Wednesday, November 03, 2010

On Annie Baker and Chekhov

Thom Garvey on Annie Baker's Body Awareness at Speakeasy Stage:

Is being politically correct kind of like being autistic?

That's the implied thesis of Annie Baker's Body Awareness, now at SpeakEasy Stage as part of a three-part Baker festival running through November. (I gazed into another side of this theatrical triptych, Circle Mirror Transformation, here, and will see the final panel, The Aliens, later this week.) Though close enough in style to form a family, these theatrical triplets aren't quite identical; if one watched them in the sequence of their composition (that is, Body, then Circle, then Aliens), my guess is one would perceive Baker becoming more and more self-conscious almost scene by scene.

For she is a dramatist all but obsessed, like many millennials, with not being overly "dramatic." Indeed, in the notes to Body Awareness, the playwright expresses pain over even being heard: "Speaking is a kind of misery," Baker (probably) whispers to her interviewer. "We're all kind of quietly suffering . . . trying and failing to communicate to other people what we want and what we believe." She goes further about her own methods of revision: "If I can hear [myself] writing, like if there is thinly-disguised exposition or a nudge to the audience or some kind of obvious point made, I go back and change it."

I was surprised, then, to discover that Body Awareness is full of rather obvious points. Indeed, despite Baker's mania to never seem "stagy," I often perceived melodramatic mechanics operating beneath the surface of her script; people enter in tears, or break down while on stage, etc.

Dan Rebellato on Chekhov in the Guardian:

But also, I think, Chekhov is a mystery. There are some playwrights who are so busily present in their work that it's like you have the author beside you murmuring comments on the action. Chekhov is different; what does he think of his characters? Does he admire them or pity them? Ask us to examine or ridicule? It's never obvious. Chekhov's characters tend to let their mouths run away with them (Gayev in The Cherry Orchard fills a silence with an idiotic hymn of praise to a bookcase that, even as he's saying it, he must regret). It's almost as if Chekhov lets silences form in his play, which his characters nervously fill and thus reveal themselves.

For me, this is why Chekhov continues to be an important model. We've turned away somewhat from "messages" and "thesis plays"; the contemporary preference is for authorial blankness, not of style but of commentary; we like stark juxtapositions and moral emptiness, the responsibility placed on the audience to make the judgment. Chekhov is rightly admired for the complexity of his characters and the extraordinary elegance of his narratives, but beneath that it's the dark, dark irony and pitiless gaze that make him truly our contemporary.

I find these discussions interesting.

Chekhov, of course, was a moralist. And I am not so sure that "we like moral emptiness."


Thomas Garvey said...

Hey Art - Thanks for finding me "interesting"! If only I found Dan Rebellato interesting! Can he be serious when he says Chekhov is about "moral emptiness" . . ? Uh - what? The fact that Chekhov writes from multiple perspectives doesn't mean his drama is morally "empty." Nor does it mean that he has a "pitiless gaze," or that his irony is "dark, dark"! Jeez, that's like bad sports writing masquerading as criticism.

Art said...

I agree with you about Chekhov. As I said, he certainly was a moralist.

What was curious to me, reading the two pieces - yours and his - so close together, was this idea of "authorial blankness."

Your review suggests that writer can get so self-conscious about this that it can result in a blankness in the arguments or the drama.

In other words, a playwright could have a lot of good ideas, but without bringing them into conflict with each other, there is no testing or argument presented. Without that testing without that wrestling match, you are not leaving much for the audience to pass judgement on.

Rather than giving the audience the responsibility to pass judgement on the characters - Checkhov daresdares the audience to pass judgement.

Thomas Garvey said...

Well, one of the things that I think makes Annie Baker interesting is that she innovates in formal terms. A lot of playwrights try to do that, but mostly they just flail around, "experimenting," and sometimes they hit pay dirt but mostly they don't. Baker's different - she thinks through her plan, and then sticks to it (a slow reveal of said plan is actually part of her technique). At the same time, the goal of her plan often seems to be to disappear as an authorial voice as much as possible - and yeah, this compromises her theatricality. So her formal innovations are kind of like a double-edged sword.