Blesok no. 35, March-April, 2004
Theatre Theory

– From Paragrami tela/figure (book on the theory of theater) –

Miško Šuvaković

3.2.1 Concepts of Figure

Figure (figure = shape, face, image) is a visual-spatial-temporal-corporal-behavioral (semiotic, semiological) and linguistic representation of human, animal or fictional body in theater. The figure is:
1. traditional way of mediation and exchange between the concept of being and artistic, theater or textual formalization (rhetoric sub-determination) of the body as an art form,
2. modernistic autonomous genre of configuring the representation and expression of the subject on stage, and
3. postmodern poly-genre complex of eclectic, citation, collage-montage and simulation ways of showing the hypothesis of the theater subject.
    In western civilization, figure has the character of a social ideological hieroglyph or more precisely, a coin in the exchange of meanings, senses and values in the society of production, exchange, communication and expenditure. The exchange of meanings, senses and values in the society is done by conventionalization of the nature of the body and the naturalization of the convention of exchanges. The theater figure in the western civilization is always determined by a meta-interpretative circling of the empirical horizon of perception to the ideological borders of the rhetorical conventions of the culture, the works of theater, school, fashion or individual theater expression. The figure is a real or fictional body mediated via the material codes of culture. At the same time, it is a represented object (postponed representation of the body) and a present object (here – the presence of the theater spatial, linguistic, semiological form,). The figure is at the same time the signifier and the signified, sign (hieroglyph, ideographic writing) and a visual, spatial, corporal, behavioral, linguistic and semiological text. It is a real place of ontological presence of the determined, for example, theater substance and its own simulacrum. The figure relativizes the borders between the presence (ontology) of the body and the effect of the presence (representation) of the body. Figure is a historical formation that is shaped and brought to a finished, closed concept with shaping of the ideology (subjectivity, rationality, imperialism, falocentrism) of the European humanism. Figure is an empirical horizon of the visual (“That is how I see you!”, “That is how you see me!”, “That is how I see the world!” etc), a rhetorical system of transformation of the ideological sub-determinations of the subject as a net of the subjectivity and rationality of the perception and representation of the body.
    The concept of the theater figure is determined by the following aspects in the scope of phenomenological through the semiological to textual approach:
(a) the idea of figure is analogue to the figure of style (in an indirect meaning) in the theory of literature and rhetoric because in a stylized and indirect way it shows the human, animal or fictional body, that is, the figure as a representation is menonymic, allegoric or personified representation (replacement) of the human, animal or fictional body by constituting the look and appearance of the stage fictional body,
(b) stylized and indirect representation of the human body is possible because the figures of the actor are iconic, allusive, index-like and symbolic, which means that for the body
(c) the figure as a sign or structure of signs that shows a specific, ideal or general human or animal fictional body based on visual similarity (allusive, iconic sign), based on recognizable implications, classifications (index sign) or based on conventional agreements and habits (symbol), and
(d) allusive, iconic, index-like and symbolic signs of presenting the figure are not any signs, but visual-spatial-corporal-behavioral (theater) orders of signs (texts) of representation
    The idea of figure is based on the concepts of similarity and difference. The figurative theater representation strives in ideal sense, according to the mimetic tradition, towards the illusion of the object (corporal) match of the figure on stage with the real existential human or animal body. The figure is based on two mutually exclusive and different worlds (the world of specific objects, creatures, situations and events and the world of fictional representations).
    Figure in theater is an arbitrary, motivated or unmotivated, that is, literary or indirect description and offer of looks – behavior of a specific human or animal body. The illusion of matching of the figure and the body is fulfilled via their visual and illusionist similarity, but also with linguistic or semiotic promises. The body is not determined by the order of signifiers, although it arrears as a signifier on the stage, and the figure is in any aspect determined by the structural connections of the signifiers that anticipate sense (project sound and connection of the signs in a theatrical text). The figure is in the distance from the body (signifier) and in the approach of the sign (signifier that penetrates the signified). The degrees of difference between the bodies and the figures are in a broad scope from the primary ontological difference of the existing and actor’s being, that is, the difference between the physical body and the virtual screen body.
    The western theater until modernism was based on:
(1) conventions of similarity and illusionist ritual or rhetoric matching or correspondence of the figure and the body, and
(2) background mythical, religious, scientific or artistic text that supported the convictions that the theater figure shows an existing human and animal body. The recognition of the figure as a body is recognition of the ideological codes that determine the related or unrelated visual phenomena and make them present before the eye and understandable in the sense of their meaning. The recognition of the figure as a body is submitting the empirical horizon of the perception of the world of ideological codes of representing the bodies with a figure and differentiating the figure from other linguistic, semiotic and phenomenological representations of the theater. The transformation of the realistic illusionist theater practice of showing the body as a figure of the world in the figure of the free form in expressionism is a transformation of the iconic or allusive sign. The iconic or allusive theater sign hides its signifying power by showing itself as a mirror image (optical reflection or effect), and the real modernistic iconic sign shows that the theater figure, no matter how it is in its appearance, always shows itself as a sign or structure of signs for some body. On stage, the figures do not read themselves, but thorough the relation with the text (sense-meaning relations of the theater event and context in which the theater play occurs). The figurative code is a sign characterization of the theater form that is recognized as a figure regardless of its illusionist similarity, that is, difference from the body it represents. This figurative code is:
(a) network of illusion between the world where the bodies or the objects and the stage in whose limited (taken) space the figures are, and
(b) network of semantic and behavioral combinations of relations of the figures in the situations or happenings with which the stage illusion is shown (fulfilled).
    The characteristic of the theater figure is to be accessible by describing (ascribing a description), that is, the figurative order of the stage in itself is open for describing as any event or situation in the world. But, the figurative order is not given in itself, but one has to think and experience himself in the figural, that is, intellectual and textual horizon which is the background theory or accepting the body as a figure. Every figure of the theater is a paradox: it seems like a world (part of the world), and it is understood as a text (textual order). The figure on the stage is not an optical-mirror face (representative), but a behavioral-corporal-object-spatial order that first of shows the system of the language that surrounds the theater and is formalized in the language of the theater, which can not be leveled to a direct sense and empirical check. The form or the sign do not become figures of theater based on the body that they show, but based on their relation with the other signs of theater (literature, painting) and the language of culture where the playwright, dramaturgist or actor shape the form (figure) as a sign of the theater. The figure of the theater is a border between two esthetic areas:
(a) esthetic space of the text that provides that the visual form is perceived and read as a fictional figure that shows (other) body than the body on stage, and
(b) esthetic space of the occurrence and looks of the stage that shows itself as a spatial-temporal doubling (mirroring) of the non-textual world in the occurrence of the happening.

    The border of these two esthetic spaces is the result of the silent or public semantic (meaning) compromise or agreement made in the world of theater between the participants (playwright, dramaturgist, actor, stage director). The established compromise provides that figure is valued in its meaning and sense, and experienced in a psychological sense, as a stage representation of the body. The stage image is a signified space so that the figure in the stage image is reached by description and naming, and in this way the idea, mental representation, language image of the object or body is shaped in a linguistic (textual) way, as well as the body that the stage image represents.
The representation in theater can be characterized as a technique that aims to produce a complex effect of the figurative and figural. The representation produces itself as something that is fully subdued to the economy of the production of the figurative and figural effect. The occurrence of the figure makes that:
(1) figure covers the signifier and assumes it – paradoxically, the figural suppresses the marking character of the stage stressing the representing effect of the signified, but at the same time the figure as a separate form in the space of the stage is the place where the signifier is shown almost literally,
(2) signifier gives its power of anticipation of the sense to the figure making it be what it is: a figure that takes meanings and endlessness of the signifier turns it into the finality of the sign or structure of signs (lexes, code or text, that is, narration).
    Metaphorically: the signifiers pile up in the figure, building it, only to manifest and determine their anticipations of the meaning (the other of what the body itself is). The representative figurative and figural system of stage can be analyzed based on the elements that characterize the effects produced with the action of the signifier. If we apply models of the theory of arts, there are:
(a) figures as representations,
(b) meta-representation of the figure,
(c) meta-figural representation and
(d) figural representation.
    The figure as a representation has an objective value and it occurs in societies where the artist (playwright, dramaturgist, actor, stage director) has the task to show and mark what he sees around himself (perceptive or conceptual is a function of the perceptiveness or sense visualization of the figure). The figure on stage is a transparent sign (signifier that is completely hidden with the illusion of transparency or effects of the sense it creates on the stage). The figure has an existing outside reference (real object, occurrence, body or creature) to which it refers with its visual-temporal-corporal-behavioral look. The representation of the figure in the space on the stage with the language of the theater announces the visual characteristics of the objects, human or animal being, body or existence.
    The meta-representation of the figure is realized because of political or religious demands. The meta-representation of the figure or stage with figures does not mark specific situations with objects, people or animals, but metaphorically and allegorically, fictionally, it expresses visions, religious dogmas, political ideals, erotic fantasies. The signifier (body) is double hidden on the stage:
(1) with the layer of anticipations of the sense of the representation of the figure as a specific body, creature or existence, and
(2) with the layer of anticipations of the sense that the representations of the figures use as a first degree discourse that is used to build the second degree discourse (metaphor, allegory, myth).
The meta-representations of the figures set the figure as a register of discourses that establishes the movement from the theater literalness to here – the presence to theater functionality.
The meta-figural representation of the artists (playwright, dramaturgist, actor, stage director) in a hidden way announces, through the realistic narrative representation of the figures or relations between the figures, its subjective truth and personal view to the objective world. The figure on the stage becomes a symbol of the subjectivity of the artist. The representation of the figure and the meta-representation of the figure in the traditional modernistic theaters represent codes that the general places use as channels for the discourse of the subjective speech. In a formal manner:
(a) the representation of the figure of the body-signifier makes a literal iconic (or allusive) sign,
(b) the meta-representation of the figure makes the iconic signs an indirect (metaphoric, allegoric, mythic) text, and
(c) the meta-figural representation of the indirect (metaphoric, allegoric, mythic) text (structure of signs on the stage) sets it for a signifier (complex signifier) of the anticipation of the individual (separate) thought.
    The figure representation is a product of the modernistic theater. Metaphorically speaking, theater becomes auto-reflexive and thus, aware of its own medium, of the character of representation and the language of theater. The figure of the modernist figural theater representation freely disposes of the various possible shaping of the body from mimetic to abstract. The modernistic figure does not limit the obligation to represent, that is, establish the referent relation between the figure on stage and the body or the objects in the world, but an obligation of producing figures as autonomously artistic or theatrically imaginable body. The specific body is opposed with the conceptual body or the figural concept on the stage as a space that confirms the artificiality of the theater as art. The figural representation of the body in theater is not a representation of the being, but a representation of the artificial theater creation (institution of representation) that auto-reflexively indicates its artificiality. We do not see the body as a literal or nontransferable sign of a sign structure (text) on the stage, but as a sign or sign structure that shows how the signifier produces sense for us (how the signifier anticipates the fictional order of narration). The figure reveals its corporealness, but not to destroy the figure, but to show how the figure postpones the body and how the body carries (dresses into) the sense of figure.
It is necessary to make a difference between the concept and the status of the figure in pre-modernism, modernism and postmodernism.
(1) Pre-modernistic figure is a theatrical, stage form that is seen as a mirror, descriptive and analogical order established based on the visual similarity with the body of man and animals and as such it is transformed in a symbolic order or visual metaphorical or allegorical text (the figure as a representation, meta-representation of the figure, meta-figural representation),
(2) Modernistic figure is the theater stage figure that auto-reflexively shows that the sign (figure) was created by the signifier (body). By violating the analogical correspondences based on the visual-spatial-temporal-corporal-behavioral similarity it expresses and stresses the sign (allusive, iconic, index-like and symbolic) nature of the artifact (meta-figural representation, figural representation), and
(3) Post-modernistic stage figure is a theater sign form that shows that it is a reflection, an expression or a signified order of representation of the human or animal body in theater, painting, sculpture, literature, mythology, religion, philosophy and mass-media (para-representation of figures, para-meta-representation of figures, para-meta-figural representation, para-figural representation).
Post-modernistic theories of the stage figure shows that the figure of theater is not a reflection of a specific human or animal body, but that it is an expression and representation of the shape of representation in theater, painting, sculpture, literature, and the scientific models of seeing the human and animal body. For postmodernists, the figure of theater does not show how the things in the world look like, but how the theater sees the world and further on, how the representations of the history of theater, culture, mass-media and science shape the viewpoint of the playwright, dramaturgist, actor, stage director, and the audience. The post-modernistic view is a view that is produced by the world of culture for us, writing in the projected place in wish, in theater. The wish of the theater is an expectation that theater as art (institution) directs to the effects of the individual theater realizations.
Figural means the mechanisms of indicating and representing that provide that the word, man or line contour or behavior of the actor on the stage are accepted as figurative representation of man. Figural is a sum of convictions, intuitions, intentions, knowledge, values, acts, interpretations, criteria, and ways of establishing the references that enable pulsating of electronic forces, order of spots of oil colors on the canvas or the figures that run on the stage to be recognized and accepted as figures, representations of body. The complexity of the figural is based on the fact that the meaning of a figure and body that is represents is not determined by a simple (1:1) ration between the representation (figure) and its reference (body), but also the way in which the figure is ascribed to the body, that is, the way in which the figure is written in the stage and the specific stage in the world and the history of theater. From the aspect of the modal logic, the relationship between the figure (work of art), the body (reference) and the way in which the reference is established, builds a possible world of theater. From the semiological aspect, the figural is a sum of codes (rules and realizations of the rules of the semiological structuring) that a possible world (context, culture, style, genre, individual mythology) establishes as a sample for creation and receptions of the theater art work.

Translated by: Elizabeta Bakovska

created by