On Theater by Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes is a French philosopher and literary critic who is considered to be one of the largest representatives of French structuralism. His full-text works “Writing Degree Zero”, “S/Z”, “Mythologies”, “The Fashion system”, as well as the article “The Death of the Author” – this is what first comes to mind or falls out in Google when Barthes is mentioned.

Even if we’re speaking about Barthes as one of the main structuralists, in the 40-50s he is only approaching this direction, and will finally formulate his principles by the 60s. In the “prestructural” period, Barthes was inspired by the ideas of Marxism, existentialism, the “new novel”, “theater of the Absurd” and the stage ideas of Bertolt Brecht, the author of the theory of the “epic theater”, which had a strong influence on the development of theatrical art of the twentieth century. It was then that Roland Barthes published his critical articles on the life of the French theater scene in the magazine “Théâtre populaire”, the newspapers “Les Lettres nouvelles” and “Le Nouvel Observateur”.

A selected collection of those articles has been published in “On the Theater” by Ad Marginem. In addition, the collection includes the text “Pronounce Racine” (the still not translated into Russian part of the book “On Racine”) and a review of Jean Vilar‘s play “King Ubu”.

This edition is interesting by the opportunity to get acquainted with Barthes’s position as a theater lover, and not exclusively a philosopher – this is obvious. It is also obvious that his interests of this period are especially mention here. However, this book is not limited only to this but it will be also extremely useful for people working with writing texts: translators, critics, journalists, bloggers, copywriters, etc. Reading Barthes’s articles, we’ll is amazed at his skill at recreating the images of performances and expressing his point of view (which is far from always positive and supporting the performance) – this needs to be learned, grabbing for ourselves his tricks and phrases. Surprisingly, more than 60 years have passed, these productions can no longer be seen, but understanding of the object of Barthes’s speech exists.

When reading, I recommend working with a pencil or a highlighter – you will want to pick them up from the first pages. If the book is borrowed from someone or it belongs to the library, keep notes in paper or electronic form. At the time of reading the book, I did not have such an opportunity. So I regret about that

some ideas from the book:

Usually an actor does not play beyond a hint.


Only one the theater is good – where the viewer creates the performance himself.


The bourgeois hall is a confessional, where they simultaneously excite each other and present spiritual lessons.


We are sure that one omission can ruin the whole performance, like a straw is the finest steel, and that, for example, a mistake with costumes in the Zinn, despite the play of Vilar, has a corrupting effect on the whole performance.


It is customary to say: “It is wonderfully played.” You won’t say anything else besides miraculously, but is it played “truely”?


What is theatricality? This is a theater minus the text, this is a group of sensations and signs, built on the stage on the basis of what is written, and this is a special kind of simultaneous perception of sensory influences – gestures, tones, distances, material substances, lighting effects – in which the text is immersed in the fullness of the manifestations of this external language. Naturally, theatricality should be present in the work initially, it is a condition for its creation, and not for stage performance. Great theater is impossible without all-pervasive theatricality.


Brecht’s detail is a picture inside the picture; It is designed for instant reading.

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