04 May 2005


I've been using more deixis in performance. I hadn't meant to, but it's crept in.

Deixis literally means "pointing" (deiknumi, to point or show). It's a linguistic term which describes the way in which language can "point to" the here&now, usually with words like "this," "that," etc. For instance, "The tree is green" is a sentence not marked by deixis, while "That there tree is green" or "Yonder mountain-top" are marked by deixis, because "That there" and "Yonder" only take their meaning with reference to the moment of utterance.

I first heard about deixis from the esteemed Egbert Bakker, now of Yale, when I studied with him as an undergrad in Montreal. As Bakker has emphasised, deixis is important for Homeric poetics becuase a poetry of performance melds the present instant (of the performer performing) and the past (of the story told). So when epic talks about "this here chariot" or what have you, it uses a type of linguistic marking (namely deixis) normally restricted to the here&now, but it applies that here&now marker to something which would normally be distant, namely the heroic past. Thus the heroic past becomes the here&now, for the duration of performance.

Well, on stage of late I've had recourse to deixis quite often. Instead of saying "the soldiers clad in red" for instance, I would say "those soldiers clad in red" or even "these soldiers clad in red." The effect on the audience is quite different: with "the" they are merely hearing another detail of the story; with "those" they are themselves referring a new detail to something they've already heard, and this knits the tale together in their minds, reassuring them that there is a continuity between what they've already heard, what they're hearing, and what (presumably) they are going to hear. This is particularly useful for ring composition, where the poem departs from the main story-line for a few verses and then returns to it, usually to accomodate brief description: by using deixis at the end of these little ring compositions, I signal to the audience that we have returned to something they already know. An example:

So there, behold, upon the left : he passed the holy nunnery
The sacred order of the nuns : as ancient as the citadel

The sisters Ursuline : who made the vow : to be the brides of Christ

So there, behold, upon his left : stood thirty ladies clothed in black

sisters Ursuline : who made that vow : to be the brides of Christ
And then the Marquis of Montcalm : perceived
those holy women there
And straightaway he turned his steed : and reached that holy nunnery

Ah, the joys, such were the joys, of deixis!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting.