From invention to convention: a critical view of the evolution of the aside in French neoclassical drama.
The first documented definition of the aside as a dramatic technique, and not just as an occasional stage direction, is usually credited to the French scholar Henri-Jules Pilet de La Mesnardiere, who in his 1640 book La Poetique, written at the express request of cardinal Richelieu, uses this term to describe the fifth type of "Sentimens forcez" 'unnatural sentiments' (254). La Mesnardiere employs the neologism l'a-parte when he discusses a dramaturgical error, quite common in young playwrights, that originates in modern Spanish and Italian drama. He defines it in a following manner:
Je nomme ainsi ces beaux discours qu'un Personnage fait a part en la presence d'un autre sur l'un des coins du Theatre, tandis que le dernier Acteur est contraint pour aider au jeu, d'estre sans yeux & sans oreilles; puis qu'a ne point farder les choses, s'il n'est & sourd & aveugle, il faut qu'il scache malgre lui ce que l'autre fait a sa veue, & qu'il veut pourtant lui cacher. (267)
I name thus those beautiful speeches which one Character makes aside in the presence of another in one of the corners of the Theatre, whilst the latter Actor is obliged to pretend in this act to be without eyes & without ears; then, not to conceal it at all, unless he is both deaf & blind, he must, in spite of his knowledge, ignore that which the other does in his view & which he wants, however, to hide from him.
Despite La Mesnardiere's somewhat negative take on l'a-parte, his observations were soon adopted by other French critics and the term aside, beginning with the abbe d'Aubignac's 1657 definition of the a parte as a type of implicit narration (qtd. in Arnaud 250), becomes an indispensable part of theatrical vocabulary.
Etymologically, the noun l'aparte originates in the Latin expression a parte sua (on his/her side) and in the 1580s was adopted as an Italian adverb a parte, but even in the latter case the word is not used as a theatrical term until the early nineteenth century (see Imbs 201). Beside this word, a number of other terms are commonly used in French neoclassical drama to indicate this kind of delivery. Stage directions such as bas or a lui-meme (to himself) are often used concurrently with a part, while speaking past other characters on the stage may also be denoted with the use of strategically placed dashes, with italics, or by putting the aside-lines in parentheses.
The basic definition of the aside is relatively simple and has been rarely contested. David Bain, in his exhaustive study Actors and Audience. A Study of Asides and Related Conventions in Greek Drama, defines the aside as "any utterance by either speaker not intended to be heard by the other and not in fact heard or properly heard by him" (17). In his analysis of Elizabethan stage conventions, Alan C. Dessen points out that in the seventeenth century the word had three possible meanings, but eventually focuses on the last option, according to which delivering one's lines aside means "to direct a speech so as (somehow) to maintain the fiction that it cannot be heard by other onstage figures" (53). Also interesting are Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni's description of the aside as "un trope communicationel" 'a communicational trope' (239) and Nathalie Fournier's elaborate definition of l'aparte as a
procede dramatique, discours secret (monologue ou dialogue), derobe par convention aux autres personnages en scene et a ses consequences, liees a un trait essentiel, la convention du secret, qui implique la presence sur scene des allocutes exclus de l' aparte et oblige a envisager les incidences sur l'aparte du decoupage scenique et du lieu scenique. ("L'aparte" 47)
dramatic proceeding, secret discourse (in monologue or dialogue), concealed by convention from the other characters on the stage and from its consequences, dependent on an essential feature, the convention of secrecy, which implies the presence on the stage of speakers excluded from the aside and demands that one consider the effect on the aside of theatrical editing and theatrical location.
For our purpose, the term aside will be provisionally defined as any commentary on the staged action, inscribed within the main text of the play, that occurs on the intersection between the dramatic and the theatrical. In this sense, the aside is a dramaturgical footnote, appearing on the margin just below the imaginary line at the bottom of the metaphorical page that divides the audience from the actors. Or, to complicate even further, the aside could be described as a metatextual elaboration on the discursive integrity of the communicational transactions of a play. Yet even at the very peak of French neoclassicism, in the relatively short period between Corneille and Racine, there exists a substantial difference in the way asides can affect our reading of a performance. Though the structural attributes of the aside appear to have remained more or less stable since this dramatic technique was first used in antiquity, the aside as a theatrical strategy is so dependent on the Bakhtinian dialogue between the dr amatic and the performance text that its function in communication with the audience has in the past radically changed. Indeed, I will argue that this transformation originates in the increasing awareness by the seventeenth-century spectators of the conventional nature of the aside and their ensuing realization of the limitations of the aside as a means of theatrical representation. Using examples from plays by Corneille, Moliere, and Racine, I will attempt to demonstrate critically how the evolution of the aside from a mechanism of dramatic economy into an essentially comic device parallels the introduction of the proscenium arch in French neoclassical theatres.
In the initial stages of his play writing career, Corneille (1606-1684), the oldest of the great trio of French neoclassical playwrights, uses the aside only sparingly. In the period between his first play, the comedy Melite (1629), and his mature work Cinna (1640), his use of the explicit, marked aside is thus reserved for the rare occasion when characters reveal to the audience their innermost thoughts. A typical example of an aside that fulfills what Fournier in her book calls the psychological function (259-74) can be found in his tragedy Clitandre (1630) where Dorise encourages himself by the following aparte: "Fuis, Dorise, et laissele crier" "Flee, Dorise, and let him cry" (4.1).
The main benefit of using the aside in this situation lies in its efficiency. If Corneille wished to convey a vital piece of information on Dorise's character in any other manner, he would require additional dialogue and perhaps another explanatory scene. The choice of a convention, conversely, enables him to move quickly from the necessary to the essential and in the interim helps to maintain the dramatic suspense at the desired level. This function also implies that there is no major difference in Corneille's early drama between the role of the aside and that of the soliloquy: they are both predominantly used as a means for the character's introspection, except that in the aside the audience is treated as a replacement for an absent confidant and is almost intrusive in its ability to hear the monologue that is going on inside the character's head. In this sense, Corneille's stream-of-confidence asides are just as much a valid piece of information for the spectator as they are the articulation of the charac ter's identity.
Interestingly enough, in the early part of his career Corneille uses the aside just as much in tragedy as in comedy. Though this is by itself not that unusual--the play with the largest number of specifically marked asides in Elizabethan drama is probably Christopher Marlowe's tragedy The Jew of Malta (c. 1590)--after 1642 Corneille's approach to the aside changes entirely. Beginning with Le Menteur (The Liar) (1642), his first comedy since L'Illusion comique (The Comic Illusion) (1636), the asides in his plays not only become much more frequent but are also limited exclusively to comedies. In scene 4 in act 4, Le Menteur thus has more marked asides than all previous Corneille's plays combined. Even more extravagant is the comedy's sequel, La suite du Menteur (The Sequel to the Liar) (1643), where the whole first act of the play is sprinkled with asides that are now no longer limited only to the young Dorante, but are also assigned there to his servant Cliton and, there also, in a virtuoso scene 4, even to C leandre.
While one could certainly assume that the use of asides is a logical choice in a play about n liar, the sudden explosion of l'aparte is nonetheless difficult to explain, especially if we remember that Corneille actually started off as a comic playwright yet so rarely resorted to this technique before the 1640s. I, therefore, posit here that Corneille's conversion may not be coincidental, and its date arbitrary, but instead could be closely related to the construction of the first theatre in France with a permanent proscenium arch, Le Palais Cardinal, built in 1641. Though even Corneille' s earlier plays were performed in indoor, artificially-lit theatres and most likely used perspective-like backdrops, the insertion of a clear separation between the auditorium and the stage still represents a radical enough innovation to affect the audience's perception of theatrical communication.
Because the introduction of the proscenium arch into French neoclassical stages appears to coincide with an increased use of asides, we can safely assume that a perceptive playwright such as Corneille will sooner or later realize that the aside's role in propelling the narration of the play has been outlived and that the aside's conventionality is now challenging the representational proficiency of neoclassical theatres. By introducing a not-so-imaginary boundary between the audience and the actors, between the represented and the real, and further reinforcing it with the addition of the front curtain, proscenium theatre confines not only the performers' and the spectators' movement, but also severely constricts the interactive dimension of a theatrical performance.
In this type of stage organization, only that which appears within the proscenium frame is perceived as relevant to the representation, while everything outside it is considered marginal or even distracting. Audience's interventions into the action on the stage or actors' adjustments to them, for example, are no longer seen as an integral part of theatrical representation but as its secondary by-product. While such an interpretation is neither particularly unusual nor completely unjustified, it is based on a highly hypothetical premise that the performers will be able to ignore the presence of the audience. As this is, usually, a utopian wish rather than a reasonable aspiration, the proscenium arch ultimately not only contributes to the authenticity of theatrical representation, but also condemns it to yet another inherent contradiction.
The distinctiveness of the representational limitations as dictated by the proscenium arch lies, however, not just in the arch's insistence on the separation of the audience from the actors. It is not as if this partition had not existed before: in fact, it is at least as old as the transition between ritual ceremonies and the theatre as an event based on aesthetic distance. Even in Greek and medieval theatres with their supposedly more involved audiences, not every performance was interrupted by outraged spectators and not every guild member participated in the production of a play. There was an invisible border between the audience and the actors in Greek and medieval theatre as well; it may indeed have been more flexible and not quite as linear as in proscenium theatres, yet it divided the performers and the observers just as efficiently.
The true novelty and the real reason for the dramaturgical appeal of the proscenium arch lies in the degree to which the arch defines this separation. Regardless of how secular the audience had become in Rome or how far from the action the spectators were standing during a performance of the Valenciennes Passion Play, there was never a concerted attempt made to exclude them from the staged action. Quite the opposite: before the emergence and wide-spread adoption of the proscenium arch, plays regularly acknowledged the presence of the spectators and sometimes even invited them to become actively involved in the performance. Conversely, in the great majority of productions intended for proscenium theatres the audience's presence is deliberately ignored, and often extra efforts are undertaken to emphasize further the already existing division between the stage and the auditorium.
What about the presence of spectators on neoclassical stages themselves? While the relatively common practice in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century French theatre of allowing at least some audience members to sit behind the proscenium arch seems to put into question the efficacy of the arch in imposing a clear divide between actor and spectator, there are at least three reasons why we might assume their presence has little or no effect on the actual performance.
First, it is not a secret that many theatre practitioners of that time openly disliked this habit and eventually, in 1759, managed to banish the spectators from the stage. Second, as pictorial evidence from neoclassical theatre suggests, most of the acting of the era happened in the downstage area and was almost exclusively oriented straight towards the parterre: actors rarely looked at each other, let alone over their shoulder. And, finally, it is possible to assume that many spectators not seated on the stage actually could not see their fellow audience members in the wings and that the actor delivering an aside could, therefore, afford to ignore them as well. Even if one implies, as Timothy C. Murray does in his article "Richelieu's Theatre: The Mirror of a Prince," that the presence of audience on neoclassical stages is a necessary symptom of the performance of social hierarchy of the time, the flourishing of comic asides in the eighteenth-century theatre could just as easily suggest that the presence of spectators on neoclassical stages before 1759 was an inevitable nuisance and relic of the past that, for the most part, did not change how the audience perceived a play.
The presence of a dramatic technique whose roots are hidden in a past theatrical practice, therefore, inevitably foregrounds all neoclassical experiments with illusion. In a society where faith in the mimetic powers of the theatre is practically unconditional, any breaking of this illusion functions as an implicit questioning of the inclusiveness of theatrical representation. By temporarily turning away from the action, Dorante, Cliton, and Cleandre deny the very foundation of neoclassical theatre: the concept of verisimilitude.
This hypothesis still does not explain, though, how the introduction of the proscenium arch contributes to restricting the aside to comedy. In other words, it does not tell us why breaking the illusion is perceived as comic in French neoclassical theatre. The most plausible answer to this question perhaps lies in
Michael Issacharoff's contention that comedy is a form of liberation from all discursive constraints (93). If this is true, then any attempt to undermine the constraints imposed on representation by theatrical practice is potentially laughable as well. Just as comedy of manners is amusing because it exposes the inherent contradictions of social conventions and verbal humour because it points out the contingency of a given language, so is the aside primarily laughable because it helps to debunk the immanent imperfections of the pertinent performing tradition.
Nowhere can this process be seen more clearly than in some of Moliere's (1622-1673) plays. Let us first take a look at how the aside temporarily releases the neoclassical theatre from the limitations imposed on it by the proscenium arch in Les Fourberies de Scapin (The Tricks of Scapin) (1671). Here three slightly different types of l'aparte are used in the same scene:
ARGANTE, se croyant seul. Voila une temerite bien grande!
SCAPIN, a Silvestre. Ecoutons-le un peu.
ARGANTE, se croyant seul. Je voudrais bien savoir ce qu'ils me pourront dire sur ce beau mariage.
SCAPIN, a part. Nous y avons songe.
ARGANTE, se croyant seul. Tacheront-ils de me nier la chose?
SCAPIN, a part. Non, nous n'pensons pas.
ARGANTE, se croyant seul. Ou s'ils entreprenderont de l'excuser?
SCAPIN, a part. Celui-la se pourra faire.
ARGANTE, se croyant seul. Pretenderont-ils m'amuser par des contes an l'air?
SCAPIN, a part. Peut-etre. (1.4)
ARGANTE. Such a rash thing to do!
SCAPIN (to SILVESTER). Let's listen for a moment.
ARGANTE (still talking to himself). I'd like to know what they'll find to say about this confounded marriage.
SCAPIN (aside). We have been considering that.
ARGANTE. Will they try to deny it?
SCAPIN (aside). No, we aren't going to do that.
ARGANTE. Or will they try to excuse it?
SCAPIN (aside). That might be done.
ARGANTE. They can tell what tale they like. It will have no effect.
SCAPIN (aside). We shall see about that! (Wood 72)
First, Argante talks to himself loudly in public, discussing his options. Then, Scapin talks to Silvestre without the old man noticing the two valets. And finally, Scapin talks directly to the audience.
While one could possibly argue that Silvestre hears all of Scapin's lines-after all, he has definitely heard his first one--Moliere makes the shift in the trickster's focus more than obvious by juxtaposing the set of identical stage directions for Argante with two distinct instructions for Scapin. We also should not overlook the fact that Silvestre is not intelligent enough to be taken into Scapin's confidence: only the audience is Scapin's legitimate discursive partner.
The main difference between Corneille's early asides on the one hand, and Moliere's on the other, is in that Scapin's repeatedly unheard replies to Argante's questions are definitely not meant to reveal his thought process. He already knows the course of his actions and does not simply reveal it to the spectators; the exclusive objective of Scapin's footnotes is to ridicule the suspicious father for the audience's amusement. In this view, the shadow dialogue between the two actors but not between the two characters is a trans-representational phenomenon: its existence only makes sense if the spectators are aware of the bivalent nature of a theatrical performance, if they do not forget that what they are watching is, in terms used by Jiri Veltrusky (572), simultaneously "the acting event" and the "enacted event."
The situation is not that much different in act 1, scene 2 of Moliere's Le Misanthrope (1666), in a dialogue that occurs immediately after Alceste and Philinte have been subjected to Oronte's bombastic poetry:
PHILINTE. La chute en est jolie, amoureuse, admirable.
ALCESTE, bas. La peste de ta chute! Empoisonneur au diable, En eusses-tu fait une a te casser le nez!
PHILINTE. Je n'ai jamais oui de vers si bien tournes.
ALCESTE, bas. Morbleu!...
ORONTE, a PHILINTE. Vous me flattez, et vous croyez peut-etre...
PHILINTE. Non, je ne flatte point.
ALCESTE, bas. Et que fais-tu donc, traitre? (1.2)
PHILINTE. The close is exquisite--full of feeling and grace.
ALCESTE, sotto voce, aside. Oh, blast the close; you'd better close your face Before you send your lying soul to hell.
PHILINTE. I can't remember a poem I've liked so well.
ALCESTE, sotto voce, aside. Good Lord!
ORONTE, to PHILINTE. I fear you're flattering me a bit.
PHILINTE. Oh, no!
ALCESTE, sotto voce, aside. What else d'you call it, you hypocrite? (Wilbur 184-85)
Though the stage direction used here is bas as opposed to part, and thus probably indicates that Philinte might be able to hear Alceste's snide remarks (this is also what the English translator implies with his translation), the comic mechanisms at work are very similar. The main reason why this dialogue is so funny lies in the absolute perceptive improbability of the situation: even if Oronte can hear that Philinte is speaking, he is ignoring Alceste's whispering. If Alceste were not just painfully honest, but also crude, this may have somehow been accepted. As he is, all his other flaws notwithstanding, still a well-bred gentleman, the audience must have perceived this depiction of selective hearing as a subtle exposure of the silliness of an age-old convention rather than as an exhibit of bad manners.
If in the times before 1641 the aside was used predominantly as a complementary and explanatory dramaturgical footnote, it is now a contradictory one. The aside no longer helps to broaden the in-formative layer of dramatic discourse but operates as a vehicle for highlighting its per-formative shell. In other words, Alceste's sentences cease to be a simple narrative digression whose primary aim is to help the audience acquire a better understanding of the character's inner dialogue, but instead becomes a proairetically superfluous commentary whose only function is to act as a springboard for laughter.
While originally the character's audible deliberations in the presence of other dramatic figures were considered a dramaturgical invention that contributed to reducing unnecessary discursive expenditure, at the height of French neoclassicism the aside is suddenly seen as a theatrical convention whose inherent artificiality outweighs its usefulness in terms of dramaturgical economy. That is to say, the tacit agreement between the audience and the actors that permitted indirect communication as the most efficient method for certain informative "transactions" (see Once 41-58) is now regarded as a "rigid" (see Bergson 19) restriction of the freedom of theatrical representation. Or, as Niall W. Slater so eloquently writes, "A convention evolves because a specific device succeeds as dramatic communication. As the device solidifies into a pattern, it becomes as much an object for comedy as any other pattern or order" (15). Using this perspective, one could say that the dramatic convention of the aside has become, i nstead of a vehicle, an impediment to theatrical representation. The aside no longer contributes to the economy of the dramatic narrative but to its artificiality, and only if the convention of the aside is sabotaged can the representation be truly liberated.
By the same token, one could argue that this type of aside provides an underlying critique of the dramaturgical inheritance passed on to contemporary playwrights from past periods, in this particular case from antiquity. While it may be slightly presumptuous to suggest that all dramatic conventions eventually end up as agents of self-destruction, turning against the very principles instrumental in their conception, it certainly appears that any shortcuts in theatrical representation eventually risk being perceived as detrimental to the natural flow of communication between the audience and the performers. It is in the semiotic dichotomy of the aside as a phenomenon that is at the same time a stage direction and a convention implied by this stage direction that this self-collapsing trend of comic dramaturgy is the most obvious.
The main reason why in the previously quoted examples, and in a variety of other passages from French neoclassical comedy, many, though certainly not all, asides no longer assist in increasing the dramaturgical economy lies in the changed pragmatic circumstances of theatrical discourse. Once the environment in which the idea of the aside was first formulated--the open-air theatre of antiquity with its circular seating arrangement and without a linear division between the logeion and the theatron, or even between pulpitum and cavea (Greek and Latin words that correspond, respectively, to the English "stage" and "auditorium")-- is replaced with a more claustrophobic configuration of parterre, loges, and scene (pit, boxes, and stage) separated by a proscenium arch, several of the clauses that make up the original contract between the actors and the audience become irrelevant.
What neoclassical playwrights then accomplish by using the aside is to demonstrate the representational redundancy of the existing dramaturgical practices. They show how the covenant between the audience and the actors necessary for the proper perception of theatrical representation should transform alongside the evolution of staging techniques in the same manner as other laws change with the evolution of society. Just as there is no real need to regulate the traffic of horse-drawn carriages once automobiles take over the streets, so there is little sense in allowing a convention that was developed as a means for bridging representational needs in an arena stage to define the dramaturgy of proscenium theatres.
The only way in which an outdated convention can still be used on a contemporary stage is by employing it to stretch the limits of its relevance and applicability. Moliere's playful exploration of the limitations to which one can stretch the plausibility of the ancient technique, as seen in the examples quoted above, is in this light a direct discrediting of the provisionality and exigency of some of the clauses in the contemporaneous agreement between the audience and the actors. Whenever such an aside is used in Moliere's comedy, it discloses an inherent deficiency in the method of theatrical representation.
The final example I will use here to illustrate the difference between the traditional, informative aside, and the neoclassical, performative aparte, is a comparison between Plautus's Amphitruo (c. 186 BC) and Moliere's s version of the same story (Arnphitryon [1668)). Whereas both Moliere and Plautus use asides in their play, there is a distinct difference in how they employ them. Let us first examine a dialogue from Plautus's tragicomoedia. The passage quoted comes from the first meeting between Mercurius and Sosia, when the servant is testing the god's assumed identity by asking questions that, he believes, only he himself could answer:
SOSIA. Egomet mihi non credo, cum illaec autumare illum audio;
hic quidem certe quae illic sunt res gestae memorat memoriter.
sed quid ais? quid Amphitruoni doni a Telobois datum est?
SOSIA. I can't believe my own ears when I hear that fellow going on so. My word, he certainly does reel our doings there all off pat. But I say--what was Amphitryon presented with from the Telobojan spoils? (416-18)
The same monologue in its seventeenth-century manifestation acquires a slightly different dimension:
SOSIE, bas, part. II a raison. A moins d'etre Sosie, On ne peut pas savoir tout ce qu'il dit; Et, dans I'etonnement don't mon ame est saisie, Je commence, a mon tour, a le croire un petit. En effet, maintenant que je le considere, Je vois qu'il a mon taille, mine, action. Faisons-lui quelque question, Afin d'eclarcir de mystere. (Haut.) Parmi tout le butin fait sur nos ennemis, Qu'est-ce qu'Amphitryon obtient pour son partage? (1.2)
SOSIA (aside). I'll be damned. How could he know all this without being Sosia? I'm beginning to believe him. And now that I look at him, I see he's a lot like me--his height, his face, his gestures. I'll ask him a few questions to clear up the mystery. (Aloud) Tell me, what did Amphitryon receive as his share of the booty? (Mandel 23)
Though the two asides are on many levels very similar, we can very quickly notice that Moliere's Sosie pays particular attention to his double's performance. Not only is Mercure of the same height as Sosie ("taille"), but he also has his exact face ("mine") and gestures ("action"). While Plautus' Sosia simply thinks loudly and establishes that Mercurius knows everything, Moliere's Sosie carefully points out to his audience that his double acts in the same way as he does. It is not that Plautus's aside is not funny or that Moliere simply improves a bit on the ancient original; it is just that Moliere, unlike his Roman predecessor, is well aware of his audience's penchant for laughing at everything that defies the barrier imposed by the proscenium arch and that he is not afraid to exploit this knowledge.
In distinction to earlier asides, Moliere's apartes are not only entirely redundant in terms of dramatic economy, but they are also phenomenologically distinct. This means that they do more than just freeze the action in time for a few moments, and suspend temporarily the division between the audience and the performers, a division that has always existed and has only been made more apparent by the introduction of the proscenium arch: they also mark this separation as merely rhetorical. In this sense, the new, comic aside could be interpreted as a rupture in the wall of theatrical illusion that suddenly exposes the Other to the spectator. Even the most ornate double proscenium arch cannot prevent those actors delivering the aside from silently reminding the spectators that what they see on the stage is just an illusion, an illu-minated vi-sion, that is just as unreal as the relief on the frame around it. Conversely, when an actor delivers an aside on a thrust stage, not all the spectators are necessarily awar e of his attempt to communicate with the audience. Since some of the spectators cannot even see the actor's face, they may never he able to participate fully in the discursive secrecy of the exchange. When there is no attempt to create illusion, there can be no breaking of it.
In fact, this exposure of the limitations of theatrical illusion in neoclassical aparte has a consequence reaching even further: as indicated before, it exposes the main aesthetic criterion of the time, verisimilitude, as being no more than what its etymological origin suggests: something that is similar to truth, but by no means identical to it. Regardless of how strongly Castelvetro argues in favor of verisimilitude as the ideal to which all modern theatre should aspire (99), neoclassical comedy appears to see it as a representational constraint. The excitement surrounding the ability of Renaissance artists to simulate reality using three-dimensional artifice has now been dampened; the proscenium arch is no longer seen as a pretty frame that further emphasizes the beauty of the enclosed world, but as a rigid partition of the outside reality from its fictional depiction.
In another terminological context, the comic aside could be said to deny the crucial trompe-l'oeil dimension of neoclassical theatre. In a society that loved to see marble that looked like wood and wood that was painted to look like marble, where reliefs were made to look flat and paintings three-dimensional, where mistaking an inanimate object for a live being was often perceived as the main objective of art, and where the deception of the human senses, and deception in general (see Battersby 10-13), was seen as a virtue, in this kind of society the deception of the eye, a trompe-l'oeil, could only be debunked by the help of a trompe-l'oreille. Only by pretending not to hear what was said loudly can one counter the notion of not seeing what is clearly noticeable; only a de-lusion can expose an attempt at i-llusion. In neoclassicism the aside, with its ability to break the illusion and establish a direct contact between the audience and the actors, has become the main challenge of the authority of the proscen ium arch and the principal tool preventing the deterioration of theatre into tableau vivant.
No wonder then that the very etymology of the French term l'aparte gives us more than a hint that the strategy of the aside is in its very nature insurgent: by turning the audience's attention to its own presence, the aside not only exposes the partition between the characters and the audience as inherently contingent and contradictory, that is, as a form of deferred difference (Derridean differance), but also subverts the central rule of theatrical illusionism and discloses the express liabilities of even the most advanced means of representation. The employment of l'aparte implicitly demonstrates that even in the three-dimensional world of perspective scenography there are still layers of reality that remain on the outside of the proscenium frame and can escape the curiosity of the audience's gaze. As this dramaturgical strategy is innately self-referential, offering not just a metatextual, but metatheatrical comment on the limitations of its form and, through it, of its per-form-ance, it undoubtedly serves to free the dramatic discourse from the constraints of theatrical representation and therefore inevitably makes us laugh.
Just how successful the neoclassical transformation of the aside was can be most convincingly shown with the example of the main tragic author of the seventeenth-century France, Jean Racine (1639-1699). Though Racine is not far removed from the time when the aside was primarily a narrative strategy and not a comic technique, there are only a handful of asides in all of his opus, and even these are mostly found in one of his few comedies, the 1668 Les Plaideurs (The Litigants). When an aside does appear in one of his plays, as is the case with his Andromaque (1667) or Esther (1689), it is usually no longer than a sigh: Oreste in Andromaque says "Ah dieux!" (1.4) and Aman in Esther "Dieux!" (2.4). It is as if Racine in his Jansenist piety thinks it is impossible for a character to deliver a line past every one except one delivered to God. At the same time, such short and private asides in no way jeopardize the ideal of verisimilitude and endanger the sublimity of the presented situation. On the comparatively sm all French neoclassical stages where actors were often almost touching each other, a whispered word of prayer is perhaps one of the few situations where the spectator can accept that one character cannot hear another who is standing right next to him.
The evolution of the aside, of course, does not come to an abrupt halt with Racine. A more comprehensive discussion of this dramatic technique would have to take into account not only its neoclassical manifestations but also address its position in the dramatic literature of the Restoration, eighteenth century, and Victorian era, and perhaps even consider its modernist derivatives, such as Eugene O'Neill's experiment with externalizing the stream of consciousness in the so-called "thought-asides" of his play Strange Interlude (1928) or Eugene Ionesco's parodic treatment of l'aparte. In addition to mine, any investigation of the influence that the dialogue between the dramatic and the performance text has on the aside would also have to include an examination of the effect that is exacted on the aside by the dimming of the lights in the auditoria. Once gas-lighting and electricity were introduced into theatres in the nineteenth century, the intensity of light could not only be controlled and its focus shifted, but the auditorium could be lit selectively, that is, during intermissions only. What this means for the aside is that actors can no longer see the audience, or at least not see it whenever they want.
If J. L. Styan is correct when he suggests in two of his studies that the aside thrives when audience is close to the actors and can maintain visual contact with the performers (204), this development should have a profound impact on both the perception and the use of the aside. One of the crucial channels for feed-back is severed in this case, and the communication between the actors and the spectators, communication that before the introduction of gas and electrical-lighting at least seemed less one-sided than it really was, becomes increasingly difficult. Since in artificially-lit theatres actors cannot deliver their aside-lines to anyone in particular, the need for breaking the illusion and undermining the constraints of the proscenium arch is now also accompanied by the practical difficulties with maintaining an active relationship between audience and actor. From this perspective, the suggestion that the transformation in the role of the aside as witnessed in French neoclassicism is a permanent structur al pattern rather than a historical anomaly or an isolated occurrence appears to be more than just an intriguing speculation. As long as one agrees with the hypothesis according to which the theatrical practice of an era affects not only the plays of its own time but also, in residual forms, continues to linger in the dramaturgy of later periods, the heuristic value of the discussion on the previous pages is ensured.
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Jure Gantar (email@example.com) is associate professor of theatre at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS, Canada. He is the author of Dramaturgija in smeh (Dramaturgy and Laughter) as well as of numerous articles on comedy, laughter, and related issues.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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