- Purchase/rental options available:
Theatre Journal 54.3 (2002) 431-448
[Access article in PDF]
Shattered Back Wall:
Performative Utterance of A Doll's House
The Performative (on) Stage
In the last decades of the twentieth century, J. L. Austin's performative speech act theory emerged as one of the most passionately contested philosophical ideas. 1 There are many reasons for this. One of the most significant is that a performative speech act reintroduces the referent into linguistics: it brings language, so to speak, back to the body and to the stormy question of identity. The general performative speech act theory oversteps the disciplinary boundaries of analytical philosophy and enters the domains of poststructuralist theory, feminist theory, and, of course, performance theory, to name some. This is, in part, due to the brilliant clarity and simplicity of Austin's idea to "isolate" utterances "in which by saying something or in saying something we are doing something." 2 The other source of what seems to be the unending actuality of Austin's theory is the way in which, not so brilliantly, he excludes certain performative utterances: "a performative utterance will, for example, be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor or spoken in a soliloquy . . . Language in such circumstances is in a special way—intelligibly—used not seriously, but in ways parasitic upon its normal use—ways which fall under etiolations of language" (22, italics in the original). Paradoxically, this attempt to exclude literature from the theory of performative speech acts attracts literary critics, and rightfully so; the performative speech act theory not only introduces "plain speech" to philosophy but also establishes powerful connections between literature and its surroundings, between writer and reader, or writer and critic. That is, until we hit upon Austin's [End Page 431] emphatic exclusion of literary performatives from his theory. This adamant rejection of artistic uses of language points precisely toward the theatricality deeply imbedded in Austin's performative speech act theory. 3
In bringing together Austin's analytical philosophy and Ibsen's analytical drama, my aim is neither to search for paradoxes and inconsistencies in Austin's lectures nor to dispute the validity of his general theory of performative speech act. Instead, I believe that it is much more important and useful to examine the ways in which theatre and Austin's theory inform and support each another. A series of questions arise from this juxtaposition: How do the theatre and the performative act upon each other? What is the role of performatives in a dramatic text and in a theatrical performance? Is there a critical approach to theatre that is not concerned only with its formal and aesthetic properties but also with its performativity (in Austin's sense of the word)? Assuming that Ibsen's A Doll's House belongs precisely to the kind of theatre that Austin sought to exclude from his theory, I will argue in this essay for the possibility and effectiveness of a performative analysis of theatre, an analysis that begins from the examination of the process of writing and extends to its various performances. Also, I will show that a theatrical act, and not an isolated utterance delivered on stage, can achieve an impact similar to that of a performative speech act. In other words, I will look not only at how theatre is performed but also at the ways in which theatre performs.
In doing so, I would like to start at the very opening of Ibsen's A Doll's House. At the beginning, there is just an ordinary, comfortable drawing room: "A warm, well-furnished room, reflecting more taste than expense. At stage right, a door leads to a hall. Another door, stage left, leads to Helmer's study. There is a piano between these two doors." 4 Ibsen's family drama is set within the space of perspectival constraints. The entire play takes place in this single set that represents the living room in a middle class family flat. In his book Theatrical Space in Ibsen, Chekhov and Strindberg: Public Forms of Privacy, Freddie Rokem...