Conventions (theatre)

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Convention(s) is used to refer to the stated or tacit agreement to describe events in the theatre in a particular way. The agreement comes about by logical necessity and not because the audience merely chooses to be helpful. It is not simply a matter of condescending to describe events on the stage in a particular way. Rather, the audience is obliged to describe what is before them so that they may share in a mutual understanding about the meaning of the event.

Because theatre conventions are sometimes customary the terms ‘convention’ and ‘custom’ are often used synonymously but this promotes a grammatical error. New theatre conventions are being created with each new production but a new custom is oxymoronic (see Creating Conventions below).


In his Poetics, Aristotle notes that the medium of theatre is language. The theatre of Western societies evolved from the story telling practices of early Greeks. Its primitive mode was oral versification, a practice that enhanced the spoken word and aided memorization. The dialogue expressed by the characters in the story was spoken by a story teller who may have altered his voice to maintain an understanding as to who was speaking and when. The Greeks incorporated this practice into their religious rituals and the story teller became a chorus which spoke in harmony. Theatre came into its own when the chorus was joined by an ‘answerer’ called hypokrites. Today ‘hypokrites’ is understood to mean ‘actor’. As a result, dialogue was shared between two distinct entities but, eventually, more actors were added and the chorus (story teller) became obsolete. The dialogue was performed by the actors.

The imperative nature of theatre conventions

To be precise, theatre is a language game. It comes into being as a result of imperative conventions. Conventions presuppose the applications of language. Imperative conventions are the ‘given’; audiences are forced to accept them if they wish to participate in the game. Strange as it may seem, the conventions of theatre are not created as enticement. Rather they must be so constructed as to offer no choice. It is this imperative aspect of conventions that is the guide when there is a question about the integrity of the piece we are viewing.

A convention entails a description; it is how the world is described and how the world is described determines the game that is played. If you take a moment to describe to what is before you, say your desk and all it contains or the wall facing you, you must necessarily believe what you have described (else why describe it that way?). This is what is meant by the phrase ‘seeing is believing’. The point is that the description is not imperative. It has not been forced upon you. A person in the room with you may also describe the event or phenomenon you are describing but use different language (words). This person’s description may be as correct as yours though you both have described the event differently. Each of you would be holding different beliefs (each correct) about what is before you though ‘what is before you’ is the same phenomenon for each.

Imagine for a moment, that you are watching a production in the theatre and you have with you a friend who has never heard of the theatre. Your friend has never witnessed an event that was crafted for audiences to watch and has no understanding of such things as purposeful entertainment. No doubt such a friend would describe what you both are watching very differently from the way you describe it. There would be very little that would be common to the experience that you each had; there would be very little that you could share. Indeed, should the entire audience be comprised of persons such as your friend, the actors on the stage would have no way of collectively communicating with them. It is only as a result of the actors sharing a common vocabulary and abiding by common set of language rules with the audience that they can ensure that communication takes place. It is only by knowing how their audiences will describe their work that practitioners of the theatre are able to determine their success and vice versa. The practitioners of theatre must have a way to oblige the audience to describe ‘what they see’ the way they want them to ‘see it’. They must share an understanding of ‘what was seen’ with their audiences if communication is to take place. They must share a common reality.

Theatre audiences are willing participants. They welcome the opportunity to share an understanding of the event they are watching. They necessarily seek out the imperative description but they require guidance. They look to the practitioners to show them the way. For example, suppose you go to watch a production of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker. You are told in the program notes and in the front of the script that the play takes place in “A house in London”. Obviously what is on stage before you is not a house in London. You may be sitting in the audience in New York, Rome, Sydney, Paris of anywhere but London. And even if you are in London, what is before you is a room, not a house and it is in a theatre. But if you wish to enjoy Pinter’s play you must accept this convention (description). You must describe what is before you as a room in a house in London. This is imperative; it is forced upon you for you would be confused about ‘where’ the action was taking place if you did not accept this ‘given’. It is necessary to an understanding of the characters in this play that the audience be able to locate them. It is necessary to the plot of this play that the audience understand it to be taking place in an old house. The audience is forced to accept the postulates of the play if it wishes to share an understanding with the practitioners of the play.

But let us imagine that the practitioners are not very adept. The room does not look like it is in a dilapidated house. It is well constructed and freshly painted and everything in it is tidy and seems to be stored in a place of its own. The house could not possibly be described the way the author wished it to described and the characters in this play would obviously be foreign to their environment. In a situation such as this, the practitioners of this piece of theatre would be corrupting the very convention (description) the author was trying to force upon his or her audience. Seeing is believing, remember. Though the audience may, with good will, wish the practitioners success, they cannot ignore the obvious contradiction before them. They may be inexperienced theatregoers and not recognize the contradiction, but theatre practitioners are not allowed to presume their audience is inexperienced. They must not count on the audience making a mistake and not recognizing their errors of judgment. The convention that ought to have been forced upon them has been corrupted. The ‘if’ rule applies here. If it is a dilapidated house it must look like (be able to be described as) a dilapidated house. (It is not unusual to discover a play that is normally produced with a set but is performed in front of black curtains. Black is subtractive and allows the audience to project an environment onto it without contradiction. It allows a convention to be maintained.)

Obviously the above example is simplified and does not require the audience to be very astute to discern the contradiction but there are many times when informed theatre goers are not able to describe what they see in the ‘conventional terms’ (language) of theatre. Most often this is the practitioners’ responsibility. Many of the difficulties confronting experimental theatre practitioners would be quickly resolved if they heeded the precept that the audience must be forced to describe the events it sees. Much experimental theatre tends to be outside of the mainstream of theatre practice. Audiences who regularly go to experimental productions do not expect to use the established conventions of theatre; they go to such productions because they believe they will be confronted with new experiences which require new conventions. Of course, merely doing something different or strange does not guarantee that new conventions will be created. Practitioners are required to give all members of the audience the information they need to correctly describe what they see. Consider this description of an informed theatre goer:

The performers split into little groups and bound and gesticulate about in amorphous imitations of modern dance. They strut, leap and yell in various distorted voices. Much of the shouting is done into the plywood walls or, prone, into the floorboards. There is no attempt at maintaining character; just after the Prince has been tortured, he turns into a living wind machine and provides wind sounds by which the others can be buffeted about. The prince is finally killed, but his spirit (or in this windy context more accurately, perhaps, his breath) conquers his slayers. I cannot give a more detailed account because (a) hanging over the railing and sandwiched between bodies, I was in no position to take notes; and (b) I was so dumfounded by the infantilism and coarseness of the proceedings that sheer amazement kept me from even trying.

Though this description is as convention laden as any can be, the conventions used are prosaic. They document an historical event rather than a fictional one. It is clear this theatre goer could not understand the proceedings in established theatre terms. This theatre goer had no means of evaluating the craft of the performers because the hypothesis given could not be resolved by given rules. If the prince is killed how or why does he come back to life? If he does not come back to life, who is the actor portraying? Is the actor, now, not attempting to portray a person? How are we to describe this actor? Is the actor merely a sound effect? Are we supposed to understand the actor to be a good wind machine? What craft are we evaluating?

Jerzy Grotowski, director of The Constant Prince by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, which was described above by New York theatre critic John Simon, was famous for his experimental works in theatre. Grotowski resisted the idea that theatre is a composite of disciplines. Grotowski’s theatre was an esoteric theatre. He created a primitive theatre and called it a ‘poor theatre’; a theatre that had conventions known only to the initiated. The conventions of Grotowski’s theatre did not rely on public criteria. Rather, the criteria for understanding and evaluating his theatre were spawned by a personal and somewhat private view of what theatre should be. For Grotowski, art is a personal encounter between performer and audience. In this view audience members are subjects to be shocked, jolted or in some way surreptitiously infected by the performance. In no sense are they to have an intellectual experience.

Failure to attend to theatre conventions has caused much confusion and many arguments among theatre practitioners. It has also prevented the lay person, who wishes only to be a member of the audience, from grasping the framework for appreciating theatre; evaluating theatre on its own terms, using the rules contained within it rather than those imposed from the outside.

Theatre conventions and illusion

In his play Jumpers Tom Stoppard has his central character George Moore relate a story about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who meets a friend in a corridor and asks: “Tell me, why do people always say it was natural for men to assume that the sun went round the earth rather than that the earth was rotating?” His friend said, “Well obviously, because it just looks as if the sun is going round the earth.” To which the philosopher replied, “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth was rotating?”

The point the fictional Wittgenstein is making demonstrates an apt illustration on how theatre is understood. Though many may be prepared to show that the sun does not rotate around the earth others still describe the sun as ‘rising’, ‘crossing overhead’ and ‘setting’ on the horizon. It is seldom ever questioned that this is a false description of the event. Should someone insist that the horizon was turning away from the sun,romantics might be disposed to tell him to mind his own business. Though the interjector's argument could not be disputed, it might be insisted that the false description of the event allows for an aesthetic understanding rather than an astronomical understanding.

Central to people's aesthetic pleasure is a fundamental illusion; a false belief about the reality of the situation brought about by a desire to describe the movements of the earth and sun in a way that is pleasing to them. The agreement to describe the world in this way is a convention and it is no less valid than its contrary for that is also a convention. Which convention is used predicates the users experience and the information obtained.

Theatre, like the setting sun, is a fundamental illusion and just as people may avoid describing the sun as setting and preventing themselves from participating in the illusion, they may also describe a performance on the stage in a manner that would prevent them from experiencing its illusion. This was, in part, the difficulty John Simon experienced when trying to describe The Constant Prince. Simon resorted to prosaic conventions because he was not forced to describe the event otherwise; he was not provided with a ‘given’. Part of the reason for this is that Grotowski was trying to work outside of illusion. It is part of the premise of his work that illusion is not fundamental to theatre.

The work of experimental theatre practitioners such as Grotowski is important to understanding theatre. Attempts to extend or dismantle the boundaries of theatre provide valuable clues that aid in describing theatre. Experimenters teach the limits of the form.

It is not unusual to discover some theatre practitioners, who are not experimenters who misunderstand the role of illusion in theatre and how conventions work. For example, some very famous practitioners have insisted that we do not believe the characters on the stage to be real but we are, however, obliged to believe Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth to be as ‘real’ as our sunsets and a failure to acknowledge this has promoted many faulty theatre practices.

A few years a go a group of actors staged a production of Joe Orton’s The Ruffian on the Stair. The play requires that one character menace another with a gun and eventually shoot him. Surprisingly, the actor used what was clearly a toy cap pistol. Though the weapon had much of the detail of an actual gun it was unmistakably a toy. The actor, when questioned on this point, argued that the audience would accept the toy as actual; they would describe the gun as real because that was how they understood it. The actor insisted that it was merely a convention and the audience would go along with it. No doubt some members of the audience may go along with such a corruption and say something to the effect: “Oh, I understand. That toy cap pistol is supposed to be an actual gun.” but this is not the way theatre conventions work. Conventions in theatre work by imperatives and imperative to the above example is that whatever else the audience may care to admit, it must admit that what it saw was not an actual gun. The illusion had been corrupted. It is not part of the illusion of theatre to describe the character of Wilson as having been killed by a toy pistol that is supposed to be understood to be an actual gun. The actor countered with the argument that most actors use a replica weapon on stage which is not an actual gun. Why was their action correct and his faulty? The actor failed to understand that, in the latter case the audience had no information from the stage that allowed them to describe what was used as a replica. The audience had no choice but to describe it as an actual gun. Individually, some members of the audience may have suspected that what was being used was a replica which would not fire an actual cartridge but this suspicion was not based on any information received from the production. It was not based on any information the director and actors had control over.

It is not unusual in comedies that authors and directors deliberately corrupt conventions for the purposes of satire. In Mil Perrin’s light little comedy called The Flaw one character threatens to kill another with a cap pistol. The victim replies: “But that’s a cap gun!” To this his assailant retorts: “So what? This is only a play!” The pistol is fired and the victim falls to the floor in a manner that can only be described as ‘having been killed’. The way the victim falls, clutching his chest, forces the description onto the audience who respond with laughter as they recognize the deliberate corruption of a convention.


There seems little reason to doubt that the first entertainers to rely on dramatic convention were the poet/mimes that strolled from town to town during the sixth and fifth century B.C. Using selected items of costume and perhaps a wig or two, the mime would set up shop (which consisted of a stool and a shade cloth) in the plaza of a town and act out his dialogues and monologues playing all the roles (the silent mime is a relatively new phenomenon). From the extant mimes available (mostly those of Herondas who lived during the third century B.C.) it is clear that the performer’s gestures and movements forced the audience to describe the mime’s activity so that it complimented the dialogue and completed the performance piece. Unlike his literary counterpart, the rhapsode, who was a narrative poet, the mime performs his poems and his audiences were forced to accept the conventions of time, place, character, situation and motive offered up to them. The success of the mime depended on how deftly he was able to supply his audience with the information needed to understand the performance. The mime relied upon the conventions of language use, how we describe certain activities and he may well have exaggerated his gestures and movements so that the appropriate description would be applied. The poet/mime also realized the need to write dialogue so that the audience would quickly grasp the situation.

The poet that is traditionally credited with having introduced the actor into the theatre was the poet/mime Thespis. Prior to introducing the actor into the dithyramb (a poem accompanied by a dance), Thespis had gained a reputation touring the countryside in a cart giving performances in which he wore a number of linen masks allowing him to portray several roles. The extant mimes available to us are comic in style but there is no reason to suppose all mimes were written for bathos. No doubt there were many that engendered pathos and were easily transposed to accommodate the seriousness of the dithyramb. The result was tragedy and its performance conventions were well established in the minds of its new audience. When and where the action of a play took place was established by conventions that were forced upon the audience. Aeschylus, like many writers to follow, used the text to establish his convention of time and place as he does at the beginning of the AGAMEMNON:

Oh God, for an end to this weary work.
A year long I have watched here, head on
arm, crouched like a dog on Agamemnon’s
roof. The stars of night have kept me company.
I know them all, and when they rise and set.
Those that bring winter’s cold and summer’s head –
for they have power, those bright things in the sky.
And what I watch for is a beacon fire,
A flash of flame to bring the word from Troy,
Word that the town has fallen.

The scene is set, though the play is performed in an open theatre in broad daylight, the audience must accept that the action begins at night at Agamemnon’s palace else what follows will make little sense. The convention of time and place is imperative; it has been forced upon the audience. All conventions in the theatre work in much the same way and the failure to follow this in practice is one of the ways we evaluate a performance. For example, if the actor playing the watchman should conduct himself in a manner that demonstrated he was not convinced it was night or that he was not on the roof of Agamemnon’s palace then he has deliberately or inadvertently corrupted the published convention of the author. If it is inadvertent we describe the actor as lacking skill but if it is clearly deliberate then we must weigh this activity to evaluate what contribution it makes to the overall production. In this way we determine whether the actor has made a good or bad choice.

The fundamental conventions of theatre set up the premises or ‘given circumstances’ of a production and though they may not all be established at the opening of a performance, no dialogue or activity is allowed to misinform the audience prior to the conventions becoming clear. In many contemporary plays the conventions of time and place are often announced in the program notes rather than in the text partly because it takes a great deal of skill to include such things in the dialogue without it sounding contrived.

Another convention that is distinctly a theatre convention devised by the promoters of Greek tragedy and still very much in use today concerns the ekkylema. The term ekkyklema has a double meaning, as a verb and as a noun. As a verb it means revealing an action or activity. As a noun it is used as a label for the device that allows this action to come about. The ekkylema involves a low flat cart on which a new scene is presented to the audience. In the Hippolytus, when Phaedra is rolled out, the scene changes to the interior of Theseus’ palace. The convention is that we describe this scene as a new or different time and or place. The trolley or truck used to create the ekkyklema is still used today for much the same purpose in many proscenium theatres. Technology has given birth to a larger example of the ekkyklema known as the revolving stage. Just as a revolving stage forces us to describe the scene anew, so did the ekkyklema force a new description onto Greek theatre goers.

If it is remembered that a convention is what allows the audience to realize what takes place before them, it will be easier to understand why some scholars consider it something of a misnomer to refer to Greek Drama as non-realistic. It is the use of convention that allows us to recognize all dramas as realistic. Peter Walcot insists that ‘…the Greeks were not conscious that their dramas were ‘non-realistic’ or in anyway not true to life.” Greek dramas were realistic to the Greeks just as they are to modern audiences.

Types of dramas (unlike the genres of drama) are most often distinguished by the manner of presentation, (the treatment of a production) and categorized by such terms as ‘realism’, surrealism’ and expressionism, etc. It is not unimportant that today it is possible to stage Greek tragedy in any manner we choose though it may not be successful. ‘Realism’, for instance, merely means that the manner of presentation (production techniques, staging, set and costume design) require us to apply prosaic conventions for an understanding of the play. The audience need not have an understanding of a special or esoteric theatre convention in order to realize the play. This is, perhaps, one reason why modern and classical plays staged in the manner of realism are so popular with audiences. They need no particular formal education to grasp the given circumstances. The term, realism, however, should not be confused with the term ‘realistic’ for the latter may not include the former. Using realism we are obliged to describe the stage as we see it. In non-realism we may describe it as something other than what is visually before us. Both descriptions would be realistic. The task of theatre practitioners is to so construct what is before us that we will apply the appropriate description.

Though much of Shakespeare is written in verse his plays are realistic. But we cannot understand a character speaking in verse with the same conventions we understand people in daily life. We do, however, describe speaking in verse as a natural phenomenon; part of the nature of the character we are witnessing. There would be no way we could understand Shakespeare’s major characters if we did not describe their speech as natural. We would have no way of accounting for the fact that they speak in verse. In this sense, our description of Shakespeare’s verse is much like our description of the movements of the sun and the earth. We describe the sun as setting and we describe the verse as natural to satisfy our artistic sensibilities.

The imperative characteristic of conventions can be clearly seen by analyzing the special theatre convention known as the ‘aside’. An aside takes place when two or more characters are present on stage and one of them speaks to himself or the audience and the other characters are described as not hearing and/or not seeing the event. The very nature of the aside requires that the other characters do not acknowledge it for to do so would provoke an entirely different order of events. By the same token the audience must describe the other characters as having not heard or seen the aside taking place else their following responses will not be understandable. In Euripides’ Hecuba the Trojan queen addresses herself in the presence of Agamemnon:

You poor wretch – I mean myself when I say ‘you’ –
Hecuba, what am I to do? Am I to fall at the knees
of Agamemnon here or should I bear my troubles in silence?

In this scene Agamemnon recognizes that Hecuba is wrapped in her own thoughts but he is not allowed to be described as hearing what she speaks though an audience of thousands hears it clearly.

Similar asides exist in Old and New comedy and are common in the works of Shakespeare and Nineteenth century Melodrama. In each instance we must describe onlookers as not hearing else we have no way of explaining their failure to respond to the speaker of the aside. The description is forced on us by the nature of the proceeding events which would be very questionable but for the convention we use. The audience need not describe other characters confronted with an aside as hearing but not acknowledging the aside unless they demonstrate this as the case.

Much like the example of the character who menaced another with a toy pistol, the audience cannot be expected to ignore a dominating convention in favor of a less dominating one. The goodwill the audience brings into the theatre is the catalyst that develops the convention but it will not allow the audience to ignore the corruptions it confronts. Audiences will freely allow their imaginations to add to a performance but they cannot be expected to ignore or take away what is concretely before them. The audience does not ignore the ekkyklema used to create a new scene anymore than it need ignore theatre lights or the proscenium arch with its legs and borders. Nor is the use of spectacular effects in the theatre intended to deceive or trick an audience. On the contrary, the audience appreciates an effect that is well accomplished. We all know that the thunder in King Lear is artificial. The audience is never expected to confuse the lighting effect that demonstrates rain with inclement weather in the auditorium. It is not expected that an audience ignore the many devices that are used in theater anymore than we would be expected to ignore the using of darker ink or larger typeface in the writing of this text. There need be no convention applied to a rain effect other than its correct description. This is true of many of the devices used in the theatre. As long as the device or effect does not distract from what is taking place on stage it has served its function. Devices in the theatre are appreciated much like the devices in a modern kitchen. When they work we welcome their contribution. When they do not, we scorn their existence.

The quality of a production is a direct result of how we are obliged to describe it; the theatre conventions we must use. Much as a blight on an apple may not influence its taste but will lessen its quality, so too, may a corruption lessen the quality of a production. A corruption of a convention is a blight; a flaw that prevents integration of the ideas of the production. As a result, the production becomes awkward, heavy-handed. It is often described as being contrived. Such a contrivance is always the result of a convention that has no imperative claim within the given circumstances. It is always something of a non sequitur.

Creating conventions

Writers on theatre have promoted a great deal of misunderstanding as a result of confusing ‘customs’ with ‘conventions’. The problem comes about as a result of what linguists call a category mistake. A custom is always a regular or ritual practice such as shaking hands when greeting someone or when one person walks on the curb side of the street while escorting another. Presenting theatre in broad daylight was a custom. Conventions need not be a regular practice. Indeed, this is what allows directors and actors the freedom to create new conventions in the theatre. Though similar to conventions, customs play a different role in society and in the theatre. Calling a custom a convention is like calling 30.48 centimeters a metric foot. 30.48 centimeters is a measure that is equivalent to a foot but it is not the same measure. We may measure the theatre by its customs or we may measure the theatre by its conventions and though we are often covering the same ground they are two different measures and will yield different results. A convention is always language-centered. It is how we describe our world. A custom is behavior-centered. It is how we regularly conduct an activity in our world. In Western societies the shaking of hands is described as a gesture of good will. The description, ‘gesture of good will’ is the convention. The shaking of hands is merely a custom.

When we wish to create new conventions in the theatre we must so organize events that a new description is forced onto the audience. In Peter Shaffer’s realism play, Equus, six horses dominate the stage and vivify the play but there were no actual horses used on the stage (this was not the case with the film). The text requires that the horses be actual rather than imagined. The author, recognizing the difficulty of using actual horses on the stage, forced a convention onto his audience. Six adults wearing gleaming wire frames, each outlining the head of a horse, dressed in nondescript costumes and wearing raised shoes allowing them to sway and stamp in graceful equine movements obliged their audiences to describe them as horses. It was a classic example of how theatre conventions work and it worked superbly. The play is about a seventeen year old boy’s psychological attachment to horses and would have failed had the technique of the dancer/mimes, who portrayed the horses, shown a flaw and forced a contrary description onto the audience. The dancer/mimes must camouflage their own personalities and shape and force the audience to project a description upon them. The audience needed no preparation to accept this convention. If they wanted to participate in the theatre they had to oblige. They could deny the convention only by showing it to be corrupt; by showing another convention that was imperative and negated the former; by showing how the dancer/mimes gave themselves away as human figures through their lack of control.

The medium of theatre is language. Conventions are the way we describe what we see or what takes place. Gestures require the applications of language (conventions) for understanding. We only understand of a gesture what we understand of the language of the speech community that creates it. A play that has no dialogue such as Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words I relies on language for its import as much as any other play. In order for audiences to comprehend what is taking place before them they must admit that they know how to describe the activities. If they are describing them as the performer and author wished, communication takes place as a result of language.