Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Zeitgeist: A Time and Place for Everything

The scene is the basic unit of drama. If we wish to make our work dramatic, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, stage/film work or narrative, it must be presented with awareness of the basic building blocks, which include but are not limited to character, pace, setting, beats, blocking, confrontation or a hint of conflict. You could slip rhythm in there, perhaps next to pace, because the tempo of events must have a sense of rise and fall, of tidal movement, as deftly orchestrated as, say Ravel's Noble and Sentimental Waltzes. You could also successfully argue surprise into the genome.

I was looking forward to tonight's lecture because of late I've taken to presenting two scenes to demonstrate my points as they fell forth. Almost universal in scenes having been seen are the choices from two wildly diverse motion pictures, the first being the famed You want me to hold the chicken scene from Five Easy Pieces. The other iconic scene is the I could have been a contender, I could have been somebody scene from On the Waterfront, in which Marlon Brando and Rod Steiger exchange a classic dramatic fugue in which the viewer sees the truth and, after a time, so does Terry Molloy--too late for the truth to do him any good.

Primed with the text of these scenes and the anticipation of the effect they will have on audiences, I launch into the discussion of scene, clicking off elements, anticipating my arrival at the examples which I'll get to read. You want me to hold the chicken. I want you to hold the chicken between your knees.

But before reaching that joyous and explosive part of the lecture, I found myself aware of an important missing link in the genome of the scene, important enough to have me on hold for several long moments as I scribbled down notes, words really that were so hastily scrawled that I still cant make them all out. Not to worry, I remember the intent.

The hidden element or the element I have conveniently forgotten; take your choice.

It is zeitgeist, the spirit of the time, the essence of the culture in which the scene takes place. There are some scenes, many stories, in which the zeitgeist forces the issue, is there presenting itself with the insistance of the porter at the gate in Macbeth. Usually war stories have their zeitgeist built in, whether it is Henry V, wanting an excuse to annex France, or Lyndon B. Johnson wanting to free Viet Nam.

Scenes without zeitgeist can or should be called floaters because the cellular organism that is the scene does just that, floats around until details, events, and attitudes give us the dramatic information we need as readers/viewers to make sense of the passions behind the action portrayed. Why was it so important for Antigone to bury her brother. Why did her uncle want the brother, his nephew, left buried. What zeitgeist resided in that series of events?

Scholars are still furiously debating the merits and definitions of text, textuality, and narrative, their respective arguments pushing story and character to the rear of the metaphorical bus. Hopeful of gaining some greater insight into the psychology of text and narrator and reader participation, I find myself swarmed with details sufficient to occlude the story. Bad move. The scholarly focus, if there is to be any, should be on the zeitgeist, the time of the story, the attitude of the then characters--as in the concept of a slave and his master changing roles in The Frogs--and the attitude of the audience. What effect, for instance, did zeitgeist have on the early audiences of Romeo and Julietts when Mercutio proclaims, "A plague on both their houses!?

And here's me going out on a limb with this observation, What effect does zeitgeist have on the behavior of Blache Dubois in Streetcar? My limb is that Streetcar doesn't play as well as it once did, is not as likely to last as, say, The Glass Menagerie.

No matter; all in good time.

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