Deconstruction, Semiotics and the Theatre

Continuing from our consideration into how Brecht and Artaud actively moved against Aristotelian Theatre, we focus now on how deconstruction is used to establish new forms of theatrical language.


The only certainties about postmodernism are that it is deeply sceptical and that this doubt derives from an obsession with language and meaning.”[i]

Jacques Derrida studied the necessary effects of writing any text from a philosophical standpoint.  He unravels literary and philosophical works to expose contradictions and flaws within the text and undermines the authority of that text.

Not only does Derrida consider written language but also, as he terms, ‘arche-writing’ being the spoken word and anything else considered to be text – for instance sign systems.  Derrida is sceptical about the underlying meanings within all writings, text and spoken language.

Derrida is interested in translations and the inevitable differences that occur from one language or semiotic system or context to another.“[ii]

In his deconstructive works Derrida refers to two terminologies: logocentrism and différance.

Logocentrism is the belief that knowledge is rooted in a primeval language given by God to humans which is now lost.  God (or some other transcendental signifier: Truth, The Self etc) acts as a foundation for all our thought, language and action.

Derrida refuses to believe in this foundation.  Logos refers to authority; something that controls or captivates, for Derrida this foundation cannot exist owing to what he terms différance.  This term, meaning difference or deferral, implies that nothing is what it is intended to be including words, ideas, texts or subjects.

Derrida believes that: “nothing is identical with itself; the moment something is thought, said, written or intended, it becomes a trace of itself, no longer itself, no longer present…”[iii]

It is with this notion that logocentrism, for Derrida, cannot exist.  Since logocentrism is the belief in a higher authority and the ‘truth’ of all language it is counteracted by différance.  The ‘truth’ can never materialise, it has no presence and it becomes a trace, it has been deferred and loses its authority.

For Derrida, “If nothing can legitimately claim to possess a stable, autonomous identity, then there is nothing which can be invested with the authority of logos.”[iv] Therefore, ‘truth’ and ‘meaning’ can never actually arrive as they are always deferred.

On the stage, Derrida considered the actor as being the speaker of the primeval language given by a playwright or “God”, thus making the theatre a theological, logocentric space, since the playwright’s intended meaning can be identified as being logocentric.

Derrida, quoted by P.Auslander, states that:

The stage is theological for as long as it has a structure, following the entirety of tradition, comports with the following elements: an author-creator who, absent and from afar, is armed with a text and keeps watch over, assembles, regulates time or the meaning of the representation, letting the latter represent him as concerns what is called the content of his thoughts, his intentions, his ideas.“[v]

For Derrida, if the theatre were to dispose of the authority of the playwright it would cease to be theological and logocentric, thereby relieving it of the domination of a hidden authority.  This has influenced postmodern performance; by breaking free of the traditional theatrical conventions it seizes its own authority over the performance and, logistically, removes the need for a playwright.

Another argument posed by Derrida is that “structuralism is caught up in many of the philosophical assumptions it sets itself against.”[vi] For Derrida the act of unravelling these assumptions is more important.  This unravelling, or deconstruction, offers accessibility to an open signification that underlines any meaning.  Deconstruction shows that any collection of linguistic signs can always produce different sorts of meanings.

To understand the application of deconstruction within postmodern theatre we must first understand the role of semiotics.  Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles S. Pierce are two of the most important and widely cited semioticians of the 20th century.  An insight into their work will allow us an understanding of semiotics. Once we understand sign systems we have the ability to deconstruct them, thereby defamiliarising or opposing conventional theatre aesthetics.

Language & Semiotics

Through a binary approach to the structural properties of language, being the diachronic (historic) and synchronic (current) dimensions of language, Saussure identified that signs bear two elements: the signifier – meaning the vocalisation of a word or gesticulation, and the signified – meaning the concept invoked by the signifier.  The relationship between these two is arbitrary since there is no necessary or essential connection between the two.[vii]

To explain; the word ‘book’ does not mean the actual object.  It is only a book once it is physically, vocally and/or visibly portrayed as being what we understand a ‘book’ to be.  The word itself (the signifier) has no connection to the object (the signified).

Saussure also indicated that linguistics is made up of two components: langue and parole.

Langue is a particular language system, English for instance, which when written down shares the same linguistic and signification.

Parole is the individual use of language through the spoken word, and is subject to dialect, accent etc which can have an effect on its interpretation.[viii]

In postmodern performance we can deconstruct the langue (signifier) to alter the effect of the parole (signifier), for instance; we can take the English word ‘book’ and deconstruct it by removing the first letter of the word to create ‘ook’, this ambiguously creates a new parole once it is spoken in performance and opens the interpretation to a number of translations which further alienates the signified.

The system Pierce devised allows for a simple technique for reading and understanding signs through three categories: symbol, index and icon:

Charles S. Pierce … [and] his classification of sign-functions has proved the most important and widely cited legacy in the field of theatre semiotics.  His second ‘trichotomy’ of signs consists of : (i) icon … (ii) index … (iii) symbol.“[ix]


A symbol, for instance a written word (with no punctuation), has an arbitrary relationship to the audience.  It is arbitrary because, being a single written word, it has no stress, tone or meaning.

However, adding a vocalisation or gesture such as pointing, the meaning is easily understood by an audience.  In pointing we have added a depth to the word, given it meaning, and thereby forced an interpretation onto the audience.

Symbols come in a variety of forms, from words to circles with lines through them.  Numbers and alphabetical letters are also symbols.

We accept a ‘t’ to be a ‘t’ because we have been told that it is, but without being taught this, a ‘t’ is simply a symbol with no stress, tone or meaning.

As Aston and Savona explain: “We learn to respond to formal and stylistic signposting, to register significant detail, and to identify and interrogate the encoding of the symbol.”[x]


Indexes are easier sign systems to read.  They take the form of pictures/illustrations.  Pictures, in general, have a clearly defined structure of tone, texture and stress – thus outlining an interpretation. An example of an index is a No Smoking sign.  

It is more than the symbol of a circle with a line through it as we identify the image of a burning cigarette.  We become aware of its stress as it has forced an interpretation, thereby being more than a symbol.


An icon is the representation of a thing or an event, for instance a photograph or an actor in a role.  We understand an icon as the resemblance of something – it is a representation and not a reality.  A photograph is an image of a physical thing or person, it is not the actual thing or person.

Once we have developed a clear understanding of how to read this semiotic system we can begin to unravel the components.  For instance, we can remove one index and replace it with another – thereby undoing and recreating the interpretation of that sign.

To exemplify; a room filled with No Smoking signs indicates no smoking, but if, in performance, we were to replace the image of a lit cigarette with an unlit one the meaning is altered – the sign could now be interpreted differently to suggest no unlit cigarettes.  It has become deconstructed; people might now have to light every cigarette in the room.

Performance Art productions … offer a theatrical sign-system in chaos, where pleasure for the spectator relies on delighting in the experience of non-sense. ” (Aston E & G Savona) [xi]

Deconstruction is an essential element in postmodern theatre.  By unsettling the stability of textual/semiotic signifiers (notably binary opposites), it allows an open interpretation of its translation – there is no longer a fixed meaning, it opposes the aesthetic.

However, in deconstruction, it is important to note that to simply “replace an aesthetics of presence with one of absence … would merely reverse the traditional structure, not reject it, … Derrida constantly warns us against … merely re-inscribing a binary system by reversing its terms.”[xii]

To exemplify: if we were to perform a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and, for a feminist political statement, made the female parts be played by men and the male parts be played by women, then the traditional structure has not been rejected.  All we have done is reversed the binary opposites and in doing so have simply defined a political problem whereby equality has still not been manifested.

Postmodern performance relies on opposing the aesthetic – what we believe, understand from reading and through convention to be beautiful or correct, and (through the deconstruction of original meaning) turning the common aesthetic around – offering new angles of interpretation.  The works of Brecht, Artaud, Derrida and the structuralists Saussure and Pierce have provided this style of performance with the means to oppose the aesthetic.

The methods in which Artaud and Brecht challenged the traditional theatre norms has had a lasting effect and still resonates in the contemporary theatre, particularly so in postmodern performance.  Pina Bausch, for instance, with her sequences of montage, the absence of a sustainable plot and the breaking down of barriers between spectator and performer through a non-linguistic medium of dance reflects the principles and ideas derived from Brecht and Artaud.

The deconstructive device formed by Derrida is used by many postmodern practitioners such as the Wooster Group and, together with the Artaudian view of language, is of enormous influence to Robert Wilson and his ‘Theatre of Visuals’. These are thoughts we will consider in more depth through the next article.


[ii] Fortier M Theory/Theatre Ch.1 p.39

[iii] ibid Ch.1 p.39

[iv] Auslander P From Acting to Performance Ch.3 p.28

[v] ibid Ch.3 p.29

[vi] Fortier M Theory/Theatre Ch.1 p.37

[vii] ibid Ch.1 p.18

[viii] Aston E & G Savona Theatre as Sign-System Intro p.5

[ix] ibid Intro p.6

[x] ibid Ch.8 p.157

[xi] ibid Ch.6 p.101

[xii] Carlson M Performance a Critical Introduction Ch. 6 p.135