Tuesday, May 6, 2008


The actor who has learned to evoke emotions in dramatic situations or, indeed, to evoke drama in static situations, is exponentially beyond the actor who merely describes feelings by uses of standardized gestures or vocal inflections.

And yet.

And yet, the trained actor uses gestures, sometimes seemingly imperceptible ones: the blink of an eye, the shrug of a shoulder, the hunching of the body, the lowering of muscle tension in the face. The trained actor uses voice every bit as inflectively as the lesser trained actor. Witness the trained actor, Peter O'Toole, in a recent film performance, Venus, where he stands on an empty stage, of an outdoor theater, addressing an "audience" of empty seats, covered with the fallen leaves of winter, reciting the Shakespeare sonnet, Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day. Pure evocation of a myriad of emotions and depth, where the evocation triumphs gloriously over the husky, sensual timbre of O'Toole's voice to the point where, watching him, the last thig you're thinking is, Here is a man who knows how to render Shakespeare. You are totally involved in the character, of whom you are thinking, Here is a man who loves what he does.

The same potential for dimension awaits the writer who understands and capitalizes on the difference between evoke and describe. Said theoretical writer need not be a novelist or short story writer; the likes of David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Barbara Tuchman, splendid historians all, were able to move beyond mere description to evoke, bring forth, the places in which their subjects come to life, presenting words, in many cases the actual words of their subjects, but in a manner similar to O'Toole's performance in what was essentially a romantic comedy.

Evocation is the difference between drama and journalism, between humor and comedy; it introduces the tinge of feeling into the atmosphere, turning it from a road map to a microcosm.

Acocrdingly, evocation is the texture of the unsaid imparted to the said. Doctor Livingston, I presume, is splendid on its face, but beyond its face is the intended and received irony, intended by Henry Morton Stanley, received all these years later by us.

How do I approach evocation?

You approach it by observing the subtext of the situation, which is the dominant effect you wish to convey. Two people bidding one another a seemingly casual farewell is rich with the potential for evocation if you know, as the two people know, that they will never see one another again. At the final hearing in an acrimonious divorce proceeding, one of the couple may fling the challenge, Get a life of your own, a challenge rich in evocation if we understand that the challenger feels bitter about the outcome of the division of community property. A final parting in a hospital or hospice, has lovely permutations for evocation. See you around, maybe, takes on a meaning that reaches out to embrace the reader with the emotion passing between the two individuals.

Does evocation always reside in dialogue?

Nah; sometimes it emerges from details, from settings, from the vision of a plate of ripe figs on a table, a half drunk cup of coffee on a desk, a vase of iris on a window sill, from the expression on the face of a person in a photo, from a close-up of a pair of hands in an attitude. (yes, hands certainly do convey an attitude--if they want to, or if you want them to.)

Evocation then becomes the shared humanity of feelings and the simultaneous eye of the beholder, and you already know that can evoke a cynicism toward this thing we call the shared humanity. Can evocation go over the top? Can and does. So the only way to proceed is the trip through the mine field wearing snow shoes in which you write as you feel and feel as you write, knowing full well some Anonymous will call you out on your blog, write a letter to the editor about you, complain to the dean about your insensitivity. If you are lucky, Hillary will call you a elitist, and some other blog lurker will remind you that you lumpen liberals don't have clue. Your security in all this is knowing that you have evoked something in them that they may not be willing to face.


R.L. Bourges said...

would love to see and hear O'Toole's performance. Your description reminds me of the great French actor Michel Serreault in his final role. A performance of such craftsmanship I beliee it should be studied in acting schools everywhere - it transcends language.

your post itself is an evocative tapestry, Shelly. Beau et touchant.

GEM said...

I like how you included setting and details as necessary to evocation along with dialogue. There is so much of what can be observed that may be written to show, not tell deatils which add up in the sum of meaning. Terrific and beatifully written post. G

Wild Iris said...

Perhaps the difference between evocation and description is why I make a lousy journalist. All the more reason to stick to short stories and poetry for me.

Lori Witzel said...

And from the bleachers at the back of left field, here's what Aleister Crowley has to say:

"To 'invoke' is to 'call in', just as to 'evoke' is to 'call forth'. This is the essential difference between the two branches of Magick. In invocation, the macrocosm floods the consciousness. In evocation, the magician, having become the macrocosm, creates a microcosm."

More here:

Anonymous said...

I miss someone special, a precious flower... I long to just look into your eyes again and see the love I remember... To be held in your arms again... to feel such a strong unrelenting passion and true love once more... Will it ever happen? God alone knows... I know that no matter what our problems are, God is love, and love is eternal. One glance, one kiss, one sweet embrace and all will be set right. Even if the one lasts a lifetime, it is worth it to have true love.