Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On Narrative II: Flat Forms

You gotta read 99 Seats' defense of narrative. A sampling:

I've said it before, but I'll say it again: we often talk about the essential importance of theatre and of the work we do, it's connection to our most basic humanity...and bascially say it's like broccoli or brussel sprouts and our audience's palates aren't refined enough to truly savor it. They need to go to culinary school and learn why the things they actually like and enjoy are awful, awful, awful and this other thing is just so much better because they won't enjoy it. And then we're shocked to find little support for our institutions.

And Isaac provides some useful definitions:

(a) "An account of a series of events, facts, etc., given in order and with the establishing of connections between them; a narration, a story, an account."

(b) In literary criticism: "The part of a text, esp. a work of fiction, which represents the sequence of events, as distinguished from that dealing with dialogue, description, etc.; narration as a literary method or genre."

(c) In structuralist and post-structuralist theory: a representation of a history, biography, process, etc., in which a sequence of events has been constructed into a story in accordance with a particular ideology; esp. in grand narrative n. [after French grand récit (1979 in the passage translated in quot. 1984)] a story or representation used to give an explanatory or justificatory account of a society, period, etc.

As Isaac points out, the definition of narrative we are using is important.

First off, there are two separate questions.

The first is "Does theater need a narrative" in the sense of "Should there be an order of things and connection between them?" Even most non-linear playwrights probably answers that question with "Yes." That's how I feel, even though I tend not to work linearly (although I do write linearly).

The second is, "Does theater need a narrative" in the sense of "Should there be a unity of order and connection?" or, put another way, "Should there be a linear narrative?"

Aristotle had a very clear answer to this, which was yes there should always be a linear progression of time and events. In fact, Aristotle insisted on this to a degree that even the most ardent realists today probably wouldn't insist on today: he wanted the events to unfold in real time, in one place. I mean, there's no problem inherent in that - if I remember correctly, 12 Angry Men progresses that way.

It's undeniable that sometimes a linear narrative is soppy, or unintellectual, or reductive. It's also undeniable that some of the greatest works we have to date have a linear narrative.

So When Does It Work And When Does It Not?
That's the real question. When does narrative work, and when does it not? That's the real question to solve.

Here's my attempt at an answer: when I stage managed for Moises Kaufman, one of the pieces of advice that he gave about building work was that when you have put a piece of work together, the different elements of the piece should not be working together to do the same thing.

If you have a straightforward, linear plot, the complexity should go someplace else. In 12 Angry Men, you don't need to have complexity in time and space; it's still not a simple movie because there's complexity in the 12 relationships on the stage (seriously, track from moment to moment the status shifts and relationships, and you'll realize that your brain is processing a lot), or the constant attempt to reconstruct a scene from scratch. The reason we find a straightforward and linear plot to be insipid is if it's populated by insipid characters, insipid dialog, insipid ideas, and insipid emotions.

Not all linear narratives are straight-forward.

The analogy I would put forward is to the idea of stereotype. In Anne Bogart's essay on stereotype in A Director Prepares, Bogart quite rightly distinguishes between stereotypes that have, as she says, "a fire lit under them," as opposed to flat, useless stereotypes.

The Movement Theater Company, for instance, had an excellent one man show called Last Laugh at La Mama. There were only two characters, played by one actor, and both were gross black stereotypes -- one was a Stepin Fetchit type, and the other was a prototypical "acting white" character.

Stereotypes. But the way they were used in opposition with each other, the use of the uncomfortable laugh, and -- really -- the humanity which Eric Lockley brought them to life lit a fire under them, and made them complex. Even though we sneer at stereotypes in terrible pop culture (e.g. the portrayal of women in James Bond, as a random example) and even though many of us will fight every day to make our characters not stereotypes, stereotype is still a powerful tool.

But to return to 99 Seats' original point: I do still think we should insist on complexity. I do still think we should stand up for the parts of the food we are giving our audience that our healthy. We should try to prepare it well (there's a huge difference between raw greens and greens that cooked well and mixed with other food people like). But I think we're theater bloggers because we want something more.