Gestic Language

It seems ‘natural’ to assume that we choose the words we speak. But even the words we speak are controlled by grammar and syntax: we share a system that makes us understood to others. So, our speech isn’t quite a spontaneous as it might at first seem. In addition, however, the words we use are also part of a system – there are words that tell other’s about our background, our attitudes to others, what is permissible to say and what is not. And on top of this, there are often times when we don’t choose our words, but we respond with familiar formulations, stock phrases or clichés.

It is thus worth considering how language is related to social status and to subject the words figures  speak to the same kind of analysis as their actions. Just as a body can have a Gestus , so can one’s language.

Performance can make language seem less natural through the use of stylization. Sentences may be stressed in unusual ways to pick out key words obscured in conventional delivery, but there are other options available to practitioners, too. Consider the practice used by some people to highlight the presence of an idea or phrase that isn’t theirs in a sentence: they raise both hands and allow the index and middle finger in each hand to move up and down, suggesting quotations marks.

So, how might actors signal a sense that their speech is also a kind of quotation, taken from the language of their class, occupation, age or other context? The use of a particular gesture and/or posture, used as a recurring and/or varied physical motif in a production, can put speech into metaphorical quotation marks and thus draw attention to lines that could otherwise be delivered naturally.

There are benefits to this approach in a Brechtian theatre. As an example of Verfremdung, the familiar is made strange, potentially arousing audience curiosity. Spectators may speculate on why a line has been treated in a particular way or, more broadly, why a figure speaks in a series of contradictory ways.

An additional advantage is to relativize what is said on stage. Often, figures may deliver lines that appear to have a universal meaning, something applicable in all manner of situations. The production, on the contrary, might want to signal that something that sounds all-encompassing actually has a narrower meaning. Take, for example, the figure of Larry in Closer. Towards the end of the play, having loved and lost the two female figures, he reflects: ‘Everyone learns, nobody changes’. This line may indeed sum up what has happened in the play, or it may not. Regardless, the line could possibly sum up the actions so far, but the director of this Brechtian production wanted the audience to question the line and its sentiments as the kind of line a jaded and bruised person might use, thus limiting the line’s applicability. At this point , the actor playing Larry, who was sitting on a park bench at the time, crossed one leg over the other, and extended his arm, that was holding a cigarette. Once the line was delivered, he went back to legs side-by-side and cigarette lowered. The movement in and out of the posture served the same purpose as the ‘quotation marks’ gesture, with a crucial caveat: when someone makes the ‘quotation marks’ gesture, they are aware that they are quoting words or phrases. Larry doesn’t necessarily adopt the posture to signal that he’s speaking ironically, indeed, he appears to be quite sincere. The production, on the other hand, wants to signal that this is the kind of line someone like Larry might say, so that it is like a quotation, to be spoken by an aging, middle-aged, middle-class man reflecting on his inability to form a meaningful relationship.

Highlighting the gestic aspect of language, that is, its connection to its many contexts, helps to relativize what is being said by all the figures on stage, historicizing their words, making them striking and provoking the audience to question what is being said on stage.


BRECHT IN PRACTICE - Copyright 2017 © Prof. David Barnett | All Rights Reserved

David Barnett
Professor of Theatre
University of York