Performance Degree Zero: Roland Barthes and the Theatre by Timothy Scheie (review)


Timothy Scheie’s book on the importance of the theatre in Roland Barthes’ oeuvre begins with what Scheie poses as an enigma: Barthes wrote frequently of the theatre at the beginning of his career and then ceased to do so, without comment, after 1960. Scheie argues that Barthes’ abandonment of the theatre reveals something important about the development of his thoughts and even about his life. Scheie also considers Barthes’ early theatrical criticism and later use of theatrical metaphors to be an under-considered aspect of the critic’s work. Performance Degree Zero is an ambitious work not so much because of what it argues, but because of its attempt to trace the theatre’s presence (or absence) during Barthes’ entire career as a writer, from roughly 1947 to 1980, through close readings of sections of most of his major works. The book also reviews the history of theatrical criticism in a more general way during a similar time period. Unfortunately, these goals are somewhat at odds with each other; Scheie’s subject is perhaps too narrow to merit a book-length study, while the amount of Barthes’ criticism and theatrical history he attempts to analyze is too broad.

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