Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Abyss: Long- or Short-Term Rental


Great plays of the western repertory all confront their central characters with the unthinkable, breaking them open to events that would not have occurred without the force of their secrets, their obsessions, and their fears.  Willy Loman, Blanche Dubois, Nora Helmer, Oedipus, King Lear, Hamlet, all find themselves at the edge of the abyss from which there is no escape. We know what drove them there, but what draws us to step beyond our own comfort zone to gaze into it with them?  We are, after all, sitting in the safety of an auditorium, a few hundred essentially disinterest spectators?
Why is this connection between the play and the pits of our stomachs so vital to experiencing theatre as an emotional watershed?  For it is emotion that finally matters most, not plot, not devices, ideas, language or beauty - all of which add to the sum of our enjoyment.  It is the presence in the dramatic architecture of the stuff that moves us to the extremities of feeling.
First, the writer’s goal is to build a play around the transforming emotion of the central character, and even the most painstaking research into the psyches of purely fictive alternatives is unlikely to be as intimate or as authentic as the life and experience of the playwright himself.  The writer is well able to borrow emotion from the narratives of other people’s lives, but one of the most important steps for a writer is the one that teaches acceptance of self, thus to make his work both personal and distinctive.  So yes, you’re saying how valuable it is for the writer to be able to observe behavior in others, but his greatest asset is the willingness to go deeply into his own private world, there to uncover and explore the dimly lit corners of his own struggle.
In that dim, murky light, the writer knows to confront again some of the painful situations where surrender or denial seemed the only bearable options.  To revisit some of the deepest feelings, the most intractable resentments, the most passionate and impractical ideals, and transmute them into characters who will breathe new life into them.
For the writer, to recreate oneself is to fight old battles on different, perhaps more equitable, terms.  It is even possible, as Tennessee Williams did with Blanche Dubois, to achieve a kind of immortality.
This approach to the “hidden hand” in drama allows the writer’s deepest emotions and beliefs to be the determining causality of his dramatic architecture, becoming slowly more visible to us as it is triggered by the central character’s encounters with the forces that oppose and support him.  His emotional journey—the Hero’s interior journey—beckons from somewhere within the writer himself, waiting for the call to action and emerging this time with the benefit of a guiding light and the luxury (sometimes burdensome) of choice.
Form in drama is a dynamic force that gives emotional definition to a character in response to a sequence of catalytic events.  That definition can only be revealed in full when the DNA of the story is complete.  What do we mean when we say Hamlet? Do we mean the whole play in all its theatrical specificity, or do we mean a particular emotional expression of the Prince’s painful indecisiveness, made up of duty, self-loathing, and doubt, that cause a series of events to unfold?
 We see in this unfolding the DNA of the story that Shakespeare named “Hamlet”.
The idea that form is not empty or an abstraction is reinforced in Suzanne Langer’s book, which she calls “a theory of art”: Feeling and Form.
Yet forms are either empty abstractions, or they do have a content; and artistic forms have a very special one, namely their import. They are logically expressive, or significant, forms. They are symbols for the articulation of feeling, and convey the elusive and yet familiar pattern of sentience . . .. They belong to the same category as language, though their logical form is a different one, and as myth and dream, though their function is not the same. (52)

Creating the sequence of events in a play is not merely “One damn thing after another,” rather it is “One damn thing because of another.”    Causality connects the dots in a compelling narrative.  Causality is the presence on stage of dramatic gravity, the consequential fall of the previous domino as it strikes the one in front of it until the entire row is depleted.   Understanding a character is only possible after we have seen him across a full spectrum of his potential, chaff and grain together.
If we expect our story to have significant dramatic power, we must make sure its end is contained in the beginning and the beginning contained (revisited, if you like) in the end. The central character carries this freight (as) he reveals who and what he’s made of (as) he deals with the sequential increments of the story.
It makes all the difference in the world if the writer believes that embedded in the central character’s story is the DNA of the story—strands of myth and dream spun from the essential being of the character; not like pieces of an erector set.

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