Speaking in Tongues

Languages at Play in the Theatre
Marvin Carlson
Explores the political, social, and historical implications of staged language


Speaking in Tongues presents a unique account of how language has been employed in the theatre, not simply as a means of communication but also as a stylistic and formal device, and for a number of cultural and political operations. The use of multiple languages in the contemporary theatre is in part a reflection of a more globalized culture, but it also calls attention to how the mixing of language has always been an important part of the functioning of theatre.

The book begins by investigating various "levels" of language—high and low style, prose and poetry—and the ways in which these have been used historically to mark social positions and relationships. It next considers some of the political and historical implications of dialogue theatre, as well as theatre that literally employs several languages, from classical Greek examples to the postmodern era. Carlson treats with special attention the theatre of the postcolonial world, and especially the triangulation of the local language, the national language, and the colonial language, drawing on examples of theatre in the Caribbean, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Finally, Carlson considers the layering of languages in the theatre, such as the use of supertitles or simultaneous signing.

Speaking in Tongues draws important social and political conclusions about the role of language in cultural power, making a vital contribution to the fields of theatre and performance.

Marvin Carlson is Sidney E. Cohn Professor of Theatre and Comparative Literature, CUNY Graduate Center. He is author of Performance: A Critical Introduction; Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey, from the Greeks to the Present; and The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine, among many other books.

Praise / Awards

  • "Drawing from personal experience as a theatregoer, researcher, and reader, Carlson provides an impressively vast account of language play in a truly diverse array of case studies..."

  • "Carlson's passion for his subject is clear, and there can be no argument with his scholarly expertise. The book is well researched and covers much ground in its lively 257 pages...Carlson's work is admirable and this book deserves a wide readership."
    Contemporary Theatre Review

  • "Few scholars could have attempted such an ambitious project. The book is the product of extensive theatre going and an immense knowledge of dramatic literatures and critical traditions. Carlson has given us a road map for future research...Speaking in Tongues is an important contribution to the field."
    —Edward Zitter, Theatre Survey

Look Inside

Copyright © 2006, University of Michigan. All rights reserved. Posted June and September 2006.

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Product Details

  • 264 pages.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Ebook
  • 2010
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-02655-5

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  • heteroglossia, theatrical reception, postcolonial theatre, avant-garde theatre, Ithalian theatre, language studies, supertitles, theatre for the deaf hybridity in theatre, experimental theatre