Presence in play: a critique of theories of presence in the theatre.
PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
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Theatre as an art form has often been associated with notions of presence. The live immediacy of the actor, the unmediated unfolding of dramatic action and the energy generated through an actor-audience relationship are among the ideas frequently used to explain theatrical experience and all are underpinned by some understanding of presence. Precisely what is meant by presence in the theatre is part of what this thesis sets out to explain. Presence, I argue, is not so much a single concept, but is a term which encompasses differing accounts of theatres aesthetic or experiential specificity. While I have attempted to show how concepts of presence have developed over time, most of the forthcoming discussion is rooted in twentieth century thought, when theatres aesthetic autonomy became an increasingly important concern in the context of artistic modernism and the rise of rival media such as film and television.
However, an equally important part of this thesis has been to question the relevance of concepts of presence within the context of contemporary theory. Since the nineteen-eighties in particular, theatre theorists have been inclined to critique the notion of presence from a poststructuralist perspective. Additionally, the increasing use of technology in performance and a recognition of the pervasive influence of the media in contemporary western society has made traditional appeals to theatrical presence seem increasingly retrograde. In the light of these concerns, questions are raised about how the distinctiveness of theatre might best be articulated without reinstating the current opposition between those who advocate theatrical presence, and those who treat the concepts of presence with suspicion.
By drawing together discussions which posit presence as the essence of theatre alongside poststructuralist misgivings about the validity of such claims, I have attempted to re-position the concept of presence within a contemporary theoretical context. Without wishing to idealise the stage as a privileged site which is experienced in terms of presence, I argue that we should instead examine the potential of theatre to put presence into play. Rather than look at theatre as present, I propose instead to explore how theatre manipulates our experience of the present, challenging rather than reinforcing an audiences experience of the live or the immediate. Drawing on ideas in semiotics, phenomenology and performativity, I argue that a framework for thinking about presence, enriched by poststructuralist theory, can inform the analysis of theatrical performance. While by no means a complete survey of presence in the theatre, it is my hope that this thesis will help to suggest new ways of thinking about the tangled set of ideas which surround this concept, and how they might contribute to our understanding of theatres representational possibilities.
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