A while ago, I asked the question Why is Richard portrayed without a hunchback in the 1955 Laurence Olivier adaptation of Richard III? That question has now attracted three close votes. The comment explaining reads as follows:

I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because this seems to be about a real-life performance, rather than literature

The comment doesn't really explain why real-life performance doesn't count as literature.

Should the question be closed, and if so, why?

  • 1
    Are the downvotes about the question, or about the fact that voters think that the answer should be "offtopic"?
    – DVK
    Nov 26, 2017 at 14:25

2 Answers 2

  • Interpretation of character is a form of literary analysis

It's as simple as that.

I highly recommend taking a look at Stella Adler on Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov which demonstrates how literary analysis is critical in creating believable performances.

Poetry long pre-dates the modern novel, and dramatic poetry was held in the highest regard in antiquity, even above the epics. Modernism in theater was a centrally important literary movement, that influences all other forms of art and literature. Likewise, Shakespeare's impact on literature, drama and the English language is profound.

Theater is unique in that analysis extends into performance, thus dramaturgy in addition to acting and directing.

In relation the the question that prompted this meta, I'll compare portrayal of Richard III and Laura from the Glass Menagerie. Both have a physical impairment that influence their characters.

-If the deformity is pronounced physically in performance, as is generally the case, the audience interpretation is that the physical condition drives the character.

-If the deformity is downplayed, as with the Olivier, the audience interpretation is that the character is burdened more by the psychological effects than the physical. (i.e. the deformity looms much larger in their mind that the physical actuality.)

The latter case may be considered much more complex.

  • My one quibble with this answer is that I wouldn't say "Theater is unique in that analysis extends into performance." Performance has a huge impact on poetry, for example. (That's one reason why we care about scansion).
    – user111
    Nov 22, 2017 at 23:01
  • @True, and people with theatrical training are often the best reciters (it was said of Olivier that he could captivate an audience reciting the phonebook.) But this is still distinct from analysis of text to create an individual persona for performance. In reciting poetry, the reciter may be the narrator, or many characters. It's also arguable that recitation of poetry is a form of theatrical performance, and thus subsumed.
    – DukeZhou
    Nov 22, 2017 at 23:14
  • You make a good case for why literary analysis is important when interpreting a character, but does that support the inverse? That literary analysis is relevant to performance does not necessarily mean that performance is relevant to literary analysis. Surely analyzing an improvised performance, one with no script, would be off topic, right?
    – terdon
    Nov 26, 2017 at 12:17
  • @terdon oral literature is theoretically on-topic (literature.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/636/…). But I think if you look at the history of literary forms, oral literature and other improvised performances came first. It's only recently that we started writing stuff down. So I do think that historically, performance was very relevant to literary analysis, because they are one and the same.
    – user111
    Nov 26, 2017 at 12:30
  • @terdon my interpretation of this answer is that it isn't saying that literary analysis is relevant to performance, but that performance is literary analysis. When you perform a piece you're interpreting it.
    – user111
    Nov 26, 2017 at 12:32
  • 1
    @hamet That's it in a nutshell. "performance of text is literary analysis".
    – DukeZhou
    Nov 28, 2017 at 1:32

Questions about performance should be on-topic.

The best explanation I've seen for this comes from community member Joshua Engel:

As an actor I tend to view plays through that lens, but the name "literature" tends to imply something read rather than viewed. Neither lens is superior, but a greater diversity of views would help broaden the site. The StackOverflow base tends to draw from a sitting-in-chairs view. Acting is a not-uncommon hobby for programmers (who make up the initial core of any StackExchange base), but looking outside that base may be necessary to gain more perspective.

Joshua is right. Reading a work of literature alone, silently, is only one way of interacting with said work of literature. Other ways of interacting with a work of literature, such as performing a play, are equally valid and equally interesting. Questions about these alternative ways of interacting with literature must therefore be on-topic. If we don't allow questions about these other ways of interacting with literature, we will stunt the site's intellectual growth.

Questions about performance have lead to several interesting insights on this site. For example:

  1. Is the fight between Mercutio and Tybalt a joke, or is it serious?

  2. What changes when you adapt Dickinson's "I'm Nobody" to an acoustic rock song?

  3. Why the breathing in Snowgoons Get Off the Ground

  4. Is Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall" supposed to be uplifting or mournful?

  5. Why the rubbish in Samuel Beckett's play Breath?

So have answers that have taken performance into account when discussing a work of literature:

  1. Ash's answer to Why do Simpson and Bostley speak for each other in "Lost Voices"?

  2. Joshua's answer to Why doesn't Hamlet like improvisation?

Closing these sorts of questions would be a huge, irreversible mistake. Let's keep them and learn from them.


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