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Reviewed by:
  • Reading the Material Theatre
  • Shannon Jackson (bio)
Ric Knowles . Reading the Material Theatre Cambridge University Press. x, 236. $38.95

In this finely wrought investigation, Ric Knowles argues for a 'materialist semiotics,' one that is 'concerned with the meanings - the social and cultural work - produced and performed by theatrical productions in negotiation with their local audiences in particular cultural and theatrical settings and contexts in the English-speaking theatrical world.' On some level, such a goal is already central to the self-definition of theatre research. However, specific attempts to act on this goal have varied with critical habits that emphasize some 'meanings' over others and that unduly limit the depth and breadth of the 'setting' under consideration. In Reading the Material Theatre, Knowles's act is exemplary both for the range of meanings and settings that he attempts to understand and for the complexity of the questions - especially those that concern nationalism and economics - that he brings to bear.

In addition to brief introductions and conclusions, the book consists of a lengthy, four-part chapter that defines a variety of materialist theatrical factors followed by five case studies drawn mostly from Canada, Great Britain, and the United States. In the book-ending introduction and conclusion, Knowles overtly addresses the relationship between the practice of theatre research and the larger goals of semiotic and cultural studies that took shape throughout the course of the twentieth century. In addition to semiotic forebears such as Saussure and Pierce, cultural studies scholar Stuart Hall receives some of the most sustained attention, central as his 'encoding/decoding' model will be to Knowles's analysis of production and reception in the rest of the book. In his longest chapter, Knowles excavates a wide variety of theatrical elements that might be considered peripheral to what he calls a 'formalist' reading but that supply some of the key insights of the book. In addition to a complex critique of the ideologies behind actor training, he takes on working conditions related to funding and employment hierarchies. As the chapter proceeds, he considers the spatial politics of theatre architecture, neighborhood space, and touring. Some of the most unexpected analyses come in Knowles's investigation of safety policies (via the work of Alan Read) as well as his thoughts on the politics of dressing rooms. If some of these elements do not neatly rest on either side of Knowles's (and Hall's) encoding/decoding model - is the theatrical space a condition of production or of reception? - it is testament perhaps to the radically contextual nature of the theatrical form.

In the next five shorter chapters, Knowles offers sustained analyses of selected sites that help us see the relation among all of these elements - training, funding, labour unions, architecture, and geography - in a variety of permutations. An analysis of the Stratford Festival in Ontario extends [End Page 446] some of Knowles's earlier work on the production of Shakespeare as a source of cultural and economic capital. His study of the Tarragon Theatre conducts a withering critique of that theatre's decision to conform to a politically limiting 'house style' in exchange for economic security. In the subsequent chapters, Knowles considers theatres that would seem to be a source of political and aesthetic innovation only to find them wanting with regard to some aspect of their material practice. The deconstructive promise of New York's Wooster Group is compromised by their status as property owners in a gentrifying district of New York. The English Shakespeare Company's supposed socialist ambitions were neutralized by their partnership with a capitalist business venture. And the potential of the 'international theatre festival,' a site that would seem to offer 'genuine intercultural exchange,' goes unrealized because of what Knowles insightfully calls the apolitical 'placelessness' that such international venues produce. 'All this, of course, is familiar and discouraging,' writes Knowles in what is a recurring theme of the book. Such limiting conditions make us treasure the few productions in which Knowles does find the potential for a semiotically rich materialist theatre. Knowles's criticism tends to describe all of the productions in a way that anticipates his analysis; when productions are marked as 'flaccid...


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pp. 446-447
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