Tuesday, November 03, 2009

What Type of Play Are You Writing? Part 2

Yesterday, I posted on plays which are populated by Actual People in the Actual World and which obey laws of time, space and emotion as we pretty much know and observe them to be in everyday life.

Today, I want to talk about plays that twist that type of play a bit.

2. Boundary Breaker Plays

These are plays in which characters and settings "break boundaries" between fantasy and reality; present, past and future; audience and actors, etc. In a Boundary Breaker play an element which violates our "realistic" understanding and expectation of how our world and universe works is put into the dramatic mix.

However, the important distinction here is that these boundary violations have a DIRECT IMPACT on the drama. (More on this a little later.)

Before you jump to the conclusion that I am only addressing some type of contemporary movement towards "magical realism", let me point out the following titles I would include in this genre: Medea, The Tempest, Endgame, Angels in America, Midsummer Night's Dream, Seascape, Eurydice, Six Characters in Search of An Author, Our Town, Copenhagen,Blasted, and meta-plays like The Four of Us.

As I said yesterday, simply fracturing or playing with narrative does not automatically make a play a Boundary Breaker. However, if this time-play becomes the point of the play, or something the characters become aware of or have to deal with, then the boundary has been broken.

Let's take Michael Frayn's Copenhagen as an example. The play deals with actual people, (they even really existed ,) and gives us a recognizable event in which these people seem to act and react in understandable ways. So far, this is an Actual People - Actual World Play. Next, Frayn plays with the narrative a bit, he shows us the same event, several times with slight changes, but we are still in Actual People - Actual World territory.

Frayn decided to set the play in a kind of limbo, or afterlife. It is a strange place which allows the characters to question each other in ways they would not have been able to in "real" life. In other words, Frayn breaks the boundaries of time and place. This bold choice allows the characters to have a strange, almost omniscient existence, yet they retain gaps in their understandings of each other's motivations.

Another example of a Boundary Breaker would be the meta play. For example, a play where the characters suddenly become aware of the audience, or they become aware that they are characters in a play or watching a play.

This is not to be confused with the convention of "play-within-a-play," which goes something like this: We, the audience, watch a scene onstage between several actors, and just as we are getting involved we hear a voice from behind yell, "Cut!" We suddenly become aware that we have watching actors performing in a play. Throughout the evening we return to watching that original play, but we also follow the "real" actors and their drama.

I also talked a little about the chatty narrator yesterday. Many plays have a narrator, or even multiple characters that occasionally address the audience directly. This may appear to break the boundary, but it is often momentary and has no dramatic consequence with regards to the conflict. This technique can enrich the the drama or, more often, weaken it.

One last thing to expand upon from yesterday's post: Imaginary characters appearing in an otherwise Actual World-Actual People Play. Ghosts are a common example of this, but recently, historical characters have been all the rage.

When does this introduction of an imaginary character actually break the boundaries?

I'll use two plays as examples:

In the play Memory of Waterby Shelagh Stephenson, three Yorkshire sisters gather at their childhood home for the funeral of their mother, who has just passed away. The ghost of their mother appears to one of the daughters throughout the play. They converse, have conversations, and the daughter asks questions which the mother answers vaguely. Nobody else in the play sees this ghost, and, primarily, this device is used to deepen the emotional bond and layer the stakes for one character. The decisions revelations and actions of the characters are not particularly influenced by the appearance of this spectre, and there is a question if it is just a memory or a dream.

In Paul Rudnick's play I Hate Hamlet, a television actor, who has been cast to play Hamlet in Central Park, moves into John Barrymore's old apartment. The ghost of the eccentric and dashing Barrymore appears on the scene and proceeds to mentor, aggravate, motivate and complicate the actor's life. The swaggering spectre even appears to another character and dances with her.

In Memory of Water, the ghost is simply a device, but in I Hate Hamlet the ghost IS the play, and he is breaking boundaries and affecting outcomes all over the place.

Tomorrow, we will look at another distinct "type" of play.


Ian Thal said...

One matter that intrigues me as you set up this taxonomy of plays, is the historical contingencies that bring these types into existence.

I'm an autodidact when it comes to theatre history and to dramaturgy, but my fascination stylized forms (in some cases, older forms like commedia dell'arte) makes me suspect that not only did these boundaries come into existence at specific historical moments, and that the "breaking" only happens after the fact.

At what point does magic break theatrical boundaries? Was there not a point where audiences accepted that magic, however extraordinary, was part of the real world? Is Medea really a boundary-breaker to Euripides and his audience, or only to Aristotle and those who followed? Or is Medea a boundary breaker because Euripides played fast and loose with what was then considered the established mythology?

So my question is: "Are plays that are essentially of a fantastic genre (even if that means "fantastic" in retrospect) really qualitatively that closely related to those plays that actually play upon the structures of the theatre medium?"

Art said...

These are excellent questions, Ian.

I will say,as you suggest here, I am trying to deal with what audiences currently understand and what we currently see on stages.

However, as an excersise I will submit a comparison between, say, Oedipus and Medea, or Oedipus and the Bacchae.

I propose that some of these Greek plays are essentially Actual World - Actual People Plays. Some are not.

There are also, as I will point out later, plays that are hard to categorize.