- Violence, Speech, and Reality:The Case of Cinq Visages pour Camille Brunelle
Since the 1970s, theatre scholarship has seen a widespread opposition between performance (or performativity) and theatre (or theatricality), and that has been accompanied by a devaluation of speech (saying) in favour of action (doing) in many new plays. This shift implies that the body is somehow 'real,' incapable of showing anything but the truth, while speech is understood to be an art of artifice, allowing, as it does, lying and treachery. Violence, in this world-view, comes to be seen as authentic and real, especially when it is aimed toward the body, be it the artist's or someone else's. Of course, violence or physical damage can be faked in many ways—as theatre, cinema, and professional wrestling have been demonstrating for years—but performative violence remains something that is perceived as inherently real onstage, even when it arises in a fictional play. It works as what Roland Barthes would call a "reality effect," strengthening our sense that what we are seeing is, in fact, real.
Nevertheless, the idea that speech is less likely to be authentic needs to be reassessed. Our understanding of words such as 'reality,' 'authenticity,' 'fiction,' and 'artifice' is underpinned by two binaries: opacity/transparency and violence/speech. Looking more closely at these binaries may help to overcome this opposition. Using the play Cinq visages pour Camille Brunelle,1 by Guillaume Corbeil, I argue that the poles of reality and post-reality, the real and the artificial, are in need of a new definition. The play is one of several recent plays in which violence seems to be mediated by speech acts rather than action, as Quebec theatre has seen a 'return to text' in the past ten years or so. This stress on language rather than the body modifies spectators' perception of the characters. A reading of this play that deconstructs the binaries outlined above can lead us to a new understanding of the relationship between realism, reality, and theatre by presenting a new understanding of the relationship between violence and speech.
Understanding theatre's 'reality'
One could argue that we are still in an essentialist paradigm, in which the 'real' in theatre is understood to be based on the intense, live relationship between actors and spectators. To say that theatre is, more than anything else, about the presence of flesh and blood is to say that what is natural (real, authentic, even divine) is superior to what is artificial. What strikes me is that, even today, when technology has become ubiquitous in theatre, this distinction has remained widespread. However, the binary is not only between technology (artificiality) and liveness (authenticity), but also between fiction and reality (theatricality vs performativity), though the latter has changed over the years. Contemporary theatre, at least in Quebec, no longer pretends to offer a total illusion of reality. Theatre is moving from immediacy and transparency to opacity. Immediacy allows spectators to experience their need for illusions: They presume that the theatrical apparatus is transparent and that they can trust what they see. Opacity works in a different way: It refers to the pleasure that spectators get when they see (or feel) the different processes of mediation involved in creating what goes onstage. It is about watching those processes interact with each other, putting the spectator's focus on how things are made. Theatre today no longer relies on immediacy to convince an audience that something is real (although it was always a pretense of illusion, a convention that was accepted by both actors and spectators). [End Page 35]
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The opposition between the real and the artificial runs in opposition to the way that theatre works both with and against reality, as Marvin Carlson has argued. As he puts it, "the function of theatre has never been to provide an exact duplication of everyday life (as...