Theater as Language: The Foreman-Artaud Connection

What do an oversized mallet, a rat in a spacesuit, and a 1930's French madman have to do with one another? Read on for the answer. Or rather, don't read the words, read the signs.

It is rather easy to make the connection between contemporary avant-garde American writer and director Richard Foreman and 1930's French drama theorist/actor/occasional lunatic Antonin Artaud. Foreman is one of the most Artaudian playwrights working on Off-Off-Broadway today.

Both are well known for zany productions that are heavy on theatrics and light on characterization, with more emphasis on mise-en-scène than on text and dialogue. They are both concerned with contemporary issues, and both are associated with work that is difficult to approach: there is little "plot" that is determined by recognizable characters. They are both generally popular with an elite theater crowd and are largely unknown to the general public. What is not often explores is Artuad and Foreman's connection through the labyrinthine social science of semiotics.

Semiotics, the study of signs, was first popularized by Ferdinand de Saussure. At the turn of the century, while teaching a course in linguistics in Geneva, he proposed a radical new way to study language. Instead of studying where words come from or a history of language (diachronic study), Saussure suggested a study of the relationships of words in language at the moment (synchronic study).

In doing so, he developed a new way of looking at the sign. Roughly speaking, it's about phenomena and their meaning. As any introductory linguistics course will teach you, Saussure talked about the difference between the signifier (or the sound-word) and the signified (the mental "concept"). For example, I say "playwright" (signifier) and you think "Shakespeare" (signified).

This field of study had a profound effect on the way 20th-century thinkers in various fields began looking at things, including those working in theater. Artaud, in his seminal work The Theater and Its Double, called for a "theater of cruelty" that, among other things, favors a play's theatrical elements (sight, sound, space, costuming-all referred to as mise-en-scène) over the text and dialogue. In addition, these theatrical elements, Artaud wrote, create a language of theater that is entirely its own.

This theatrical language stemmed from Artaud's reading of Saussure. Artaud proposed a semiotics of theater that deals largely with non-textual theatrical elements: lights, staging, costuming, effects, pantomime, and motion. This new language would avoid the confusion between theater and text. In The Theater and Its Double, Artaud wrote, "If confusion is the sign of the times, I see at the root of this confusion a rupt

In a 2002 interview in The Drama Review, Foreman acknowledged the influence semiotics had on him. Speaking of a quintessential semiotician, he said, "When I started writing theater, I was under the influence of people like [Roland] Barthes."

At the Brick Theater's recent production of Foreman's Symphony of Rats, that semiotic influence was palpable. Foreman's work is a theater of lights, action, and movement.Don't look for character development.Look for ominous puppets/actors, like the ghastly 

"crippled rat" that rises out of a wheelchair and extends grotesquely long arms that seem to reach across the entire stage. Look also for props that serve to drive the plot and take on the substance and weight that most theater gives to the characters.

One of those props, a spaceman/rat, becomes an intrinsic force throughout the play. In the beginning, it represents a thing of desire and envy to the main character, the president of the United States. The spaceman/rat has been to the nether regions of space and is now a national hero with whom the president wants to be affiliated. By the end of the play, the spaceman/rat has become a thing of terror, a hideous rat whose hollow promise is revealed. The rat, which was once what the president most wanted, turns into what he most fears.

This use of terror, invoked in both the characters and the audience, is an underlying element of Artaud's theater of cruelty. It is one of the forces that drive his proposed new language of theater, which is based not on conventional characterization but on an older form of ritual theater that originated in Greek tragedy. 

This terror is appropriately evoked through the theatrical elements of sight, sound, and staging. The dialogue is almost insignificant, which can be a problem. A friend who went with me to Symphony of Rats (and has written extensively on Foreman himself) noted that it would "be fun" to "turn the volume down" on the dialogue and "write your own," since what is important is not the lines but the spectacle. At one point, one of the characters sprayed the audience with copious amounts of perfume. Here, as in Artaud, the language of theater is specifically theatric and not in the words.

Take it as a sign of the times.

Richard Foreman's ZOMBOID! Film/Performance Project #1 is playing at the Ontological-Hysteric Theater (founded by Foreman) through April 9.

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