Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Power Outtage

Toward the end of a well-argued blog-cum-essay, Ben Huff touched on a point with relevance to the photographer and the photographed, the taker and, if you will, the taken. It is, as Ben cogently argues, about power.

This same chemistry often takes place on the stage and on the page; effective writers recognize it, wannabe writers had better recognize it. Shooting for quick recognition before moving along, I am tempted to hold forth one of my favorite of all characters from one of my favorite of all authors, Ms. Wife of Bath, from The Canterbury Tales. Reminding me of Zoe Strauss with her ebullient humanism, Ms. Wife stands out in a time when women were happy enough to be seen, but were not heard with too much enthusiasm. One moment particularly comes to mind, when Jankin, her latest in a series of husbands, is reading the then equivalent of a girlie magazine and Ms. Wife tears the page out of the booklet and tells him to get with the program, which happens to be her.

Shakesperean examples of scenes with shifting power bases abound, not the least among them involving Hamlet, his mother, and the ghost of his father/her husband, all together in her bed chamber. Hamlet, about to kill King Claudius, is another. "Now might I do it..." except that Claudius is saying his prayers. Come to think of it, Macbeth is about to pull a Tony Soprano on King Malcolm, but loses his resolve when he sees a servant carrying a dinner tray to Malcolm's suite, causing Macbeth to think Last Supper kinds of thoughts. "Trumpet-tongued angels will sing his praises." And a lovely tidal arrangement of power, starting with Macbeth telling Lady Macbeth that he can't go through with it. She is disgusted with his spinelessness--power shifts to her. But look what happens when Macbeth screws up his courage and goes through with the murder of Malcolm. Returning to their apartment, his clothing spattered with Malcolm's blood, his hands a gory smear, Lady Macbeth greets him with an effusive: "My husband!" Power back to Micky B.

Moving into modern drama and storytelling, say, just for the hell of it, Joe Orton's noirish Entertaining Mr. Sloan, or the splendid Jim Harrison novel, A Return to Earth, we see men and women on the stage and on the page, in varying degrees of vulnerability, in varying circumstances where they have given up power, usurped power from others, or had power wrested from them. Whether we take their image furtively or with their full consent, we are engaged in a dance of power with our subjects, with our characters, with our viewers, with our readers.

Ben Huff, in addition to producing moving, memorable images, has taken one of his recent shots, Red Door Open, which I greatly admire, and opened a door for me which I must enter, getting my own take on the matter of power. I believe the way to interest an audience in a character is to show that character in some vulnerability, being in the debt of a person, place, deadline, or attitude. Possibly also some disability. The story is about that person trying to get some power, either back in possession or, in the case of the buildugsroman, to get power for the first time and to use it for growth and understanding. This is where story begins. Where I believe I fit into the equation--thanks, Ben--is to give that character, that her or him, power. Over me.


ben said...

Shelly, you have a gift for elevating things. thanks.

lowenkopf said...

I often find visions of interest and engagement in your images and writings, Ben.

Anonymous said...

A fresh, elegant, and useful template!