Deixis and Performance
“Deixis” is a name for language that points: “What’s that?” “Look at this!” and so forth. It’s often found in performances because, as you can see from those two examples, deictic language often requires a visual or perfomative element to be made clear. (Or, in the absence of any visuals, we could be forced to speculate about what the referent might be, as we do in the memorable season finale of season six of The Simpsons.)
[insert video clip here "Oh it's you. What are you so happy about? Oh, I see! I think you'd better drop it!"]
The key to this fine example of deixis is of course (17-year-old spoiler alert) that we assume that “it” is a gun and “you” is a would-be murderer, but in fact Mr. Burns has come upon baby Maggie Simpson with a piece of candy that he decides to take (after having earlier declared an interest in taking candy from a baby). He only gets shot when the gun accidentally goes off in the struggle for the lollipop. Performance– or an imagined performance– is therefore the key to interpreting deictic language. We begin by imagining one version of events, only to see an entirely different one unfold through the same dialogue.
If we consider deixis to be a “theatrical” or “performative” feature of language, then I wonder when and where it appears in some of the Renaissance drama I mentioned in the previous post. Does deixis distinguish drama from other types of literature, in that it demands to be either performed or visualized?
These were some of my thoughts re-reading Mary Sidney’s translation of The Tragedie of Antonie, a Senecan-inspired closet drama that slightly predates Elizabeth Cary’s Mariam (which I plan to read next). Sidney’s work is decidedly “literary” in many respects, or at least vastly different stylistically speaking from the popular dramas of its time: the play is mostly long speeches or debates about the difficult decision Cleopatra and Antony find themselves in after their loss at Actium. Antony believes Cleopatra has been unfaithful to him, negotiating with their common enemy, Octavius. Meanwhile, Cleopatra has locked herself in a mausoleum, fearing capture by the Romans, but wonders whether she can see Antony again.
Within these long, densely philosophical speeches, I noticed two (and only two) striking instances of deixis. (I don’t include phrases such as “this disastered woe” (II, 429) that point to something abstract and intangible). First, in Act II, Cleopatra expresses her wish to die enclosed in her mausoleum: “Mean season, us let this sad tomb enclose, / Attending here till death conclude our woes” (II, 451-452). Although “The Argument,” a summary of the play provided before it begins, explains that Cleopatra is in her tomb, this is the first indication of setting within the play itself. Notably, this statement also occurs at one of the most action-packed moments in the play: Cleopatra has just ordered her lady Diomede to find out if Antony still loves her, and they exit on that errand. (This should give some idea of how little action occurs “on stage,” as it were). It’s not a particularly climactic moment in terms of the plot, but this gesture toward the monument that will become a tomb to their doomed love is significant symbolically, perhaps, in a play deeply concerned with Stoic constancy and fortitude.
The second instance of deixis occurs when a messenger comes to Octavius to explain that Antony has (almost) fatally stabbed himself before being carried to Cleopatra’s tomb (all of which occurs “offstage,” of course). As proof, the messenger explains that he’s brought Antony’s bloodied sword: “I left their town, and took with me this sword, / Which I took up at what time Antonie was from his chamber carried to the tomb, / And brought it to you, to make his death more plain, / And that thereby my words may credit gain.” (IV, 329-333). Drawing attention to “this sword” is especially significant here because the sword serves as visual evidence, proof of the messenger’s words. Of course, as readers all we have are his words, unaccompanied by the sword. Nevertheless, the deictic language requires us to imagine the sword’s presence in the scene, thereby becoming a powerful image.
As far as the larger function of deictic language in this closet drama goes, I don’t think that it necessarily challenges our notions about the “stageability” of this play. To make a case for the play’s “theatricality” we don’t need definitive proof that it could be or was ever staged. However, I think it is important to consider the use of such theatrical devices as deixis as a means of connecting a very readerly text to a stage tradition. Mary Sidney’s work is remarkable for the way it stretches the confines of convention: her translation of the Psalms (a collaborative project with her brother, Philip Sidney, which she completed after his untimely death) experiments with an impressive variety of verse forms. In Antonie, too, she introduces a number of metrical innovations to the French source: where the original version used alexandrines, Sidney translates the play into blank verse (the hallmark of the English popular stage), and introduces several varieties of iambic verse in the choruses at the end of each act (the most bizarre of which are 11-line stanzas of acephalous iambic tetrameter with an interlocking rhyme scheme of ABABCDDCEDE). Perhaps what we are seeing here, then, is a kind of cross-pollination between popular stage linguistic forms and meters and the decidedly more rarefied genre of Senecan closet drama.
Gordon Braden. Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger’s Privilege (1985).
Alison Findlay, Gweno Williams, and Stephanie J. Hodgson-Wright. “’The play is ready to be acted’: women and dramatic production, 1570-1670.” Women’s Writing 6, no. 1 (1999): 129-148.
Renaissance Drama by Women: Texts and Documents, ed. S.P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies (New York: Routledge, 1996).
Marta Straznicky, Privacy, Play Reading, and Women’s Closet Drama, 1550-1700 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).