Erik Van Ooijen


Literary scholars are sometimes reprimanded for reading plays as literary texts rather than texts intended for the stage. To avoid a purely textual approach, it is often argued that you should always “visualize” the action as if it took place on the “theater of the mind”. In this article, I suggest that such a hermeneutics of “mind-staging” is misleading. Referencing theater semiotics and the phenomenological theory of reading of Wolfgang Iser, I argue that such a practice will close the radical openness of the dramatic text, by eliminating its defining indeterminacies. If performance “annihilates” the text by becoming a theatrical event (as suggested by theater semiotics), this will, nevertheless, result in a view of the text as preceding and enduring outside of performance. Thus, the argument from theater semiotics will also come to motivate a purely textual approach to the play as a literary work.

The argument is illustrated with examples from the Chamber Plays of August Strindberg. Building on scholars noting his “carelessness” as a playwright, I argue that a reading trying to visualize the action will encounter several hermeneutical pseudo-problems relevant to the producer of the play but irrelevant to the reader. My first example concerns the sequential distribution of the setting in The Pelican: whereas the reader will experience its space as a desolate wasteland (fitting to the theme of the play), the producer, forced to visualize it all at once, will rather experience it as cluttered. My second example concerns the strange dialogue in The Ghost Sonata: whereas the literary reader may settle with an analytic description of its weird poetics, the producer must try to make new meaningful coherency out of this very weirdness. The third example regards an authorial mistake in The Storm, which becomes a puzzle the producer must solve, although it remains unsolvable for the reader.

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