Next Research on Language and Linguistics at Sussex seminar is Wed 9 April at 13.00 in A71.
Grasping at straws? Non-spontaneous interpretation of live performance
Anne Furlong University of Prince Edward Island
For some time I’ve been exploring the notion of “literary” interpretation from a relevance-theoretic perspective, developing the notion of non-spontaneous interpretation aimed at producing a particular kind of interpretation of a text. Typically, people interested in literary interpretation are interested in literary works – novels, poems, short stories and the like. Starting a few years ago, I became interested in plays. What, I wondered, is the difference between the interpretation of a written text and that of a performed one? Is a non-spontaneous interpretation of a play text (necessarily) superior to that of the text in performance? Does authorial intention count – that is, does it matter that, in presenting her work as a play, the writer manifestly intended the work to be performed? And if authorial intent has weight, how much, and to what effect? Is there something uniquely gained (or lost) in performance? Which is, ultimately, closer to what the playwright (is likely to have) envisioned: the interpretation based solely on reading the text, or the interpretation based solely on attending a performance?
These are not new questions in theatre studies. But they are new to relevance theory. And relevance theory can, I will argue, clarify some of the knottiest difficulties over which literary and drama and theatre critics, writers and theorists stumble and clash. By the same token, approaching issues arising in performance theory from a relevance-theoretic perspective offers the opportunity to clarify, extend, and test the notion of “the audience” in this framework.
In this paper, I’ll discuss whether we can construct a non-spontaneous, literary interpretation –one that is exhaustive, unified, and plausible – of a play in performance, and if so, whether and how it differs from the process of interpreting “stable” texts. Non-spontaneous interpretation usually demands repeated reading (or viewing or listening); performance by its nature is unilinear, temporally constrained, and non-repeatable. This means that the evidence the audience has to work with is severely curtailed, certainly in comparison with that provided by novels and poems, which can be reread at leisure. At the same time, the cognitive effort required in constructing a literary interpretation is significantly higher than doing so for a written text, because the evidence is ephemeral. And, since non-spontaneous interpretation must necessarily continue for some time after the performance has ended, at least some of the evidence is supplied from memory. The notorious unreliability of human memory might seem to fatally compromise literary interpretation of performance, but I would argue it is accommodated in relevance theory; the Second Principle of Relevance and the extent conditions of relevance allow for, even predict failures in communication, including those resulting from faulty memory. The best the writer (and director, performers, crew and others) can do in performance – as in any communicative situation – is to provide an optimally relevance stimulus: ie, “the most relevant one compatible with communicator’s abilities and preferences” (Wilson and Sperber 2002).
I will argue that the conditions of performance reveal some of the limits of literary interpretation, but do not render non-spontaneous interpretation of performance either impossible or even improbable under these circumstances. I’ll be drawing on a range of sources, from theatre reviews published in daily or weekly media, to academic articles written long after the original performance, to blogs from viewers and others.