THE discovery that someone in your life is not as clearly defined as you once believed can be an illuminating, unnerving or disorienting experience. Devastating, of course, if the someone is a mate and the news involves anything in the lipstick-on-the-collar departmentAnd yet at the theater the revelation of new layers and unsuspected motives in the people onstage is a distinctly pleasurable sensation. What might appall us in reality — the unearthing of duplicity or betrayal — can delight in drama. It is not just a matter of simple surprise, titillating though a well-turned revelation can be. Nor is it that old reliable human failing, schadenfreude.
I was happy he included that bold part. The rest of the article goes on to outline how duplicity of character can create tension in the decisions and actions played out on stage - drawing our interest as audience members as well.
This got me thinking more about how the function of character works in drama. How much revelation, for instance, before the character collapses?
In his review of Hedda Gabler, Leonard Jacobs mentioned the following:
Hedda, a general’s daughter, is extremely spoiled and petulant. Ibsen, despite creating a razor-sharp character, only hints as to why this is. For the actress playing Hedda, the challenge is to color in the lines, to drop clues as to what makes her such a bitch.
Hedda only married a bland academic, Jorgen Tesman (a serviceable Michael Cerveris), whom she does not love, to toy with him. When Tesman’s erstwhile academic rival, Eljert Lvborg (a keen Paul Sparks), arrives, Hedda is orgasmic at the idea of making mischief, wedging herself between Eljert and her former schoolmate, earnest Thea Elvsted (a spasmodic Ana Reeder).
Were Hedda less enigmatic, Ibsen’s plot would make the play a potboiler.
Ibsen was very skilled at character in the classic sense. This is important to realize. The large "journey" type plots of Peer Gynt and Brand are often overlooked by many who know only Ibsen's more naturalistic later works , but they are essential reading if you seek his methods for succeeding in making epic consequences out of domestic melodrama.
When Ibsen began to write these domestic plays, (Hedda Gabler, A Doll's House, etc.) he was not so much introducing more complicated pscyhological depths into the clockwork mechanical plots of melodramas. Instead, he was introducing demi-gods, heroes and daemons into the living room. These types of characters are not just trying to fill some long-ago slight which has been hiding in a repressed memory, or looking for a way to get the rent paid.
Ibsen's characters are out to lay waste to the very natural world around them. Hedda Gabler doesn't just want Dionysian license for herself. Hedda Gabler wants THE WORLD to be like that. There is an echo in Blanche Dubois calling out: "I don't want realism, I want magic!" Even Nora in Ibsen's A Doll House shatters "realism" with a closing door.
These are sometimes the tougher characters with which an audience has to grapple. And they can populate comedy, farce, tragedy and melodrama. In a lesser production the characters can actually seem too petty, too bold, too inconsequential or too timid. In a mediocre performance the character faces the forces of antagonism and they seem to fold, as we knew the would. Or we can credit their triumphs to "the way it ought to be anyway."
Speaking of Richard Greenberg, I think his play Take Me Out is an example of what I am talking about here. (I believe it ultimately fails in its attempts, but I'll save that for another post.)
The protagonist of Greeberg's baseball drama, Darren Lemming, initiates the main questions of the play when he comes out as gay. This puts the entire universe of the play into the spin cycle. Lemming like some of the best characters, has just launched an opening salvo into the current framework society has placed around him. He has disrupted friendships, co-workers, fans and the team itself.
In one of the key moments of the last act, Lemming doubles down and lashes out once again at the forces constricting him, and the fallout from those actions become fatal. Lemming has all the makings of an enigmatic and duplicitous character. Indeed, everybody involved in the play seems to comment on his cipher-like personality.
There is one problem... Lemming acts and chooses only a few times during the play. In between, rather than gradually revealing thoughts that are churning, Lemming reveals an interior life that is something of a continuous test pattern. "I don't know what the big deal is," would appear to be the bumper sticker on his heart. Meanwhile, the tempest he has stirred up is heading for landfall and he seems oblivious.
Now, I am aware that this seems to be Greenberg's POINT rather than a PROBLEM. Fair enough. But I still feel that Take Me Out, as entertaining as it is, and packed as it is with so many wonderful ideas, could have been so much more. Greenberg was definitely onto something there.