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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 161-181

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Performing Degree Zero: Barthes, Body, Theatre

Timothy Scheie

In the opening pages of Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes, a photograph shows the author as a young man, masked and playing in a Greek tragedy in the court of the Sorbonne. The caption reads:

Darius, a part that had always given me terrible stage fright, had two long declamations in which I was likely to forget my lines: I was fascinated by the temptation of thinking about something else. Through the tiny holes of the mask, I could see only very high up, and very far away; while I delivered the dead king's prophecies, my eyes came to rest on inert--free--objects and books, a window, a cornice, a piece of the sky: they at least weren't afraid. I excoriated myself for getting caught in this uncomfortable trap--while my voice continued its smooth delivery, resisting the expressions I should have given it. 1

Neither the emotionally engaged performer of method acting nor the knowing subject of Brechtian theatre, the distracted performer under the mask of Darius suffers from a wandering mind that can barely resist the transgressive desire to disrupt the faithful rendering of the ancient text. His apparent ability to maintain the façade (hollow as it may be) of the character Darius, of mimesis, and more generally of the "great" Western cultural tradition, while indulging in thoughts and desires that subvert the tragedy in a manner that generates anxiety on his part and, if this instability were palpable to the audience, for the spectator as well, constitutes a cultural intervention that would be the envy of contemporary performance art. It is not hard to imagine why Barthes includes this image, for it evokes many recurring motifs in his writing: the mask as an arbitrary and exterior sign of identity, desire that both generates and subverts signification, the lack of a coherent subject or agent that exercises authority over a text, the mixture of pleasure and fear in the vertiginous breakdown of meaning, representation, and "literature." The photograph and its caption invite speculation on the implications of Barthes's thought for theatre practice and theory. Barthes, however, offers little further encouragement in this direction. When he wrote this passage he [End Page 161] had for nearly fifteen years all but disavowed the theatre, and the most striking aspect of the photograph and its caption could be that in his later career he is addressing a specific theatre performance at all.

Barthes was a fickle critic, and the object of his adulation one day might find itself castigated the next. The case of Albert Camus is typical in this respect; the author of L'Etranger was hailed as the founder of a new mode of writing, or écriture, only rather suddenly to find himself publicly responding to an acrimonious Barthes who exhibited all the wounded tone of a spurned lover. Alain Robbe-Grillet encountered a similar fate. Theatre seems to have also met with an abrupt if less harsh repudiation. In 1965, Roland Barthes wrote: "I've always liked the theatre and yet I hardly go there anymore." 2 In itself, this statement does not shock for Barthes is hardly alone among theorists and critics when he directs his attention away from an art form that has become associated with the tastes of a bourgeois or intellectual elite, and whose relative importance is today greatly diminished among media and other systems of representation. At the time he made this remark Barthes himself had already broken new ground in the study of mass culture. His Mythologies (1957) arguably constitutes one of the founding texts of a field--cultural studies--that no longer privileges literature, dramatic or otherwise, as the nec plus ultra of cultural production, and in which the umbrella buzzword "performance" often relegates more conventional theatre to a marginal, conservative, and frequently ignored corner of the discussion. 3 When situated in the chronology of Barthes's œuvre, however, this repudiation of theatre is more noteworthy and marks a change in the trajectory of his...


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