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Thinking Through Tragedy and Comedy A Symposium on Performance Philosophy and the Future of Genre

Mark Robson


Thinking through tragedy seems to demand thinking through figure and figures. But what entailments does this connection of tragedy and figure bring with it? Much rests, of course, on how we understand the notion of figure itself. Thinking on tragedy crosses senses of figure (as the figurative, that is, representational, as the geometrical, in opposition to the literal, as form of the work or of the body-at-work, as movement but also as a fixing, as the singular and the generalizable non-singular). ‘Figure’ acts as an index of relation and identification. As such, it acts as a placeholder for a relationality at work in tragedy.

In the glossary to his Contemporary Mise en Scène, for example, Patrice Pavis offers the following definition: ‘Figure: a term used to avoid the term character, which might be considered too psychological and too mimetic. The figure is a structural entity that concentrates or disperses figurative and abstract elements at the same time. The actor traces figures on the stage, which are almost choreographic, and these often constitute the most pertinent structure available in order to see and follow meaning’. Pavis here condenses some of the most influential current thinking on figure, but needs to be juxtaposed with Daniel Mesguich’s insistence in L’éternel éphémère that for theatre an escape from the figurative is impossible.

This paper pursues a selection of such invocations of figure in thinking tragedy and indeed ‘theatre’ (for which tragedy often stands in). Focusing especially on the work of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, I will also wish to think figure in the light of Pascal’s suggestion: ’Figure porte absence et présence, plaisir et déplaisir. Chiffre à double sens. Un clair et où il dit que le sens est caché.’ (In the Penguin translation: ‘Figure includes absence and presence, pleasant and unpleasant. Cipher with a double meaning, of which one is clear and says that the meaning is hidden.’)

Mark Robson is Chair of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Dundee, where he directs the MLitt in Theatre Studies in collaboration with the Dundee Rep Theatre. His publications include The Sense of Early Modern Writing (2006) and (with James Loxley) Shakespeare, Jonson, and the Claims of the Performative (2013).