For generations scholars, philosophers and critics alike have squabbled over the technicalities of Semiotics, in fact among semioticians themselves ‘there is relatively little agreement’ in regard to the ‘scope and methodology of semiotics’ (Chandler, 2017) nonetheless, its contribution to the decoding of theatre has been an invaluable, and so, it would be prudent, to begin with the simplest of classifications. Semiotics has been said to encompass a dedication to ‘the study of the production of meaning in society’ (Elam, 2002) as a scrutiny of signs, it is also concerned with the processes of signification and communication. Although signs can take many forms, ranging from words, movements, colours and so forth, Elam goes on to say that ‘such things have no intrinsic meaning’ and thus only become signs when imbued with meaning by individuals. This desire to explore and make sense of the world around us is present from an early age, in fact ‘we seem as a species to be driven by a desire to make meanings: above all, we are surely homo significans’ (Chandler, 2007). The production of meaning is achieved through our creation and interpretation of said signs as ‘homo significans’ or ‘meaning makers’ in relation to our own socially or culturally entrenched sign-systems. Therefore, it is crucial to acknowledge that semiotics has the potential to be problematic in its polysemy, for example, the nodding of one’s head is perceived as ‘yes’ in the United Kingdom but in Bulgaria nodding means no (Angelova, 2017).
Despite this capability for confusion, a semiological analysis is invaluable as it enables a spectator to begin make sense of a performance, through the deciphering of a set of socially entrenched sign-systems and codes. Therefore, in this essay, I will apply a semiological lens to my analysis of Gecko’s ‘The Arab and The Jew’ directed by Amit Lahav and Allel Nedjari, focusing primarily on Charles Saunders Pierce’s categorisation of signs as: symbols, icons and indexes, and their relationship to key moments in the piece. Before one can grasp the depth of the piece and analyse it successfully, one must first understand the context behind it.
‘The Arab and The Jew’ was co-commissioned by Drum Theatre Plymouth, Lyric Hammersmith, New Wolsey Theatre and Tabaco Factory (Gecko, 2017) and revolves around two men on opposite sides of the Arab-Israeli divide. This play is arguably the most political of Geckos work to date – calling upon the long history of conflict between the Jewish and Arab people, Israeli born creative director Lahav and Nedjari of Albanian origin, have a special insight into the characters they portray and the issues and history between their people. Best explained by Lewin in the journal of Cogent Social Sciences, the primary issue between the two parties is due to nationalist movements at the turn of the century’Both the Jewish and Palestinian national movements materialized at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century respectively, inspired by a mixture of modern European nationalism and religious, historical roots. As part of their consolidation both movements claimed full legitimate rights over the entire land under dispute; both movements denied each other’s legitimate rights for national self-determination and, most importantly, each of the rival movements rejected the other’s right to become a political entity within the boundaries of the disputed land’. (Lewin, 2017)When one combines the rise of Arab-nationalism and Zionism with the long history of war, violence and religious tension – a sensory whirlwind featuring few words but plenty of evocative imagery, is born. To contextualise Peirce’s model, one must first be familiar with Charles Saussure’s model of the sign which is dyadic, consisting of the signifier and the signified.
The signifier acts as ‘the material phenomenon we are able to perceive – the sound of a word, such as “hello”; the wave of a hand – and the signified, which is the concept invoked by the signifier – the idea of a greeting, for instance’ (Fortier, 1997). Saussure was predominantly concerned with the linguistic aspect of the sign, with a keen focus on the spoken word as a signifier or ‘image acoustique’ and held a secondary interest in the system of written signs. Although the Saussurean system has been somewhat modernised and used in a way which strives to encompass all material phenomena – I believe its firm dependency on the spoken work alienates performances such as ‘The Arab and the Jew’ which rely heavily on visual stimulus. In contrast, Peirce’s model of the sign is triadic – focusing on three main groupings, the first of which I wish to explore is that of the symbol or ‘representamen’. The symbol refers to a signifier (material phenomena) which does not directly resemble the signified, but whose relationship to one another is merely conventional and thus must be learned or taught – the clearest example of this would be a traffic light. Though certain moments of the piece, such as the two men gyrating and salivating in their seats at a strip club, failed to fit cohesively with the rest of the narrative, the piece was otherwise fraught with mostly coherent scenes and signs one could classify as symbols. The most prominent of which was the recurrent appearance of the orange, which is first pulled by Nedjari from the depths of the sandpit in which the piece is predominantly set.
Though the prop closely resembles a real orange and could, therefore, be categorised as an icon, it would be reasonable to classify it as a symbol due to the complex history and metaphor surrounding it. To provide background to this, orange production was a key point of Arab- Israeli cooperation in Palestine during the early to mid-nineteenth century, with orange groves employing Jewish, Arab and Christian workers alike. As one of the world’s leading producers of citrus fruits, the need for cooperation was so immense that in 1948 a treaty of non-aggression was signed between two cities’concerning the orange groves between Jaffa – a predominantly Arab city – and Tel Aviv – a predominantly Jewish city – in the midst of the war. These plantations were not to be attacked in order for harvest and exports to continue. This delicate balance was broken when members of the Haganah Jewish armed militia started conducting random attacks on the area despite Tel Aviv municipal authorities’ and Jaffa’s efforts to establish a modus Vivendi’ (Bahmed, 2013).Nedjari is depicted as anchored to the land and his family, the main vehicle used to achieve this portrayal is the presence of the orange tree, in fact, throughout the entirety of the piece ‘the Arab’s sensual, familial bond to the land is contrasted with the Jew’s sense of spiritual entitlement’ to fortify ideas of conflict and ownership rights.
(Logan, 2008). One scene begins with Allel settled down in an underground shisha lounge, smoking and conversing animatedly with patrons until a phone rings. Things quieten down as he listens intently to the speaker, they exchange words as an Arabic lament begins to play and crescendo, drowning out the conversation. An orange tree appears. The music then shifts to a joyful tune and Allel’s sadness dissipates as he begins to dance and celebrate being blessed with this gift.
The softened lighting, swelling music, and the character’s pure euphoria culminated in a visually and aurally impressive spectacle in which the orange symbolism was the focus. This symbol continued to be used and strengthened throughout the piece, in one such instance Amit takes the fruit from Allel, ripping it into pieces in an attempt to share, leading the two break out in an explosive argument. This was thusly reminiscent of the broken treaty between the Arab and Jewish people back in the days of old Palestine, and the scene, therefore, spoke of betrayal and misunderstanding above all else. This sign is a symbol of both cooperation and disunity, yet one can only define the orange a such if one has been taught its history and significance – herein lies the somewhat abstruse application of a semiotic analysis. Pierce’s second classification of a sign – the ‘icon’ was briefly mentioned previously and is a significant concept. The icon can be understood ‘as a sign that has with its object a relation of similitude or similarity, not requiring the actual reality of such object for its possible meaning’ (Elam, 2002), in short, it refers to a signifier which resembles, is similar to, or imitates the signified. Notably, though the term ‘icon’ may be misleading, the signifier need not be visual and can include sounds, smells, tastes and physical sensations (touch) in addition to visual cues.
Following the appearance of the orange tree, Allel and Amit broke out into a furious quarrel in which keywords were shrewdly replaced with the sounds of gunfire and explosions, this served to create an air of tension and hostility which required little effort required from one as a spectator. Thus, is the nature of the icon, it is the least ambiguous of Peirce’s classifications, for the semblance of the signifier to the signified assures will be easily decoded, in other words, it ‘makes explicit what in the symbol was only implicit’ (Hull & Atkins, 2017). However, confusion can arise due to the fact that signs have the potential to fall into more than one classification which complicates how one interprets meaning.
An ‘index’ is Peirce’s third classification of a sign and tends to be awkward in its definition and use, for it, much like that of the ‘symbol’ is nuanced by ‘homo-significans’. Put simply, an index is a term used to describe a relationship which is not arbitrary between signifier and signified, but which has a direct connection. This relation can be experiential or contingent, instances of this include: ‘natural signs’, ‘medical symptoms’, ‘signals’, ‘recordings’ and ‘personal ‘trademarks’ (Chandler, 1994). In ‘The Arab and The Jew’, one of the most prominent uses of an icon is that of a telephone call between Allel and his father which takes place in the shisha-lounge. Nedjari is sat amongst hubbub of the lounge which is soon silenced by the shrill ring of the rotary phone and the spotlight placed upon it, this icon can be sub-categorised as a signal as it clearly articulates to the audience that someone wishes to speak to the character.
In this case the ring of the telephone is the signifier and directly links to the signified, the notion that someone wishes to speak to Allel. When he picks up the phone, we learn that the caller is his father who solemnly says ‘I need to tell you things you need to know…about yourself…about me. I was born here; the trees grew over the house…my father’s house’ (Gecko, 2017).
The use of his father’s voice is an icon in of itself, and useful as it ‘forces the attention to the particular object intended without describing it’ (Kristeva, et al., 1971). Working as both a recording and a personal trademark, this icon adds further gravitas to themes of land ownership and conflict between the Arab and Jewish people by highlighting the extent of the conflict which has persisted for generations. The Guardian review posits that ‘the show articulates little but expresses a lot’ (Logan, 2008) and one would be hard pressed to disagree, ‘The Arab and the Jew’ presents a visual delight that speaks of war, entitlement and the struggle to find common ground without relying heavily on spoken word.
The main way in which one makes sense of these themes is by utilising Peirce’s approach to Semiotics. Symbols, icons and indexes work in triadic harmony to convey Lahav’s and Nedjari’s struggles, allowing one as a spectator to piece together the complex relationship between both communities. However, it would be thoughtless to assume Pierce’s model is faultless, though his archetypal classifications are useful in an initial analysis of a piece, one could argue that the lack of firm boundaries causes a blurring of the lines in which the three types of a sign become muddled. When combined with unclear moments in a performance, Peirce’s concept of the triadic model, while effective in theory, is wanting in practice and would benefit from modernisation – either by expanding definitions or imposing restrictions.