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Brecht and mimesis #2

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This is the second in a series which began with Brecht and mimesis #1.

The subject is a particular aspect of mimesis: its significance for Bertolt Brecht’s critique of ‘Aristotelian theatre’.

Signs and indications

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre

It would be useful at this point to introduce the notion of a ‘sign’ as used by Sartre in his discussion of the mimic Franconay [Jean-Paul Sartre, The psychology of imagination, Rider, London (1950)]. The actress puts on a straw hat and protrudes her lower lip. The straw hat is a ‘simple sign’. It ‘refers to’ Maurice Chevalier, and ‘guides the consciousness’ towards seeing the performer as an impersonator and as Maurice Chevalier. The characteristic (if exaggerated) angle of the hat is also a sign, but is at the same time somewhat of an imitation – and therefore type (A) representation: the protrusion of the lower lip perhaps even more so. The notion of a sign is useful as an indication that the ‘suggestion’ might operate in disposing a viewer to see something as a representation through seeing it as something else. For signs as bearers of meaning and/or reference and/or intention can succeed or fail. They can understate or overstate, and two signs can contradict each other. Insofar as signs are to be ‘read’ they can be misread, and a viewer (though presumably not a ‘normal’ one) could be illiterate or semiliterate.

To return to our two examples, the hanging of the tray on the wall is then a sign to be read as a suggestion to see the tray as a picture; and the intricately imitative detail of the waxwork is reinforced in its effect by the near total absence of signs to be read as suggestions that the waxwork should be seen as anything other than a real person. I say ‘near total’ rather than ‘total’ since the effect fails, or rather could convert from wonder and admiration to confusion or terror, if the viewer does not know that the waxwork is not a real person. A minimal sign to convey this could of course be the fact that the waxwork is in a ‘waxwork museum’.

A very likely reason why someone might see that a waxwork is a waxwork rather than a real person would be small but evident defects in craftsmanship. Analogously it may be open to doubt as to why the tray was hung on the wall. I want to refer to these ‘non-intentional signs’ (which would be taken as evidence rather than as bearers of meaning) as ‘indications’. In, say, a major work of art there may be some features which can be picked out as signs, some which can be picked out as indications, and others whose category is not easily decided. I shall therefore often use the blanket expression ‘signs and indications’ to cover the entire range.

Imagine a performer impersonating a (British) policeman. He puts his hands behind his back and flexes his knees. I would be inclined to describe these stock imitations as ‘signs’ which convey the intended suggestion that in what follows the performer should be seen as a policeman. But what follows is the portrayal of a particular policeman (invented on the spot). This I would call (B)-type representation.

Dramatic representation

It is time now to relate the discussion so far to a full-blown work of dramatic art. We start by recasting formulations (i) and (ii). For convenience these are repeated below:

(i) X pictorially represents (a) Y if and only if X is a picture and is intentionally so designed that a normal viewer in normal conditions would be disposed to see X as (a) Y on account of an irreducible analogy between experiences of seeing X and experiences of seeing Y(s).

(ii) X pictorially represents (a) Y if and only if X is a picture and is intentionally so designed that a normal viewer in normal conditions would be disposed to see X as (a) Y on account of his recognition of the intention behind X that it should be seen as (a) Y as if there was an irreducible analogy between experiences of seeing X and experiences of seeing Y(s).

We could perhaps recast (i) as:

(iii) X dramatically (or theatrically) represents (a) Y if and only if X is a dramatic representation (eg a film or a play or part of one) and is intentionally so designed that a normal spectator in normal conditions would be disposed to perceive X as a dramatic representation and as (a) Y on account of an irreducible analogy between experiences of perceiving X and experiences of perceiving Y(s).

And (ii) could be recast as:

(iv) X dramatically (or theatrically) represents (a) Y if and only if X is a dramatic representation (eg a film or a play or part of one) and is intentionally so designed that a normal spectator in normal conditions would be disposed to perceive X as (a) Y on account of his recognition of the intention behind X that it should be seen as a (a) Y as if there were an irreducible analogy between experiences of perceiving X and experiences of perceiving Y(s).

Birth of Venus

Birth of Venus

A play as a whole may well accommodate both type (iii) and type (iv) representations. Similarly a painting may accommodate types (i) and (ii). In Botticelli‘s Birth of Venus for example, formula (i) may account for the representations of the long-haired woman, the shell etc. But it would be odd to describe the whole picture in the same way as a representation of a tableau vivant of a long-haired woman standing on a shell floating on water. For such a tableau vivant very likely did not exist, and even if it did it need not have done. The tableau vivant exists only in the form of its representation, and thus is no tableau vivant at all. Knowing what shells and women and waves on water are is necessary for understanding the picture. Knowing what a woman-on-a-shell-floating-on-water is is not to know anything more.

It is important to see the difference between this example and that of Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney drew a picture of a mouse and named the mouse ‘Mickey Mouse’. He thereby created a character who could subsequently be the subject of indefinitely many and varied representations. Botticelli on the other hand painted a picture of a woman standing on a shell and called the picture ‘The Birth of Venus’. Of course the painting can be, and has been, the subject of representations, eg in cartoons. But a cartoon of the Birth of Venus is more likely to be a picture of the picture than a further representation of the thing the original picture was a picture of. Finally an actual tableau vivant of the Birth of Venus would be likely to be a representation of the picture, not a representation of the thing the picture was a representation of. Insofar as the picture as a whole is representational, it is an example of type (ii) representation.

Representation of types (iii) and (iv) operate in an analogous way in a stage play, although there is an obvious difference between the two contexts. In a representational painting a depicted object cannot but be the representation of that object rather than the object itself, except in an exceptional case of, say, a painting of an artist’s studio, where the representation of yellow paint on a palette would itself be yellow paint. In the case of a stage play this kind of thing would not be so exceptional. In Shakespeare‘s Troilus and Cressida the actor playing Troilus may kiss the actress playing Cressida. This would be a kiss, not the representation of one. But insofar as it is a kiss between two players it represents – type (iv) – a kiss between Troilus and Cressida. A sword fight however may well be, for reasons of saftety, the representation (iii) of a sword fight, as well as the representation (iv) of a sword fight between Achilles and Hector. So insofar as the representing medium (human beings) is the same as that of the objects represented, whether or not it is appropriate to talk in terms of representation (iii) will often depend on the degree of naturalism. The physical action which is ‘mime walking’ can only be described as the representation (iii) of walking. But in a conventional play every time an actor crosses the stage he walks, he does not perform a representation of walking.

Consider now as naturalistic a performance as possible of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. As far as the human element is concerned (ie ignoring the set and lights and sound effects) all actions will be real actions: real walking, real sitting etc. But actors P and Q will represent (iv) Clov and Hamm, who are both characters created by Beckett – not however as autonomous characters like Mickey Mouse but as characters restricted (deliberately by Beckett) to existence within the play Endgame. Mickey Mouse could have had a similarly restricted existence in, say, a single comic strip or a single cartoon film. These are questions of degree and detail and, like for example questions of identity between Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Hamlet of Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are dead, are subject to individual artistic decisions on the part of writers, actors and directors.

The next article in this series will explores further aspects of ‘real’ versus ‘representational’ in dramatic art.

© Chris Lawrence 2008

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