Monday, August 17, 2015

Character Attitde and Audience Mirth: The True Boxoffice of Drama

With the possible exceptions of James Fenimore Cooper's laconic character, Natty Bumpo, Owen Wister's taciturn Virginian, and Harper Lee's taciturn Atticus Finch, most of the enduring characters in the literature of this country and abroad have what may be with some justification called an attitude.

Matters little if the character were male or female.  Who, for instance, is willing to stand up with the nomination of Scarlet O'Hara for a Woman of the Year Award?  We know Holden Caulfield is wound up tighter than a knock-off Rolex watch, and even the seemingly shy Clyde Griffiths, from the pages of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy had it within him to let his pregnant girlfriend "fall" over the side of a boat when it suited his prospects to have her out of the picture.

In order to carry the dramatic burden of a major or lead character in a novel, the individual must have some kind of attitude that will cause him/her to some form of combustion in the present work.  

If not that, then the memory of  having done something in the past that is of a disturbing enough nature to cause that character guild, regret, or the hubris of thinking a significant past action, however violent and/or vindictive, was justified.

Such reckoning might suggest the need to pile a burdensome backstory on the standout characters.  Loyal, loving, considerate as Hamlet's pal, Horatio, is, when the time comes to discuss the effects each character had in the play and what he or she contributed, Horatio is given short shrift in any critical conversation.  

The two women, Queen Gertrude, and Ophelia are left to wriggle on the hook of self-doubt, grief, and guilt.  Even though both roles were originally performed by boy actors, Shakespeare gave each woman character sufficient cause to feel the bewilderment and desolation set loose as Hamlet begins planning out his revenge

The new King, Claudius, his factotum, Polonious, and the finely paired Rosenkrantz and Guildernstern all have attitudes, which lead them to believe in the rightness of their behavior.  This an attitude that, having been present in each to a lesser degree than it was, might not have left the last act of the play so littered with corpses.

Ophelia's brother, Laertes, has an easy go of things at first.  If we notice him, we scarcely summon the fear that his sister's suicide after having been dumped by Hamlet, will cause his transformation.  

If being ordinary does not give a character significant traction within a story, being mild, bereft of all but the most surface politeness will undercut them almost as much as they can possibly endure.  Attitude in significant enough presence to cause the audience to be on the alert for some explosion, some melt-down or false step, becomes the trigger.  

The audience sees in actuality or metaphor the tightening of the character's fingers on the trigger.  Now, all we need is the bang before we understand we are in a circumstance where the outcome is present, extensive, but somehow deserved.

The bang translates as the precipitous event, the clash, the confrontation, whether a duel, a pitched battle, a competition such as a rodeo or horse race, the recognition that this battle, either taking place or about to erupt full tilt is the throw-down we've been waiting for ever since we met the principal characters.

Time after time, we realize yet another way Story differs from Reality.  In the former, we want voluble, serious argument, where one or more of the arguers is likely to lose composure in a fine roman candle spray of an eruption.  In the latter, we feel better served if the payoff comes from mature, considerate and considered discourse.  

We may wish for the combative, but we are secretly pleased when all sides sign off on a bloodless accord in time for the next performance of a story wherein strong-minded sorts are all too willing to limp their way to closure.

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