Rabkin quotes Fish: theatre text, textuality and representation

Gerald Rabkin’s 1985 essay, “Is there a Text on This Stage? Theatre, authorship, interpretation,” opens with an epigraph from Beckett: [in Re:direction, op. cit., pp. 319-331]

The best possible play is one in which there are no actors, only text. I’m trying to find a way to write one.

Rabkin deals with the problem of the text in theatre, whether it is the script or whether the interpretation of a particular production. The question is a legal one, raised in view of two contemporary disputes, both had in fact run their course. The first was that between the Wooster Group and Arthur Miller, over the former’s use of large chunks of The Crucible, in L.S.D (…Just the High Points…). The second was over the American Repertory Theatre’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. The question is more interestingly a critical-ontological one and leads back to the quoted epigraph: How can the best play be the one with no actors only text?

“The question of the relationship between play and performance is at the centre of contemporary theatre theory,” writes Rabkin. He cites Artaud as saying that the author in theatre is he or she who “controls the direct handling of the stage.” [Ibid., p. 319] Rabkin, however, also notes that Formalist and Post-Structural theory had yet to penetrate theatre theory with ideas of the death of the author or immanent textuality, il n’y a pas d’hors-texte.

The director’s authorial prerogative is a principle guiding the theatre of the ’60s and ’70s. Rabkin calls the process by which the primacy of the written text and its authorship were overthrown in theatre a “revolution of physical presence.” [Ibid., p. 320] Two strategies emerge to replace the role of playwright: 1) the group authorship of the devised work; 2) the written text, usually a classic, as one, sometimes among several, point of departure.

This latter strategy persisted, and indeed increased, as a dominant model in theatre experiment, since collective playwriting waned in the face of the dissipation of the ideals of communality and difficulties of the craft. Herbert Blau has noted that “the polymorphous thinking body which had for a while in the theatre displaced the text … [came] to discover that along with the unreliable duration of group consciousness, it had a limited repertoire of ideas.” [emphasis added, ibid.]

That the fall of the written text gave rise to the group author for only a short time before the author’s singularity was once again asserted is attributed to a broader historical movement away from the experiment of communal working and living, to issues of technical craft, left unexplained, but worth pursuing, and to the group subject’s limited capacity for original thought. Presumably, the difficulties belong to the problem of text and theatre as a field or problematic, because, if anything has changed since Rabkin wrote this essay, it has done so within the purview of the relationship between movement, action, gesture and word, language, text. The latter ought to be considered intrinsic as it gives us the qualitative difference itself, in the concept of textuality, the layering of pieces of text, gestural and verbal, as well as sampled and found. As Rabkin writes:

Textual interpretation is fundamental to all theatre representation. [Ibid.]

He then asks what a text is. Umberto Eco’s distinction between the ‘closed’ and the ‘open’ text is adduced to clarify the theatre’s reading of the text. The Wooster Group’s active reading of canonic texts is, we are told, ‘open.’ Beckett’s and Miller’s scripts do not differ insofar as they are both written as ‘closed.’ Although, in practice, Beckett’s Endgame is ‘open’ in a different way, to different qualities of openness, and ‘closed,’ in a different way, to different becomings, from Miller’s The Crucible. How account for these shades, if not to offer Eco’s corrective that every text is “effectively open to a virtually unlimited range of possible readings”? [Ibid., p. 321]

Isn’t this, called by Deleuze and Guattari, the disease of semiosis, what authors are scared of? Textuality seems to bring about sheer textuality, a state of affairs where the range of interpretations is virtually unlimited. Levi Bryant, in his introduction to Difference and Givenness, criticises the reading of a theory like Eco’s, or that of Deleuze, which comes up with an anything-goes scenario. The unspoken assumption reaches hypostasis: that anything-goes is a grounded philosophical stance when it is grounded only in example, analogy and the moral image of thought, which is further compromised by belonging to a particular time, to particular cultural assumptions, to the American century and Northwestern ethnicity.

The Wooster Group, of Rabkin’s example, see themselves as working on an open text. The difficulty is that the characterisation of texts as open has here as much if not more to do with how Elizabeth LeCompte reads as how the Group writes, or performs, its work. Isn’t it into this problem of interpretation, the theatre practitioner’s pre-text, his or her reading seen as determinate of the work or confused with the work, that Un manifeste de moins falls?

Deleuze’s exposition of a ‘minor theatre’ based on Carmelo Bene’s Romeo and Juliet, his Hamlet, his Richard III is as much if not more an explication of Bene’s reading as it is a consideration of his writing on stage. That is, the literary pretext, the kings and queens, the figures of power as they are presented in Shakespeare’s scripts are represented on the stage over which Carmelo Bene exercises directorial control by an absence, a subtraction, yet a subtraction which grounds its theatrical effectiveness in representationality.

Can a theatre text, as opposed to the written text, ever be called ‘open’ or ‘closed’? The outstanding virtue of Rabkin’s essay lies in advancing the concept of a theatre text, comprising a multiplicity of disjunctive compossible texts, gestural, written, spoken, real and ideal, each of which has its role in a greater, if minor, music,the piece of theatre. In other words, a theatre text is whole but not complete, so neither ‘open’ nor ‘closed,’ although this may be said of its literary complement?

The parts of this text are laid out in layers, each also constituting a whole region which may or may not stand up on its own. For example, the lighting scheme in a Robert Wilson opera can be watched for its own sake as a work of art.

Neither meta- nor inter-, the play belongs to textuality itself and the play of textuality. Neither super- nor trans-position, the play is (of) a composition of texts and texts which constitute its textuality. A theatre piece, then, may be seen as no more nor less than a segment along the trajectory of theatre: its textuality always al-read-y inadequate to the Idea.

Rabkin explains the title of the essay as a playful take on Stanley Fish’s “Is There a Text in This Class?” which, in turn, came from a student, who, having taken Fish’s course was attending the start of a course being taken by one of his colleagues, where she asked: “Is there a text in this class?” The colleague responded with: The Norton Anthology of Literature. To which she replied:

No, no. I mean in this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it just us? [Ibid., p. 324]

Rabkin continues:

In other words, having been conditioned by Fish’s theoretical preoccupations about the status of the text and the source of interpretative authority, she employed a notion of textuality far different from its familiar usage. [Ibid.]

Rabkin points out that for Jacques Derrida all reality is textual: “écriture is a self-conditioning mass whose limits are unknowable.” [Ibid.] He cites the film writer Charles Wolfe as extending the notion of text to the non-verbal. Wolfe writes:

The text itself shifts in and out of view like an oscillation between figure and ground in an unstable optical illusion. [Ibid., p. 325]

“Not only is the text elusive, it is unstable,” notes Rabkin. [Ibid.]

Taking this ‘different’ notion of text back into the theatre brings the complication that there is often an hors-texte, the written script. Granting one sort of text precedence over another conforms to the traditional legal interpretation, which gives the script authority over performance. As an aside, it’s worth comparing how the legal apparatus handles criminal acts and how it defends property and copyright; in both scenarios acts of law are invoked which have a clear performative element.

Rabkin makes the point that even should the playwright whose text is in question allow interpretative leeway, this by convention is an openness to alternative illustration, representation, to accompany the dialogue with actions not included in the script. This is an accompaniment in the weak or vehicular sense, since the action is not regarded as conveying meaning. The rider on this interpretative leeway is usually that such stage-directions as are added or altered not impugn in any way the spirit of the play. To crib Oscar Wilde: to one is given the mind, to the other the body, but the soul is out of reach.

Richard Schechner provides a theoretical framework which, while still privileging the script, opens the way for its deprivileging: the theatre’s constituent elements are undertaken to be Drama, Script, Performance. This is a trinity in which the hierarchy remains intact but it allows taht the play may not entirely the thing.

In Schechner’s model, then, text – defined as a function of language – is circumscribed by drama, the narrowest circle of [in the inclusive orbit of] performance which is privileged in its place. [Ibid.]

Here Rabkin makes his decisive move:

May I suggest in light of contemporary critical discourse that rather than accept this inversion that the concept of textuality be broadened so that the mediating level of performance is neither privileged nor deprivileged? [Ibid.]

To clarify what this broadening might entail, Rabkin states:

Anything we can read as a coherent ensemble of messages constitutes a text. [Ibid., p. 326]

We are in addition told that this constitution of the text occurs in but is not limited to language systems; it occurs but not exclusively as a function of artist intent. Performance, then, properly is a constituent of textuality.

To further ‘pry loose’ the literary text from the notion of performance, Rolande Barthes’s distinction, in his essay “From Work to Text,” between, strangely, work and text is helpful. The work, according to Barthes, “functions as a general sign and thus represents an institutional category of the civilization of the Sign.” The text, however, is discursive and plural and “expressed only in an activity, a production.” [Barthes quoted in ibid., p. 326]

Rabkin adds that the work is displayed, while the text is demonstrated, or, in other words, the text as methodological field is presented, while the work is represented and represents. Rabkin rehearses the implications of distinguishing between text and work in this way.

The most important implication for his argument is that the author is not privileged in view of his or her text; that although legally the work may belong to him or her, an author does not provide all the conditions for the discursive production of that work as text: the author is one condition among an unlimited number and, Barthes writes, may return in his or her text but “does so as a guest.” [in ibid.]

Rabkin follows the historic line of thought leading to Barthes’s debunking of the myth of the author. He brings in M.M. Bakhtin and Michel Foucault to attest to the validity of devalorising authorial position and therefore authorial title and rights of property. Of Foucault’s argument that ownership of texts arose along with capitalist individualism as a regulatory function, he writes:

Legal scholars do not dispute [Foucault’s] analysis, and in fact trace copyright’s emergence in English law even further back historically, to the establishment in 1556 of the Stationers’ Company as a means of Tudor control of the press. The stationers […] kept a company register in which all published works were listed. The register came to serve as evidence of the printer’s title to the works included, and the idea of property and attendant rights and responsibilities was thus associated with literary work. [Ibid., p. 327]

An alternative provenance for legal ownership of literary work is found in the practice of the sovereign extending special privileges to the author in the way of letters patent, which could indeed be revoked should such a move be justified in the cause of the greater good. In contrast with the copy-right of printers and stationers, the sovereign granting of special rights is rather alienable whereas that legal principle derived from the former is regarded as inalienable.

Rabkin admits he is advancing an argument for reforming copyright law in mitigation of authorial control. However, he writes that the Hollywood model is admonitory, since within it writers’ rights may be alienated in the cause of serving the greater good of protecting investors and shareholders. This he counts as an abuse. He cautions:

[…] those of us sympathetic to the destabilizing of the author’s patriarchal authority over his text must also recognise the importance of protecting the author’s personal rights to his work. [Ibid., p. 328]

This is a compelling argument: greater say-so for the writer in film and TV would, according to Rabkin, be aesthetically beneficial.

Director’s theatre is a practice that places interpretation centrally. Rabkin quotes Fish:

The relationship between interpretation and text is thus reversed: interpretative strategies are not put into execution after reading; they are the shape of reading, and because they are the shape of reading, they give texts shape, making them rather than, as is usually assumed, arising from them. [in ibid., p. 329]

Fish puts forward the idea of ‘interpretative communities’ as a corrective to the total absence of normative interpretation and consensus about what is meant in a text, to the death of the author, to the sheer play of textuality.

If we accept the insights of contemporary theory […] we can agree with Fish that, “like it or not, interpretation is the only game in town.” And if this is true with regard to the literary text, how much stronger the game in theatre, which posits another textuality between the written text and its receptors.[Ibid., p. 330]

This mediation via another textuality can end up privileging the readers who perform the text, or the director whose interpretation informs performance, whose reading actors are thought of as performing. There is another textuality because there are multiple ‘receptors’ – can the director or acting company’s interpretation be considered as inside the audience’s reception? i.e. to place one textuality in another? The need for greater complexity than simply stating the play of the play as that of textuality, the need to talk about another textuality, arises from the problematic textuality of what reading a performance is, follows that textuality, and shapes its texts. Since performance is a reading made by other readers.

Rabkin ends with the question:

How do we – critics, audience – read the already read theatre text? [Ibid., p. 331]

His answer is to read respecting and in recognition of the theatre text’s “paradoxicality and irreducibility:”

[…] by asking questions which illuminate rather than obscure the dynamics of the elements that constitute its plurality. [Ibid.]

His final answer, given to Edward Said to say, is that theatre problematises the concept of textuality rather than mediates it and that we in our different ways ought to do the same. We ought to read in order to intensify and act to intensify our relationship to textuality as a discursive activity.

Rabkin’s last line is:

If we are to learn anything from these controversies [Miller vs. Wooster Group; Beckett vs. A.R.T], it is that while interpretation may indeed be the only game in town, it plays by many rules. [Ibid.]