What key qualities emphasize the performative nature of drama and poetry?

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Poetry and drama have more in common than is often assumed, including various “performative” qualities.  Examples of such qualities include the following:

  • A drama almost always consists of at least two persons, with one addressing the other. Some poems, such as John Donne’s “The Flea,” also imply a speaker and an addressee.
  • In drama, the distinction between the author of the work and the speakers who are characters in the work is very clear. In poetry, it is always safest to assume a similar distinction. For example, in John Donne’s “The Flea,” it is safest to assume that Donne has created a speaker who is distinct from Donne himself. It is risky, when reading this poem and many others, to assume that the speaker speaks for the author or expresses the author’s views.
  • In some poems, such as the “dramatic monologues” of Robert Browning, it is often quite clear that the speaker of the poem is quite distinct from the author of the poem. No one would assume, for instance, that the speaker of “Porphyria’s Lover” is Browning. The distinction between author and speaker in poems such as this one is almost as explicit as it is in most dramas.
  • Poetry often has qualities of sound (including alliteration, assonance, anaphora, rhythm, etc.) that sometimes almost seem to demand that the poem be read aloud or “performed.”
  • Some dramas (such as Shakespeare’s) are often full of poetry in the fullest senses of that word, and some poems (such as Milton’s Paradise Lost) are often full of literal drama – that is, dialogue and speeches.
  • Much poetry is explicitly addressed by a speaker to a specific hearer whose identity is made absolutely clear (as the precise identity of the person addressed in Donne’s “The Flea,” for instance, is not made exactly clear). Consider, for example, the opening lines of Donne’s second “holy sonnet”:

As due by many titles I resigne

My selfe to thee, O God, first I was made

By thee, and for thee, and when I was decay'd

Thy blood bought that, the which before was thine . . . .

Donne is a perfect example of a poet whose works are often highly “dramatic” in every sense of the word.

In all these ways, then, poetry can often seem as implicitly “performative” as drama is explicitly “performative.” Much depends on the way the poet employs his speaker(s), his sound effects, and his tone(s).





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What are the performative qualities in drama?

Aristotle divided the kinds of poetry into three kinds, based on the number of narrators:  Lyric (what we now call poetry) is “imitation of an action by language with one narrator”; Epic (Iliad, novels, etc.) is “imitation of an action by language with more than one narrator” (characters who tell the story and characters who speak, etc.); Drama is “imitation of an action by language without narrator” to which he adds “theatre is imitation of an action by action.”  This is what is “performative” about drama—the action is not confined to language, but makes use of the “metalanguage” of performance—blocking, movement, gestures, facial expressions, etc. etc.—to imitate the action.  One important performative in drama is the “speech-act”—those human actions that are imbedded in words—to “promise”, to “threaten”, to “claim”, to “object”, etc. etc.  The performative languages, then, are “speech-acts,” “paralinguistics” (vocal inflections that show emotion and reaction—surprise, fear, elation, etc.) , body language, proxemics (physical distances between characters), stage conventions, etc.  These performative qualities separate drama from the other literary forms, because not only can they be performed in space, but also in the mind’s eye while reading drama as literature.  A clear example of performativity in dramatic literature is Hamlet’s first entrance.  His mother, Gertrude, says, “Hamlet, cast thy nighted colors off.”  To the theatre viewer, this is the first identification of Hamlet, but to the reader, this is the first time we know that Hamlet (who is named in the stage directions) is dressed in black (“knighted colors”). 

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What are the key qualities of drama and poetry that emphasize their performative qualities?

“Performative” is not an official designation for literature, but the idea can be expressed.  Let us start with the idea of a narrator, the character who is telling the story.  This character can be performative when he/she has a distinct “voice” (a way of using language that is consistent with his/her occupation, station, etc.)  An “omniscient” narrator (one who knows everything in each character’s mind, is omnipresent in the plot, is, in other words, the author’s device for telling the story, and not a “character” with psychological traits) is therefore not “performative.”   But a narrator such as the Duke in Browning’s My Last Duchess has a complete psychological presence—in fact the poem is called a “dramatic monologue.”  But virtually all first-person poetry is also "performative ("My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky"; "Oft in the stilly night ere slumber's chain has bound me" etc.) Next, consider speech act theory (simply put, the examination of what act is being carried out by an utterance–to declare a fact, to promise, to threaten, to announce, etc.)  If the piece of literature can be delivered as a construction of motives (all dramatic literature, really, by definition, is a series of speech acts uttered by fictive characters), then it is “performative. 

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I need to identify key qualities of drama and poetry which emphasize their performative qualities.  Can you help?

The three genres of “poetry” identified by the Greeks are Epic, Lyric, and Dramatic – they differ by narrator (lyric has one, drama has none, and epic has many narrators). In the process of “performing” these genres, emphasis is placed on the imitative nature of narration. Drama is primary “speech acts” (the performing of acts by using language – promise, deny, warn, etc.) and the performative element comes into play when the narration takes on a personification through stage language – posture, gesture, blocking, costume, etc. – Poetry (or , technically, verse) gets its performative qualities from the single narrator imitating the action of having the emotion (joy, sorrow, etc.) of the sentiment. The hearer or witness to the performative acts then identifies that emotion and engages with the mise-en-scene through imagination. A fairly recent discipline, performance theory (see Richard Schnechner) digests this information and supplies a vocabulary for critical discussion. It is partly an artistic endeavor and partly a sociological inquiry into the way we perform our rhetorical agency.)

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