Theatricality and Performativity: The Non-textual Elements of Performance | CHRISTINA GRAMMATIKOPOULOU


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During the 20th century scenic arts completed a distinctive turn towards the elements that are more volatile in performance, the things that do not fit within a strictly literary interpretation of the theatrical work, as it is printed in paper. Theatricality and performativity became increasingly relevant. But what are these concepts and how are they linked to the audience and the ritual of performance?

Scenic arts do not exist separately from the audience: these people that play a significant role to the theatrical act even through observation only. There are different theories that support this argument: Phenomenology defines that the world exists through the self; all events are defined by human perception and experience: “The ‘events’ are shapes cut out by a finite observer from the spatiotemporal totality of the objective world”.[1] Likewise, according to the aesthetics of reception, the perception of the artwork is always something active; according to Hans Robert Jauss every work of art, theatre, literature has a historical and communicative character, a meaning which changes according to how the public perceives it in different historical periods.[2] Thus, the audience has some kind of active participation in the artwork because it can influence it in different ways. For example, people from different periods and places can see different things in the same artwork and give new life and meaning to it, depending on what they ‘see’ in it.

In other words, the public’s expectations –regarding the aesthetic part of the artwork or its symbolic and communicative role but also depending on their experience and cultural background- influence the artist who may seek to fulfil or to go against these preconceptions.

The concept of performativity defines how meaning is derived through perception during the theatrical act.

This implies that performativity changes according to the content of the performance and also the character of the audience. Factors like the cognitive level of the spectators, their cultural preconceptions and their emotional response can have an impact on performativity. Just like “you cannot pass through the same river twice”,[3] because the water in it is constantly flowing and changing, you cannot have the same performance twice because the actor-audience (or artist-audience) dynamic will be different every time.

The reception of the artwork by the viewers is particularly important in performance art, where they are often called to act or react to what they see; usually the instructions or text accompanying each performance is just a few lines long, whereas the possible actions that can take place during the performance are many. This field of unwritten action can be defined as theatricality. Theatricality is all the elements in a theatrical play that go beyond the written text.

According to Roland Barthes:

What is theatricality? It is theater-minus-text, it is a density of signs and sensations built up on stage starting from the written argument; it is that ecumenical perception of sensuous artifice –gesture, tone, distance, substance, light- which submerges the text beneath the profusion of its external language.[4]

In other words, theatricality is the non-textual elements of a theatrical play, that often become more important than the external language –even more so in performance art, where the text is not always present. Theatricality includes performativity, but goes beyond it.

Even though Barthes sees theatricality as an element inherent in the text, which somehow includes the non-theatrical elements, there is no doubt that the reception of the text by the actors or the performer –who will perform it according to how they perceive it- and the audience, creates an ever-changing dynamic.

Within the fluidity that is inherent in contemporary theatre and performance, the artwork becomes as elusive as the experience of now through an individual perspective, in a particular time and place.




[1] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, London: Routledge, 2005, p.477.

[2] Hans Robert Jauss, Toward an Aesthetic of Reception, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,

1982, pp.20-45.

[3] Heraclitus quoted in Plutarch, On the E at Delphi, 392 B. Original text: [online] <Περί_του_ει_εν_τοις_Δελφοίς>

[4] Roland Barthes, Critical Essays, Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1972, p.26.