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Foregrounding and signification: a socio-semiotic approach to the plays of Sam Shepard

posted on 20.02.2017 by Mostafa Moghaddam, Nita
The interrelatedness of text and performance is a feature of semiotic approaches to drama and semioticians’ interest in processes of signification, decodification and interpretation. In recent years theater semioticians have turned their attention from texts to contexts, from descriptive and theoretical approaches towards socio-cultural methodologies that consider intertextuality as an important factor in the process of analysis. Dramatic texts are among the most complex of written works and highly sensitive to socio-cultural context. A dramatic text is ‘staged’ in readers’ imaginations, in contexts which may differ greatly from the playwright’s context. The interaction of real and not-real in the text, along with references to different sign-systems outside the written text, confronts readers with a complex and multifaceted but communicative semiosphere full of paradox. This thesis considers how dramatic texts anticipate and interact with this embedding of theater in context. In order to investigate the sophisticated dramatic writing by the contemporary American playwright, Sam Shepard, the thesis develops an eclectic semiotic approach based on a restricted Lotmanian notion of the semiosphere in the play world, as a simulacrum of the real world in which communication is possible between characters who are defined by their individual Mit-welts. Mit-welt is a term formulated specifically for this thesis to explain characters’ conceptualization of the world, how they model the outside world and respond to it within a play. The thesis uses Mit-welt to suggest that there is a socio-semiotic interaction which takes place because of the environments that characters ‘bring with them’ in their interaction with others. The thesis also recognizes the problem of dealing with primarily dramatic texts by reviving and extending the semiotic notion of foregrounding, which is used to analyze how the text embodies the playwright’s choices. In particular, this raises the issue of how stage directions function as a focalizing element of the text. This thesis argues that, rather than just being a thin metonymy of the complex signification of the performed text, stage directions are already important to the interpretive possibilities of a play and deserve greater attention than they normally receive. The second half of the thesis is an analysis of four plays by Sam Shepard from a semiotic perspective, concentrating on the dramatic texts as versatile and complex forms of communication. The four selected plays span the four decades of Shepard’s prolific writing career: The Unseen Hand (1969), Buried Child (1978), True West (1980) and Kicking a Dead Horse (2007). Shepard is a semiotically aware playwright whose plays have a distinctive richness in their use of sign-systems. The thesis demonstrates how Shepard makes innovative use of social, cultural and mythical codes in his plays. In them familiar elements of everyday life appear to co-exist paradoxically with defamiliarizing or hyper-real elements. The thesis argues that a new semiotic approach to the dramatic text can thus identify distinctive features of Shepard’s writing.


Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics


Faculty of Arts