Thursday, August 10, 2006

Network of the Controlling Ideas

What makes the greatest works of theatre, literature or film work their incredible hold over us?

There are probably as many answers as there are people on the internet. In most every great work there is an overriding feel of inevitability, or a clash of opposites that is almost unbearable in its tension.

I was talking of Structure in the last few posts and listed some comments from Jose Rivera about structure and the process of connecting everthing in your play towards the meaning, or the ultimate question you wish your audience to grapple with.

Screenwriting guru Robert Mckee may not be the first person who springs to mind when talking of theatre arts, (and, yes, I am well aware that McKee is basically blending everything from Aristotle to Egri.) But if we want to talk at all about structure, he has much concise advice to offer.

Robert Mckee is an advocate of linear, three act "arc plot" storytelling. There is no doubt about this, but it is a mistake to think that he has disdain for absurdist or avante garde, (what he calls "anti-plot.") What he is most passionate about, however, is the idea of a "good story, well told."

It may be surprising to some, but McKee's is not really advocating for formula as much as structure. His advocacy is not for all movies to look the same, rather his advocacy is for the artist to interpret life experiences into meaning.

"In life, experiences becoming meaningful in reflection and time. In art, they are meaningful now, in the instant they happen."

Emotions can't be trusted in everyday life. They come and go. We can't live our life in our good or bad emotions. Would you want to live your life constantly in the state you were in the night your fiance broke up with you? Or, on the flip side, can you imagine trying to function like a rational being if you were forever locked in the screaming euphoria you were in when you won the big game in high school?

The best theatre does not have to have you weeping or screaming or laughing out loud, (though these are great bonuses,) the best theatre should have you feeling something though. When I watch the end of Krapp's Last Tape I do not weep, but I have an enormous feeling right through to my heart.

If you have done your job as a theatre artist, that feeling should be in synch with "the controlling idea." (Which, yes, I agree is horrible sounding term.)

The controlling idea would be defined as that which represents the "irreducible meaning" of your piece. (Sometimes this controlling idea can consume myriad works by one artist.) You can spend volumes writing about your controlling idea, but it should be able to be stated in a very brief way.


The controlling idea never seemed to me to be adequate enough to explain the greatest works of art. I did, however, stumble across a thesis from Drew Kopp at the University of Arizona, who has a paper which expands the controlling idea to include a Network of controlling ideas. This Network is brought about by finding not only the "purpose' of the controlling idea, but also its "context," which usually means something akin to its opposite:

Purpose: Work industrously and you will get great financial and social rewards.

Context: Goofing off and always partying leads to mediocrity.

These are expamples of one controlling idea. However, for the network to be established, you must add the opposing controlling idea, which inverts the original. So the Opposite of the above controlling idea would be:

Purpose: If you party, you will have incredible experiences and
great friends.

Context: If you always work, you will be a boring nerd.

Kopp uses a simple example from the film The Matrix to present a diagram of this network. The controlling idea of The Matrix is that Knowledge is Freedom, which plays against the context of Ignorance is Slavery. The Opposing controlling idea would be that Ignorance is Bliss which plays against the context of Knowledge leads to pain and suffering. His plotted diagram of these ideas results in an almost perfect network of tension:


You can see clearly in the diagaram that the purpose of each controlling idea is directly related to the context of the opposing controlling idea.

Moving into theatre, you could map Streetcar Named Desire the following way:


When diagrammed this way it becomes somewhat easier to break apart and examine the way some great works of drama, comedies or tragedies, are able to sustain their hold on us. I believe, some of the reasons we can go back to those works again and again, is partially because their network provides an endlessly intriguing cycle of experience.

As a theatre artist we must tease apart the noise of the everyday, the wild emotions and experiences, the mess of existence, and try to reassemble it into meaningful experiences.

I know, boring and theoretical. And almost useless to us in the process of writing, but invaluable when assessing our work, successful or not.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Drew Kopp's work is great ! Read it. I would like to add that the analysis of A streetcar's network (in this page) which is not in Kopp's work is really well done.