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Say, display, replay: Erving Goffman meets Oscar Wilde

Jean –Rémi Lapaire

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2Script: Jean-Rémi Lapaire, Université Bordeaux Montaigne, France

  • 1 Jean Magnard is a professional dancer / choreographer based in Bordeaux, France. He has co-authored (...)

3Choreography: Jean Magnard1

4Reader: Jean-Rémi Lapaire

  • 2 At the time of the performance, all six were graduate students in English studies, enrolled in the (...)

5Performers: Hugo Dabadie, Florian Escoubet, Julie Guede, Eleonora Martiian, Marie Nahon, Céline Salcho2

It is a fact of our human condition that, for most of us, our daily life is spent in the immediate presence of others; in other words, that whatever they are, our doings are likely to be, in the narrow sense, socially situated.
Erving Goffman (1982)

Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.
Oscar Wilde (1895b)


6Pragmatics is the branch of linguistics that studies language in use—what speakers concretely do or avoid doing with words and utterances as they engage in communicative interaction. In this illustrated lecture-performance, speakers are taken for what they essentially are: social actors and moral movers (Birdwhistell 1970) who articulate meanings physically, using the rich semiotic resources of the human body, while attending to the face needs of fellow speakers (Goffman 1959, Brown & Levinson 1986, Culpeper 2011).

7The sounds and the movements that speakers produce are not only meaningful but patterned (Whorf 1956), since individual variation rarely strays from conventional formal arrangements (Langacker 2008): established sound patterns, movement patterns, intonation patterns, word patterns, and syntactic patterns, to which interactional patterns need to be added, since most social interaction has a strong ritual character (Goffman 1967, Schechner 2003).

8The present piece was choreographed in May 2016 and performed on June 6, 2016 at the TILLIT festival (Teatro in Lingua, Lingua in Teatro), Università del Piemonte Orientale (UPO), Vercelli, Italy. The main speaker and the six performers were all involved in the “Language, Body and Mind” seminar during the Spring semester. The seminar promotes an active, experiential multimodal learning environment, integrating formal academic instruction, film screenings, annotation sessions and movement workshops. Special attention is paid to the observation and pragmatic interpretation of communicative behavioural events (Frey 1975) in film, and recorded conversations. Students are trained to look at how language is “orchestrated to a choreography of the human body” (Asher 1972), and how meanings- abstract or concrete- are not only produced but acted out on the socio-interactional stage. Participants in the workshop sessions are asked to re-enact and re-analyse some of the scenes or “little parades” (Goffman 1959) studied in class.

9The lecture-performance was commissioned for the TILLIT 2016 festival, organized by Pr. Marco Pustianaz, Michaela Reinhardt and Umberto Capra (UPO). The script was written by Jean-Rémi Lapaire and the choreography designed by Jean Magnard. The visuals are either screenshots taken from the filmed performance at Teatro Barbieri (Vercelli, Italy) or “instant replays” shot outdoors shortly after the lecture-performance, in the beautiful historic district of Vercelli, near the Faculty of Literature and Philosophy (Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale).

A note on the two protagonists and their fictive encounter

10Oscar Wilde died some 20 years before Erving Goffman was born. Yet, the two share a humorous understanding of “the art of impression management” (Goffman 1959).

11Erving Goffman (1922-1982), it will be recalled, was a Canadian-American sociologist and anthropologist. His dramaturgical model of speech was first introduced in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) and later developed in Interactional Ritual (1967). Goffman’s linguistic terminology borrowed extensively from the language of the theatrical performance: “setting”, “décor”, “performer”, “actor”, “interactants”, “audience”, “viewers”, “parts”, “roles”, “lines”, “scenes”, “parades”, “rituals”, “performances”, “dramatic realizations.”

12In his essays, Goffman paid particular attention to the “expressive order” and the “behavioral material” used when “persons come into one another’s immediate presence” (Goffman 1967). He also set up a very useful distinction between expressions “given” (i.e. what social actors overtly say and display during their performances) and expressions “given off” (i.e. what is left for viewers and listeners to infer from the verbal and non verbal cues provided) during face-to-face interaction.

13Goffman was also notorious for his study of “face”, which he defined as “the positive social value a person claims for himself”. “Maintaining face” and avoiding the “defacement of others” is part of “the interactional modus vivendi” that governs most “social encounters”.

14There is little need to introduce Oscar Wilde (1854 –1900) and his works. Two of his early plays, Lady Windermere’s Fan (1893) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) provide precious humorous insight into the “ritual” quality of the “interaction order” (Goffman 1982) in London’s upper “social circles”. The mechanisms of “face-work” (Goffman 1967) are deconstructed, the calculated (and often witty) “information games” of interactants are revealed, while “concealment, discovery, and false revelations” (Goffman 1959) are exposed.

Illustrated script of the performance at UPO, Vercelli, Italy (June 6, 2016)

15Communicative behaviour starts the moment we enter the presence of others.

16Once in the immediate presence of others, a social situation is created,

17filled with embodied expressive signs.

18Social encounters are behavioral events made up of behavioral material.

19Glances… gestures…. postionings…. and verbal statements

20are continuously fed into the situation.

21When the expressive behaviour— verbal and non verbal—

22takes on a ritual character, a little parade is instituted.

  • 3 Each ‘parade’ is performed 3 times in close succession, using different expressive styles, with cor (...)

23(Little parade n° 1—Greeting rituals)3

24How do you do, Lady Windermere.

25How do you do, Lord Darlington.

26I’m so pleased to see you.

  • 4 The dialogues, puns and witty remarks are all taken from Wilde (1893, 1895a, 1895b).

27(Little parade n° 2—Compliments)4

28What a beautiful fan! May I look at it?

29Do. It’s my husband’s birthday present to me.

30Verbal behaviour and bodily motion are relatively easy to control.

31Don’t stir. Don’t move. I beg you!

32Do let me go, please!

33But controlling facial muscles and facial expressions is NOT SO EASY.

34We have all sorts of personal and institutional faces. Party faces, funeral faces, school faces, TILLIT Festival faces.

35Some of our expressions are consciously given.

36We shall have a scandal!

  • 5 Adapted from Goffman (1967). As the girls part, one grins and the other pouts.

37Others are unconsciously given off5.

38— Let us be great friends!

39Face-to-face interaction is a kind of performance.

40Speakers are all actors playing a part and telling their lines,

41in an endless succession of scenes.

42How hard good women are !

43How weak bad men are !

44Speakers don’t just… speak.

45They act out the meanings they wish to convey.

46They both say and display.

47— I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance.

48— Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit. Touch it, and the bloom is gone.

  • 6 Adapted from Asher (1974).

49If you want to a learn a second language gracefully then learn to synchronize the vocal system with the kinesic system, or more simply your voice with your moves.6

50Why do you talk so trivially about life ?

51Because I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.

52— Nowadays people seem to look on life as a speculation.

53It is not a speculation. It is a sacrament.

54Its ideal is love. Its purification sacrifice !

55— Life is too complex a thing to be settled by hard and fast rules.

56— It is absurd to divide people into good and bad.

57People are either charming or tedious.

58— Are all men bad ?

59— Oh, all of them, my dear, without any exception !

60And they never grow any better.

61Men become old, but they never become good.

62— I don’t like compliments, and I don’t see why a man should think he is pleasing a woman enormously when he says to her a whole heap of things that he doesn’t mean.

63I can resist everything except temptation.

  • 7 Adapted from Asher (1974).

64In short, language is orchestrated to a choreography of the human body7.

65Bonus. A choreographer’s work : Jean Magnard and the performers at the Arts Centre (Maison des Arts – Université Bordeaux Montaigne, France).

66Slowly going down to the ground

67Disappearing gradually…

68… then coming back to life again, reaching out to the world

69Walking round in small circles, making swift eye contact

70Using forces and counterforces to create a balanced structure

71Delivering ‘How do you do Lady Windermere ? ‘ beach style

72Group melts to the ground

73‘Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit’

Asher, James. Children’s First Language as a Model for Second Language Learning. The Modern Language Journal, vol. 56, No. 3 (Mar., 1972), 133-139.

Birdwhistell, Ray. Kinesics and Context. Essays on Body Motion Communication. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970.

Brown, Penelope and Levinson, Stephen. Politeness : some universals in language use. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Culpeper, Jonathan. Impoliteness : Using Language to Cause Offence. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 2011. 

Ekman, Paul. Emotions Revealed. Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life. New Yor : Times Books, 2003.

Frey, Siegfried. Tonic aspects of behavior in interaction. In A. Kendon, R. Harris, M. Richie Key (Eds.), Organization of Face-to-Face Behavior. The Hague : Mouton, 1975

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York : Anchor Books, 1959.

Goffman, Erving. Interaction Ritual. Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. New York : Pantheon Books, 1967.

Goffman, Erving. The Interaction Order. Presidential address delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco. Published in The American Sociological Review (ASR), Feb. 1983, Vol 48 N° 1, 1-17, 1982.

Lapaire, Jean-Rémi, Magnard Jean, and Blanc, Mélissa. “Langues vivantes en vie”. Plenary lecture-performance given at the RANACLES 2013 conference, Bordeaux, 30.11.2013.

URL :​watch ?v =takomU73y3k

Lapaire, Jean-Rémi, Magnard Jean, and Blanc, Mélissa. “Living speech or the bodily life of language.” SKASE Journal of Theoretical Linguistics, Volume 12 - 2015, N° 3, 528-541.


Lapaire, Jean-Rémi, Magnard Jean, and Blanc, Mélissa. “Chorégraphies de la parole”, Miranda, 11 | 2015. URL:​7548

Langacker, Ronald. Cognitive Grammar. New York, NY. : Oxford University Press, 2008.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Theory. London : Routledge, 2003.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. Language, Thought and Reality. Cambridge, Mass. : The MIT Press, 1956.

Wilde, Oscar. Lady Windermere’s Fan. Project Gutenberg, e-book 790. Transcribed from the 1917 Methuen & Co. Ltd Edition by David Price, 1997 (1893).

Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. Project Gutenberg, e-book 844. Transcribed by David Price, 1997 (1895a).

Wilde, Oscar. An Ideal Husband. Project Gutenberg, e-book 885. Transcribed from the 1912 Methuen & Co. Ltd Edition by David Price, 2009 (1895b).

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1 Jean Magnard is a professional dancer / choreographer based in Bordeaux, France. He has co-authored a number of written and staged pieces with Mélissa Blanc and Jean-Rémi Lapaire (2014, 2015).

2 At the time of the performance, all six were graduate students in English studies, enrolled in the Master of Arts program, Year 1, « Language, Body and Mind » module, Université Bordeaux Montaigne, France.

3 Each ‘parade’ is performed 3 times in close succession, using different expressive styles, with corresponding gestural, postural and intonational modes: ‘regular’, ‘at a distance’, ‘beach style’.

4 The dialogues, puns and witty remarks are all taken from Wilde (1893, 1895a, 1895b).

5 Adapted from Goffman (1967). As the girls part, one grins and the other pouts.

6 Adapted from Asher (1974).

7 Adapted from Asher (1974).

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Electronic reference

Jean –Rémi Lapaire, « Say, display, replay: Erving Goffman meets Oscar Wilde », Miranda [Online], 13 | 2016, Online since 24 November 2016, connection on 19 October 2019. URL :

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About the author

Jean –Rémi Lapaire

Université Bordeaux Montaigne

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