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The Sociology of the Theatre, Part One: Problems and Perspectives

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 January 2009


Although many disciplines have helpfully (and a few less helpfully) interacted with theatre studies over the past decade, progress has been notably slow in the discovery of a dialogue with sociology. Indeed, such progress as has been made has too often, argues Maria Shevtsova. resulted in perceptions and emphases which are not always sympathetic (or seemingly even relevant) to the interests of theatre workers. In this, the first of a three-part introduction to the sociology of theatre, Maria Shevtsova combines an objective analysis of progress to date with a study of the problems and misconceptions encountered along the way, and also proposes a possible methodology for correcting the present imbalance. In future instalments, she will look in particular at the ways in which theatre anthropology and theatre semiotics have helped and hindered this problematic relationship. Now teaching in the Department of French Studies at the University of Sydney, Maria Shevtsova trained in Paris before spending three years at the University of Connecticut. She has previously contributed to Modern Drama, Theatre International, and Theatre Papers, as well as to the original Theatre Quarterly and other journals.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1989

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Notes and References

1. ‘Sociologie du théâtre’, Lettres Nouvelles, III (1956), p. 196–210; trans, in Elizabeth, and Burns, Tom, eds, Sociology of Literature and Drama (Penguin, 1973), p. 7181Google Scholar.

2. The first World Congress in the Sociology of Theatre was held at the University of Rome, July 1986.

3. The following by Umberto Eco states clearly the position underlying semiotics in general and the semiotics of theatre in particular:

Semiotics can define the subject of every act of semiosis only by semiotic categories; thus the subject of signification is nothing more than the continuously unaccomplished system of systems of signification that reflects back on itself. I would like to eliminate any shade of idealism from such an assertion. I am not denying the existence and importance of individual subjects which, when communicating, obey, enrich, change and criticize signification systems. I am only assuming that semiotics cannot define these subjects except within its own theoretical framework, in the same way in which, examining referents as contents, it does not deny the existence of physical things and states of the world, but assigns their signification (and their analysis in terms of concrete properties, change, truth and falsity) to other types of approach.

A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976) p. 315–16.

Eco's claim to have salvaged semiotics from idealism is highly debatable, not least because referents, ‘physical things’, and ‘states of the world’ are assigned to ‘other types of approach’, leaving semiotics and its subject where they began, namely, in the ‘unaccomplished system of systems of signification that reflects back on itself’. This certainly makes semiotics a closed, purely formal (and formalist) system of signs continually turning in on itself, without analytical or explanatory relation to ‘states of the world’, which can only be social. Although it can be argued that semiotic theory has made some advances since Eco's formulation here, it is still doubtful whether the semiotics of theatre has incorporated these changes in both its theoretical premises and its working procedures. Attention will be given to this problem in Part III of this essay. Insofar as Eco is an important reference for semiotics (of theatre, or whatever else), it is relevant to note that his last major work reiterates, rather than alters, the arguments and conclusions hitherto formulated by him. See Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language (London: Macmillan, 1984).

4. On the question of how theatre is a social phenomenon Gurvitch states: ‘II reproduit, sans aucun doute, une situation sociale, une conjoncture sociale; il constitue lui même un certain cadre social dans lequel s'intègrent les acteurs’ (op. cit., p. 199). The idea that theatre (a) repeats a social situation and the conjuncture of social forces generating this situation, and (b) is itself a certain social framework takes its full meaning from his argument that theatre is both part of social structure and a form of social interaction. Although Gurvitch draws parallels between theatre and society in order to explain the ‘profound affinity’ between them (for example, ‘role-playing’ in the social world and on stage) he, nonetheless, does not collapse them into one entity. This reminder will be useful when we note later how certain anthropologists (Victor Turner, Clifford Geertz) and theatre specialists replying on anthropology (Elizabeth Burns, Richard Schechner) either metaphorically replace ‘theatre’ and ‘society’ with each other, or simply merge them without distinction.

5. This does not imply that studies of Brecht from within a social perspective or highlighting Brecht's social optic are not available. They are, but are not explicitly framed in terms of the sociology of theatre. See, for example, Benjamin, Walter, Understanding Brecht (London: New Left Books, 1973)Google Scholar; and Dort, Bernard, Lecture de Brecht (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1960)Google Scholar. Willett's, John path-breaking (especially for the English-speaking world) The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht (London: Methuen, 1955)Google Scholar devotes a chapter to Brecht's politics, but it is not as holistic a view, integrating Brecht's theatre and politics, as that of Benjamin.

6. An obvious example is Knights, L. C., Drama and Society in the Age of Jonson (London: Chatto and Windus 1937)Google Scholar.

7. Reference here to Stanislavsky in relation to Brecht is purposeful. It suggests that Stanislavsky's realism, although conceived in relation to life, is arguably principally concerned with aesthetics, with how the thing is done on stage rather than with what it can do in society. This of course is a Brechtian view of Stanislavsky and shows the ambiguous zones with which the sociology of theatre must deal. ‘Life’, though we all understand what it means generally, is sociologically imprecise. The life of the ruling clases, as Brecht inter alia has pointed out, is qualitatively different from the life of subaltern classes. The category of class, class fraction, and class-specific group – even certain groups that are considered to be marginal to their class of origin or aspiration – are essential to the frame of reference of the sociology of theatre.

8. For a fine account of the social and artistic objectives of British alternative theatre see Itzin, Catherine, Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968 (London: Eyre Methuen, 1980)Google Scholar.

9. The vast range encompassed by sociology alone is suggested by the fact that the International Sociological Association lists 39 subject areas which have been formalized as such by researchers of the Association (Research Committees). The list, however, does not exhaust the areas studied by sociologists throughout the world. Theatre is covered by the rubric ‘Sociology of the Arts’ (RC37).

10. These lines maintain, despite the intelligent warnings of American sociologist Eliot Freidson, that actors, like other artists, are paid workers (when not unemployed!) and thus constitute professional groups. Freidson, who has specialized knowledge of work and profession issues, argues that artists depend too heavily on subsidiary means of living to qualify, without reservation, for the category of profession (where what might be termed ‘exclusively working for a living’ and ‘receiving a salary in kind’ are the lynchpins of Friedson's definition). See ‘Les Professions artistiques comme défi àláanalyse sociologique', Revue francaise de sociologie’, XXVII, No. 3. (July-September 1986), p. 431–42 (special issue on the ‘Sociology of Art and Literature’).

11. See Chumley's, Daniel experience, ‘Going South: the San Francisco Mime Troupe in Nicaragua’, New Theatre Quarterly, III, No. 12 (11 1987), p. 291302CrossRefGoogle Scholar. An estimated Aust $2,000,000 was spent on mounting twelve performances of the Mahabharata (four cycles) in Perth (2 to 13 February 1988) and fifteen (five cycles) at the Adelaide Festival (20 February to 4 March). The figure includes the cost of bringing the company to Australia. (Information kindly provided by the Australian Bicentennial Authority.)

12. Pragmatic ends were served, for instance, when the American Sociological Association accepted a petition in 1986 from academics working in the area they commonly recognized as the sociology of the arts/sociology of culture, to form a section officially covered by the ASA under the second name. Official organization meant the inalienable right to hold self-contained, independent sessions under the title of Sociology of Culture at annual meetings of the ASA, as well as at regional meetings. Similarly, it facilitated contact, through newsletters as well, between relevant academics. Establishing an official body also meant that the discipline could be disseminated and promoted more effectively than was possible through the work of scattered individuals.

13. Take, for instance, the very active role played by the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (discussion groups, teaching, research, publications, publicist interventions -all emphasizing the social intelligibility and significance of both ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture).

14. For a representative sample, see the essays in Kamerman, Jack B., Martorella, Rosanne et al. Performers and Performances: the Social Organization of Artistic Work (Bergin and Garvey, 1983)Google Scholar; Martorella, Rosanne, The Sociology of Opera (Bergin and Garvey, 1982)Google Scholar; and Becker's, Howard influential Art Worlds (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982)Google Scholar. Martorella, in The Sociology of Opera, states that the styles and contents of opera urgently need sociological analysis but unfortunately does not pursue this goal. Her emphasis is on finance, management, and markets.

15. Dimaggio, Paul and Useem, Michael, ‘Social Class and Arts Consumption: the Origins and Consequences of Class Differences in Exposure to the Arts in America’, Theory and Society, V (03 1978), p. 141–61CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Paul Dimaggio and Michael Unseem, ‘Cultural Democracy in a Period of Cultural Expansion: the Social Composition of the Arts Audiences in the United States’, in Performers and Performances, op. tit., p. 199–225. Dimaggio and Unseem essentially echo the findings, twelve years before the first article cited, of Baumol, William J. and Bowen, William G., ‘The Audience’, in Performing Arts: the Economic Dilemma (MIT Press, 1966), p. 7197Google Scholar. Baumol and Bowen compare American and British performing arts audiences (museums and art galleries are excluded) for the period 1963–64, concluding that audiences from art form to art form were very similar in both countries, were ‘highly educated’ and belonged predominantly to the liberal professions. They also note that 4.6 per cent of audiences in Britain and 2.6 per cent in the United States were composed of blue-collar workers, and state that this group nonetheless constituted an insignificant part of the total audience. For further material of a quantitative nature see Mann, P. H., ‘Surveying a Theatre Audience: Methodological Problems’, British Journal of Sociology, XVII (1966), p. 380–7CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and ‘Surveying a Theatre Audience: Findings’, British Journal of Sociology, XVIII (1967), p. 57–90; also Graziani, Gianfranco, ‘Pubblico romano dei teatri off e pubblico dei cinema d'essai della capitale in due ricerche sul campo’, Revue internaiionale de sociologie, XVIII (0412 1982), p. 442–53Google Scholar. A combination of quantitative and qualitative information (spectators' values and their attitudes towards, as well as perception of, performances) is to be found in Gourdon, Anne-Marie, ‘Les Bonnes: la perception du spectacle’, in Les Votes de la création théâtrale, IV (Paris: Editions du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1975), p. 279–90Google Scholar. A comprehensive study of audience compositon, but especially of audience views of performances and of the spaces in which they are performed, appears in Gourdon's Théâtre, Public, Perception (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1982). It need not be stressed that Gourdon's attention to spectator interpretation of productions markedly distinguishes her work from its American counterpart.

16. Rosanne Martorella believes that ‘European varieties’ of the sociology of the arts generally draw too heavily on ‘theoretical commitment’. European sociology of music, she claims, is particularly prone to semiotic and phenomenological theory. Such works ‘are more philosophical, and their interpretations are too “idealistic” to be sociological’ (The Sociology of Opera p. 3). Whatever Martorella's prefatory remarks may indicate, her study is definitely non-theoretical, even anti-theoretical; and whilst her position need not be taken as the sole view in the sum total of American sociology of the arts, it is nevertheless symptomatic of the latter's dominant trend. This trend is amply demonstrated (apart from the publications cited in note 14) by the essays and abstracts in Balfe, Judith M. and Wyszomirski, Margaret J., eds, Art, Ideology, and Politics, selection of papers presented at the Tenth Annual Conference on Social Theory, Politics and the Arts, October 1983 (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1985)Google Scholar; and Robinson, John P., ed., Social Science and the Arts, review from the Eleventh Annual Conference on Social Theory, Politics, and the Arts, October 1984 (University Press of America, 1985)Google Scholar. Once again, the theatre is sorely missing in these publications.

17. Although Jean-Claude Chamboredon does not mention theatre, he, too, raises the issue of decreasing interest in, or down-right silence on, art works and the effect this will have on an area purporting to deal with art. Chamboredon's perspective and suggested solutions do not coincide with mine, even though we share certain points in common. See ‘Production symbolique et formes sociales: de la sociologie de l'art et de la littérature à la sociologie de la culture’, Revue francaise de sociologie, op. cit., p. 505–30.

18. Teatro dell'IRAA (Institute of Anthropological Research on the Actor) was founded in Rome in 1978 by Renato Cuocolo, Raffaella Rosselini, and Massimo Ranieri. By ‘anthropological’, the group wishes to signal its belief that western theatre has lost contact with the human body as a source of knowledge in its own right (as against the mind, or reason). Hence the group's commitment to non-westem forms of representation which their dance/theatre (obligatorily without words) seeks to articulate.

19. Neitzsche's The Birth of Tragedy can be said to be behind most (if not all) of these studies. One of the best ‘ritual’ histories of theatre, in my view, is Toschi, Paolo, Le origini del teatro italiano (Turin: Boringhieri, 1955)Google Scholar.

20. An admirable study of the changing status of acting as a profession is Baker, Michael, The Rise of the Victorian Actor (London: Croom Helm, 1978)Google Scholar. Billed as a social history and catalogued (British Library Cataloguing) under ‘theatre and society’, this work can be attributed, without hestitation, to the sociology of theatre. For hypotheses on conditions favourable to the rise of the actor in France (emphasis on the sociology of individualism in the liberal period, 1830s and 1840s), see Duvignaud, Jean, L'Acteur, Esquisse dune sociologie du comédien (Paris: Gallimard, 1965)Google Scholar. Duvignaud, a ‘founding father’ of the sociology of theatre, also examines the changing role of actors during the nineteenth century and, to some extent, twentieth century (with less attention to changing social circumstances than required). The fact that Duvignaud's subtitle refers explicitly to the sociology of actors, which neither Baker's title nor its classification do, suggests the cultural discrepancies in definitions of research, not least by their authors, noted in this article.

21. Théâtre, Public, Peception, op. cit., p. 63–9 and 82-8. See also Vilar, Jean, Le Théâtre, service public, presentation and notes by Delcampe, A. (Paris: Gallimard, 1975)Google Scholar.

22. The work of Gramsci is of paramount importance for this point, as for many listed just now. For the sake of brevity let us only note that his observations on culture (folk, popular, élite, national, national-popular) are extremely useful for the study of theatre types. His writings on theatre, which include critical reviews of productions, are no less pertinent to this area and, indeed, to the sociology of theatre overall. See, especially, Gramsci, Antonio, Selections from Cultural Writings, ed. Forgacs, David and Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey (Harvard University Press, 1985)Google Scholar, which largely corresponds with items published in Italian in Letteratura e vita nazionale and Gli intellettuali (Editori Riuniti, 1977).

23. The insights of Bernard Dort can be developed significantly. See ‘Condition sociologique de la mise en scène théâtrale’, in Théâtre réel (Paris: Le Seuil), 1971, p. 51–66.

24. Eco, note 3.

25. Note 15. It is worth adding that Gourdon's survey incorporates discussions with randomly selected spectators immediately after performances, giving them the opportunity to express their opinions more fully than is possible for distributed questionnaires. The questionnaire discouraged Yes/No answers, and, although uniform on age, etc., questions eliciting assessment were geared differently for each production. This meant that Gourdon and her assistants had to preview each one. They also attended some rehearsals.

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