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  • "This is a Real Gun":500 Clown and Speech Act Theory
  • George Pate (bio)

An actor makes his hand into the shape of a gun, his index finger the barrel, and points it at his scene partner, who is kneeling with a black bag over his head. Throughout the evening the actors have been shooting each other with such guns by pointing them and saying "bang." Everyone who has died from such a shooting has been revived. The ringleader of this group of clowns, played by Molly Brennan, grabs the shooter's gun hand. "No," she says, "use this gun." She forms her hand into a similar gun-shape except her gun uses two fingers for the barrel.

"What's the difference?" the shooter asks.

"This," she says, "is a real gun, and anyone who is shot with it is really dead and can't come back." She "gives" him the gun—she taps her gun hand against his and he takes on the second finger on his barrel—and very hesitantly says "bang," shooting his scene partner, who remains dead for the rest of the show. On the one hand, this scenario evokes memories of schoolyard games with constantly shifting, negotiated rules. But such an explanation sells short the complexity of the situation because for these characters and for many audience members the consequences are real and dire. Is it possible that the game is real in some sense? Can these characters actually shoot each other by saying "bang"? Can words kill? The Elephant Deal, a show by Chicago-based theater group 500 Clown, raises these and other questions about what kinds of action can be done through language, questions to which speech act theory offers robust and interesting answers and which, in turn, challenge and potentially expand speech act theory's ability to deal with fictional speech.

Speech act theory, first laid out by J.L. Austin in a series of lectures published as How to Do Things With Words, serves as a tool for examining the kinds of actions performed in speaking. Austin uses the term "illocutionary force" to designate the particular action accomplished (or attempted) in any particular speech act. For example, if I said, "please give me that pen," then the illocution of my speech act is a request for the pen. Because of its marriage of language to action, it may seem that speech act theory could apply easily and fruitfully to theater and performance studies as a means to analyze what actors or other performers are doing with language in a mode not necessarily dependent upon Stanislavski-based concepts such as intention or tactic. Why hasn't speech act theory caught on in theater [End Page 31] studies as broadly as have other theoretical paradigms? Largely because of Austin himself. He ultimately argues that all speech acts are performative—that is to say have illocutionary force—with one and only one exception: the speech of actors on stage.1 He calls such speech an "etiolation" of language.2 A disproportionate—though perhaps unsurprising—amount of the work on speech act theory since How to Do Things with Words has sought to revise, remove, or otherwise deal with Austin's exception of performance from the realm of the performative. The arguments vary significantly: actors on stage perform only phatic acts (acts in which they only make the sounds of words), they pretend to perform real speech acts, they perform a special class of theatrical speech acts, they perform actual speech acts within a conventionalized set of game intentions. But most of these accounts float contentedly around the level of theory or philosophy, offering mostly hypothetical examples. In this essay, I plan to move from the bottom up, testing these different theories of onstage illocution against a particular performance of The Elephant Deal that I saw in June 2009 at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. In doing so, I reclaim speech act theory for theatre and performance studies by showing how examining the real illocutionary force of speech acts within a particular performance illuminates aspects and implications of the performance that might otherwise be inaccessible.

The Elephant Deal serves as a particularly good sample case for...


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