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Hermeneutic Approach to Theater

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   hapter The Hermeneutic Approach to Theatre and Drama ELINOR SHAFFER Henneneutics , or the art o interpretation, today more precisely the theory o interpretative methods in the humanities and social sciences, has emerged s one o the most stimulating and productive o several new directions in recent criticism. t is hardly a complete newcomer: traditionally associated with techniques o exegesis or explanation o individual passages of the Bible and the classics, it has since the late eighteenth century been increasingly applied to a wide range of texts. One o the steps in this direction was the perception that the Bible was not a uniquely inspired or revealed text, but itself literary in character; thus techniques for explicating the Bible became fully available for explicating literary texts generally, and these techniques in tum underwent a sea-change s what we would now call literary criticism began to be fonnulated and practised. Henneneutics was refonnulated s a general theory in the early nineteenth century, and came to be seen s the key to understanding not only literature but the whole range o the humanities and the human sciences . A fierce debate over whether the new knowledge about mankind gathered by the study of comparative religion and mythology, anthropology and sociology was appropriately understood s science on the model o the natural sciences led to the emergence o henneneutics s the method o the human sciences s distinguished from the method o the natural sciences. 120  J. Hilton (ed.), New Directions in Theatre  © Macmillan Publishers Limited 1993  The Hermeneutic Approach to Theatre 2 In the twentieth century, philosophy, anthropology, psychology, psychoanalysis, and communication theory have continued to develop and refine hermeneutic method. One of the most stimulating aspects of this development is that is makes the whole range of modem social science available to the theatre. While much has been written about the relation of hermeneutics to poetics, poetry and fiction, little has been done in English to elucidate dramatic texts and performance from a hermeneutic point of view. This is surprising, for hermeneutics has had a close link with drama throughout the history of its modem, secular development, from the late eighteenth century to the present. he srcins of hermeneutics To understand the developing functions of hermeneutics, we must briefly trace its history back to the centres of classical Western culture. The Athenians of the fifth century BC revered the epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey but had to labour to extricate their literal sense: not only were they already several centuries old, but Homeric Greek is a specialised bardic language that combines elements of several dialects. Hermeneutics, then, is in the first instance the discipline that permits the clarification of obscurities and distortions that arise through the aging of a statement made in the past, and ensures the preservation of the text despite changes in language and attitudes. The hermeneutic art was never limited to the determination of the literal meaning of the text. t aims at reintegrating a sacred, canonical or centrally significant text into the present time, at reformulating it so that it can still be seen as valid by a new generation. In short, its task at all times is the modernisation of existing interpretation. The Alexandrian school of Hellenistic and Judaic exegesis in the first century AD began the allegorical interpretation of the Homeric books and the technique of figural interpretation. Allegory, as applied especially by Origin to Christian ends, developed into one of the most powerful techniques for reinterpretation. A brilliant example, illustrating the boldness with which the technique was often applied, is Bernard of Clairvaux s twelfth-century allegorical interpretation of the Song o Songs whereby that erotic poem is transformed into a celebration of the marriage of the Church to its bride-
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