Narratology and Performativity: On Processes of Narrativization in Live Performances
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Narratology and Performativity:
On Processes of Narrativization in Live Performances

This article argues that recipients can make sense of abstract and highly self-reflexive live performances when they try to narrativize them, i.e., read them as narratives. In performances, different sign systems convey narrative meaning to the spectators. Recipients have to take both acoustic and visual clues into consideration: apart from the dialogues, important sign systems are music, noises, silences, the choice of actors and actresses, facial expressions, gestures, costumes, colors, color combinations, lighting, and references to other narratives. Spectators narrativize performances by relating what they see and what they hear to specific narrative functions and by combining them into a coherent whole.


experientiality, narrativity, narrativization, performance, storyworld

THIS ARTICLE SEEKS to expand the scope of narratology by showing that the process of narrativization can help us to come to terms with actual performances, i.e., what Ute Berns calls "the embodied live presentation of events, in the co-presence of an audience at a specific time and place" (677). In what follows, I will outline why [End Page 359] plays qualify as narratives in the first place. In this context, I will also address the question of what or who mediates dramatic texts and live performances, respectively. In a second step, I will then analyze two actual performances from a narratological perspective. As I will show, one can gain access even to unusual (abstract or self-reflexive) performances by narrativizing them, i.e., by approaching them as narratives. In such cases, recipients focus on the concrete visual and acoustic stimuli that are used to evoke storyworlds populated by characters that undergo certain experiences. In order to arrive at an appropriate understanding of narrativization processes, however, one also has to take the specific historical and cultural moment of the performance into consideration.

The Narrativity of Drama

While some definitions of the term "narrative" focus on a single criterion such as plot (see Abbott 13), the presence of a narrator figure (see Stanzel 65; Genette, Narrative Discourse Revisited 16–17), or experientiality (see Fludernik, Towards a 'Natural' Narratology 12), David Herman takes multiple features into consideration. Such a definition is advantageous because it allows one to determine different degrees of narrativity: narratives can be more or less prototypical depending on how many of the mentioned features they display. Herman argues that a narrative can be characterized as:

  1. (i). A representation that is situated in—must be interpreted in light of—a specific discourse context or occasion for telling.

  2. (ii). The representation, furthermore, cues interpreters to draw inferences about a structured time-course of particularized events.

  3. (iii). In turn, these events are such that they introduce some sort of disruption or disequilibrium into a storyworld involving human or human-like agents, whether that world is presented as actual or fictional, realistic or fantastic, remembered or dreamed, etc.

  4. (iv). The representation also conveys the experience of living through this storyworld-in-flux, highlighting the pressure of events on real or imagined consciousnesses affected by the occurrences at issue. [. . .] Narrative is centrally concerned with [. . .] "what it is like" for someone or something to have a particular experience. (Basic Elements 14)

Marie-Laure Ryan (Avatars 6–12) and Jan-Noël Thon (26–30) also define the term "narrative" in terms of a variety of features. They both maintain that narrative representations "must be about a world populated by individuated existents," that "this world must be situated in time and undergo significant transformations," and that these "transformations must be caused by nonhabitual physical events" (Ryan, Avatars 8). According to the two definitions by Ryan and Thon, plays (which were written or are presented in a specific historical and cultural context) qualify as narratives because they evoke storyworlds (based on temporal and spatial parameters), which are [End Page 360] populated by characters that undergo certain experiences, and these experiences are caused by events (see also Alber, Unnatural Narrative 35–36).1

Like all narratives, plays may display different degrees of narrativity—they may be more or less prototypical narratives. Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595/96), for instance, displays a higher degree of narrativity than, say, Beckett's...