pavis sees the idea that a production should
be faithful to a scripted text as ‘pointless’, as it is based on the
assumption that the text has an ideal and fixed meaning, free from any
social, cultural or historical variations. Pavis uses as semiotic approach.
Semiotics a science dedicated to the study of production of meaning in
society. As such it is equally concerned with the processes of
signification and with those of communication, i.e. the means whereby
meanings are both generated and exchanged.
Its objects are thus at once the different sign systems and codes at
work in society and the actual messages and texts produced thereby.
Semiotics is often exploited in commercials. Semiotics has its roots in
structuralism, deriving in part from the work of Ferdinand de
Theatrical performances are, then, the result of a set of production
decisions regarding the choice of costumes, lighting effects, etc.
Performances are conceived by theatre semioticians as carefully
contrived ‘performance texts’ in which various sign systems work
together to create meaning.
Maria Thomas suggests that play texts may be
interpreted in a variety of ways, and ‘the same script
will work differently in different productions and
different performances of the same production’.
 This is not just a matter of how the play appears on
stage. Likewise, it is a matter of audience perception.
 Maria Thomas claims that meaning is not a textual
given, but is produced in a particular context and in
interaction between actors and audience.
 This assumes that audience members may bring
different interpretations to a performance depending
on their cultural and linguistic experience.
Studies of verbal art that are primarily interested in
performance tend to attach considerable importance to the
context in which performances take place.
‘Context’ here includes the broad social, historical and cultural
context within which performances are located ; as well as the
dynamic connection between actor and audience in individual
staged performances.
Researching oral literature or folklore in non-European cultures
is worth being considered. According to Ruth Finnegan,
traditional (pre-1960s) approaches to folklore tended to focus
on the collection and analysis of folklore texts.
Richard Bauman [1986], was concerned with the ‘ethnography
of oral performance’, where verbal art was analyzed as a
particular way of speaking within a particular cultural context.
Ruth Finnegan relates her research to the developments
in anthropology and folklore, where, in the I960s and
1970s, the focus of attention in the study of storytelling
and other forms of verbal art shifted from transcribed
texts to contextualized performance.
 She illustrates these points with examples from her early
research on Limba storytelling and performances of dub
poetry by the Jamaican- Canadian poet Lillian Allen.
 Finnegan identifies several different poetic elements that
she sees as contributing to the value of these
performances: repetition, rhyme, rhythm, etc.; she also
identifies paralinguistic features, such as pitch of voice,
loudness, groans and sighs; the performer’s use of the
body in facial expression, gesture, and other body
In view of Ruth Finnegan ,the performance may be tailored to a
particular audience, and the audience also participates more
actively in the performance through calling out and so on , which
in turn will affect the follow-up words and actions of the main
Finnegan therefore sees the audience as ‘co-creator’ of the
This highly active involvement would usually be less evident in
performances of scripted plays, though audience response would
still play a part.
While Finnegan focuses on the analysis of particular
performances, she also points to the importance of the wider
cultural context in which these performances occur: ‘the
specificities of historical and ideological setting.
Finnegan tries to convey the literary quality of performance by
describing aspects of the performance event, highlighting features
such as actor's appearance, activities and mode of delivery.
This chapter has investigated the stylistic analysis of scripted
dramatic texts.
Likewise, it has explored the analysis of text in performance
including pre-scripted dramatic dialogue and oral literature that is
created in performance.
Perceptions and understandings of particular performances
depend on the historical and cultural context in which the
performances take place.
However, performances change from one occasion to the next.
This text has also discussed some aspects most closely associated
with the verbal text, including a performer’s tone of voice, gesture
and stance, costume, lighting, scenery, and other aspects of
staging may also be important.
Even things that are not on stage, such as the nature of the
theatre or other performance space, seating, curtains and other
decoration may affect the perceived quality of a performance.
Performances are also likely to be experienced differently by
different audience members.
Differing social, cultural and personal experiences will also
give rise to different interpretations.
In fact, the interaction between different aspects of
performance are complex, work together to create meaning
and contribute to whether or not a performance is highly
Features such as tone of voice and facial expression may, for
instance, extend the verbal text, emphasizing some aspect of
They also complement the verbal text, providing additional
layers of meaning, for example, about a character’s
appearance, personality or state of mind. Different
performances may offer alternative interpretations,
highlighting certain potential meanings and playing down

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