Interpretation (more recently called performance studies) is the process of studying and performing text. When we study interpretation, we are primarily interested in the relationship between you and a text--all kinds of texts--through the medium of performance. But what exactly do we mean by "text" and what do we mean by "performance?" The meanings of both these terms have greatly expanded.
When we consider "text," we include literary texts (prose, drama, poetry), as well as aesthetic objects (a quilt, for example, is a "text" of a particular family, time period, culture), oral texts (personal narratives, everyday conversations), and ethnographic studies of a particular culture or minority group. Rituals are social or cultural texts; demonstrations, rallies, and sit-ins are political texts; drawings and dance are texts of self-expression. Text, then, is a metaphor for all kinds of experience, and we "read" texts, we understand them, through other texts that we have read, seen, experienced.
By "performing," we mean the traditional notion of performance as in theatrical productions, but we also include performances in a more general sense--including the roles you play on a daily basis. One could say that we always act or play roles--throughout childhood, for example, we often rehearse being adults.
Your everyday behavior (actions), appearance (costume), and language (dialogue) alter depending on the situation you are in and the role you assume. For example, try starting a conversation about what you did last night with a close friend. Then discuss the same subject with a teacher, a boss, a grandparent. How did the conversation change? How did you adjust or modify your behavior, your language-- your "performance?" How does your behavior differ at job interviews or formal dinners or holiday gatherings or religious services or political rallies or dances?
How do you "act" with your friends as opposed to your mother, or your lover, or the president of the United States? Our daily lives are filled with performance events. Richard Schechner includes a wide spectrum of events in his discussion of performance, including "theatre, dance, music, sacred ritual, secular ritual, sports, social drama,. . . a bar mitzvah,. . . Hindu temple services, title boxing matches, TV soap operas, etc."' Schechner would also include such recent events as the 1991 Gulf War, the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings, and the William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson rape trials. From this, it is easy to conclude that much of our daily life is involved in participating in performances--in playing roles. Thus, the title of this book.
While it is not possible in a beginning textbook to cover all of these text and performance possibilities, our focus on the analysis and performance of literary texts--on the diverse literary roles available for you to play--will provide you with experiences that will help enrich and inform the roles you play in daily life.
As you study and perform literature, see what connections you can make to the everyday events of your own life. As you perform dialogues created by another, what do you learn about your own communicative strategies? As you assume another's perspective, what do you learn about your own? In general, what do you learn about yourself and others by studying and performing literary texts?
In the following poem, the connection between life and literature is made manifest.
He ate and drank the precious Words--
His spirit grew robust--
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was Dust
He danced along the dingy Days
And this Bequest of wings
Was but a Book--What Liberty
A loosened spirit brings--
Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON, Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright 1951, O 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
The study of literature has been and shall continue to be one of the most exciting endeavors we can undertake. The man in the poem above, for example, was able to exist on the love of "the precious Words" alone. Although you need not go to his extreme, the study of literature can often be as stimulating, liberating, and rewarding for you as for the man in this poem. Literature expands your experiences, stimulates your imagination, and exposes you to different kinds of people and cultures. Literature also allows you to experience the power of language. Literature persuades, moves, affects you--this is why you read it. Literature can offer you a fantasy world in which to escape, a realistic world to contemplate, or a surrealistic vision of the future, Writers of literature create characters with whom you cry, laugh, scream--characters who may be like you or unlike you, but who by their universality have something to say to us all. Through literature, you expand your knowledge of the world and consequently your knowledge of yourself and others.
Our focus in this text is on the study of literature--more specifically, the process of studying literature (prose fiction, drama, and poetry) through performance. (Chapter 9 discusses nonfiction, children's literature, and postmodern literature as well as some experimental performance possibilities.) We are especially interested in bringing a literary text and a student closer together than is possible with silent reading alone. Performance encourages--even demands--this closeness.
Although interpretation may be new to you, perhaps two related fields are not.
If you have ever been involved in acting or public speaking classes, you have been exposed to styles of presentation similar to those used in the interpretation classroom.
Acting, like interpretation, asks that you "take on" the role of another, attempting to create the character in the play. As an actor, your goal is to project your understanding of the character-physically, vocally, mentally. The more specifically you can suggest this character's identifying traits, the more successful your portrayal. In interpretation, you engage in this same role-playing process. Clearly, however, there are some practical differences between the art of the actor and the art of the interpreter, which is why the two distinct art forms exist. Let us briefly outline the basic components that individualize each of these art forms.
Performers usually deal only with drama (plays).
Performers deal with all literary texts
Performers usually face each other during the performance (onstage focus).
Performers project scenes out front during the performance (offstage focus).
Performers memorize their lines. No scripts are present on stage.
Performers are very familiar with their lines but may have a script
Performers rely on costumes, makeup, scenery, and the like to help them create the illusion of reality.
Performers rely on their performance and the audience's imaginations to create the scenes.
Performers act on a stage, usually separated from the audience, and use a great expenditure of gesture and movement.
Performers are often in a room, close to the audience, and employ economy of gesture and movement.
Performers usually play only one role.
Performers often play many roles, including roles they might not be cast to play in conventional theatre.
Performers are guided in their interpretations by a director's production concept.
Performers are their own directors and devise their own interpretations.
In the past, interpretation was hampered by arbitrary rules that stated (1) interpreters who moved were acting, (2) interpreters who sat down were acting, and (3) interpreters who did not use a script were acting, among others. Rules like these are proscriptive, limit creativity, and do not make allowances for individual texts or individual interpretations. Rules limit choices, and when they are rigidly followed, rules can be detrimental to the literature as well as to the performance.
The differences between the actor and the interpreter, then, are differences in degree and not in kind. Sharing a performance with an audience is central to both artists. Aside from the interpreter's need to practice economy of movement and action, to suggest rather than actually demonstrate the character's movement and interaction, the actor and the interpreter have much in common, as earlier suggested. Both artists role play, engage in "acting." Speaking is an action--and no one would deny that interpreters speak. Actors, in turn, must interpret their roles. Howard R. Martin puts it well as he describes the similarities between these two complementary arts:
After all, acting is an "interpretive" art in the sense of deriving from a clear understanding of previous givens (e.g., texts, scenarios, characters), and conversely, interpretation is a dramatic art involving empathy, transformation, characterization, and the like.
Just as acting and interpretation are two similar but distinct art forms, so are public speaking and interpretation. Let's examine the similarities and differences between the two.
In public speaking, you stand before an audience to share ideas and feelings, just as you do in interpretation. The public speaker addresses an audience directly--facing the members and receiving their immediate responses--like politicians delivering campaign speeches. The interpreter, too, faces the audience, and both have the advantage of receiving the responses of the audience at the moment of performance.
One difference is that the public speaker may deliver his or her speech extemporaneously; he knows the outline of his speech, but the exact wording changes each time he delivers it. The interpreter, on the other hand, is bound by the exact words of the text.
Another difference between these two situations is that the public speaker's text is an original speech (although some orators hire speech writers to compose their speeches) which conveys the speaker's personal feelings and attitudes (backed by research, in some cases). The interpreter's text, on the other hand, is a literary selection which conveys the speaker in the text's feelings and attitudes as interpreted by the performer. The interpreter may or may not share these feelings and attitudes.
Finally, public speakers normally remain themselves, whereas interpreters often attempt to suggest someone other than themselves. Thus, while interpreters share similarities with actors and public speakers, interpretation is different from either of these other types of performance.
This chapter introduces the essentials of the art of interpretation, including its primary characteristics and values for you as a student. In addition, the chapter includes a sample analysis, including performance suggestions, of a literary selection.
A question often asked by beginning interpretation students is, What value is an interpretation course to me? Many of you are taking this course because it fulfills a requirement, not necessarily because you want to. Some of you may have never heard of interpretation and are curious. If either of these descriptions fits you, consider the possible values you can receive from this course--regardless of your chosen major or future vocational goals. Three primary values are derived from the interpretation experience.
First, interpretation enables you to study the world's best literature. Your exposure to literature begins as you search for a selection that you would like to study and share with an audience. You will probably have to read many selections before you find the right one for you. In addition, performance brings you closer to these texts than mere silent reading. As you practice your selection aloud, you discover many intricacies that silent reading alone may never have revealed. Widening your personal literary text repertory is one of the primary values of interpretation.
Second, you expand your knowledge of yourself and your world through interpretation. As you work to create the speaker(s) in the selection, you begin to ask yourself, How does the speaker look? How does the speaker sound? How does the speaker feel? How does this speaker think? What does this speaker want? What does this speaker need? As you begin to understand and create the experiences of the speaker, you learn what others think and feel. You hear other social voices and take on other social roles. You discover more about your culture and traditions as well as about other cultures and other times. By creating characters in literature, you learn to view the world through another's eyes. You are exposed to different values, attitudes, and beliefs and are thereby able to gain a wider perspective on your own life, perhaps modifying your world view. You are able to increase your communication competence outside of the classroom as you come to understand the intentions and motives of others. You learn to judge yourself and others less harshly as you express other people's points of view. Each new study expands your experiences, and the accumulation of your experiences affects your-study of every text.
The third value of interpretation is the direct result of the performance experience itself. This value has two parts: one comes from performing and the other comes from viewing the performances of others.
Although you probably will experience some stage fright (all performers do) at the thought of performing before a group of people, knowing that everyone in the class is in the same situation should alleviate much of the fear. The best remedy for stage fright, however, is preparation. The more time you spend learning about and living with your material, the less stage fright is likely to overcome you. (Keep in mind, however, that some stage fright is inevitable and even useful if it can be channeled into performance energy.) If you are prepared and feel confident on the day you are to perform, you will find that the benefits of performing far outweigh the temporary anxiety. Performing before an audience develops poise, self-confidence, and an awareness of yourself that may be gained in no other way. In addition to the development of poise and self confidence, participating in interpretation develops better vocal control, quality, and flexibility, as well as improved diction. The performance experience also helps to improve your oral delivery in other communication situations.
Viewing the performances of others, and discussing these performances, helps sharpen your critical skills. You develop the ability to support your opinions. You discover the importance of explaining why something worked for you or how it might be improved. Postreading discussions help you learn how to constructively evaluate your own performance as well as the performances of others.
Expanding your knowledge of good literature, increasing your awareness of other people and cultures, developing self-confidence, and improving your critical skills are just some of the important values derived from the interpretation experience.
Interpretation involves performance, but how does this type of performance differ from the oral reading you have been doing since you first learned to read? Often the terms interpretation and oral reading are used interchangeably. For clarity, we will draw a distinction between these terms. There are three basic differences between interpretation and oral reading.
First, oral reading is a skill you developed early in your education. Oral reading is the sounding of words so that they may be heard. Although you read the words orally, you do not necessarily understand the words or what they mean to you. Can you recall reading aloud from a text you did not understand? Can you remember hearing another person read who had no comprehension of the ideas being expressed?
Interpretation, on the other hand, is more sophisticated than oral reading. Interpretation is an artistic process that begins with silent and oral reading, but then asks that you make choices. When interpreting a written text, you do not merely sound words; you must come to some personal understanding of them-- this is your interpretation. You experience another's feelings, emotions, attitudes, and share those with your audience in performance.
Second, in an oral reading, you sound the words in your own voice. You make no attempt to change the way you normally speak. In interpretation, as we previously suggested, you may have to alter your voice to suggest the voice of the speaker. You change the pitch, volume, rate, or quality of your voice to correspond with your concept of this speaker.
Third, oral reading usually involves only vocal reinforcement of the text. In interpretation, nonverbal reinforcement is essential: you try to suggest your understanding not only of the speaker's voice, but also of the speaker's physical stance, walk, gestures, and facial expressions. You not only sound words, but also suggest the voice and body of the speaker and suggest the mind behind the words.
In interpretation, then, you create an impression of the speaker and share your creation with the audience. This created impression is based on your past experiences, preoccupations, memories, aspirations, interests. We call this weaving of text and personal experience intertextuality.
Earlier we mentioned that one of your primary responsibility in interpretation is to discover the nature of the speaker in a text. It is important that you know that a text is merely a construct the reader has the potential to create. Thanks to some current literary theories (see chapter 3), the reader (you) is empowered with a greater responsibility than ever before in determining what a text means and who the speaker is. As Beverly Whitaker Long so aptly put it at a performance festival, "When we read texts, we write or produce them. We relate them to texts we already know. We connect them to other texts and to other performances of those texts. . . . We make sense of a text in terms of another--and in terms of what we already know is similar." As Mark Twain once wrote, "You can find in a text whatever you bring."
During the Romantic period and throughout the nineteenth century, critics were primarily interested in studying the writer's contribution to a text. These critics studied biographical details of the writer, assuming they would find a direct correspondence between the writer's life and the literature he or she produced. During the first half of the twentieth century, the emphasis shifted to the text itself, quite separate from the writer or from the world in which the text was created. These New Critics believed that the only way to understand a text was to study it, that nothing outside the text could help unlock the secrets to understanding the tone, images, sounds, rhythms that made up the text. Today, the reader is responsible for determining what a text is about. The reader is considered as vital (perhaps, to some critics, more vital) than the author in determining what a text has to say. On a broad level, a text is an interweaving of language and experience, and you bring your own "text" (your own experiences with and ownership of language) with you whenever you interact with a work of literature. Wolfgang Iser, for example, believes that a "copartnership" exists between reader and text. Iser says that there is no single correct interpretation of a text which will exhaust its semantic potential.
Our lives, then, may be viewed as "texts" through which we interpret other texts--thus the term, intertextuality. Our lives are influenced and shaped by books we have read, movies we have seen, experiences we have had, as well as by our relationship with language. As Louise Rosenblatt writes, "The reader's attention to the text activates certain elements in his past experience-- external reference, internal response--that have become linked with the verbal symbols. Meaning will emerge from a network of relationships among the things symbolized as he senses them." Thus, when you study a literary selection, you do not simply or objectively perceive it. Your interpretation of the text is always influenced and affected by what you have already experienced, by your interests, hobbies, preoccupations, as well as by your ownership of language.
Suppose you were to listen to performance artist Laurie Anderson's version of Hansel and Gretel, or read Anne Sexton's version of the same tale in her book Transformations. How would your reception of these versions be affected by your knowledge of the original Brothers Grimm tale? To take another example, how would you interpret the word ghetto? Some might picture it as a place where poor people of various ethnic backgrounds live, while others see it as an image in a song by Elvis Presley; some might immediately think of ghetto blasters, while others think of the purgatory between freedom and the concentration camps during the Holocaust. How we respond to this word, therefore, is personal and subjective. Newlyweds will view a film about a couple divorcing much differently from a couple on the verge of their own break up. Your background and experiences influence and contribute to your interpretation.
Your responsibility, then, is to read and study the text carefully, decide what you think it means, ask yourself who is speaking, to whom, about what, where, when, how, and why. (These are the questions posed in a dramatistic analysis of a literary text, which we shall discuss in more detail in chapter 3.) Then, you will create your conception of the speaker and his or her situation in performance. You "project" the speaker in the text as you understand that speaker from your interaction with the language in the text.
It is each reader's subjective response to a literary text that accounts for the many different interpretations any one text may produce. This encourages healthy discussion as we try to understand the way language communicates different images to different people.
1. Look at this poem by Henry Reed. As you read the poem, ask yourself
"through what personal texts do I interpret this text?" After you have de
cided what the poem means to you, answer the questions that follow it and
discuss your responses with others.
NAMING OF PARTS
To-day we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But to-day,
To-day we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighboring gardens.
And to-day we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures.
Which in our case we have not got.
This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.
From Henry Reed, A Map of Verona. Reprinted by permission of Jonathan Cape Ltd. on behalf of the Estate of Henry Reed.
What does this text mean to you? What other texts does this text bring to mind?
How many different voices do you hear? Who do you think is the audience for this text? Where is the speaker(s)? When do you think this poem takes place?
Why do you think the speaker(s) speaks? How would you describe the style of language the speaker(s) uses? How do you account for different interpretations of this poem?
2. Find one short poem that you really like and perform it for the class. Then lead a discussion about what other "texts" (past experiences, other literature read, movies seen, and so on) the audience, as well as you, "read" this poem through. If you perform a poem about the death of someone, for example, and you just lost someone close to you, how is your performance affected by this experience? How would your performance of a poem about war be affected if someone close to you had been at a battlefront? How would your knowledge of the painting "The Fall of Icarus," by Breughel influence your performance of "Musee des Beaux Arts" by Auden?
The question of whether interpretation is different from other literature courses is a legitimate question, since literature is the ultimate concern of English classes as well as of many interpretation classes. The difference resides in the method used to undertake and demonstrate literary study. In an English class, you analyze literature through preliminary silent reading, class discussion, and, occasionally, oral reading. In the interpretation classroom, you create your idea of the speaker(s) in a text and share the feelings, beliefs, desires, and so on, of that speaker with an audience. In the interpretation classroom, performing a text is a way of knowing that text.
In both classes, a discussion of whether Hamlet is really mad or is feigning madness might take place. In the interpretation class, however, you manifest your decision in performance. How to involve yourself personally in a particular literary text, and how to share the experience you discover in the text with an audience, are the central concerns of this book. The process of studying literature, then, is common to both the English and the interpretation classrooms. The manner in which you study the literature is the primary difference.
We have already stated that interpretation is the process of studying and performing texts, and we have discussed the diverse ways both "text" and "performance" may be defined. In this book, however, our focus is on the performance of literary texts in particular. For our purposes, then, interpretation must be defined more narrowly as an artistic process of studying Literature through performance and sharing that study with an audience. The three basic ingredients of the interpretation process are a performer (you), a piece of literature, and an audience. Figure 1.1 shows a model of the interpretation ingredients. The boundaries which separate what we mean by text, performer, and audience are more indeterminate than ever before; thus, the broken circles. The shaded area is the interplay of text, performer, and audience--where all the variables come together during performance.
Let us examine each element of this definition individually.
The Interpretation Ingredients
The artist creates a feeling, an idea, or an image through some means of expression. Some of these means of expression are music, sculpture, literature, and painting. Each of these art objects involves an audience to a greater or lesser degree and causes them to experience various emotions. The artist creates an Interpreters, too, create art objects. In the interpretation process, you deal with works of art written by authors who are skillful in causing an audience to experience vicariously the feelings of the characters. As you project these characters for an audience, you, too, are creating art. You are helping the audience members to experience feelings, attitudes, and beliefs they may never have experienced.
Interpretation is a process, because from the moment you engage in the search for the right selection to perform, you never really come to a time when your study is culminated. The process continues for as long as you work with a text, and is different for each person who studies that text. You learn about the selection you have chosen for performance every time you study, rehearse, and perform it--just as you gain new insights from films by seeing them more than once, or from books by rereading them several times.
The process begins when you select a text to perform. The selection you choose should be one you like and feel compelled to perform. Once you have made your selection, you will want to spend time seeking to understand it, analyzing what you think it means, and creating your impression of the speaker(s). Making choices and deciding what you think a selection means are the basis for your interpretation, and you share that interpretation with others in performance. But neither the analysis nor the performance is an end in itself. Your analysis, as well as your performance, often leads to further analytic discoveries, to further insights into the text.
Look how this process works in relation to Emily Dickinson's poem, "Because I Could Not Stop for Death."
BECAUSE I COULD NOT STOP FOR DEATH
Because I could not stop for Death--
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
We slowly drove--He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility--
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess--in the Ring
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain--
We passed the Setting Sun
Or rather--He passed Us
The Dews drew quivering and chill--
For only Gossamer, my Gown--
My Tippet--only Tulle--
We paused before a House that seemed
A swelling of the Ground--
The Roof was scarcely visible--
The Cornice--in the Ground--
Since then--tis Centuries--and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity
Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON, Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright 1951, O 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Upon first impression, you might decide that because this poem is about death, the speaker must necessarily be depressed and morose. After some time analyzing, rehearsing, and performing the poem, you could alter your original opinion. You might decide that death, to this speaker, is not viewed as a cold, hard, finale to life, but instead is viewed as a carriage ride with Death as the courtly driver carrying the speaker to Eternity. You might decide that this poem has nothing to do with literal death, but more about reliving one's life. Your interpretation may go through many transformations as a result of rereadings, additional study, rehearsal, and performance. New interpretations may be demonstrated in later performances of the same text.
Begin to view rehearsals as trial performances, and your performances as sophisticated rehearsals. Performances, then, are not ends to literary study, but rather parts of your study. Analysis, rehearsal, and performance are all means of studying literature common to interpretation.
The more time you spend with a piece of literature in analysis, rehearsal, and performance, the more you learn about it. One of your performances of a literary work might be completely different both from someone else's and from subsequent ones you do of the same text. From this comes the saying, "It's a matter of interpretation!" No two people describe a phenomenon in the same way, because no two People view things from the same perspective. Likewise, students of literature view the same selection differently because of their varying perspectives.
Also, as we have intimated before, language is slippery, and what a word signifies may cause disagreement. The play of language is one of the major reasons we may have so many possible interpretations of a given text. In time, your perspective changes, and a literary selection you once thought meant one thing may come to mean something very different. The process of interpretation allows for and even encourages these kinds of alterations.
We have talked throughout this chapter about your empowerment in determining what a text means. We must offer a caveat, however, concerning your ethical responsibility in this process. Although you ultimately decide what a text means to you, as a beginning student you should gather as much information as you can to help you devise your interpretation. You could read information about the author's life, other works by the same author, as well as critical accounts of the author's work. This is especially true of texts from cultures other than your own. Be sure you familiarize yourself with background information about that culture so that your performance does not suffer from a lack of sensitivity to the elements that culture holds sacred.
You have now seen that you engage in the study of literature both prior to and during performance. This study is often what frightens beginning interpretation students. You may worry that your interpretation of a text is "wrong." You may feel ill-equipped to understand a piece of literature well enough to decide on an interpretation and share it with an audience. Although these feelings are common, they are unwarranted. All that is required at this time is your present knowledge and your desire to learn.
Many works of literature are not meant for our immediate understanding; understanding may come later, eventually, ultimately, or sometimes not at all. As you read a text, write down your initial impressions without censoring yourself. Try to avoid feeling that you are not entitled to an interpretation because you may not have had much experience devising one. This is not true. Your impressions of a text are valid, and you have the power to decide what a text means to you. Keep a record of your impressions after several rereadings, continued study, and analysis. These impressions will help you devise your own interpretation.
The more time you spend studying literature, the more you will learn about it, and the easier it will be for you to recognize textual clues that lead to an interpretation.
The first step in interpretation is to choose a piece of literature that you really like and want to spend some time with. Once you have chosen a selection, ask yourself what kind of communication is taking place. The two questions to ask yourself as you begin your study of a text are, Who is speaking? and Who is the speaker addressing? Since your responsibility is ultimately to create your conception of the speaker in the text, you will want to know as much as possible about this person. You will also want to know to whom this person is speaking.
Begin analyzing your selection by gathering your impressions of the speaker. There are three general categories of speakers in literary texts: personae, characters, and narrators. Let us identify each of these three types of speakers.
Persona literally means "mask of the poet." The persona is an undefined speaker who is the writer's disguised self. Oftentimes writers create personae, rather than defined speakers, when they want to emphasize an experience rather than the person having it. In other words, the experience in the text is so universal (covering themes such as love, hate, war, marriage, sex, death) that a person of either gender or of any age could be expressing the words. Although it is often true that if the writer is male the persona is male and if the writer is female the persona is female, this may not always be the case. When you create a persona you work to suggest the attitude you hear,the personal experience you sense--you do not have to worry about establishing a defined character.
Speakers who are drmatized are called characters. When the speaker in a text is defined and is clearly male or female, young or old then that speaker is called a character and specific clues to characterization are provided in the text. The speaker may have a name, a style of language peculiar to him or her, as well as a specified age, height, or weight. Defined characters usually exist in specific settings and within a definite time period. When you deal with a text having a defined speaker, your job is to create that speaker as fully as possible.
Speakers who tell stories are called narrators. When a selection focuses on a series of events in time, the speaker is a narrator. Narrators are as varied as the stories they tell. Works that tell a story usually are framed in the past tense--the narrator is remembering something that has already happened--and the work creates a feeling of time progression.
To discover who is speaking, then, begin by deciding whether a persona, defined character, narrator, or a combination of speakers inhabits the text. Your decision should be supported by lines from that text. Read your selection aloud several times. Is there a particular style of language or word choice, use of the present tense, a defined time and place that seem to signal that a character speaks? Is the speaker an undramatized persona sharing a personal experience? Is the speaker narrating a series of past events? Let your rehearsal sessions help you decide the nature of the speaker and of the experience in the selection.
We need to make two additional points concerning the speaker in a selection. When you ask yourself, Who is speaking?, two answers can immediately be ruled out. First, the speaker is not the author (although some exceptions to this exist-- see chapter 9 for a discussion of literary texts where the distinction between speaker and author is often blurred). Second, the speaker is not you.
Although writers often write from and about personal experiences, they create speakers to project these experiences for them. Sometimes the speaker is very close to the author (persona), and sometimes the speaker and the author seem very different from each other (character). In any case, though, we should not confuse the writer and the speaker any more than we confuse a self-portrait with the artist who painted it. Your responsibility is to create the speaker in the work and not the writer of it.
There is certainly more room for interpretation when you attempt to create the speaker from clues provided in the text rather than when you try to impersonate the writer. If you perform a short story by Mark Twain, for example, you suggest the speaker and not Twain. Your responsibility is to use your own experience with language and your own feelings about the text to create the speaker you see and hear. There was only one Mark Twain, and many people know what he looked and sounded like. There is not, therefore, much room for creativity or choice were you to try to suggest Twain. (Of course, were you to do a one-person show with the intent of creating the writer--such as Hal Holbrook did of Mark Twain, Julie Harris did of Emily Dickinson, or Robert Morse did of Truman Capote -- impersonating the writer would be highly desirable.) Many more choices are available to you when you attempt to project the fictive speakers Twain creates. To assume a congruence between author and speaker turns a literary work into an autobiography, and this may not be the case. When Stephen King was asked during an interview on HBO if the film Stand By Me--which was an adaptation of his novella "The Body"--were autobiographical, he admitted that "writers always start to lie after awhile--they don't mean to, but they do." The speaker, then, is not the author; the speaker is also not you. Although the speaker may be your gender and age and may be undergoing experiences or expressing feelings similar to those you have had, there will always be a difference between the experiences and feelings of a fictive speaker and your own. It is fine to begin by determining what you and the speaker have in common. Use these commonalities to help you identify with and create the speaker, but then ask yourself how you and the speaker are different. You may feel there is an advantage to performing speakers who seem to be as much like you as possible, but on the other hand, this may not provide the richest learning experience. To limit yourself to performing only those selections which express experiences similar to your own is to close yourself off from vicarious experiences that may help broaden your awareness. It may prevent you from tackling such larger-than-life characters as King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth, Antigone, or Medea, among others. Remember, your responsibility is to create the speaker--to experience life through another's eyes. If you remain yourself, one of the primary benefits of interpretation is lost.
After you have determined who the speaker in a selection is, ask yourself, Who is the speaker in this work addressing? The audience in a selection is sometimes very obvious and sometimes very obscure. Although the possible audiences are as numerous and varied as the types of speakers, there are four generalized audience categories. A speaker may address (1) himself or herself, (2) an inanimate object, a deceased or absent person, a muse, God, or some other mute listener, (3) a character or characters created in the work, or (4) the general public. Understanding the audience the speaker is addressing helps you create your interpretation of the speaker.
The performer must consider not only the audience within a work, but the audience for whom the work is presented. Sharing the study of a text with an audience is a performer's joy. Poets, lyricists, painters, musicians--all artists create works of art to share them with others. Art is meant to be shared.
Interpretation gives you the opportunity to share your creation with an audience. Your audience includes yourself as well as those for whom you perform. As your own audience, you function as critic and self-evaluator. You may begin to see aspects of the text differently as you perform, and you also appraise your performance and the audience's 'response to it. The audience for whom you perform also may increase your understanding of the text by their responses.
In interpretation, a reciprocal sharing occurs between performer and audience. You offer the literature to an audience with your performance, and they, in turn, share primarily nonverbal responses with you as you perform, and eventually verbal responses during a postreading discussion. During this discussion, you find out how others interpreted your performance; you receive their personal impressions of what you did. Do keep in mind, though, that their opinions of your performance are influenced by their particular perspectives and by the "texts" they bring to your performance. They receive your interpretation and "interpret" or "constitute" it from their points of view. You try to minimize discrepancies between what you send and what the audience receives, but some discrepancies are inevitable and quite natural and may become the stimulus for valuable and revealing discussions (see chapter 5).
In summary, the art of interpretation, like all artistic endeavors, asks that you give something of yourself. You engage in close study of a text--you give time and thought and feeling to this study--and you communicate this study to an audience. In performance, you bring your study of a literary selection to life, you grow from the experience and create the impetus for growth in the audience. In a sense, you "publish" your interpretation through performance, and the audience "reads" or "constitutes" it from their various perspectives.
There is no simple answer to this question, but we can make some suggestions. The first criterion, as we have already suggested, is to select a text you like, understand, and feel compelled to perform. We cannot stress the importance of this enough. You must care about a text to motivate yourself to spend the time it takes to prepare it for performance. Liking your selection must be of primary concern.
Since you spend a good deal of time with literature in the interpretation process, you will want to spend your time wisely by choosing the best literature to perform. Although deciding what is "best" is often a subjective process, certain characteristics are obvious. Good literature is characterized by universality, individuality, and suggestion. These qualities of good literature, (along with the quality of aesthetic distance--see chapter 4) were distilled as being important to the evaluation of literature as early as 1941 by Cornelius Corman Cunningham.
Although this is a simplification of a complex process, examining a piece of literature in terms of universality, individuality, and suggestion helps you to determine if the literature is worth your time. Let's look at each quality more closely.
Literature is universal if it has something to say to all people for all time. Aspects of our common humanity are promoted in universal literature. Literature which deals with the common themes of love, hate, war, childhood, and death, among others, is universal. Literature is individualistic if it is written by an author who has a unique way of expressing a universal subject. Even though we have encountered the theme before, we are still moved by the freshness of the approach the writer uses. Good literature must also leave something to the reader's imagination--this is the quality we call suggestion. In all good literature, the reader must be able to "read between the lines" and fill in and flesh out the experience the writer creates. In literature that is highly suggestive, the reader must work even harder to fill in the gaps, to flesh out the indeterminancies. We might say that poetry is the most highly suggestive type of literature because so much content is condensed in so few words. Postmodern literature (see chapter 9) is also highly suggestive, asking quite a bit from the interpreter.
Let us now consider e. e. cummings's poem, "anyone lived in a pretty how town," and apply the characteristics of universality, individuality, and suggestion to it.
anyone lived in a pretty how town
e. e. cummings
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn't he danced his did.
Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn't they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone's any was all to her
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then) they
said their nevers they slept their dream
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.
Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain
Copyright 1940 by e. e. cummings; renewed 1968 by Marion Morehouse Cummings. Reprinted from Complete Poems 1913-1962 by e. e. cummings by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.
The poem "anyone lived in a pretty how town" appears to be about love. It seems to be about two people who meet, fall in love, die, and are buried side by side. This is a universal theme, and the ritual is common to most people everywhere for all time. The universality is captured also by the poet's use of the natural passage of time throughout the poem--spring, summer, autumn, winter--and by the emphasis on the elements of nature--sun, moon, stars, rain.
In addition to having a universal theme, this poem has a distinctive, individualistic style. What exactly is it about this poem that makes it individualistic? There are many qualities that make it unique.
The most apparent aspect is cummings's unique style. The lack of traditional punctuation or capitalization makes this poem distinctive, and the use of language is also unusual. Cummings seems to be using pronouns like "anyone" and "noone" to signify particular people, verbs like "isn't" and "didn't" as nouns, and phrases like "when by now and tree by leaf" to alter our usual expectation of language. All these qualities make this poem original.
The love theme is also uniquely expressed.' Cummings seems to be telling the story of true love in contrast to a society of "how town" residents who are indifferent, apathetic, and mechanical in action and feeling--where the "how" of what they do is always the same. This is a town where the people ("Women and men," "someones and everyones," "busy folk") "slept their dreams," as opposed to "anyone" and "noone," who "dream their sleep." Despite the "how town's" apathy, "anyone" and "noone" love one another, even after death: "all by all and deep by deep/and more by more they dream their sleep/noone and anyone earth by april/wish by spirit and if by yes." At the end, they seem to transcend their physical lives to merge with the harmony of Nature in a spiritual existence. The "busy folk" learn nothing from them, but continue their routine: they "reaped their sowing and went their came/sun moon stars rain." The poem is built on the relative contrasts between the "how town" residents and "anyone" and "noone." For all of these reasons (and probably many more), this poem has an individualistic quality.
The last quality that determines whether a piece of literature is "good" is suggestion. The suggestive elements of this poem are those elements that produce a new meaning for the reader every time the poem is read, spoken, or heard. The qualities that make this poem individualistic also contribute to its suggestiveness. The more you read this poem, the more you learn about it.
Although we have talked of "anyone" and "noone" as distinct people living in a "how town," this is only one way to interpret this poem. "anyone" and noone" could be literally "anyone" in the world and "noone" at all. "noone" could be "anyone's" soul, which developed an identity of its own and became immortal through "anyone's" distinct individuality. Another interpretation might see "anyone" as a real person complete in himself and needing "noone" to complement him. The fact that there are so many possible interpretations of just the words "anyone" and "noone" makes this poem suggestive.
In addition to the many connotations of "anyone" and "noone," cummings's unusual use of language and syntax adds to the poem's suggestive quality. Lines like "he sang his didn't he danced his did," "they sowed their isn't they reaped their same," "bird by snow and stir by still," and "little by little and was by was" each ask you to supply meaning. Much is left up to the imagination of the individual reader within the context of the whole poem.
This poem, then, fulfills our criteria for good literature-universality, individuality, and suggestion. Apply these characteristics to any literary selection you choose to study so that your time is spent on literature worthy of your investigation.
Although the following six-step procedure greatly simplifies the complex process of preparing a selection for performance, it does help you know how to begin.
1. You receive an assignment. Let us say you are asked to perform a prose fiction selection (a section from a short story or novel) of five-to-seven minutes in length, including an introduction.
2. You choose a selection. Be sure the selection you choose is one you enjoy and want to share and is an example of "good" literature. There are many possible sources for selections. Check your own library of sources or those of a friend.
Choose one of the selections in this text or in other interpretation texts. Go to the library and look up fiction writers you have heard of or whose works you have read in the past. (This process is a bit complicated because there are so many stories and novels from which to choose. You will want to find a selection that can be easily cut, or shortened, to fit the five-to-seven minute time limit. Since you have a time limit, chances are slim that you will be able to perform the entire selection. You will have to take a five-to-seven minute cutting from the whole, trying to maintain a sense of completeness. We will learn more about cutting in chapter 4.) If you are unfamiliar with prose fiction writers, check the bibliography at the end of chapter 2, the list of possible selections at the end of chapter 6, or check the Short Story Index for possible selections. Another excellent source is Masterpieces of World Literature in Digest Form. (This book will give you plot summaries, and then you can find and read the complete work.) Book reviews in magazines may give you some ideas, and bestseller lists posted in libraries, book stores, and in the book section of many magazines can also be of use. You might also ask your instructor for suggestions.
3. You analyze and rehearse your selection. You will now want to analyze and rehearse your selection in order to answer those two important initial questions: Who is speaking, and to whom? Use all sources available to you, including other works by the same writer, biographical accounts, and critical commentary.
You analyze your selection through study, rehearsals, and eventually through performance. We suggest that you apply the two means of analysis discussed in chapter 3: the dramatistic and the modal. With the dramatistic analysis, you decide who is speaking, to whom, about what, where, when, how, and why. With the modal approach, you categorize and analyze literature. When you categorize literature modally, you look at the work as a whole and determine its literary classification by investigating the relationship between the writer and the speaker. Does someone very much like the writer--a persona--seem to be speaking (lyric mode)? Does a defined character(s) seem to be speaking (dramatic mode)? Are both persona and a character speaking (epic mode)? We call this decision the "External Mode."
When you analyze literature modally, you look at the work line by line or moment by moment and examine the relationship between the speaker and his or her audience. Is the speaker, at any given time, addressing himself or herself (lyric mode)? Is the speaker addressing a character or characters (dramatic mode)? Is the speaker addressing the audience (epic)? We call these decisions "Internal Modes." Rehearse the selection several times aloud after preliminary silent reading. As you rehearse, you will learn more and more about the nature of the speaker--how this person looks, sounds, and feels--and the speaker's audience. Remember, short rehearsal sessions over an extended period of time will be more beneficial to you than a long rehearsal session the night before you perform! Work back and forth between silent analysis and rehearsals. Both will help you answer performance questions and solve performance problems.
4. You compose an introduction. As you analyze and rehearse your selection, you should also be thinking about the introduction. Most interpretation performances are preceded by an introduction which prepares the audience for what is to come. You will want the audience to know the title of the selection, the author's name, and any additional information pertinent to your cutting. You need only introduce your cutting; do not attempt a plot summary of the whole novel or story. (We will learn more about introductions in chapter 4.)
5. You perform your selection. Walk confidently up to the front of the room, and pause--look at your audience to be sure they are all prepared to listen. Deliver your introduction directly to them. Pause again to give the audience time to digest what you have said, and to give yourself a moment to become the speaker. Then begin your selection by establishing the scene out front, and varying your voice, body, focus, gestures, and so forth as necessary to present your interpretation. When you come to the end of your performance, slow down the last line to prepare the audience for the ending, pause, and walk back to your seat. Try not to show any displeasure you might have experienced if things did not go just right!
6. You participate in an evaluation session. In an evaluation session, both your performance and the performances of your peers are evaluated. Among the qualities a good evaluator should have is objectivity. (We will discuss evaluation in more detail in chapter 5.)
This simple formula is merely a skeletal list of the order of events you will go through as you prepare a piece of literature for performance. Depending on the nature of the text you have selected, some steps may take longer than others, some may need to be drastically altered, and some may need to be repeated several times.
The rest of this chapter provides the specific kinds of information you will need to prepare your first selection for class. We will study William Carlos Williams's short story, "The Use of Force," because it offers multiple levels for investigation and is an excellent selection for performance. After the story, an analysis and some performance suggestions are provided, along with a sample introduction.
"THE USE OF FORCE"
William Carlos Williams
They were new patients to me, all I had was the name, Olson. Please come down as soon as you can, my daughter is very sick.
When I arrived I was met by the mother, a big startled looking woman, very clean and apologetic who merely said, Is this the doctor? and let me in. In the back, she added. You must excuse us, doctor, we have her in the kitchen where it is warm. It is very damp here sometimes.
The child was fully dressed and sitting on her father's lap near the kitchen table.
He tried to get up, but I motioned for him not to bother, took off my overcoat and started to look things over. I could see that they were all very nervous, eyeing me up and down distrustfully. As often, in such cases, they weren't telling me more than they had to, it was up to me to tell them; that's why they were spending three dollars on me.
The child was fairly eating me up with her cold, steady eyes, and no expression to her face whatever. She did not move and seemed, inwardly, quiet; an unusually attractive little thing, and as strong as a heifer in appearance. But her face was flushed, she was breathing rapidly, and I realized that she had a high fever. She had magnificent blonde hair, in profusion. One of those picture children often reproduced in advertising leaflets and the photogravure sections of the Sunday papers.
She's had a fever for three days, began the father, and we don't know what it comes from. My wife has given her things, you know, like people do, but it don't do no good. And there's been a lot of sickness around. So we tho't you'd better look her over and tell us what is the matter.
As doctors often do I took a trial shot at it as a point of departure. Has she had a sore throat?
Both parents answered me together, No . . . No, she says her throat don't hurt her.
Does your throat hurt you? added the mother to the child. But the little girl's expression didn't change nor did she move her eyes from my face.
Have you looked?
I tried to, said the mother, but I couldn't see.
As it happens we had been having a number of cases of diphtheria in the school to which this child went during that month and we were all, quite apparently, thinking of that, though no one had as yet spoken of the thing.
Well, I said, suppose we take a look at the throat first. I smiled in my best professional manner and asking for the child's first name I said, come on,
Mathilda, open your mouth and let's take a look at your throat.
Aw, come on, I coaxed, just open your mouth wide and let me take a look. Look I said opening both hands wide, I haven't anything in my hands. Just open up and let me see.
Such a nice man, put in the mother. Look how kind he is to you. Come on, do what he tells you to. He won't hurt you.
At that I ground my teeth in disgust. If only they wouldn't use the word "hurt" I might be able to get somewhere. But I did not allow myself to be hurried or disturbed but speaking quietly and slowly I approached the child again.
As I moved my chair a little nearer suddenly with one cat-like movement both her hands clawed instinctively for my eyes and she almost reached them too. In fact she knocked my glasses flying and they fell, though unbroken, several feet away from me on the kitchen floor.
Both the mother and father turned themselves inside out in embarrassment and apology. You bad girl, said the mother, taking her and shaking her by one arm. Look what you've done. The nice man . . .
For heaven's sake, I broke in. Don't call me a nice man to her. I'm here on the chance that she might have diphtheria and possibly die of it. But that's nothing to her. Look here, I said to the child, we're going to look at your throat. You're old enough to understand what I'm saying. Will you open it now by yourself or shall we have to open it for you?
Not a move. Even her expression hadn't changed. Her breaths however were coming faster and faster. Then the battle began. I had to do it. I had to have a throat culture for her own protection. But first I told the parents that it was entirely up to them. I explained the danger but said that I would not insist on a throat examination so long as they would take the responsibility.
If you don't do what the doctor says you'll have to go to the hospital, the mother admonished her severely.
Oh yeah? I had to smile to myself. After all, I had already fallen in love with the savage brat, the parents were contemptible to me. In the ensuing struggle they grew more and more abject, crushed, exhausted while she surely rose to magnificent heights of insane fury of effort bred of her terror of me.
The father tried his best, and he was a big man but the fact that she was his daughter, his shame at her behavior and his dread of hurting her made him release her just at the critical moment several times when I had almost achieved success, till I wanted to kill him. But his dread also that she might have diphtheria made him tell me to go on, go on though he himself was almost fainting, while the mother moved back and forth behind us raising and lowering her hands in an agony of apprehension.
Put her in front of you on your lap, I ordered, and hold both her wrists.
But as soon as he did the child let out a scream. Don't you're hurting me. Let go of my hands. Let them go I tell you. Then she shrieked terrifyingly, hysterically.
Stop it! Stop. it! You're killing me!
Do you think she can stand it, doctor! said the mother.
You get out, said the husband to his wife. Do you want her to die of diphtheria?
Come on now, hold her, I said.
Then I grasped the child's head with my left hand and tried to get the wooden tongue depressor between her teeth. She fought, with clenched teeth, desperately! But now I also had grown furious--at a child. I tried to hold myself down but I couldn't. I know how to expose a throat for inspection. And I did my best. When finally I got the wooden spatula behind the last teeth and just the point of it into the mouth cavity, she opened up for an instant but before I could see anything she came down again and gripping the wooden blade between her molars she reduced it to splinters before I could get it out again.
Aren't you ashamed, the mother yelled at her. Aren't you ashamed to act like that in front of the doctor?
Get me a smooth-handled spoon of some sort, I told the mother. We're going through with this. The child's mouth was already bleeding. Her tongue was cut and she was screaming in wild hysterical shrieks. Perhaps I should have desisted and come back in an hour or more. No doubt it would have been better. But I have seen at least two children lying dead in bed of neglect in such cases, and feeling that I must get a diagnosis now or never I went at it again. But the worst of it was that I too had got beyond reason. I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it.
The damned little brat must be protected against her own idiocy, one says to one's self at such times. Others must be protected against her. It is a social necessity. And all these things are -true. But a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame, bred of a longing for muscular release are the operatives. One goes on to the end.
In a final unreasoning assault I overpowered the child's neck and jaws. I forced the heavy silver spoon back of her teeth and down her throat till she gagged. And there it was--both tonsils covered with membrane. She had fought valiantly to keep me from knowing her secret. She had been hiding that sore throat for three days at least and lying to her parents in order to escape just such an outcome as this.
Now truly she was furious. She had been on the defensive before but now she attacked. Tried to get off her father's lap and fly at me while tears of defeat blinded her eyes.
William Carlos Williams, The Farmers' Daughters. Copyright 1933 by William Carlos Williams. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.
The first important question to ask is, Who is speaking? The speaker in this story is both a character (the doctor) and the narrator of the story, and he speaks from a first-person, major character point of view. He is inside the story (he is a character in the story who refers to himself in the first person as "I" or "me"), and he is telling us of a firsthand experience in which he was the central figure (major character). But what kind of a person is he? What do we know about him? We know that he is a doctor who makes house calls, who is determined to carry out his examination of a patient despite all obstacles, and that he has to use some force to make a diagnosis. We know, also, that the patient is new to him. The doctor describes both the actions he took and the reasons or rationales behind those actions. Little physical detail of the doctor is given other than that he wears glasses.
The next important question is, Who is the speaker addressing? We said earlier that a speaker usually has one of four audiences in mind. The narrator in this story would seemingly be addressing anyone listening. But ask yourself who that "anyone" might be. Does the doctor have a more specific audience in mind? In other words, who should the actual audience imagine themselves to be as the doctor tells them this story? You discover this by analyzing the way the narrator speaks to the audience and the language he uses to tell the story, as well as by the subject matter itself.
The nature of the audience in this story is not immediately apparent. We can assume that the doctor is not talking to others in the medical profession, for if he were talking to peers, he would probably not say, "As doctors often do I took a trial shot at it as a point of departure." Other doctors would know what "doctors often do." Though the specific nature of the audience is unclear, we can say that the doctor seems to be talking to people he trusts and feels confident will understand the confrontation.
The language the narrator uses is extremely simple and conversational. Williams says his stories "were written in the form of a conversation which I was partaking in."7 The conversational style is highlighted by the fact that Williams refrains from using any quotation marks for the dialogue in the story. The effect created by this stylistic device is that the story reads as though only the doctor is speaking, and as though he is paraphrasing in his own words what others--including himself--once said. The lack of quotation marks also gives the effect that this story is being spoken--not written. Oral communication does not need quotation marks. The narrator, then, is conscious of telling a story, and his language style indicates that he is comfortable telling it.
Let us now consider two possible interpretations of this story. One way to view it is as an experience in the life of a doctor as he undergoes his daily routine of patient care. The doctor finds this case worth telling perhaps because of the unusual attractiveness of the child, the pervasive poverty of her surroundings, or the fear that she might have had diphtheria. In this interpretation of the story, the doctor is relating the events surrounding a particularly difficult case where he lost control for a moment.
This story can be interpreted in a completely different way as well. (As we said earlier, good stories have room for many different interpretations.) The doctor's examination of the child could be viewed as a metaphor for rape. In this reading of the story, we see a doctor rationalizing his behavior after forcing a child to submit against her will. The story now becomes a doctor's confession in order to vindicate himself and alleviate guilt. Although this interpretation is on a figurative (or connotative) level as opposed to a literal (or denotative) level, it is supportable. There are lines in the story that suggest the rape motif: "At that I ground my teeth in disgust," "I had already fallen in love with the savage brat," "I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her." In addition, there are phrases like "a longing for muscular release," and "a final unreasoning assault." The placing of objects inside the child's mouth is also suggestive, as is the child's feeling of fury and defeat. R. F. Dietrich supports this figurative reading of the story when he writes, "The connotations of rape are unmistakable."
As we have shown, there is more than one level of meaning in this story, and there is more than one possible interpretation. As an interpreter, you must decide what you think the story means, based on your understanding of it. As long as you can support your interpretation with lines from the text, it is a viable interpretation. Remember, though, that performance decisions do not always follow analytic decisions. You may discover more about a text by performing it than by hours of silent pondering. As suggested, work back and forth between silent study of text and rehearsals.
Let us look at ways to perform this story.
When you translate analysis into performance, you decide how each character who appears in your scene will look, sound, act, and feel. You make these decisions by reading your selection aloud several times and responding to the language the author uses. Try to develop a character from the inside out. Let the kind of language and the style of speech a character uses determine how that character will be projected in performance. Try to feel like the character would feel and let your voice, body, and mind respond naturally. Although this inward development of character often takes time and lots of rehearsal, certain specific performance suggestions can help you develop a character. These performance suggestions can be divided into three categories: vocal responsiveness, physical responsiveness, and emotional responsiveness. Let us examine "The Use of Force" with these elements in mind.
When you decide on the vocal response for each character, you decide how to adjust your own pitch, rate, volume, emphasis, and quality in order to project the character's unique vocal pattern. In "The Use of Force," the doctor-narrator is the only speaker. He is telling us now about an event that happened to him in the past. Since there are no quotation marks in this story, the doctor-narrator is really the only character who actually speaks. He seems to be paraphrasing what the other characters said in the past when this event occurred. When performing this story, you create the doctor-narrator, and he suggests the other characters from his point of view. The characterization, then, of the parents and child in the story will depend on how "dramatic" and "credible" you believe the doctor-narrator to be and on how vividly he wishes to recreate the past scene.
The vocal responsiveness of the doctor-narrator depends on your interpretation of the story. The doctor's rate, volume, pitch, and intensity could vary greatly, depending on whether you decide that this story is a recounting of a typical day in the life of a doctor or a metaphor for rape. Try to deliver the following lines, keeping in mind these two different interpretations (of course, other interpretations are also possible). Pay close attention to vocal responsiveness: how is it affected by your interpretation?
"But the worst of it was that I too had got beyond reason. I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it."
"The damned little brat must be protected against her own idiocy, one says to one's self at such times. Others must be protected against her. It is a social necessity. And all these things are true. But a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame, bred of a longing for muscular release are the operatives. One goes on to the end."
The doctor-narrator's vocal responsiveness would also be affected by who you decide he is addressing. We speak differently to friends, for example, than to superiors or to strangers.
The doctor-narrator in the present suggests the vocal quality of the other three characters as well as of himself in the past, and his characterization of these others is again dependent on your interpretation of the story and on how the doctor remembers them. The doctor in the past should sound quite similar to the narrator, as they are the same person, separated only by a seemingly short period of time. The doctor may be presented as becoming more emotionally involved as he begins to relive the scenes from the past. The doctor-narrator might use a high-pitched voice with clenched teeth for the child, a lower pitch and softer vocal quality with a more intense delivery for the mother, and a low pitch and slow, deliberate quality for the father.
As you tell the story as the doctor-narrator, you will probably want to stand. The doctor-narrator might stand straight with a bit of tautness in the shoulder area. The doctor in the remembered scene would look similar to the doctor-narrator, but might be a little less straight and taut. The experience he is reliving might cause his body to become more tense as he becomes angry in the story, then a bit more tired and bent as the story winds down.
The doctor projects the physical as well as the vocal qualities of each character in the past scene. He may decide to project the child's body as rigid and impenetrable. Her body should seem "as strong as a heifer"--as the doctor describes her. The mother's body should be taut and tense. At one point, she is "raising and lowering her hands in an agony of apprehension." The doctor could pace a bit when she speaks, to underscore her fear and anxiety. The father's body might also show tension as he is trying to maintain control and hold on to his daughter. Since the father is seated most of the time with the child on his lap, the doctor would not move or walk around as he repeats the father's lines. To suggest the height differences between the standing doctor and the seated child and father, the doctor in the past would look slightly down when speaking to them, and they would look slightly up when addressing him.
One additional consideration involved in physical responsiveness is the use of focus and character placement. In this story, the doctor projects himself as well as three other characters. This means that you must indicate to the audience a place where each character can be imagined to exist. Actors, when performing in a play, look at each other using onstage focus. Since the interpreter performs alone, looking onstage (turning profile to the audience to deliver a line as though another person were present) would be awkward and would cause some audience members to miss some nonverbal expressions. In interpretation, the scene exists not onstage, as it does for the actor, but in the audience's imagination. Therefore, the interpreter projects out front, using offstage focus. The use of offstage focus enables the audience to see the performer's full face throughout the performance and encourages them to participate by imagining the scene the performer creates around them.
Character placement is an aspect of focus used as a rather arbitrary means of keeping characters separate during passages of dialogue. When a character speaks a line of dialogue, the interpreter does not look at the audience (since the audience is not being addressed), but out front above the audience. Each character who speaks receives his or her own placement in space, and this placement does not vary, no matter who the character addresses or where the character might move. We call this assignment of specific locations for each character out in the audience character placement. The avoidance of eye contact with the audience is called closed focus.
In "The Use of Force," the doctor-narrator must use character placement when he suggests the other characters through himself. He might visualize the characters in the imagined scene as diagramed in figure 1.2.
The doctor-narrator looks directly at the audience, telling the story to them. When he does this, he uses open focus, and makes direct contact with members of the audience. Only the doctor-narrator looks at the audience; characters who speak dialogue should appear to be looking at and speaking to each other.
Narrator: Uses open focus, looks at and talks to the audience.
Characters: Use closed focus, and look at and speak to each other out in the imagined scene in the audience. Each character receives one placement and appears to see the character or characters being addressed from that placement. That placement does not change regardless of what the character does, where the character goes, or to whom the character speaks. Characters speaking lines of dialogue rarely, if ever, look at the audience.
The emotional responsiveness, as well as the vocal and physical responsiveness, of the doctor-narrator also depends upon your interpretation of the story as a whole. Since the events the doctor-narrator relates have already happened, he would probably be less emotionally involved than he is in the remembered scene. The doctor-narrator remains fairly calm and objective in the present as he describes and explains what happened in the past. At times, though, he does seem to get caught up in the remembered scene and relives the emotions he felt then. Lines such as "I had to smile to myself" and "I tried to hold myself down" indicate that the doctor-narrator is not quite as objective as he may initially seem.
The doctor projects the child and the mother as highly emotional and tense. The father seems to be more calm and controlled. The doctor seems to have a little less contempt for the father than for the mother, and he might thus project the father slightly more favorably.
The attitudinal tone the doctor-narrator uses is also important. Once again, the way the narrator relates the events of the story will be determined by your choice of interpretation. The story's tone could be humorous or devastating. If you view the story as an examination that is simply more difficult than most because of a strong-willed little brat and her ignorant parents, then the story might have a lighthearted tone, and you would make the narrator look and sound kind and sympathetic. If you view the story as a metaphor for rape, the tone will depend on how aware the doctor-narrator is of his "use of force" both now and in the past, and on how aware he thinks his audience is of what he is "confessing."
One additional consideration is the introduction. As we stated earlier, most interpretation performances are preceded by a well-planned introduction that will capture attention and prepare the audience for what is to come. Each time you rehearse your performance, you should rehearse your introduction as well.
An introduction should include the title of the work, the name of the author, and the time and place in which the story takes place, if significant. The delivery of the introduction should set the appropriate mood and carve out your approach to the material so that the audience knows what to expect once your performance begins. If time does not permit you to read the entire story, your introduction should also tell what has gone on before your scene begins. (However, if you are performing the beginning of a story, you need not feel as though you must tell the audience what happens afterwards. In fact, refraining from revealing the end of the story may motivate them to read the selection for themselves.) Lastly, your introduction should always be composed with your specific audience in mind. A sample introduction for "The Use of Force" might be:
At first look, "The Use of Force" by William Carlos Williams seems to be a simple short story that reveals the conflict which occasionally arises when doctor meets patient. But much more is suggested beneath the surface. The story takes place at the home of the patient--Mathilda Olson--in the 1930s.
After delivering the introduction, pause, become the doctor-narrator, and begin the story.
You should now feel a bit more confident in approaching your first interpretation assignment. The remaining chapters in Part One provide more detailed information on literature, hints on selecting the right literary selection, rehearsal and performance techniques, and suggestions on how to be a good audience member and evaluator.
The study of literature through interpretation helps you to know and understand yourself and your world. The experience of performing literature demands a closer type of reading and a more personal involvement than mere oral or silent reading. The performer, in creating the speaker in a text, learns to view the world from another's perspective. The performer also brings his or her own text--experiences, memories, interests, hopes--to the performance. This weaving of the literary text with the performer's personal text is called intertextuality.
The many values of interpretation include an opportunity to study the world's best literature; to expand self-knowledge; to develop poise, self-confidence, and improved diction; and to sharpen your critical faculties. You gain these benefits because interpretation is an artistic process of studying literature through performance and sharing that study with an audience. The three components of the interpretation process are a performer (you), a literary selection, and an audience.
The first step in interpretation is choosing a literary selection to perform. When looking for a selection, make sure that it truly appeals to you, and that it has the three qualities of good literature: universality, individuality, and suggestion.
After choosing your selection, the process of interpretation involves several more steps--analyzing the selection, rehearsing, composing an introduction, giving a performance, and participating in an evaluation.