Saturday, July 5, 2008

Double Indemnity

Some days ago you wrote of the almost persistent duality arguing for possession of a character, a condition given great visual interpretation by such mimes as Jacques Tati, Marcel Marceau, and on this side of the Atlantic, the redoubtable Bill Irwin. You could hardly expect to write a scene without bringing such dramatic duality to mind. True enough about your observation that all characters believe themselves right, these mimes are instructive because of the way they bring to the stage a lurching duality, where the audience can see the tug o'war.

Comes time now to bring two or more characters on stage the better to enhance drama, the better to bring forth the rigor of counterpoint, orchestrated with Bach-like acuity. One character alone merely fights the should I this or should I that encounter, admittedly in a small arena--the arena of self--but more about that in a moment or two. Two or more similarly afflicted characters bring forth the dramatic equivalent of counterpoint, which is to say subtext. The gap between what a character says and what the character actually feels/believes,'thinks/wants. The gap between Oliver Twist saying Please, sir, may I have some more, sir? and Thanks, no more for me.

One character on stage alone for too long has two major fall-back positions, the How had it all begun? retrospective evaluation of the events bringing him to this sorry state, or the other state, the delusional state in which the audience begins to recognize it is involved in a conspiracy with the author at the expense of the single character, who does not seem aware of the delusional atmosphere. After a time, we begin to suspect that Don Quixote is deluded and Sancho Panza a pragmatist. If we read far enough into the narrative, our opinions of each become blurred. They become excellent, shifting points of reference, points on which we may construct a story. It is arguable that the master and slave characters in Aristophanes The Frogs were the spiritual and dramatic brothers of Abbott and Costello, of Martin and Lewis, of Rowan and Martin. Not to forget Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, because they have brought the pairs of opposites full circle to the point where Felix Unger can leave a note on the refrigerator he shares with Oscar Madison, signed with his initials, F.U. More to the point, it is instructive to look at the definition of each individual and the chemistry produced by the difference between their personalities. Therein lies the yeast for story, for invention, for discovery.

Thus is it a good thing to take two or more characters on a metaphoric journey to the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily, at which point they will be forced to steer a path between Scylla, a formidable monster, and Charybdis, a yet more formidable one. From this extraordinary gauntlet of monsters, we have the trope of being between Scylla and Charybdis, which means moving away from one menace or, if you will, one inner conflict, only to become beset by another. In The Odyssey, the goddess Circe counsels Odysseus to stick closer to Scylla as being the least dangerous of the two. By the time Aeneas came through the Straight of Messina in The Aeneid, Circe had once again changed her mind about Scylla (don't trust goddesses or Republicans) and reduced it to a precipitous outcropping, whence between Scylla and Charybdis became transmogrified to Between a rock and a hard place, which is the place for readers to see their principal characters lodged. Characters who are not in tight spots tend to lose their appeal. An illustrative comparison comes to mind: A character who is not caught between some rock and some hard place is like an individual relating to us his or her dreams in great detail. We cannot wait to escape those great details.

Start then with two or more characters, individually conflicted, coming in contact with one another in a tight situation: Emma Bovary caught between her boredom with her life and her sense that the fictional world of romances will provide excitement. Consider Huck Finn on a raft with a runaway slave. Consider Nora Helmer caught between an intransigent culture and a patronizing husband. Consider the occupants of the stagecoach in De Maupassant's Bouile de Suif. Consider Charlie and Terry Molloy in a taxicab in On the Waterfront.

See where that will get you.

Better yet, see where it will prevent you from diverting to.

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