Monday, May 7, 2012

The DNA of Story


The audience and the story must meet each other on a common emotional landscape, but this encounter must be involuntary if the drama is to have its way with the audience in any meaningful emotional context.
To accomplish this, the story must be more than a mere progression of shocks to the reader’s nervous system, or simple near misses with disaster.  That’s an iceberg, Captain, and you didn’t get assigned to the Titanic for nothing.  If we’re talking comedy, the narrative should be more than a simple joyride in the theme park of the imagination, where suspension of disbelief is not really a prerequisite to our enjoyment, just a series of sphincter-tightening surprises as we hurtle down steep inclines and around precipitous corners of incongruity—the sine qua non of humor.
Whether comedy or tragedy, the story must inspire deeper mining for its payoff, through shale, rock and molten lava, confronting us with more than a sequence of cheap-shot shocks to our conventional expectations.  The writer must be more like one of the mythic gondoliers to the Underworld than a tour guide through the back lot of a movie studio.
The writer must summon the audience to a deeper and sometimes darker place, a place on the order of John Osborne’s play, The Entertainer, where a third-rate comedian struggles to keep his music hall career alive as his own life disintegrates about him.  The writer’s task:  kindle an authentic sense of dread; a sticky awareness that something wicked this way comes.   Henry James in Turn Of The Screw does precisely this.  Furthermore, the dread keeps coming… and coming…and coming, an unending march of army ants.  Think Macbeth, act 5 scene 5, “till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane.”
  The writer must create this dramatic pulse of inexorable procession in the narrative – a kind of emotional electrocardiogram - to which the characters are attached, as if to life support, the insistent beeps reminding us that the situation is critical, but as long as it doesn’t flatline, there’s hope.
There is logic to plot, an inexorable pulsing.  Great plots are driven by some core emotion, betrayal, yearning, jealousy, rage.  This emotion, like the autopilot on a sailing boat, will keep pulling the story back on course, regardless of how leaky the story is or how stormy the emotional climate.
Another metaphor: think of an unforgettable melody – the love theme of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet for example, which keeps reappearing in various forms and moods, or “Here’s That Rainy Day”, played by Oscar Peterson’s Big Six at the Monteux Jazz Festival.   He begins the session by playing a chorus or two of unembellished melody, establishing it in our minds and seducing our feet.  Then the other musicians take over, improvising for, say, fifteen minutes on that theme, but never returning to the actual melody.  Only the basic chord structure remains.  The players may change keys and tempos, but no matter how far afield these departures carry them, what we are hearing is still “Here’s That Rainy Day”.   The DNA of story.
To the drunks in the audience, this might well be no more than another great Oscar Peterson performance, but we would argue that in the mounting excitement of the performance, its riffs, cascading arpeggios, and modulations, there is the presence of something more.  The player moving us through the labyrinths of his own musical landscape, taking us higher and ever higher before sliding into a slow and poignant coda – a homage to the enduring power of Jimmy Van Heusen’s lovely ballad and the legendary Peterson chops.  As Irving Berlin put it in a memorable ballad of his own, The song is ended, but the melody lingers on.  The DNA of story.
So, too, a powerful play lodges its emotional signature in the audience’s subconscious.  Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, with its wrenching narrative device, never leaves the dramatic implication of its title too far from our hearts.  As the story becomes more cautionary, more in violation of everything we want to believe about permanence, more threatening to our own yearnings for love that never dies, the world grows darker for the characters and for us.  The theme is always present, a deepening shadow across our lifelong illusions.  Every sentence, every pause, every nuance, begins to emotionally reverberate, confirming the wider tragic meaning of what is unfolding before us.
Tom Stoppard, in his article “Pragmatic Theatre” in the July, 2001, edition of New York Review of Books, quotes from Next Time I’ll Sing For You, by James Saunders, explaining a similar moment of discovery:
There lies behind everything, and you can believe this or not as you wish, a certain quality which we may call grief. It’s always there, just under the surface, just behind the fa├žade, sometimes very nearly exposed, so that you can dimly see the shape of it as you can see sometimes through the surface of an ornamental pond on a still day, the dark, gross, inhuman outline of a carp gliding slowly past; when you realize suddenly that the carp were always there below the surface, even while the water sparkled in the sunshine, and while you patronized the quaint ducks and the supercilious swans, the carp were down there, unseen.  It bides its time, this quality.  And if you catch a glimpse of it, you may pretend not to notice or you may turn suddenly away and romp with your children on the grass, laughing for no reason.  The name of this quality is grief.

Suddenly, we and the play are one.  The ebb and flow of its emotions, involuntarily experienced by characters who, like us, are helplessly in the grip of the past and their unseverable bondage to it, engage us in a surrender to the feelings we try so hard to keep at a safe distance: fear, pity, hope, rage, all the unsummoned responses to the casual cruelties of others, and our own sense of entitlement.
Without the power of our emotional response to drama, even more
theaters may have been turned into strip malls, bingo parlors, and
storefront churches, haunted by the ghost of one of John Osborne’s most memorable characters, and Lawrence Olivier’s most memorable performances, the desperate, torn, ruined Archie Rice.


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