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  • Speaking in Tongues: Languages at Play in the Theatre
  • Emily Sahakian (bio)
Speaking in Tongues: Languages at Play in the Theatre. By Marvin Carlson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006; 257 pp. $50.00 cloth.

If there is any doubt that Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of heteroglossia—a productive tension resulting from a multiplicity of languages and voices—applies to the theatre, Marvin Carlson's far-reaching study of languages at play in past and present theatres of the world will put it to rest. Analyzing the employment and reception of multiple languages, Carlson demonstrates that theatre is not an essentially monologic form, serving to solidify linguistic and cultural demarcations, but a heteroglossic arena of linguistic tension and multiplicity, in which languages are put into interactive play to formal, political, thematic, and stylistic ends. Carlson, who has already taken issue with Bakhtin's exclusive association of heteroglossia with the novel by arguing for the importance of dialogism in canonical drama (1992), expands and elucidates this previously articulated link by focusing on language in its most concrete sense.

Drawing from contemporary linguistic and cultural theory, Carlson interprets dramatic literature, performances, and theatre cultures, examining the uses and implications of "playing with language" (6). Carlson identifies heteroglossia used at the theatre for reasons of communication, verisimilitude, virtuosity, postmodern quotation, identity and belonging, alienation, and sociopolitical agendas. Drawing from personal experience as a theatregoer, researcher, and reader, Carlson provides an impressively vast account of language play in a truly diverse array of case studies, including understudied theatres such as medieval vernacular, European dialectic, Indian Sanskrit, and contemporary Arabic, as well as the more discussed Shakespearean histories and the theatre of Peter Brook.

Fruitfully ambitious, Speaking in Tongues bridges the gap between linguistics and performance studies in order to offer heteroglossia as a framework for studying theatre and performance. Consequently, the book recuperates the study of language for theatre and performance scholars who have been preoccupied of late with the concept of embodiment. With this focus on [End Page 189] heteroglossia, theatre scholars can find new ways to conceive of communication at the theatre without presupposing a monolithic audience and without disregarding politics. As linguists have moved beyond Chomsky's "ideal speaker-listener" (1965:3), we too can forge a communication model that evaluates difference.

Because of this focus on difference, chapters that deal directly with power dynamics are more satisfying than those that do not. A highlight, chapter three, "Postcolonial Heteroglossia," draws from Caribbean, Arabic, African, and Oceanic evidence in order to explore potentially subversive uses of heteroglossia. Faced with the imposition of the colonizer's language, postcolonial theatre artists make use of vernaculars and hybrid languages in order to challenge or expose colonial supremacy. Likewise, the second chapter, "Dialect Theatre: The Case of Italy" explicates the political employment of dialects at the theatre; as Carlson indicates, a language is simply a dialect that has been donned with authority.

The less political chapters serve to impress upon the reader a pervasive presence of heteroglossia at the theatre. The first chapter, entitled "The Macaronic Stage" in reference to Late Medieval theatre of the West that incorporated both Latin and vernaculars, spans vast time periods and cultures, calling upon such varied case studies as Greek tragedy, Sanskrit drama, Renaissance theatre, and the work of Tony Kushner. The fourth, "Postmodern Language Play," exposes the heteroglossia of contemporary, aesthetically innovative theatre and performance, offering postmodern citation as a counterpart to language employed for political ends. A fascinating coda, Carlson's final chapter, "The Heteroglossia of Side Texts," expands the notion of language to include subtitles and sign language, taking up the stimulating question of onstage translation.

A possible avenue for dynamic expansion of Carlson's model would be an exploration of the relationship between heteroglossia and gender. For example, in the French Caribbean, where women have been accused of complicity with the colonizer and the use of Creole has been associated with masculinized anticolonial efforts from which women have been excluded, a woman character speaking Creole is doubly subversive. Indeed as gender politics complicate cultural hierarchies, a consideration of the gender of characters becomes significant in analyzing political—especially postcolonial—heteroglossia.

The major success...


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pp. 189-191
Launched on MUSE
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