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Hays Michael - Drama and Dramatic Theory -Peter Szondi and the Modern Theater

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  Drama and Dramatic Theory Peter Szondi and the Modern Theater Michael ays Because the form of a work of art alwaysseems to express something unquestionable, weusually arrive at a clear understanding of such formalstatements only at a time when the unquestionablehas been questioned and the self-evident hasbecome problematicPeter Szondi Theorie des modernen Dramas In the light of contemporary structuralist and semiotic en-deavor, these words may not seem very revolutionary Some of you nodoubt even caught the reference to Hegel's, or should I say Minerva's,owl in this formula. If so, Peter Szondi might, at first, appear to belittle more than a recent avatar of the old Hegelian aesthetics. Hiswork has, m fact, brought new life to this tradition, but it also marks adifference which defines Szondi's historical position and his contribu-tion to modern criticism and hermeneutic theory I hope I can dojustice to part of this contribution today by discussing the nature andimplications of Szondi's work on the dramaThere is no question about the fact that Szondi drew his earlyinspiration from Hegel and from Hegel's followers, Lukacs andAdorno This is obvious in the opening sections of his book.  Theory  of  9  the Modern Drama,  where he first establishes the idea that dramaticform IS not an abstract entity, independent of time and place, butrather inextricably tied up with the content it informs Context, hequotes Hegel as saying, is nothing but the inversion of form into con-tent and form nothing but that of content into form He also citesAdorno's use of a chemical metaphor to express the same idea FormIS precipitated context. By borrowing m this fashion Szondi is ableto quickly establish the theoretical starting point for his own analysisof the drama: formal structure is as important to the process ofsignification in a play as is content. There is, for Szondi, no such thingas a form which exists beyond the moment of its use There are onlyparticular sets of form-content relationships and form, like contentmust be   read  as a statement about the nature and significance ofthe aesthetic enterprise as a whole, dramatic form codifies assertionsabout human existenceSzondi proposes a structural model for the drama,  then,  butunlike the structures which Levi-Strauss had in mind, thosediscovered by Szondi are not fundamentally the same for allminds—ancient and modern, primitive and civilized .. ' They  are,  in- stead,  inextricably bound to the historical and ideological situation mwhich they develop. This historicization of the idea of form eliminatesthe possibility of any systematic, normative poetics as such Theformal distinctions which have traditionaily been used to designatethe universal characteristics of each of the major genres are trans-formed into historical categories. One cannot discuss genre outside aspecific historical context and, therefore, it is useless to discuss, forexample, Greek or medieval drama in the same terms that one woulduse to deal with eighteenth-century drama or modern dramaThe significance of this historicization of drama and criticismis obviously rather profound. There is no longer any possibility ofpositing a simple continuity of either literary or critical tradition. The history of literature ceases to be history at all in the sense of adiachronic series of cause and effect relationships. Szondi againseems very close to proposing the same kind of non-linear structurethat L6vi-Strauss has been accused of propounding—literary historyat this point would be nothing but a series of juxtaposed, synchronicmoments, each with its own systems of structure and meaning, eachindependent of that which temporally precedes or follows it.Szondi's theory avoids this a-historical pitfall in two ways.First of all, he demonstrates in his own work that it is not only possi- ble,  but sometimes necessary to examine one form, one moment inrelation to that which immediately preceded it History then manifestsitself in the demonstration of difference. This as I will show later, iswhat Szondi does in his work with the modern drama when heanalyzes it in terms of its failure to sustain the old drama's form-content relationship: the modern playwright tries to resolve the con-tradiction between a new social content and a form which, t}ecause itIS historically conditioned, is no longer able to inform the statementof the content History and the process of change appear here as technical contradictions, as technical difficulties internal to the 70  concrete work itself This point is extremely important for an under-standing of Szondi's method. It shows that unlike other historicallyoriented critics, Szondi assumes that the social problematic of an agedoes not simply manifest itself m the content of the work of art. It ap-pears as part of the formal signifying process social contradictionspresent themselves as aesthetic problems which the work of art itseifattempts to resolve Thus, as Szondi indicates in his essay on Diderot,the movement of the hermeneutic circle must be from the text outinto the sociai context and then back into the text Exactly how this text should be defined is a problem I will discuss later For themoment, I simply wish to point out the way in which Szondi organizes,successfully as far as I am concerned, the process of investigatingthe interrelationship between language, text and historyThe second source of diachronic movement is to be found mthe critic's relationship to the object of his study. Szondi reminds usthat criticism and critical models are also historically boundphenomena and, therefore, have the tendency to isolate and fix thatwhich may in fact be part of a process Such model building may bequite successful when the critic turns toward the past. Critics in factprove their own historical distance from this past through their abilityto define and close out earlier formal processes But the critic alsomarks his historical position by his inability to stand outside his ownhistorical-conceptual frame of reference Critics including Szondihimself enable us to understand socio-aesthetic process and perceivewhat IS fundamentaily new to their age through their inability to ade-quately account for these new artistic structures History manifestsItself m what is left out, in what the critical rhetoric cannot nameDespite these limitations, the critic can try to establish whatSzondi calls a semantics of form, which can be used to analyse theform content relationship of a given historical period. What Szondihas in mind here seems to be the possibility of a semiotic analysis ofthe signifying structures which organize the dramatic performance asa whole. If he did not say precisely this, it is undoubtedly becausethese terms were not yet available to him. Szondi's language andchoice of focus—as his own theory predicts—depend on his situa- tion.  The terms he uses are nonetheless adequate for his analysis ofthe forms and dramatic theory of earlier drama If they work only par-tially for the modern drama it is because Szondi cannot escape hiscontemporaneousness with the object of his investigation. As I willtry to demonstrate later in this paper, a further historical remove isnecessary to deal with the formal principles of the modern as suchSzondi could anticipate this problem, but he did not live long enoughto overcome it. Thus we must look at his work m two different lights,first of all in terms of his successful description of prior dramaticforms and then in terms of his method and what it offers us  m  our ownencounters with more recent drama.When analyzing seventeenth- and eighteenth-century drama,Szondi sets about showing the homologies between the signifyingproperties of acting space, decor, language and gesture. Hedemonstrates how these systems work together to create a single 7  conceptual perspective . I have borrowed the term from painting, butIt seems most appropriate to the ideologically-bound image-makingprocess Szondi describes The drama of these periods presented a picture of a world in which life was defined solely in terms of thestructure of interpersonal relations and their products As Szondisays,  the verbal medium for this world of the interpersonal was thedialogue In the Renaissance, after the exclusion of prologue, chorusand epilogue, dialogue became, perhaps for the first time in thehistory of the theater,. . the sole constitutive element in thedramatic web In this respect, the neo-classical drama distinguishesItself not only from antique tragedy, but also from medieval clericalplays, from the baroque world theater and from Shakespeare'shistories. The absolute dominance of dialogue, that is, of inter-personal communication, reflects the fact that the drama consists mthe reproduction of, is only cognizant of what shines forth in thissphere Most radical of all was the exclusion of that which could notexpress itself—the world of objects—unless it entered the realm ofinterpersonal relations   This then was a world the limits of which were determined bythe actions of self-conscious individuals, individuals who createdtheir own presence . There were no external causal factors whichmight imply the existence of other worlds or other creative forces Thesingularity of this condition was reproduced and reinforced by theformal requirements of the drama as a whole as well as by the pro-scenium stage and its decors The unities of time, place and actioncreated an absolute linear sequence in the present. Nothing existedoutside this sequence—no other place, no other time, no other possi-ble action. The decors in perspective which enclosed this actionadded to its exclusiveness  and,  as Jean Duvignaud has pointed out, toIts psychological depth.* Thus, the picture-frame stage is quite pro-perly named. It enclosed and organized performance systems whichindeed produced a picture of the world. This picture provided a per-spective which incorporated the spectator and his role as well Itoperated to exclude all perceptual possibilities from his line of visionthat did not correspond to the stage image perported to represent orreflect the real nature of things.As Szondi so aptly shows, the specific function of this signify-ing process depends on the historical situation in which it unfolds. Inhis discussion of Diderot and middle class drama, he demonstratesthe manner in which the picture of the world is organized  m  terms ofthe Ideological stance of this class. Although Szondi does not, in thisessay, deal with all the coded systems he Introduces in his discussionof earlier drama, he nonetheless builds a model analysis, one whichwill serve both as a demonstration of his method and a way into mycritique of Szondi's discussion of the modern drama.In  Tableau und coup de th^itre  which is subtitled  ZurSoziologie des bOrgerlichen irauerspiels bel Diderot, Szondi il-lustrates his method of analysing language and context as a meansof describing the socio-historical situation of an author and his textsHe wants to show that one cannot define a text or a literary genre 72
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