Martin Roeder-Zerndt, Lesen und Zuschauen David Mamet und das amerikanische
Martin Roeder-Zerndt's Lesen und Zuschauen is intended to fill the yawning literary-theoretical gap in American drama and theatre studies. Although the approach combines reception theory and phenomenology and does not reduce Mamet's plays to written texts, Roeder-Zerndt is concerned with exposing the textual triggers for the play's concretization at the interface of spectators and stage production.
Lesen und Zuschauen David Mamet und das amerikanische
Drama und Theater der 70er Jahre.
Forum Modernes Theater Schriftenreihe Band 12.
Tubingen: Gunter Narr, 1994. 261 pp.
Martin Roeder-Zerndt's Lesen und Zuschauen is intended to fill the yawning literary-theoretical gap in American drama and theatre studies. The book's analyses center on Mamet's early drama— Lakeboat, Sexual Perversity in Chicago, and A Life in the Theater —with side glances at "Litko: A Dramatic Monologue" and "Two Scenes (No. 2)." Although the approach combines reception theory and phenomenology and does not reduce Mamet's plays to written texts, Roeder-Zerndt is concerned with exposing the textual triggers for the play's concretization at the interface of spectators and stage production.
Mamet's reputation, Roeder-Zerndt rightly remarks, was made by the meticulous but superficial resemblance of his dramatic language to everyday speech, which has relegated his creations to the category of verbal theatre. The heightened attention to language borders on formalism, yet to Roeder-Zerndt, Mamet never gives up extraneous meaning.
For example, the doubling of the stage, the inner playing, and especially the script reading of the lifeboat scene in A Life in the Theater render the audience aware of its place and function as interpreter, putting frame and inner plays on a par. Yet, these elements also carry a nonself-referential thematic weight, namely the changing relationship between John and Robert, which the characters themselves ignore but the audience realizes. Despite the many parallels drawn between life and the theatre, nowhere are role, actor, and spectator collapsed. In the plays not centered on the theatre, the process of theatrical concretization chips away the indeterminacies of the verbal text, especially its expressive and persuasive dimensions. The materiality of the theatrical production—the immediate significations/relations established within a pragmatic situation between the text and the performers, costumes, props and space—counters the deferral and dissemination of the textual signified.
The deeper purpose of Roeder-Zerndt's rhetorical strategy is to lodge the "meaning" of Mamet's texts in the performance and spectators. Mamet's artificial realism is strongly marked by syntactic and morphological reduction, ellipsis, ambiguity, inconsistency, and the banal. In the first place, these features shift the semiotic weight of Mamet's plays to the paralinguistic level (pitch, tone, rhythm, emphasis, the alternation between intro- and extroversion), the speech act's situational embedding and other nonverbal theatre signs (performers, costumes, props, space, etc.). Second, Mamet's reductionism increases the audience's active participation. It makes room for and gives shape to an unformulated normative "horizon of expectation" and "negativity profile" (terms Wolfgang Iser coined for literary reception) against which to set the characters' immorality, disloyalty, discrimination, frustration and alienation, all subsumed by Roeder-Zerndt under the plays' "negation." Briefly, "negativity" is typical of modern texts and allows complexity and openness of interpretation through the denial, exclusion or repression of information. It involves the virtual causes of the dramatic "negation" and, in Mamet's case, the distortion of traditional human and dramatic categories, such as language, action, time and character. The negativity of Mamet's plays safeguards the public's interpretive freedom as opposed to the binary options offered by "affirmative" art.
Actually, intentionality and interpretive freedom are quite problematical pillars of Roeder-Zerndt's thesis. Mamet's indirection (which in Sexual Perversity assumes the form of satirical overdetermination) makes spectators and critics alike susceptible to an unwarranted " Hineininterpretierung ." Roeder-Zerndt insists on the playwright's authorial, hence textual, control over the semantic process: the negativity profile is the unformulated foil to and expansion of what is formulated, no matter how reduced that is (p. 182).
All the same, projection is not too far off in the discussion of Lakeboat (esp. pp. 218-22). Roeder-Zerndt argues that the war in Vietnam constitutes the play's true subject, the repression of which partakes of the characters', and ultimately society's, general alienation. The critic admits that the audience's discovery of Lakeboat' s hidden signified depends on extraneous knowledge brought to the performance. As with the normative horizon of expectation, preconceptions traditionally encapsulated in the text are now imported from without, thus curtailing the audience's individual responsibility and true involvement, the cornerstone of Mamet's aesthetics and Roeder-Zerndt's phenomenological method.
Roeder-Zerndt considers it the spectators' duty to (re)construct the alleged depth of Mamet's characters from the textual material or the performers' obligation to adhere closely to the script within a predominantly realistic/naturalistic acting concept (p. 158). Outright non-verbal or antiverbal productions of Mamet are said to be inappropriate (p. 108), though not impossible (pp. 150, 158). Selfreferentiality should remain subordinated to the dramatic illusion (p. 160). The consciousness of the play may never overtake that within the play, lest it short-circuit and break down the dramatic or theatrical event.
The critic is right in positioning Mamet's work between the extremes of Lyotard's postmodern energeticerotic theatre of pure presence or Derrida's free play of signifiers, and a dated hermeneutic-semiotic mimetic theatre concept, between popular realism and unrestricted experimentalism. If the poststructuralist position emphasizes the context-free, system-bound langue , the phenomenological position focuses on the idiosyncratic parole , which acquires meaning through concrete interactions on stage of performers, props, room and spectators. Roeder-Zerndt hereby reacts against the designation of Mamet as a postmodern playwright by critics like Rodney Simard or C.W.E. Bigsby. Roeder-Zerndt's phenomenological point of departure is precisely that all drama is incomplete and awaits its fulfillment on stage and in the spectators' minds. Rather than designating two essentially different aesthetic objects, drama and theatre thus become phases of one and the same process.
Despite the shortcomings of Roeder-Zerndt's approach to Mamet, Lesen und Zuschauen represents an advance over earlier assessments of the American playwright, and may lead to increasingly sophisticated theoretical approaches to American drama and theatre.
Vrije Universiteit Brussel