“The American writer […] has his hands full in trying to understand, describe and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
– Philip Roth, “Writing American Fiction,” Commentary, 1961
Happy new year!
I read that quote last night, and it seemed to sum up our hallucinogenic new reality fairly well, as well as, in an indirect way, the pickle now facing those of us in the arts. When reality itself seems to beggar the most baroque inventions, one has to ask oneself some questions about what art means now.
In that spirit, allow me to articulate some articles of faith. One of the happiest developments of my autumn was teaching an STC Master Class on Dramaturgy, which served as a crash course reeducation in dramaturgical first principles. Consider these 10 commandments, then, as a kind of dramaturgical prayer for the year passed and a hopeful but vigilant look forward.
I’ve written in the past about the artistic importance of shunning sheer cloudy vagueness, “newspeak,” and other such Orwellianisms, only to awake to a world of “fake news.” I even find myself doing it. It’s always easier to fall back on clumsy portmanteaus such as “Shakespearean” or “Hemingwayesque” when writing about art rather than, you know, writing about the real thing. It’s a form of lazy thinking, and it has a deleterious effect, in both art and life.
I do not truckle to those people that Alfred Hitchock called the “probabilists.” You know the ones, always objecting to plot twists because they’re not “realistic.” First of all, sometimes reality isn’t realistic, and second of all, such nitpickings have the effect of depriving the author of moral and intellectual agency, reducing them to a mere transcriber of reality. For me, the more interesting question to ask of a play is, why is this play unrealistic? What is the author trying to say? As Aristotle once said, in his own riposte to the probabilists, “the job of the historian is to be faithful to a specific truth, whereas the playwright is faithful to universal truths.” When understood correctly, the dramaturg’s job is nothing less than the decoding of universal truths and secrets, embedded in the text.
I once had a professor who instructed young dramaturgs to always “remember the sensorium.” This is a fancy Latinate way of saying that theatre is not literature. It is a live art, a performing art, one that happens in real time and space. I was reminded of this recently when reading the opening of Hamlet. Most directors cut it way down to the Ghost’s entrance or omit it altogether (the Ghost appears two scenes later), but there’s a reason why Shakespeare almost always starts his plays with short, simple scenes filled with un-poetic monosyllables, witty dialogue, and tense physical business. He was in the business of grabbing hold of the groundlings in the pit and keeping their attention. One always has to read a play in three dimensions. Some of Shakespeare’s best poetry is never said aloud, but rather of the theatrical kind.
Micro has to meet macro. The best way of understanding a play is not on its feet but by taking a bird’s eye view, fitting all the pieces together.
Speaking of Aristotle, memorize these two lists:
In Greek plays, Plot tends to be king, whereas in Shakespearean drama Character and Thought vie for control, and post-Romanticism we venture into sublime realms of Spectacle, Music, and other immoral sensations. Remember: absence of form (absence of reversals, absence of recognition) can also be a form. Just take Hamlet’s Act 4.
The best day of my year is the one after we’ve announced the new season and I get cracking, putting together glossaries, reading through my favorite Shakespeare criticism, and assembling a ragpicker’s motley of dramaturgical bits into a whole universe. I’ve got six books on my desk right now just waiting to be dog-eared and thumbnailed.
6. Cast a wide and very skeptical net.
Speaking of which, while on the subject of secondary research, make sure your literary diet is a catholic but also a skeptical one. Always bear in mind the historical or cultural biases of who is writing what, and at what time. For example, Jan Kott’s Shakespeare is a Polish existentialist from the post-World War II era, whereas Northrop Frye’s Shakespeare is a Canadian mystic interested in pagan rituals, and George Bernard Shaw’s Shakespeare is a jealous vegetarian socialist music critic with a jaundiced view of professional theater. Not that they don’t all have fascinating insights on the Bard, but they are necessarily partial ones.
Know the theater well enough to know when a playwright is using elements from outside it to enrich it. For example, part of the intoxicating effect of plays such as Romeo and Juliet and Love’s Labor’s Lost lies in Shakespeare’s introduction of courtly verse forms such as the sonnet into populist comic drama. Similarly, in The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway revolutionized 20th-century prose with a form nearly as eloquent and variable as Shakespeare’s verse. And he did so, in part, by attacking literature’s “literariness,” by removing the eloquent run-on sentences of peers such as Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Sometimes, the only way to save the theater (or literature) is to destroy it.
Some processes can’t be prepared for, some structures can’t be studied. Certain kinds of works, new works, surprising and necessary ones, can only be created, on their feet, in the room. Which is not to say that understanding play structure or being prepared are meaningless. Quite the contrary. New works are impossible to create without both.
As I wrote once:
“The trick with a new play is to approach it as if it’s a classic: everything is there for a reason, and you need to figure it out without first recommending changes you think should be made. The trick with a classic is to approach it as if it’s a new play: this was a play written by a living person for a real company, once upon a time, and you have to understand how it was operating as a new work to decode its meaning for today.”
It can be a humbling thing, trying to find that last piece of the puzzle for the perfect season, and not having the absolute right project. Remember to check your ego and your privilege. Return to first principles. Read these articles of faith. You have a job to do.
After all, as another famous New York writer, Woody Allen, once said, “80% of life is just showing up.” To do anything else would be un-American.