Shared communicative acts in theatre texts in performance

  • Anne Furlong University of Prince Edward Island


This paper adopts a relevance theoretic approach to meaning making in theatrical texts and performances. Text-based theatrical performances are collaborative creative events, many of whose participants may never engage directly with an audience member, but all of whom are engaged in making and conveying meaning. Such texts communicate immediately to multiple audiences: readers, actors, directors, producers, and designers. They communicate less directly to the writer’s ultimate audience – the playgoer or spectator – through the medium of performance. But playgoers are not passive receptacles for interpretations distilled in rehearsal, enacted through performance, or developed in study and reflection. Rather, in the framework of communication postulated by relevance theory, the audience is an active participant in making meaning. I will briefly review a range of approaches to meaning making in theatre, and then outline my view of a relevance theoretic account of theatre texts and performances as related but distinct communicative acts. For Weimann (1992), discussing the German playwright, Heiner Müller, “language is first and foremost material with which the audience is expected to work so as to make and explore their own ‘experiences’” (p. 958). By contrast, T. S. Eliot characterised performances as ‘interruptions’ of the relationship between writer and audience; in ‘a true acting play’, he asserted, the actor added nothing (Eliot, 1924, p. 96). Campbell (1981) argues that “the theatre cannot gear its production to actual audiences”, as only the “finest and most appreciative of abstract audiences for that play” (p. 152) can properly grasp its meaning. For him, the disparate capacities, views, and expectations of a given audience present a profound challenge to theatre as communication. Connor (1999) addresses the same issue, pointing out that if readers can disagree about the meaning of a text, then spectators are even less likely to agree on what a given performance means (p. 417). Unlike Campbell, however, she regards this diversity as enriching, concluding that meanings “develop from co-production with spectators as subjects” (p. 426). Relevance theory provides a framework in which to begin to disentangle the overlapping and interacting, but equally vital, contributions of writer, company, and audience in making meanings.