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as a significant dramatic genre and seeks to give major writers of that form their due. It succeeds admirably. 396 Comparative Drama OSCAR G. BROCKETT University of Texas at Austin Drama and Symbolism (Themes in Drama, 4), ed. James Redmond. Cam­ bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Pp. x + 264. $39.50. The stage is a symbolic place; the activities it engenders and embraces are even more richly and complexly so. The making of a play, its com­ position and subsequent production, is also a symbolic act, and the people the drama welcomes to its interpretation, execution, and presen­ tation participate in that world’s symbology whether they care to or not. Like life in its relentless use and manipulation of time, space, and experience, the theatre gobbles up all in its path as it speaks to us in the glorious and often baffling activity we call performance. To credit the theatre with these privileges is not to indulge in romantic flummery, gasping wistfully over the memories of some touching dramatic experi­ ence. It is to face the mystery of the stage, finally, the potency of the now, recognizing the humbling power of the simple maxim: a good (or great) play communicates its meaning before it is understood, something many critics forget. The theatre’s phenomenology is, for the most part, taken for granted by its practitioners, a given of its ways and means, best done rather than talked about. So theatrical symbolism, or symbolism per se, is a part of the playhouse’s vocabulary, its daily rhetoric, its grammar of practice. It is a reassuring paradox that for the literary critic slavishly devoted to emblematic imagery, for example, Hamlet’s sword becomes the basis for a spate of commentary; for the director interpreting the text and the actor playing the role, Hamlet’s sword is a prop, nothing more—made in shop, used in rehearsal, and only charged with meaning during the onrushing excitement of performance. So symbols march onto the stage to signify not only their corporeal being, but their sense of the other, their trace (to borrow Derrida’s favorite word) of the vision behind the technique, creating a charged relationship with the spectator. Noone who has been moved by a theatrical performance of any kind would deny this power. It is one component of what makes drama dra­ matic, a strength reaching, obviously, beyond mere objects to include the entire arsenal of weapons (lights, music, et. al.) upon which thea­ trical and symbolic effect depends. Another reassuring paradox is that the invention of a vocabulary to describe this complex event (semioticians beware!) is doomed from the start; it must, in short, always fail, given the infinite gradations of possibilities open to the performer, the per­ formance, and its participants. Symbolism in drama is no exception, being only another complex manifestation of what theatre really is. Each of us, for example, reacts to a symbol onstage and then proceeds to make it his own. The process is not unique, merely human, something we all do. Still, one elusive aspect of stage symbols complicates matters. Good, Reviews 397 truly theatrical symbols are, as all good dramatists know, fixed and not fixed, always resonating beyond the particularities of themselves and their stage presence to us, as we confront, personalize, subsume, and, finally, assume their Active value for the revelation of their true meaning. It is what we make of Hamlet’s sword that matters, as we seize it imaginatively from the drama’s moment, its associational value forcing itself into our perceptions. From Clytemnestra’s tapestry to Lama Wingfield’s collection of glass animals the truth remains: the good symbol moves from its quotidian reality to the magic of its stage reality for the instant and thence to some metaphysical state where its meaning becomes patent, if we choose to make it so. The wild, direct immediacy of what theatre is, was, or can be is a narcotic reinforced by the symbol’s pre­ sence and force. As the late Tennessee Williams said, “Symbols . . . are the purest language of plays.” Nor do we need Kenneth Burke, Carl Jung, or hosts of others to remind us of that simple truth. The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 396-398
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-11
Open Access
No
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