Wednesday, 3 February 2010

The Play's the Thing, Sometimes

Last semester I took a module on playwriting. It probably isn't something I'd have picked had I more of a choice (we had to pick a 'drama' module), but I'm glad that I did it. It was interesting.

As part of our reading for the module, we were given Stuart Spencer's The Playwright's Guidebook, a very useful book that breaks down the challenge of writing a play with a few handy 'tools', under the condition that any or all of these tools can be cast aside if they don't work. If nothing else, it's a book that can help you figure out exactly what it is you're trying to write in the first place. Which is usually a good place to start.

The playwriting module was specifically about theatrical plays; plays that are acted out on a fixed stage rather than radio plays or TV episodes or film scripts. In modern times and culture, the world of the theatre and its audience is pretty small compared to some other media. In the popular mindset, a lot of people assume that the medium has been superseded by film or television in most areas, apart from interactive performances like panto and other such quaint (and usually Shakespearean) experiences. As such, it's not surprising that the first thing Spencer does in his book is try to justify the worthwhileness of the play. He does this by placing it in a spectrum, like so:

Three columns, FILM, THEATER and PROSE. Film is described as immediate and visceral; prose is described as contemplative and analytical; theater is described as both, in the middle of a spectrum

The basic idea is that film, or any such screen medium, is based upon our mostly passive experience of images (and sounds) with very little conscious processing required. Prose, on the other hand, necessarily entails a more active process on the part of the recipient and allows more analysis on the part of a narrator within the text itself. By Spencer's own admission, this spectrum is not the whole story. He grants that these are 'propensities' and that both media are able to do other things. And theatre, he seems to say, shares all these propensities.

But I'm not so sure about this spectrum.

First objection: in Spencer's conception of prose, no distinction appears to be made between the author's contemplation and analysis within the text, the reader's less-than-conscious mental intepretation as they are reading, and their contemplation following this interpretation. Spencer dismisses the relevance of the latter to his spectrum in his evaluation of film because it applies to all media, so that can be put aside for prose too. But Spencer is still lumping together two different kinds of 'analysis': the first (A) entailing how the text is engaged in the analysis of some subject, and the second (B) entailing how the reader is engaged in the analysis of the text.

A visceral/analytical gradient makes sense in terms of the latter: at one end, the medium always requires the brain to take an active role in interpretation (because language is used); at the other end, it does not. Spencer himself points out that only a film with no dialogue would be completely visceral; a film with speaking characters would be a little further along the spectrum towards the analytical end because we'd have to interpret what they're saying, but it would still not be like a novel where everything about the fictional world is presented through language.

Does the visceral/analytical gradient make sense when applied to the medium itself, rather than a person's interpretation of it? It would seem to, by Spencer's logic: the camera, the narrative eye of the film, can be pointed at something in a way that is suggestible, but it does not pull apart or evaluate the subject in the way that the narrator of a novel can. Even if a film had a voiceover, this would merely be a voice overlayed; in prose, this analysis exists on the same level—in the language—as everything else that is presented about the fictional world, so it permeates and moulds the fictional world itself. In this case, 'visceral' means, in terms of the role of the narrative eye, to be a direct link with the fictional world without the narrator's interference. Prose has an intrinsic narrating voice, whereas film does not.

It's probably safe to assume that A is always followed by B, as long as there's a recipient around. So what's the point in making the distinction? Well, the kind of analysis involved in B can apply without A, meaning that a medium can require analysis on the part of the recipient courtesy of language, without having that other kind of analysis courtesy of the intrinsic narrator. Like in theatre, for example.

We can call theatre, as a live audiovisual performance, immediate and visceral. The use of characters with speech also gives it an analytical element. But there are differences here: plays (and, for that matter, films with speaking characters) are only 'analytical' in the sense of B, in that the use of language requires an extra layer of active interpretation on the part of the recipient. But this is only the interpretation of the speech of one of the characters—it is not the interpretation of the whole presented world. The physical presence of characters flat-out prevents the world from being constructed entirely of language; their words automatically become either the speech of a character or that of a voiceover—a kind of narrator on top, rather than there being an analysis intrinsic to the narrative. So for all Spencer's discussion of the various ways in which he describes media as either 'analytical' or 'visceral', his 'spectrum' only accounts for this in a more limited sense than he lets on.

It also needs pointing out that Spencer's designation of 'both' does not suggest a gradient. It suggests that prose has some properties, and film has others, and theatre has all of the above. Taking his admission that each medium has its strengths over the others into account, we might say that prose is better for analytical stuff than theatre but that theatre still has some aspects that could be considered analytical, in which case his diagram is not incorrect, albeit only true in a limited sense. But then if theatre is not the best medium for being analytical, and it is not as good as film for the visceral, what exactly is there to commend it?

Spencer is clearly trying to use this 'spectrum' to suggest that theatre gives you the best of both worlds. Evidence, in case you have any reason to doubt this:

The fact remains that theatre is the most vigorous way of telling a story. How could it be otherwise? It is theatre that combines all the best parts of those other media we also enjoy.

A strange conclusion for someone who has pointed out himself the kinds of things that prose and film can do that theatre cannot. The fact that film can hit us with an emotionally charged close-up is surely the best thing about it. The fact that in prose the whole world can be constructed from simmering, bubbling metaphor with an inconceivably subtle interplay between the meanings of every single word is surely the best thing about that. Those are the strengths of these media respectively. Theatre can do neither.

So what's theatre good for? Well, there are a few advantages I'd be tempted to mark out in favour of theatre; 'propensities', as Spencer might describe them, if not necessarily always true. For one, as Spencer points out himself, theatre offers a different kind of immediacy: that of having live actors before you, and potentially an interactive element. Issues of narrative form aside, you don't get that kind of experience in either of the other media. It can offer a much more lucid, insistent encounter than mere images flashing before your eyes.

Secondly, the view of the stage does not have to be like that of the camera; i.e. the eye of the camera is necessarily framed, whereas the eye of the audience is not. Even if the stage has a proscenium arch above, it can be ignored entirely and in my experience plays have used to great effect a kind of fluid fragmentation of the stage in an utterly engrossing way, even with irrelevant props from the last scene still visible. Specific directorial decisions aside, I think the David Glass Ensemble's adaptation of Gormenghast had a much better chance at being successful in the theatre than the BBC's version on TV because, though neither could hope to achieve exactly what Mervyn Peake's prose does in the novel, the stage leant itself to a much more effective translation of the castle's sense of dreamlike fragmentation, abstractness and related psychological despair. As the price of its brand of intense focus, the camera is always finding a view with definitive edges, which Gormenghast does not have.

And thirdly, the biggest lesson I learned from trying to write a play: the theatre encourages a certain kind of discipline where it can be very tempting to get distracted in both film and prose. Character-be-damned spectacle has its place in the arts and the world would be a dull place without it, but it won't work on stage. And there's nothing like the theatre for having two people sit down and talk—though, granted, it'd have to be one hell of a well-written play for me to take that for an hour and a half without shifting in my seat.

There may be more advantages to theatre. I've seen a dozen or so plays by now that I can remember, and tried my hand at playwriting only for a very short time, so my experience is pretty limited. But though Spencer's experience of theatre will vastly outweigh mine, to me he seems to make the same infuriating mistake that so many people seem to make with their medium of choice: he has to insist that this medium is unconditionally the best—even after conceding a hundred different ways that it...well, isn't.

Labels: , , , ,


At 4 February 2010 at 01:07 , Anonymous amelia said...

maybe he should have used circles... or tables... instead of a spectrum.

At 4 February 2010 at 01:19 , Anonymous Chris said...

Maybe. I think he just needs to separate out his definitions a little more. As it is, he kind of cheats his way to his conclusion--but it ends up as something of a non-sequitur.