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Steven Berkoff figuring figuration





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Figuring Figuration by Deborah Knight
I Introduction

1.1 Figure and figuration in Steven Berkoff’s writings

The very first thing that strikes me when I read, watch, or listen to a play or short story by Steven Berkoff is the feeling of being on a metaphorical linguistic roller coaster that tours every imaginable height or depth meaningful language could reside upon, gliding effortlessly from one register to another and climbing to the uppermost reaches of literary elevation only to perform a stomach-lurching drop to the basest of base literalism, before rising once again.

The effect of this constant up and down movement from bathetic to purple passages, from euphemism to dysphemism, and from ‘fact’ to fiction is further accentuated by the way in which Berkoff juxtaposes the opposing worldviews of the characters in his plays. Their monologues reveal such drastically differing perspectives that we are obliged to acknowledge how little we can trust in our perception as an ‘authentic’ sizing up of the facts, let alone adequately communicate them. In fact, the fabricated nature of each character’s particular way of perceiving ‘reality’ is suddenly and embarrassingly made manifest to the watcher by the ease with which he or she recognizes the borrowed standardization of its corresponding discourse. And once the spectator is convinced of one stereotype’s particular reasoning, lo and behold but another will open up his or her arsenal of stock observations and bludgeon one into submitting to their point of view, only to be superseded by yet another and so on, and so on. Surprisingly, to the contrary of trivializing them, the actors’ caricatures seem to elevate these stereotypes with their institutionalised discourses and life stances to the status of the archetype while simultaneously highlighting their every imperfection. Or is it rather the latter that is toppled from its ethereal throne by this mocking glorification of its resolutely hideous terrestrial counterpart? One can never be sure for long, as climax and bathos never lie too far apart in Berkoff.

At any rate, the overall effect of most of Berkoff’s plays and some of his short stories [Ref 0-01] is that of continual displacement of significance. It is as if he is playing with our belief in the infallibility of language and perception as vehicles of accurate communication and universal truth. Despite his condensed use of figurative language, his is the business of the literal, not the literary, in so much as he foregrounds the constant evanescence of the former because of the way it slips eternally from figure to figure, changing shape with each distortion. Dependent upon figuration to express it, truth appears to lie more accurately within the interstices between each trope, forever out of reach of language.

In this paper I will be looking at how Berkoff uses figure to point back at itself in order to draw attention to its ubiquitous presence upon every stratum of society and language, and the way in which it more often than not exalts the things it denotes. At times this exaltation will be seen to be favourable to the construction of a sense of self, at others, quite to the contrary, it will be shown to be harmful either to the individual or to his or her environment and entourage.

Before looking at Berkoff’s autobiographical texts and plays, the next section gives an idea of the diversity of his work and indicates which of his books and stage productions I have used in this paper. Language and Perception opens the thesis in question by giving a short account of common misconceptions both as to the meaning of terms such as ‘trope’ and ‘figure’, as well as to the site from which they are said to influence our capacity to perceive and describe what we see.

1.2 Berkoff’s multiple modes of self-expression

Despite the proliferation of publications of Steven Berkoff’s writings over the past decade and his gradual insertion into the theatrical canon, the only studies of his work are carried out by university students. In the absence of any published literary criticism of Berkoff’s work, I have drawn from the three dimensionality of his own work in my analysis, for few playwrights can have as much practical experience of the stage as he or have tried their hand at as many literary genres. First and foremost a formidable actor and world-renowned stage director, he is not only a playwright, but also a short story writer, a dedicated journal writer, and autobiographer. His rewritings of classical Greek plays for a contemporary audience, his adaptations of famous short stories and novellas for the stage, and his own original plays and short stories are amply commented on in his production journals, the marginalia of his plays, and in his autobiography.

Included in my analysis of Berkoff’s autobiographical texts (parts VI, V and VI) are his autobiography Free Association, his journal Coriolanus in Deutschland, and his two volumes of short stories Gross Intrusion and Graft: Tales of an actor. In my comparative analysis of his plays (parts VI and VII), I concentrate on those included in the 1994 edition of the first volume of his plays, and Decadence from the second volume.

George Dillon

Furthermore, I allude briefly to the video of his play East, his film version of his play Decadence, and to Linda Marlowe’s and George Dillon’s respective one-woman and one-man shows, Berkoff’s Women and Graft, that bring his short stories and isolated passages from his plays to life.

Linda Marlowe


II Defining Figure and Figuration

2.1 Language and perception

The interweaving of both the unreliability of language and that of perception in Berkoff’s writing is reminiscent of the semiotic development in the term figura that Eric Auerbach follows throughout the ages in his article by the same name. I will come back to this article, but first I would like to draw attention to how most literary dictionaries, rather than concretise the link between language and perception, leave the student to arrive at his or her own conclusions.

In A glossary of literary terms, M. H. Abrams asserts that ‘figurative language is a departure from what users of the language apprehend as the standard meaning of words, or else the standard order of words in order to achieve some special meaning or effect’ (66). He goes on to make a distinction between ‘tropes’ and ‘figures of speech’, the former being defined as words or phrases which are used ‘in a way that effects a conspicuous change in what we take to be their standard meaning’, and the latter as words that take their departure from standard usage through their ‘syntactical order or pattern’ (66) rather than through the meaning of the words themselves. He lists the most common tropes to be the simile, the metaphor in its various manifestations, the synecdoche, personification, and the practically obsolete kenning; and the most common ‘figures of speech’ to be the apostrophe, the rhetorical question, the chiasmus, and the zeugma. He finishes by mentioning that certain linguistic patterns such as antithesis, alliteration, assonance, bathos and parallelism are sometimes also classified as rhetorical figures. In A Dictionary of Literary Terms, Martin Gray adds aposiopesis, ellipsis, hyperbole and litotes as being further departures into decorative language in this second category.

However, The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism makes short work of dealing with these stylistic features by using the heading for one to designate elements from the other in its affirmation that figuration means ‘the act of using figures of speech such as metaphor or metonymy’ (111). It is far more concerned with drawing our attention to the act of interpretation of the reader. The previous definitions would perhaps have led the reader to believe that the various figures of language are purposely selected by the writer or speaker and employed in such a way as to ensure that whoever should read or listen to his or her words would glean a universally accepted interpretation of their signification. This particular entry has the forethought to correct any such misconceptions by indirectly quoting the structuralist Tzvetan Todorov’s use of the term ‘figuration’ to refer ‘not to the act of a writer, but to that of the reader’ (111). For Todorov, figuration is one of several actions performed by readers upon literature:

The reader looks for a certain repeated pattern or overall structure, beneath the surface of the text, in relation to which all the various elements that make up that text can be understood. This differs from finding a theme that the author may have placed in the text, because the figuration Todorov discusses doesn’t produce a single meaning for the text but instead might support several readings. (111)

It would seem that quite an important conceptual leap has come about in the way we are asked to interpret the term ‘figuration’ without being given any explanation as to its whys and wherefores. In The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism’s first definition, it was taken to mean the author’s use of figure, while in the second it abruptly signifies the act of reader interpretation. As much as this passage may legitimately begin to hint at the poststructuralists’ view that the site of significance is not to be found in the text but in the reader who unconsciously projects into the printed marks all the meanings and formal features he or she traditionally attributed to authorial intention, it seems to make a rather premature jump to this aspect without making any allusion whatsoever to what I perceive as an intermediate step in this argumentation: namely, that there are myriad forms of figuration other than the so called ornaments of language M.H. Abrams and Martin Gray listed in their respective glossary and dictionary, and that these are an every day fact of life which colour our ability to perceive despite our best intentions.

Hence, the presence of figuration appears at first to hover on the binary: firstly, it is to be found on the level of our ability to perceive things and interpret them, and secondly, on that of our use of language to explain those perceptions through communication. In the latter category, figure and trope may well be seen as the ‘ornaments’ of our use of language when they are under control, but most of the time they seem to control us as we vainly attempt to get a ‘picture’ across, or fall into the temptation of borrowing stock phrases that either form our ideas as we go along or pull them away from any original intention.  If we now view these ‘pictures’ or phrases under the light of the perception that originated them (thereby moving into the former category), they may well be formed by the unconscious adoption of any one of a number of types of ‘social parlance’ (A Glossary of Literary Terms 262) that the poststructuralists see as constituting veritable ideological discourses that are ‘ultimately attributable to the material conditions and the class-hierarchy of an historical era (262)’. In this view all of the following forms of figuration - lies, fantasy, wishful thinking, dream, ideological constructs such as nationality, class and gender, conditioning, projection and psychic suppression, to arbitrarily name but a few - are revealed to be nothing more than aspects of some discourse or other that are either formed by it or employed to defend or rebel against it; but the important factor here is the effect their languages have upon our perception and capacity to interpret our environment, however conscious or unconscious we may believe them to be.

And so, what at first may appear to be two separate issues reveal themselves to be two sides of the same coin: figuration resides not only in the text but also in the interpreter of the text, due to the way in which language distorts both our perceptive and our communicative abilities. Language, to sum up, controls us as we vainly attempt to control it.

2.2 Figura: from describing the form to giving the form

Perhaps Erich Auerbach’s historical account of the semiotic development of the term figura is one of the best examples we have to hand of how interpretation is prefigured from the outset, as the article not only takes this concern as its subject but even gives us an immediate example in the writer’s own approach to his analysis.

Although the earliest traceable instance of the word figura meant ‘plastic form’[Ref 0-02], Auerbach explains that the term was soon transposed from the plastic and visual to the auditory sphere when used to speak of the ‘figure of words’[Ref 0-03] (Figura 16), effecting a parallel transition in meaning from the form to its imitation, or from model to copy. Auerbach goes on to quote later instances of the word being used in the various senses of ‘dream image’, ‘figment of fancy’, and ‘ghost’ (17) and even taking on a connotation of changeability and deception as, for example, in Ovid’s description of the gods hiding themselves from mortals ‘in lying shapes’ (22).

He goes on to describe Quintilian’s pragmatic first century use of the term figura to give the original distinction between trope and figure that Abrams used above. However, it is as if Auerbach cannot help reacting against this effort to tether the notion to the ordering confines of rhetorical science, for he suddenly, anachronistically, throws in his own grain of salt by alerting us to the fact that ‘although the word is employed only for formations that are particularly developed in a poetic or rhetorical sense’, ‘basically all discourse is a forming [or] a figure’ (26).

We will come back to this authorial interpolation, but, in the meantime, Quintilian himself, it would seem, was more preoccupied with the difficulty inherent in classifying a ‘turn of speech’ (26) as either trope or figure. Here, Auerbach inadvertently explains The Columbia Dictionary of Modern Literary and Cultural Criticism’s expedient method of defining metaphor and metonymy as ‘figures of speech’ by explaining that ‘in later usage’ - read post-Quintilian - ‘figura is generally regarded as the higher concept, including trope, so that any unliteral or indirect form of expression is said to be as figurative’ (26). Quintilian himself, unperturbed by the difficulties he experienced in distinguishing between trope and figure, went on to further frustrate himself by attempting to subdivide the category of figure into yet another that separated those involving content from those involving words. As we saw above, scholars of literature are still attempting to categorize figures today.

Moses and tablets

It was the Church’s efforts to read the Old Testament literally instead of allegorically (in order to nullify the old law and view Christ as having fulfilled the promise of the coming of the Messiah) that added a new twist to the meaning of the word figura, moving the habitual understanding of ‘copy’ as implying a preceding original to that of ‘announcing something to come’ and, thereby, as preceding the original itself.

 It is amusing to note that when Auerbach writes that in Tertullian’s interpretation of the Old Testament ‘Figura is something real and historical which announces something else that is real and historical’ (29) in the New Testament, he careful avoids having to define what exactly was real and historical, and in what quantity, as this would have been an untimely moment to draw attention away from the semiotic development of his word figura to the embarrassing lack of credible similarity between the people and events of the two Testaments that could truly be said to support the new method of interpretation. This need for caution in his mode of expression seems to underline the fact that the use of the word now called into question not the quality of the ‘copy’, but the quality of the interpretation, for, as Auerbach admits further down the page, one had to be pretty determined to interpret in a certain way in order to show the Old Testament as prefiguring the New.

Hence, the very origins of the figural system show it to seek its interpretation from above, with fact being subordinated to an interpretation that is already fully secured to begin with. This, we are led to assume, is the process involved in all figural interpretation. Therefore, when Auerbach interrupted his description of Quintilian’s use of the word figura to say that basically all discourse is a ‘forming’ or ‘figure’, he struck me as not only prematurely injecting into his historical account the later meaning of the word, but also as prefiguring the later poststructuralist view of language as describing what it itself has formed. If we view the interpolation in the light of his own rules, it would also seem to paradoxically call into question the very validity of his own interpretations as it gives clear evidence of a desire to manipulate his discussion toward a predetermined conclusion.

An interpolation on behalf of the writer

This may be a timely moment to admit that the following analysis of Steven Berkoff’s writings was carried out in order to defend an inordinate affection for the aesthetic economy of my predetermined title: ‘Figuring Figuration’. After making the above discoveries in regards to the unavoidably subjective nature of figural interpretation, I elected to take Roland Barthes’ advice and enjoy myself, albeit self-consciously, by entering the text in the way I had chosen and continuing to read into Berkoff’s work a desire to foreground figuration. However, I have made one adjustment to the original title in order to signal the subjectivity of my interpretation: the use of the word and between the words ‘Figuring Figuration’ and ‘the Works of Steven Berkoff’ where one may traditionally expect the word in.

I have also decided to go against the prohibition to use the word ‘I’ in the formal context of the academic dissertation, as this convention is clearly quite incompatible with contemporary awareness of the binary nature of figuration. Hence, I have attempted to counterbalance my following investigation of Berkoff’s method of figuring himself in his autobiographical works by openly figuring myself within the text and keeping an eye upon my own interpretive figuration of his figuration. In the final section upon the plays, I abandon this method in order to oppose the common view of Berkoff as an incurable misogynist by reading into his writings valuable criticism of women’s sense of identity that serves rather than mocks the feminist cause.

© Deborah Knight 2001



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