Oral Tradition 20.2 (2005) 264-277
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Text and Performance in Africa
In written literary traditions the distinction between text and performance seems self-evident. The text is the permanent artifact, hand-written or printed, while the performance is the unique, never-to-be repeated realization or concretization of the text, a realization that "brings the text to life" but which is itself doomed to die on the breath in which it is uttered. Text fixes, performance animates. But even in written traditions, there are all kinds of different relations possible between a "text" and a "performance." Written texts can be cues, scripts, or stimulants to oral performance, and can also be records, outcomes, or by-products of it. Even texts usually thought of as belonging purely within the written sphere can have a performative dimension. If, as is true in many traditions, text depends on performance and performance on text, comparative literary studies should help us to conceptualize the nature and degree of these varying relations of dependency.
The range of possibilities is wide. At one end of the spectrum are cases like sixteenth-century Italian commedia dell'arte, where the written script would be no more than a sheet of paper, listing the sequence of plot episodes and characters appearing in them. The actors would seize these sheets literally at the moment of walking onto the stage, scan them, and immediately begin to improvise (Duchartre 1966:30-32). The text here is essential, for it outlines the structure of the play, without which the actors would not be able to proceed. But the substance of the performance is supplied by the actors' repertoire of conventions, set pieces, gestures, quips, and gags constituting their verbal and gestural tradition. Although this repertoire was oral and embodied, it also incorporated concetti, verbal set pieces collected by the actors in their common-place books and cleverly designed to be adaptable to many situations. The aim was to master the rhetoric of the stage so well that the improvised passages were [End Page 264] indistinguishable in tone from pre-prepared written pieces (Lea 1962:105). Here written text infuses and underpins a tradition whose goal and end-product is a live performance. At the other end of the spectrum are forms like the nineteenth-century realist novel, where a lavishly specific and detailed written discourse creates a complete, credible, and autonomous textual world into which the reader is absorbed. But the narrative interest of this type of novel is founded, as Garrett Stewart observes, on a tension between the created fictional world and the text's continual solicitation of the reader to play a role in the reading event, "conscripting" him or her, through a complex array of rhetorical devices, to figure as participant in the constitution of the narrative: "you, reader, are therefore part of the script" (Stewart 1996:6). The written text not only offers the implied reader a series of positions in relation to itself, it also suggests how the act of reading should proceed and stimulates the actual reader to retain a consciousness, even in the most absorbing narratives, of his or her performance as a reader. Here the text specifies far more than the commedia dell'arte script: it not only creates a world but also instructs the reader how to participate in imaginatively realizing it.
Critical theory has proposed widely different models of the way written literary texts specify their own "performance" in acts of reading. To the philosopher R. G. Collingwood (1938), a true reading (whether of a literary text or a painting) was totally specified by the text, for it resulted from the reader's act of re-creation of the work of art, retracing the same steps by which the artist originally constituted the text or image. It was thus a performance of the act of artistic creation, scripted by every detail of the work of art itself. Post-structuralist criticism would say almost the opposite: that a rewarding ("writerly") text is one which stimulates the reader to do his or her own acts...