Staging Perception : Theatricalities in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu
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Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27) abounds with references to the theatre, and its characters are often described in theatrical terms, as spectators and performers in the fictional universe of the novel. Critics have not overlooked this fact, and often regarded theatricality in À la recherche as synonymous with role-play and as something that comes to view in the contrived and artificial behaviour of the novel’s characters. By contrast, this thesis argues that, among the many roles that the theatre plays in Proust’s novel, the most significant ones are those that relate to perception. Exploring Proust’s evocation of the theatrical medium, theatricality, theatrical figures and constellations as means to convey the full complexity of perceptual experiences, Staging Perception presents several distinct yet interrelated arguments regarding the interplay of theatricality and perception in À la recherche. The thesis demonstrates that, in the Proustian universe, theatricality may be conceived as a mode of perception, and it also examines different forms of theatricalisation of Proust’s perceptual writing. It suggests, among other things, that the act of perception is subject to mise en scène in the narrative and that the device of the tableau enables Proust to mediate perceptual impressions by staging encounters between subjects and objects of perception. My research examines the nexus between theatricality and perception in À la recherche by combining detailed textual analysis of the novel with perspectives drawn from Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theory of perception, Denis Diderot’s tableau theory, Roland Barthes’s tableau criticism, and contemporary theatre theory. Thus, the thesis opens up a new and specifically theatrical domain within the expanding field of research that is currently working to unravel and illuminate the intricate interrelations between Proust’s (perceptual) writing and the arts. Raising the question of what the theatrical qualities of Proust’s writing may be, the thesis demonstrates that in order to fully appreciate how the narrative evokes and ‘re-imagines’ the theatrical experience, we must look beyond its explicit references to the theatre. I argue that the novel draws its theatrical qualities not primarily from Proust’s appropriation and use of dialogues (the mode of enunciation most intuitively associated with the theatre), but from a concept of spectatorship that turns out to be completely enmeshed in Proust’s writing of perception. The thesis suggests that the novel evokes the theatre as something like a model for staging perception as a mutually constitutive encounter between spectatorial and performing bodies of living presence, and that Proust deploys theatrical references as means to present his fictional universe as one whose shape and texture is created in and by way of the protagonists’ perceptual encounters with it. The thesis consists of six chapters. Chapter 1 examines the figure of the voyeur as a paradigmatic example of a staging perception in Proust’s À la recherche. Chapter 2 explores the novel’s concept of spectatorship in relation to three types of experience capable of transforming the world into a ‘theatre’: travel, love and the encounter with art. Chapter 3 discusses the device referred to in this thesis as the Proustian tableau in light of, among other things, Barthes’s criticism of the representational aesthetics that Diderot has inspired. Chapter 4 traces the historical development of Proust’s theatrical writing, juxtaposing examples from À la recherche and ‘Scénario’, a text from his first published work Les Plaisirs et les jours (1896). Chapter 5 explores Proust’s staging of encounters with inanimate objects in À la recherche. Examining his use of the figure of enchantment in qualifying the perception of interiors, the chapter brings out the ‘affective texture’ that our imagination and emotions give to the world that we bring to expression in the act of perception. In the sixth and final chapter of the thesis, I turn to the early drafts of what was to become the final episode of the novel, the ‘Bal de Têtes’. Here, I analyse how Proust’s use of the theatrical féerie – a genre that occupies a central place among the theatrical references in the novel – evolves from the drafts to the final version. While Proust’s evocation of the féerie is also discussed in Chapters 3-5, Chapter 6 considers the significance that this model had for him as he crafted the conclusion to his novel in order to help us see why, at the very end of À la recherche, the féerie is granted a leading role as a symbolic figure for our perception of life itself.