Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Whole Story...

The first time I read the dictionary, I thought it was a long poem about everything.
- Stephen Wright

George Hunka links to a great post on the Encore Theatre Blog about the gushing reception Tom Stoppard's Rock n' Roll is receiving from critics worldwide.

Encore begs to differ from the critics, and the post lists all the things that are wrong with the play, but I wanted to focus on the first one:

"The play is NOT about lots of things. lots of things are mentioned (cancer, Czechoslovakia, the mind versus the soul, rock 'n' roll as a more powerful instrument of revolution than communism, etc.) but mentioning something does not mean that is what a play is about. Also, nothing said by anyone is any richer or more spiritually nourishing than reading the back of a self-help book or an encyclopedia of cod philosophy. (That's right. Philosophy written by fish.) The conversations and observations are banal beyond reason. "

There is a worse experience than seeing a Tom Stoppard play like this. Seeing a lesser talent try to imitate Tom Stoppard. Yesterday, in my review of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, I noted that "ideas," seem to be the commodity on which the playwright is judged these days. It only seems appropriate for our information age that people feel that filling plays with various ideas increases the "value." By the way, Alan Bennett is no exception with The History Boys. And I have been guilty of it myself.

Nor, actually, are even the greatest artists immune. Shakespeare's fling with the purely literary, Love's Labour's Lost, provides endless enjoyment as a linguistic carnival, but, being purely literary it cannot be counted as a major work. Mark Van Doren said of the play:

It has no story to tell, or if it has one, it tells it artificially. It
counts on contemporary occupations with style, - occupations now generally forgotten- to keep it interesting.

But Shakespeare learned, as Van Doren points out when he speaks of Biron's eventual reincarnations as Hamlet and Hotspur:

When he (Biron) returns he will have been trimmed, like Shakespeare himself of certain literary excesses, certain spruce affectations and figures pedantical.

Shakespeare, in this instance, gave up his juggling of nature, (which Emerson found so valuable,) for his love of language and ideas. The structure was secondary and the play suffered for it.

Michael Feingold has an absolutely stinging corrective lesson in the Village Voice regarding a new play at Second Stage. The whole thing is worth a wincing read, and I can only offer some sort of weird gratitude to the playwright and the theatre company for their sacrifice.

If development programs in the non-profit theatre world are the sugar, then this is the medicine. We need both.

Joseph's play is a specimen of the contemporary genre of seriocomedy in which, whenever anything tolerably serious starts to happen, the playwright dodges it by either ending the scene, freezing the scene while somebody steps outside of it and talks to the audience, or making the whole thing suddenly lurch into sitcom mode.

...But then tenability—the notion that the parts of a play
all belong together and support each other in making a complete statement—seems very far from the minds of the playwrights favored by our nonprofit theaters these days...

...a play must be all of a piece, whatever shocks of cognitive dissonance its components offer, and that its characters, however streamlined or two-dimensionalized, must convey that their life extends beyond the bounds of what we see. Without these elements, there's hardly any point in writing a play at all. But our theater seems largely indifferent to them. If it doesn't collapse of its own inanition first, expect a return to the basic
elements of playwriting soon.

Jose Rivera wrote an excellent essay called 36 Assumptions about Writing Plays that my wife and I refer to often when writing. Here are a few of the 36 that pertain to some of what Fiengold and Encore are saying:

6. Each line of dialogue is like a piece of DNA; potentially containing the entire play and its thesis; potentially telling us the beginning, middle, and end of the play.

15. Write from your organs. Write from your eyes, your
heart, your liver, your ass -- write from your brain last of all.

20. Form follows function. Strive to reflect the content of the play in the form of the play.

21. Theatre is the explanation of life to the living. Try to
tease apart the conflicting noises of living, and make some kind of pattern and order. It's not so much an explanation of life as much as it is a recipe for understanding, a blueprint for navigation, a confidante with some answers, enough to guide you and encourage you, but not to dictate to you.

26. A play must be organized. This is another word for structure. You organize a meal, your closet, your time -- why not your play?

27. Strive to be mysterious, not confusing.

28. Think of information in a play like an IV drip -- dispense just enough to keep the body alive, but not too much too soon.


I know, I know, we hate this. We hate this as artists. We hate anything that tries to simplify our process. Some of us even hate the word "process." But still, we know that many of the great artists sketched outlines on the blank canvas of their masterpieces. James Joyce wrote the monumental stream of conciousness that is Ulysses, but he started with a structure on which to hang it.

I think I have quoted this Eric Bentley comment about Brecht before:

"So Brecht got himself a theory to establish the importance of his plays. And I think that's what it was. In other words, it was part of public relations on a high intellectual level, but still just that. And not really significant. Brecht, in his theoretical vein, would like to have it that you can only understand his plays by taking a completely new view of the drama, which he will expound to you. I'm always suspicious of any artist who won't let you judge by your own standards. Because it's clear the new standards Brecht wishes you to have were created in order to show his work in the best light. If you're going to defend abstract art by a principal that says art should be abstract, that's easy and it's good the minute it's abstract. And that's how I think Brecht's theories are. So I'm very opposed to people in the graduate schools who take them up as if they're Aristotle and Plato, as if they're important philosophy in the history of Western culture. I don't see that at all, and I don't think his
plays need that. I think, you know, the Mother Courage structure is certainly unorthodox according to Ibsen or Arthur Miller, but it's not that far from Elizabethan. You know, Brecht would say you don't need climaxes, that they're a bourgeois illusion. But the terrific climax in Mother Courage-- in the scene of the drumbeat-- It's the orthodox place for dramatic climax, namely about 2/3 of the way through the plot. It reaches a high point, or low point according to your point of view, of tragedy. And such is the case with the other things that he's supposed not to have, like emotion. There's a lot of it. So I think a perfectly orthodox approach, critically speaking, is valid."

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