Thursday, July 7, 2016

Thirteen Ways of Avoiding an Elephant

In the world of staged drama, once the play has begun its course, the fourth wall, separating the audience from the cast of players, is by convention not to be broken. A number of the early dramas took care of this matter by having a chorus address the audience, offering bits of relevant information, perhaps as in Shakespeare's Henry V, reminding the audience they will need to imagine battlefields and the channel, separating England from France.

Once the story has begun, theatrical convention is quick to remind us, the action of the play becomes reality. We of the audience are, in effect, eavesdropping on the characters. All too often, we become aware of times when the fourth wall was broken, when a character speaks directly to the audience. 

A modern example is the way the character of Frank Underwood, as portrayed by Kevin Spacey, in The House of Cards, appears not only to speak directly to us, he is apparently inviting us into a conspiracy against the other members of the cast.

A similar technique, often spoken of as "the aside," may be found in novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, extending well into the twentieth with writers such as Aldous Huxley who, insightful and incisive as he was, appeared not to be able to resist slipping in the occasional paragraph meant more for the reader than the other characters.

Evolution being what it is, twenty-first-century narrative tends to be conveyed through the triad of narrative, interior monologue, and dialogue, the emerging modern writer content to delegate filtration of the dramatic information to the characters.

And yet, we have a valuable fourth-wall presence with us in this century, emphasizing the personality of the kinds of story we now think of as modern. In essence, this personality manifests itself with the meme of evocation rather than description. 

To put the matter in another way, even the characters are described by the way other characters react to them, the locales and settings evoked by the likes of an allergy-prompted sneeze, a shiver that seems unintended, a sense of awe that leaves a mouth agape a moment or two too long.

The contemporary fourth wall is subtext, in its way a reminder how prescient in some ways was the troubled presence of Ernest Miller Hemingway. Story, he wrote, is an iceberg, with only an eighth of it visible, the vital seven-eights below the surface, unseen, yet making its presence felt because of the ways all the characters react to their awareness of the material below the surface of the story.

Two splendid examples of Hemingway's understanding and mastery of this subtext device are found in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," and "Hills Like White Elephants," both of which evoke as tangible emotional atmosphere the basic themes of the stories.

Hemingway was often a victim of the device he used so well when, in such novels as Across the River and into the Trees," he avoided the technique. More contemporary writers, say Louise Erdrich, Deborah Eisenberg, and Francine Prose, have demonstrated their ability to take us as readers to places where we may well experience the discomfort and uneasiness of being plunked down into the very moral dilemmas we took up reading to avoid.

In short, writers have long understood how, regardless of time, place, or culture, there is always some elephant in the living room in which we are now present, conveying the presence of the elephant without calling it by name, making us well aware of how we are given to joining the other characters in their attempts to avoid the obvious.

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