Research Project: June 2019

Written for the University of Wollongong

This essay will examine the performance work The Second Woman (Randall, 2017) through the lens of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia, or  the notion that “every utterance contains within it the trace of other utterances, both in the past and in the future” (Morris 1994, p249), and submit that this process, as a way of generating meaning is directly observable as the live performance unfolds. Through a close reading of the play it will transpose the logic of Bakhtin’s literary theories into the multidisciplinary languages of performance and examine how the work functions in terms of fundamental dramatic and postdramatic concepts such as plot, character, intermediality and temporal displacement. These key aspects of the work will be regarded as text and therefore observable in Bakhtinian terms. By doing so in context of the wider critical response to Randall’s performance, a thesis will emerge which describes the play as invoking a masculinity neither performative nor real, but a self-reflexive echo dating back to the very origins of drama itself.

In The Second Woman, the artist Nat Randall performs a single scene on repeat over a twenty-four-hour cycle. Each iteration is played opposite a different male actor, with the result, as theatre critic Jane Howard notes: “each replay is a new mutation”. These mutations occur in dialogue with each other, the device of repetition and sameness working to magnify any variation in detail (2016). In Bakhtinian terms, by understanding the scene as a unique utterance, this mutative process acts directly to accelerate and focus the spectator’s understanding of the work as a whole. 

The notion of the utterance is the fundamental unit of dialogic communication, it can be a single word or a sentence (Dentith 1995, p38), or as this essay submits, a dramatic narrative, character, image or gesture, all of which are systemic forms of language (Aston 1991, p10) and therefore conversant with all other utterances which precede it, or have yet to occur. For example the phrase ‘you’re hysterical’ is uttered as part of the dialogue between Marty and Virginia, the two characters in the scene central to this performance. It’s a double entendre, can be directly interpreted by either its more contemporary use as pertaining to laughter or as a deliberate provocation, acknowledging the etymology of the word as a gendered slur against women’s ‘hysteria’ in question of mental health (Zaccour 2018, p57). 

So at a very granular level, the work is listening, responding and predicting how such a word echoes with historic significance. 

Underlying heteroglossia as a central tenet of Bakhtinian Poetics is a detailed study into the paradoxes of Formalism. Broadly speaking, the Formalist approach begins with a binary “juxtaposition of two language systems – poetic and practical (communicative) language” (Bakhtin 1994, p145). These systems operate towards either organising a cultural lexicon, or in the case of the poetic, work as a means of disruption (146). Bakhtin invokes Shklovskii’s definition of poetic speech as follows: “Poetic speech is a speech construction. And prose is usual speech: economical, easy, correct” (147). Rejecting this distinction, he submits that this notion of practical language is akin to everyday speech, with pragmatic (or non-poetic) properties which are in place to achieve a specific social or cultural outcome, and therefore attached to an ideological position. If this is the case, then: 

“Poetic language must wait while practical language, governed by its own goals and intentions, deigns to create some new speech construction and wait until it becomes ordinary, automatized. Only then is it allowed to appear on the scene and triumphantly lead the construction out of automatization. This is the parasitic existence to which formalist theory condemns poetic language” (147).

In other words, any creatively constructed use of language is bound to ideology, centring the ‘functional’ use of language at the expense of the poetic, which can only exist at the fringe of its ‘correct’ counterpart. A false binary; he argues instead that language is subject to the context of the events surrounding it, however trivial or momentous an utterance may be, it “participates in this incessant generation of the event” (150). For example, in The Second Woman, at the end of the scene Virginia says to Marty: ‘I think you should leave’ – practical, economic and to the point, she hands him a fifty dollar note. This pragmatic use of text and gesture to mark the end of the scene accumulates a multiplicity of meanings as the performance progresses. The significance is subjected to that which preceded it and informs the final moment as to how the male actor exits. Notably, however practical these methods may seem, they are also a deliberately constructed poetic device – which undermines the Formalist view and requires a more wholistic approach to language theory, as Bakhtin asserts in necessary.

This phenomenological approach to discourse is the matter with which Bakhtin is concerned, and this thesis will argue that it is by embracing this accumulation of significance, this heteroglossia unfolding as a live act, that The Second Woman generates such a potent semiotic claim upon the spectator. The mechanics of this process occur simultaneously across dramatic and the postdramatic conventions of form, of which each can be examined discretely. Viewed without the device of repetition, the core component is a tragic scene, in the pure Aristotelian tradition.

As Lehmann observes:

Aristotle’s Poetics conceptualizes beauty and the order of tragedy according to an analogy with logic. Thus the rule that tragedy has to be a ‘whole’ with beginning, middle and end, coupled with the demand that the ‘magnitude’ (the temporal expansion) should be just enough for the movement to a ‘peripeteia’ (a sudden reversal in the plot), and from there a conclusive catastrophe… For the Poetics drama is a structure that gives a logical (namely dramatic) order to the confusing chaos and plenitude of Being. (2006, p40)

The scene contains all the ingredients for a fictional representation of beauty, of phenomena-as-text (Aristotle might call this ‘Plot’) by which an inevitable consequence of some unseen (offstage) actions unfold. (13) As a dramatic utterance, the plot is conversant across a gamut of historical representations of female suffering. This dialogic aspect of the plot-as-text is no more overtly found than in reference John Cassavetes’ film Opening Night from which the scene is inspired (Melbourne, 2017). The performance artist Fiona MacGregor, in her response to the Sydney presentation of the play notes how Cassavetes cast himself opposite Gena Rowlands (to whom he was married) as an actor playing ‘Virginia’, a character in a fictional play (also titled The Second Woman) thus exploring the tension between what might loosely be described as the performative and the real self. These iterations of a deeply problematic male/female binary transpire across the macrocosm of theatre and cinema – Randall’s work is listening and responding to Cassavetes’ prior representations of the line between the reality and performative artifice of masculine & feminine. McGregor notes “Randall’s work brilliantly illuminates this, highlighting the daily performance of gender” (2017). As a singular dramatic structure, it is impossible to ignore the remnants of these prior incarnations of a tragically doomed romance, an effect which compounds as the scene continues its loop. 

Putting aside the various postdramatic conventions of the form, the staging can loosely be described as Neo-Realist, a mode of theatre which stands against the deconstructionist modes of Artaud and yet also resists any attempt at offering a “face-value, literal realities which in their recognisability affirm the world as we believe we know it” (Boenisch, 2016). A contemporary evolution from the early Realist theatre innovations ascribed to the likes of Chekhov and Stanislavski, Neo-Realism seeks to present work which reflects ‘reality’ while maintaining a commitment to formal innovations of artists such as Brecht. Neo-Realism aims to preserve the tenets of these radical departures in form, such as alienation and defamiliarisation; in his essay Towards a New Realism (2016) the director Thomas Ostermeier states: 

“the core of realism is the tragedy of ordinary life … I do not want to hear the playwright’s literary skill when I listen to the character’s speech. Rather the language must be stringent and necessary” (17)

This distinction of language here as either ‘literary’ or ‘stringent’ echoes what

Bakhtin identifies as the ‘poetic’ or ‘practical’ models in his critique of Formalism. Again, a problematic binary, but one which can be resolved through his understanding of text – Ostermeier refers to his work as part of a “tradition of committed realism” (16) he is continuing the conversation with his predecessors, responding and pre-empting an ongoing conversation with those to come. Form therefore, is a semiotic system which operates as heteroglossic media. He argues Realism is “more than a simple imitation of the world… it attempts to use the recognisable in order to provoke surprise and astonishment” (17). While The Second Woman certainly invokes this technique, it is not strictly Neo-Realist. Postdramatic devices, particularly the immersive and durational elements are used to radical effect, but just as Ostermeier is in dialogue with Ibsen, Chekhov and Brecht; the artists here are conversant with this constantly evolving approach to the aesthetics of estrangement.

In The Second Woman, this approach is borne out to a logical extreme. The ‘recognisable’ components of the dramatic utterance, through the device of repetition all morph from the mundane into the cataclysmic. Tiny details become macro-expressions of some Dante-esque impenetrable internal struggle through which Virginia seems perpetually locked, and as a representation of the feminine cinematic trope, this struggle is taking place on behalf of all women, constantly trying to rid themselves of some Marty or another. A box of takeaway food, so ordinary at first, by virtue of repetition soon becomes a nightmarish tool of patriarchal control, thrown back into the face of her oppressor. 

Examining the characterisations of Virginia and Marty is a mercurial task which involves a complex association of immersive media, postdramatic theory and performance technique. Across the life of the work as presented in four Australian cities, there are approximately four hundred iterations of the male counterpart to four hundred variations of the same Virginia. The scale of this innovation is unprecedented, as such a comprehensive study of these variables is beyond the scope of this thesis. However, an overview of their various behaviours, via anecdotal research from participants to be interpreted as dialogic text will demonstrate the crux of the work, and its wider implications for the societal constructs surrounding gender. 

Randall as Virginia is markedly artificial – she notes in an interview that the demands of the twenty-four-hour schedule make any attempt at Stanislavskian ‘method-acting’ infeasible (Kanowski, 2017); everything from her fixed blonde wig and fake eyelashes to the soft pink neon glow of the set dressing denotes a femininity which is engineered. She describes it as “an act of drag” (Jefferson 2017). The spectator is not invited to reach any comprehensive understanding of her as ‘real’; it is not elaborated on whether she is a character in a play or a film, or a play-within-a-film-within-a-play, only that she is patently a construction of fictional female tropes. Minor improvisational variations notwithstanding, her behaviour and dialogue, voice and intonation all follow a set pattern, throughout the performance her persona is constant, even to the point of being cinematic – there are cameras surrounding the set and a split screen on which the audience can view the action in close-up adjacent to the stage. It is therefore this quality of sameness through which the spectator must interpret her character – and as the female character is centred as a constant, the male counterpart must be viewed in terms of his difference to the feminine. Jane Howard notes:

“Randall is simultaneously free in her interpretation and unwaveringly dedicated to a consistency of character and performance: the subtlest roll of her left heel on the carpet may seem like a mistake on first notice, but as the error multiplies we see the fullness of Randall’s performance. We see the complexities of her choices each time she says ‘I just want to be capable.’” (2016)

Conversely, Marty must be interpreted via his spectacular array of difference. The only constant are his lines, which prove widely open for interpretation. This is a remarkable reversal of what Simone de Beauvoir identifies in The Second Sex as the phenomena by which women must define themselves in terms of the masculinity surrounding them (89). Paradoxically these differences prove much more accessible as audiences continually return to this expression of ‘maleness’ as a form of text (Harris, 2017). Marty isn’t really anyone, he’s all men. Or not, as the case may be. In The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship Bakhtin “asks that we imagine two different social groups who have at their disposal the same language material” (Bernard-Donals 1994, p10) and submits that according to their socioeconomic or cultural background “one and the same word will occupy a completely different hierarchical place in the utterance as a concrete social act” (10). It is difficult to imagine a more formal demonstration of this effect in practice than the conditions of this play.

“The effect is fascinating. Man after man is caught out performing a version of masculinity that folds under pressure and reveals something unintended but not, it turns out, wholly unexpected; something brought to light by the experimental conditions of the live scene and its relentless unfolding in real time” (Jagose & Wallace, 2017)

This reading of the work, positioning masculinity at the centre of the performance is virtually consensus among critics, participants and audiences alike. Despite (or perhaps by virtue of) Randall’s pathological commitment to the feminine tropes manifest in her portrayal of Virginia; it is the male who is the inevitable subject of the performance. The men invariably perform some version of maleness, as multiple critics, respondents and even the artist herself are led to conclude: 

“What emerges from the format of a repeated script is a passage, made deeper and wider in each restaging, in which a single male character is rewritten along fairly similar lines by a succession of non-actors, who tend to perform learned and stereotypically alpha-male behaviour… ‘The work’s model of repetition allows difference through sameness and sameness through difference,’ says Randall. ‘The generic rises to the fore when you consider a spectrum of men over 24 hours.’” (Carroll-Harris, 2017)

Without extensive research into the participants, only anecdotal evidence can point to which aspects of the character are ‘truthful’ responses to the scenario or ‘constructed’ readings of a set script. Outside of the core creative team few observers can even make a claim to have witnessed the entirety of the MartySpectrum, and so for now, there is no platform from which a spectator can mount a complete study of his character as dialogic text. Randall’s observation about the experience of ‘sameness through difference’ is appropriate when faced with the prospect of understanding what he represents within the frame of the performance, and she is extremely well-placed to comment, it is far from comprehensive. 

Interrogating this view of the uber-Marty as the generic alpha-male archetype, it’s important to assess the conditions surrounding his behaviours. There is no rehearsal process, and minimal instructions to accompany the script besides a note in the email stating “be as natural and as much like yourself as possible” (Breckon, personal communication 3 June 2017). For actors and non-actors alike, the prospect of performing an unrehearsed scene is daunting, so psychological factors such as nerves and adrenaline will impact on their choices, as will their cultural background, relationship with the artist – most will have not previously met her, others are friends or family (Howard, 2016), and the specific time and circumstances at which they are scheduled to perform. Some have participated more than once, or had days to prepare, others are called in at 3am with less than an hour’s notice (Jagose & Wallace). Overall there is a strong element of support for the participants to overcome any anxieties associated with involvement, but these variables will all impact on the outcome within a single scene. Such is the unpredictability of immersive and durational theatre, as a marker of the postdramatic, it embodies risk (Lehmann 2006, p186).

Sam Twyford-Moore, who participated in the Sydney performance notes in his review for The Saturday Paper “The show is smartly fuelled by two factors: the vulnerability of non-actors, and the male ego displayed in each accumulative iteration of the scene” (2017). Indeed Twyford-Moore’s entire article seems to reflect upon his experience as ‘Marty’. He recalls how other participants self-critique their various choices in the role – and this male ego tendency to focus on oneself as unique and special among an irrefutable legion of others (who all presumably feel the same way) is arguably, a conclusive legacy of the work. Further, the likelihood of an actor to have watched the performance unfold in advance of their own participation will directly fuel the dialogic aspects with which this thesis is concerned. 

My own experiences as Marty reflect this, having watched over two dozen versions of the scene, it was irresistible to imagine myself as the Hero – knowing I would take centre stage in a few hours began working out specific choices to differentiate my performance from the others. My Marty would be different, I decided, deliberately casting myself in pathos as a victimised counterpoint to the recurring motif of the male aggressor. It didn’t work; while I felt the performance to be ‘true’ within the context of my choices, the scene ultimately read as another attempt at male passive-aggressive manipulation, to which Virginia wanted no part. After a feeble effort at reconciliation through dance Marty was left weeping in the corner chair and told ‘I think you should leave’ (Virginia 47 – Marty 0). Later, called in as a last-minute substitute, I played the scene in a wildly different manner, a purely platonic Marty, feigning intoxication on drugs and having the time of his life. In this instance, the dramatic tension so apparent in the earlier version seemed to evaporate, and I had perhaps for a moment managed to break the cycle of tragedy – it’s difficult to say from within but suffice to say in that final moment as he declares ‘I love you’ before exiting, was also one of truth, intended as a direct response to the caged, infantile bitterness I had portrayed with the same line before. As such, my two different portrayals of the same man operate in dialogue with each other, consciously or not, they are part of a wider heteroglossia around my own daily utterances of maleness, and those which I have seen around me. It’s not just character which is dialogic, but masculinity itself.

These choices were not arbitrary but of a genuine interest in exploring the possibilities of the character-as-text in an authentic manner. This question of authenticity is one which has fixated theatre makers for over a century, since the emergence of Realism and increasing dominance of the Stanislavski ‘method’ as a performance mode, to contemporary Neo-Realist innovations and the advent of immersive practice as form, this is a preoccupation which harks back to Aristotelian Poetics as well: “tragedy is the imitation of an action, and the action is performed” (Aristotle 1996, p11). In describing the tragic notions of anagnorisis and peripeteia, Aristotle identifies Oedipus as exemplary – when the eponymous character learns the truth about himself (19). Antonin Artaud, as precursor to postdramatic convention, resisted the Realist mode specifically as a means to elucidate a greater ‘truth’ (Sontag 1976, p xxv). However visibly or invisibly the practice of theatre is constructed, therefore it aims to traverse a binary between the poetic and the practical forms of language to reveal the authentic. Whether this search manifests in terms of plot, character or form is for a contemporary audience, irrelevant. It is the dialogue which informs.

Continuing with the logic of heteroglossia, it’s not feasible to describe the languages of theatre as ‘performative/poetic’ or ‘real/practical’. Bakhtin’s critique of the Formalists still holds whether it is applied to basic literary phrases or more complex semiotic systems such as plot or character. It doesn’t matter if Marty’s actions are truthful or affected, as Aristotle suggests: “speech or action will possess a character if it discloses a deliberate choice” (24). For the purpose of this thesis therefore character is text, and as such as a formal semiotic system is inadequate. Bakhtin insists on a model of text as phenomenon, a result of a materialist or ideological forces (Bernard-Donals 1994, p15), and as this performance demonstrates, character forms part of a wider dialogic exploration of ‘self’. This back-and-forth between varying masculinities becomes increasingly paramount as the postdramatic aspects of the work eclipse the dramatic over the course of the twenty-four hours. As the scene repeats, heteroglossia is magnified to the point of feedback distortion, until even the comforting logic of narrative has become alien, disrupted and fraught. The effect is a product of parataxis, or the bending of time & place within the frame of performance which Lehmann identifies as a hallmark of the postdramatic convention (2006, 86). 

This survey of Bakhtin’s theories is by no means complete, and nor does the analysis of The Second Woman manufacture a comprehensive detail of the event’s overwhelming sprawl, any more than the scope of this essay can detail over three thousand years of theatre practice, however a few basic principles emerge. The simultaneous use of forms: the dramatic vs the postdramatic, the male vs the female, the practical vs the poetic, the authentic vs the performative: all of which represent a difficult and complex set of binaries working in oppositional unison throughout the work – can be resolved through Bakhtin’s theory of dialogic media. As such the inevitable conclusion from this paradoxically hypnotic piece of theatre is that all text – word, speech, gesture, plot, character, form, or even masculinity itself, cannot be interpreted as either real or performative, but as a long running dialogic expression of self which goes back to the very origins of tragedy. It follows, therefore, that if maleness is a dialogue, then the conversation can be changed.


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