Theories: Acting, Theatre, Critical Methods

Critical methods, theories, and other approaches are rich resources for dramaturgs and theatre makers. They often inform our work even when we are not explicity aware of their presences. Explanations of these methodologies lies outside the scope of dramaturgy northwest. Readers will, however, find introductory notes on some of the following figures and terms. The primary role of this list is simply to underscore their presence and potential.

Acting (Beginning Points)

Zeami (Japan; 17th century): key terms include the idea of flowering

Denis Diderot
(France; 18th century)

Stanislavski (Russia; late 19th, early 20th century): the creative mood; the search for truth; “After I arrived, I would spend my mornings on a cliff that overlooked the sea, taking stock of all my artistic past. I wanted to find out where all my former joy in creation had vanished.”

Meyerhold (Russia; late 19th, early 20th century): key terms include biomechanics, constructivism

Grotowski (Poland; 20th century): key terms include poor theater; via negativa, transgression

Strasberg (USA; 20th century): conflict with Stella Adler over meaning of Stanislvasky system

Keith Johnstone (USA, 20th century): on the relationship between acting, trance, possession and mask work: “in normal life the personality conceals or checks impulses; mask characters work on the opposite principle: they are childlike, impulsive, open.” Keith Johnstone, Impro

Theater (Beginning Points)

Aristotle, The Poetics (Greece; 4th century BCE): key terms include tragedy, hubris, hamartia, catharsis, anagnorisis, peripeteia; Aristotle’s description of tragedy suggest a series of questions that might be asked about a play’s dramaturgy

Bharata, The Natyashastra (India): the idea of rasa, a range of emotional flavors that a production will evoke)

Horace, Art of Poetry (Rome; 1st century BCE)

Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy (Germany; 19th century) Dionysos and Apollo as the two are making deities, both present in Greek tragedy in the form of the chorus in the orchestra and the hero on the stage

Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double (France; 20th century): “. . . cruelty signifies rigor, implacable intention and decision, irreversible and absolute determination.”

Brecht (Germany; 20th century): key terms include Verfremdungseffekt, Gestus, Fabel, political consciousness

Brook, The Empty Space (England; 20th century)

Ubersfeld, “The Pleasures of the Spectator” (20th century): for Ubersfeld, the pleasures of theatre are not solitary, but multiform including the pleasures of the sign, of anxiety and safety, of the fable, of mimesis, of seeing and hearing, of bricolage, of memory, of understanding, of invention, of travel, of transgression, of totality, of lack; “We see those who are now absent, we talk with the dead, and we travel back into the past, but we also cross the barrier into a world where contradiction disappears, we see the Other being just another person, the actor being both himself and the character, no longer imprisoned within the confines of his own body.”

Critical methods (beginning points)

See Northrop Frye, An Anatomy of Criticism

A fundamental issues in cultural studies concerns whether or not a specific dramatic image works to constrain an individual or social potential or release it

“revealing the illusion of truth, unity, origins, and closure” (Reinelt and Roach, Critical Theory and Performance); deconstruction “asserts that our experience of ourselves and our world is produced by the language we speak, and because all language is unstable, ambiguous force-field of competing ideologies, we are, ourselves, unstable and ambiguous force-fields of competing ideologies” (Tyson, Understanding Critical Theory, 250)

Cixous - laughter, body, song, desire, writing, plenitude, exuberance, joy, affirmation, not lack, not envy, not fear; heterogeneous, bisexual, dispersed; not either or, but both and; not centralized and unified but dispersed: “But I do desire the other, whole and entire, male or female; because living means wanting everything that is, everything that lives, and wanting it alive.”


“seeks to reveal how the text works as a unifed whole by showing how its main theme is established by the text’s formal, or stylistic, elements: imagery, symbolism, tone rhyme, meter, plot, characterization, setting point of view, and so forth” (Tyson 253). With its insistence on both the intentional fallacy and the affective fallacy, New Criticism priviledged the internal coherence of a text as perceived by an educated reader over both authorial intent and the idiosyncracy of any one reader’s response. Although New Criticism grounded itself in a faith in the power of interpretive processes by way of a close reading, it honored the fluidity of human experience in its appreciation of “tension, irony, ambiguity, and paradox” (Tyson 253; see Empson on ambiguity)

e.g., States-”our sensory experience with empirical objects”; Bachelard, “the original amazement of the naïve observer”

The Other (see Said)

On Psychoanalytic Criticism: Some ways in which psychoanalytic concepts (by way of Freud, Jung, Lacan, et al.) often inform our thinking, whether we realize it or not. Rather than beginning with specific aspects of Freud’s narrative about the self, we might think of some more general habits of thought that may inform our sense of the world and that to some extent find if not an origin than an echo in psychoanalytic criticism, particularly with respect to human identity. To consider in these propositions are 3 perspectives — 1. To what extent does this first person in some sense mirror or resonate with my own perceptions of psyche/soul/self; 2. To what extent does these perspectives, more generally or more specifically, actually reflect psychoanalytic concepts; 3. To what extent does these perspectives reflect other strains of thought: religious, philosophical, literary, social, cultural.

I have an interior aspect of the self that is not completely knowable to me but that manifest itself on the surface of my behaviour and language (a surface/depth metaphor). The reasons for my actions are often somehow beyond me, even if I think I clearly understand them. I can never fully know myself, but I will profit from an increased awareness of this unknown. I will be healthier if I pursue self-knowledge. What I don’t know might harm me. I am divided. Pleasure is an important part of who I am. I have strong drives; the channeling of these drives is a part of the developmental process. It is not wrong to have these drives. I have to find some way to deal with these drives: I cannot just have whatever I want whenever I want it; at the same time as I learn this, I am also learning language; language, according to some psychoanalytic theories, becomes a compensation for what I cannot have. The first lesson I learn is that I cannot have the mother all to myself; I get instead, language, the language of the father. I am divided in a particular way: id/ego/superego are one set of names for this division, although it not be tripartite at all. I live in a very complicated family: I am first of all bound to my mother and at some point I must break this bond; if I identify with my father then I will love what he loves and this will put me into competition with him; we have to make some kind of deal that will work all this out; following the theorist Lacan, I solve the conflict with the father by entering the Symbolic Order (father's world) in exchange for surrendering the mother and so the family becomes “the factory within which patriarchal culture reproduces itself” (Silverman149). In any event, family life poses a complicated set of negotiations for both men and women. I go through a series of key moment: differentiation by sex within the womb; birth; separation from the mother (loss, lack, absence, longing); in Lacan, the perception of the self as an idealized Other at the mirror stage: “Lacking controlled motor development, the infant sees its image in the mirror as a coherent whole, thus misrecognizes himself . . . as a complete autonomous Other. Introjecting this mirror image as an ideal ego, or identificatory model, he spend the rest of his life desiring versions of its--at, for example, Hollywood movies. In Lacan identification, always in the register of the imaginary, is always narcissistic; the perceived other is a version of me. Difference, contradiciton are all occluded in the subject’s initial and continuing capture in the mimetic mirror” (395). My body is partitioned into erogenous and non-erogenous zones as opposed in generalized, undifferentiated pleasuring. My eyes are important: the gaze is important; a look that longs for, that desires, that objectifies. The playscript is like a dream to be interpreted for what it will tell us about the self. This notion valorizes literature as a place of psychological insight; the role of the writer or actor is to release the unconscious from the constraint of the ego and superego. G. Proehl (10/9/2002)

e.g., Caputo, the abyss, the face; suffering, religion, and defiance; suffering, tragedy, acceptance, and affirmation



e.g. Elam- “all that is on the stage is a sign,” Veltrusky; signifier, signified, denotation, connotation, frame

relations and structures between objects; “sees itself as a science of humankind, for its efforts to discover the structures that underlie the world’s surface penomena — wheter we place those phenomena, for example, in the domain of mathematics, biology, linguistics, religions, psychology, or literature — imply an effort to discover something about the innate structures of human consciousness” (Tyson 199).

Resources For Further Study:

Fortier, Mark. Theory/Theatre: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Lutterbie, John. “Theory and the Practice of Dramaturgy.” Dramaturgy in American Theater: A Source Book. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Reinelt, Janelle G. and Joseph R. Roach. Critical Theory and Performance. Ann Arbor, MI: Univ. of Michigan, 1992.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory: A User Friendly Guide. New York: Garland, 1999.


Geoff Proehl

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