Symmetry in Theater and Literature

Robert Wilson and Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach

Theater and literature are difficult to discuss in terms of symmetry because, unlike science and the plastic arts, both trade so heavily in language. Language is dependent on a unidirectional grammar so the only truly symmetrical constructions are palindromes and typographic poetry. Even if one looks at symmetry on the level of phrases or paragraphs, it is virtually impossible to create precise mirror symmetries within a phrase or series of phrases without precipitating changes in meaning. A phrase is dependent on its context, so even the most symmetrical syntactic structures will appear asymmetrical due to their connotation and context. (see the short, symmetrical play Palindrama for an example of this).

As a result, any analysis of literary or dramatic forms must not look for exact symmetries but for moments where the works approach symmetry as clues to structure and meaning. As literary critic George Fayen puts it in his essay "Ambiguities in Symmetry-Seeking":

Episodes may so come to resemble one another that they approach momentary congruence and similitude...while strict congruence is impossible spatially, the symmetrical can remind us of some of the varied kinds of coherence available in literature.

Recommendations for further reading:
Poetics. Aristotle. Trans. Malcolm Heath. New York: Penguin, 1997
The action to the word : structure and style in Shakespearean tragedy. David Young. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
A Theory of the Theater. Francisque Sarcey. New York : Dramatic Museum of Columbia University, 1916.
The rise and fall of the well-made play. John Russell Taylor. London: Methuen, 1967.
An Anatomy of Drama. Martin Esslin. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976.
Structural Anthropology. Claude Levi-Strauss. New York : Basic Books, 1976.
A Formalist Theatre. Michael Kirby. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.
Assemblage, Environments and Happenings. Allan Kaprow. New York, H.N. Abrams, 1966.

Page author: Max Dana