Semiotics and Umberto Eco

Of almost all the recent developments in what used to confidently be called the humanities, no event has made as much of an impact than the growth of semiotics; this scarcely remains a discipline which has not been opened during the past 15 years to various approaches “adopted or adapted” from linguistics and the general theory of signs.

Semiotics can be best defined as a “science dedicated to the study of the production of meaning in society”. As such, it is equally concerned with the processes of “signification” with those of “communication”-which essentially means, the process by which meanings are both generated and exchanged. Semiotics therefore comprises of the different “sign systems” and “codes” at work in society, and the actual messages and texts produced as a result. The breadth of semiotics is so wide that it cannot be considered simply a “discipline”, but at the same time, it is too multifaceted and heterogeneous to be reduced to a ‘method’. It is, ideally at least, a multidisciplinary scientific field whose efficient and accurate “methodological characteristics” may vary from field to field but it remains united by a common concern; the better understanding of our own “meaning-bearing” behavior.

Propagated as a comprehensive science of signs by two great modern thinkers at the beginning of this century, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, semiotics has since had a bit of an uneven career. This has been marked especially by two periods of intense and wide based activity; the thirties and forties (with the work of the Czech formalists) and the past two decades (particularly in France, Italy, Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States). The “semiotic enterprise” in recent years has been quite high in the field of literary studies, with special regard to poetry and the narrative. Theater and drama meanwhile have received considerably less attention, despite the “peculiar richness of theatrical communication as a potential area of semiotic investigation”.

Before moving onto understanding semiotics in drama, it is important to distinguish between drama and theater.

Theater refers here to the complex phenomena that is associated with the “performance-audience” transaction; that is, with the production and communication of meaning in the performance itself, and with the numerous systems underlying it. Drama on the other hand, pertains to the “mode of fiction” designed for stage representation, and constructed according to particular ‘dramatic’ conventions.

The “epithet” ‘theatrical’ then is limited to what takes place between and among performers and spectators, while the “epithet” ‘dramatic’ indicates the network of factors that can be connected to the represented fiction. Of course, there is no absolute differentiation between the two bodies, rather, it constitutes two different levels.

Now that we’ve understood semiotics, and the demarcation between drama and theater, what does semiotics look like when it comes to drama and theater itself?

Here enters Umberto Eco. His essay, “Semiotics of Theatrical Performance” which appeared in the Drama Review in 1977 is a good example of the new critical approach and his attention to semiotics in theater caught the eye of many, and was taken up and moved to “a central position” in semiotic studies by De Marinis and others.

So what exactly does Eco say? Without going into too much detail, let me give you a rundown of the basics;

According to him, Semiotics “can be conceived of either as a unified theoretical approach to the great variety of systems of signification and communication” or as a “description of those various systems insisting on their mutual differences”. Eco speaks of the well known semiotician who isolated thirteen sign systems that can be found within a theatrical performance. They are:

  1. Words
  2. Voice Inflection
  3. Facial Mimicry
  4. Gesture
  5. Body Movement
  6. Make up
  7. Headdress
  8. Costume
  9. Accessory
  10. Stage Design
  11. Lighting
  12. Music
  13. Noise

Eco then goes onto to exploring what the founding father of American semiotics C.S Peirce says; Peirce believed that a sign is something that stands for a deeper meaning; “it is a physical representation for something that is absent”. Eco further explains this through examples of things being signified through the semiotics of performance. One example involved a person showing another how to wear a tie. Another example included a drunken man representing drunkenness. A third example was a starving man.

Towards the end we learn that what Eco had been trying to say was that; ” a human body surrounded by, or supplied with a set of objects, within a physical space, stands for something else to a reacting audience”.

I think semiotics has carved itself a place in drama and theater, and thanks to the works of Eco, Peirce, Bogatyrev, De Marinis and many others, the signs of drama are starting to gain the importance they deserve; for it is through these signs that the true meaning of the dramatic text emerges.


Curious to read more? Visit the sources I used for this post!


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