In my recent exchange with Jacob Zimmer, I took particular exception to his argument that old plays don’t have the same impact anymore that they might once have had because “we are in a different time. Story telling modes change.” My largely unqualified riposte then was “plays are not stories. Whatever a play may do, it does not tell a story.” I promised to expand on this statement in a future post. This is that post.

Let me say first of all that Jacob is by no means alone in associating performance with narration. Having spent a lot of time on theatre company’s websites recently, I can attest to the prevalence of the language of storytelling in their mandates and self-descriptions. It would be easy to pick examples at random. The same discourse also flourishes on theatre blogs and in interviews with theatre artists, especially writers. Theatre is referred to as “a narrative form” and dramatists are described as theatrical “story teller[s].” In a recent interview, even Tom Stoppard tries to jump on the bandwagon, although his interviewer, Victoria Glendinning, doesn’t quite let him get away with it:

He loves George Bernard Shaw, because “Shaw understands how theatre works. Theatre is storytelling.” This is wilful. The more usual view is that Shaw is the polemical playwright par excellence. Stoppard’s own plays would not normally be categorised primarily as “well-told stories” either, but as complex, language-led works of imagination.

For a final, very local, and very timely example, we only need to turn to this past weekend’s Globe and Mail, where Kelly Nestruck reports that the new artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Antoni Cimolino, promises to “put the actor and the text firmly at the centre of what we do … In a culture that has become so visually oriented, I think people crave the kind of storytelling that relies above all on the uniquely compelling power of the spoken word.” Nor is Cimolino alone in thinking of a return to the text as a return to storytelling; as Nestruck notes, one of the most strident critics of Cimolino predecessor Des McAnuff, Terry McCabe, made the same connection: “‘Directing that seeks to control the text, instead of subordinating itself to the text, is bad directing,’ McCabe wrote, excoriating McAnuff for entertaining ‘by means of sleight-of-hand rather than by storytelling.’”

I’m not the first to notice this trend either. Howard Shalwitz did too, in a great essay I’ve linked to before:

I started to notice how many of the speakers had used the word “storytelling” at one point or other as a virtual synonym for the word “theatre.” And I obsessed over this for a while, and began noticing in theatre brochures and websites how ubiquitous the words “story” and “storytelling” had become as descriptors for what we do. (“Great stories well told.” “New stories that will touch your heart.” Etc.) And this struck me as odd. When I was growing up, I thought of storytelling as something adults did with children at bedtime; whereas theatre, which I attended regularly from the age of ten, was quite different. It was about spectacle and language and music and magic and actors and emotions and ideas. We certainly wouldn’t call Beckett a storyteller, and even to call Shakespeare a storyteller would be fairly reductive.

I largely agree with Shalwitz — except that I don’t think stories are just for kids, and I know many tales that feature beautiful language, magic, emotions, and ideas. But that doesn’t mean that those tales are anything like theatre, or theatre anything like those tales.

As I’ve found out since I started looking into this topic, I was unwittingly participating in a larger exchange about the use or abuse of narrative in contemporary performance, a teacup-tempest triggered by an essay Deborah Pearson wrote in Exeunt (Pearson, living in the UK at the time, is now the Associate Artistic Producer of SummerWorks: small world!). The Guardian’s theatre blog usefully linked to and summarized the various responses. That debate focused on the merits and problems of narrative per se — whether non-narrative performance, if such a thing can indeed exist, is morally, politically, and/or aesthetically preferable. So let me make one thing clear: I take no issue with the notion that plays have plots, nor with the idea that a performance has a narrative structure, or can always have such a structure imposed on it by an audience. However, although a play’s plot may be summarized as or translated into a story (in which case you wind up with the tale of a play, narrated by a reader or audience member), that’s still a far cry from saying that plays tell stories. I suppose one could even say that a script, if read as a text, tells a story in the form of dialogue, much as, say, an epistolary novel might. Even though there isn’t a narrator, the text still has the author as its point of origin, as its absent but notionally controlling storyteller. But that’s not theatre.

The problem arises, I think, out of a confusion of narrative with narration, of a story-like structure with an act of telling. None of this is exactly new. Aristotle pretty much argued the same thing well over two-thousand years ago: plays (well, he’s writing about tragedy, of course, but the point can be generalized) are “a representation of an action … in the mode of dramatic enactment, not narrative.” The most important element of tragedy for Aristotle, famously, was “the structure of events,” the plot — since “tragedy is a representation not of people as such but actions and life” — characters serve to portray action, not vice versa. And yet, despite his insistence on the importance of narrative in the sense of plot, he is adamant that what mainly distinguishes tragedy from epic is that the former depends not on narration but on enactment. The action a play represents is enacted, it is made present through the actors’ bodies, through their portrayal of characters; it is not told in the form of a story. A play, lacking a narrator, is not a narration.

Conversely, the idea that theatre tells stories can perhaps be traced back to Brecht, who, in revisiting Aristotle’s contrast between drama and epic, and in identifying an epic theatre as a means of recharging the stage’s political power, wrote of a stage that itself “begins to narrate.” However, Brecht’s sense of narration also has little to do with “storytelling.” The epic form of presentation is for him almost entirely a means of creating distance, of reminding the audience that they are not watching an action, but only its simulacrum; that characters are not people, and that they and their deeds should be assessed and judged, not serve as objects of identification or sympathy. The story Brecht’s stage tells is the story of illusionism itself: his is a theatre that (at least in theory) relinquishes a mode of representation that allows the audience to feel for the characters, to involve themselves emotionally in the action, in favour of a mode that forces them to think about the characters, reminds them that these are not real people but factors in an argument, and aims at intellectual insight. Actors “narrating” their characters contribute to this distanced mode of reception. This obviously has next to nothing to do with the concept of theatrical story-telling that underpins the contemporary discourse I’ve described. If anything, in that discourse, storytelling promises immersion, emotional attachment, and a rousing experience — all the things Brecht associated with the “dramatic” or Aristotelian theatre he was trying to overcome.

As I was writing this post, our puppy Basil decided to demonstrate just how he feels about Aristotle.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Why exactly do I find this notion that theatre tells stories so objectionable? Two reasons: first, because it’s sloppy thinking. Theatre doesn’t “tell” anything. Nothing at all. And second, because its apparent influence on playwrights now has them writing scripts that seem to do their best to avoid being plays, without any of the formal political payoff Brecht had in mind.

Theatre doesn’t tell anything. A performed play doesn’t tell anything. A character might. An actor can’t — or shouldn’t, at least not without a purpose (such as Brecht’s). This applies even to one-person performances: the show doesn’t tell a story. What the show does is put a character in front of you, in some kind of situation, defined or uncertain, and let that character speak. That’s the most stripped down kind of drama, of course, but it’s also the closest the form comes to storytelling — and that’s not especially close. Moments of narration occur all the time in all kinds of plays, to be sure, and there is nothing inherently undramatic or untheatrical about them at all (elsewhere, I’ve written at very great length about Shakespeare’s reliance on narrative as a dramatic tool). But that’s precisely the point: moments of storytelling can be integrated into a theatrical performance, they can be rendered dramatic, they can be enacted — but the theatrical performance itself is not an act of storytelling. It’s always an enactment first, and a narration second.

What happens when a character narrates? Take a famous example — say the ghost’s account of his own murder in Hamlet. A great narrative sequence. A passage that conjures up the event in extraordinarily vivid language — the sort of language that might make a listener feel as if she had really been there, really saw it happen. Immersive storytelling at its best. But also, and at the same time, a passage that locates the event resolutely in the past — an action the narrator witnessed or performed at some point before the moment of narration. Whatever happens in the speech has already happened, elsewhere; and that pastness is a precondition of the story. Stories bring the past back to life, but they always end before the time of their telling. We know how the ghost’s story ends already — he is, after all, no longer alive. Similarly, we know the “bloody man” whose narration takes up so much of Macbeth‘s second scene survived the battle which his words conjure up for us and for his onstage audience, precisely because he has lived to tell the tale.

And it’s exactly that security, that certainty of an ending, that makes storytelling ultimately untheatrical. It’s not that stories are inherently less real, less tangible, than live action. Not at all. The event the ghost describes is no more difficult to imagine, to make real in our minds, than the idea that the actor speaking those words is in fact a ghost. If anything, narrative representation can be more credible than physical enactment. But narrative is always already over by the time it becomes narration. Performance, on the other hand, is always ongoing, always present — until it isn’t anymore, and the play is over. A character on stage may look back and tell a story — but that character continues to live in the present, in a time that’s defined as “right now” by the very play he or she inhabits (a “right now” that we, as spectators, are allowed to imagine we share, simply because we share an actual “right now” with the actor playing the character).

So that, in a large-ish nutshell, is my conceptual beef: theatre can’t tell stories, because stories are always necessarily retrospective. And theatre isn’t about the past. It’s about the present.

My second grievance is really rather less significant, because it’s more local, more specific, and much more limited in scope. But here it goes anyway. At SummerWorks the other week, I saw a number of excellent shows. Wonderful, committed performances. Beautifully written scripts. But the most accomplished shows I saw all were, in essence, made up of monologues, of narrations addressed to the actual audience or an imaginary one (Jon Kaplan and Glenn Sumi had a similar experience). They were still enjoyable, even moving productions. But I was basically watching staged versions of first-person narratives — plays that might have passed as short stories (or, in one case, a long poem). Dialogue, conflicts, physical and verbal confrontations were all filtered through the more or less controlling voice of the single speaker in each scene. It’s not that these pieces were untheatrical as a consequence (I’ll get to that in a moment), but they were written in a way that left much of the theatre’s specific power untapped.

I have little doubt that this type of dramatic writing is influenced by the notion that plays tell stories. However, that doesn’t mean that any of these performances actually were instances of storytelling. To pick two of my favourite shows: the three figures in Iceland as well as the three characters in Terminus were all quite, quite present. None of them were being “narrated” by their actors. I wasn’t listening to Christine Horne, I watched and heard Kassandra, just as I didn’t get upset with Kawa Ada, but with his character Halim. Both those two fictive characters sort of told a story — Kassandra certainly did — but their stories weren’t the plot of the play; that was made up of the three interwoven monologues, animated by how each of them filled in the gaps the others had left, by what they revealed and obscured. Far more interesting than the easily summarized narrative was the way in which the play emplotted that narrative — Iceland was as much about dramatic structure as it was about the telling of a tale. And Terminus, written entirely in rhymed verse, could be analysed in similar terms. Form, in both plays, matters more, delights more, than story. That said, I find it worrisome that what is interesting about the formal aspects of both scripts is not what makes them theatrical: a particular style of writing and the relationship between three plotlines, each exclusively voiced by one character — both of those things are textual features, to a very large extent unaffected by performance, and could be enjoyed and analysed in almost identical fashion in a novel or poem. And that is a problem.

Let me be quite specific about why I find plays like these troubling. It’s not that they depend on narration so much. It’s that they depend on having characters narrate almost exclusively — that they grant their characters textual existence only as story-tellers or witnesses, with responsibility for all embodied life delegated to the actor. Presence here is an effect of the physical existence of the actor and of address, both of which are in conflict (or at least tension) with the text the actor speaks and its unrelenting pull back into the past, towards absence, away from us. Characters clash — but never directly. Conflict is always mediated, either through narration or through structure, but it’s never a force that brings two figures together, face to face, in the same time and space. At heart, these monologic plays go as far as they can to suggest that what’s present is only a means of getting at what isn’t. That’s certainly a philosophically worthwhile project — kind of the opposite of postdramatic theatre, something more like posttheatrical playwriting. But I’m not sure that these plays (and their authors) are really on a philosophical, metatheatrical mission.

To my mind, what we’re seeing here instead is a drift from performance to storytelling, and I don’t like it one bit. For thousands of years, theatre has done more, wanted more, dared more than this. We already have novelists enough. Stop telling me stories. Show me events.

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16 Responses to Theatre does not tell Stories

  1. TheBaron says:

    These assertions clearly derive from the inadequate translation of “mimesis” in both Plato and Aristotle as “representation.”

  2. [...] is a long removed continuation of the conversation with Holger. But takes no account of the comments section which looks really good, but editing this post is [...]

  3. [...] to put out complex posts that challenge conventional wisdom driving TO theatre. In his post "Theatre does not tell Stories" he summarizes his critique as, "theatre can’t tell stories, because stories are always [...]

  4. Jacob Zimmer says:

    My very delayed, not at all dealing with the comments section, slightly snarky response is posted at smallwoodenshoe.org/blog/

  5. Noam Lior says:

    I have to back up a bit and try to untangle some elements that I conflated unintentionally, and try to articulate a few things more clearly and more completely.

    The whole storytelling/fiction/drama/performance discussion gets very slippery, so I’ll do my best to tease out some of the ideas involved, partially because they link to my responses to some of your more recent posts.

    1. I absolutely think that part of what theatre does (often very well) is communicate fictions.

    2. I absolutely think that communicating fictions is nowhere near being the ONLY thing theatre does, or should do.

    3. I have a (perhaps problematically) broad conception of “fictions”, which would more accurately be termed “narratives.” I would argue that, from a certain point of view, there’s no necessary tension between that function of theatre and Brecht’s conceptions, if you accept political theories as a particular class of narratives. Brecht would certainly assign a truth value to Communist political ideology that transcends the fictions on the stage, but he does relate to it as a narrative, or a meta-narrative. “capitalism forces people to do terrible things, but we can change that” is a story that Brecht’s theatre tells its audience, though it uses different tools to tell that story than it does for the simultaneous/interwoven story “there was a woman who had to dress like a man in order to make her shop succeed” (disclaimer: both stories severely simplified in order to make this point). This is a point where things can get very slippery indeed, because there’s a much larger conversation to be had about the boundaries and distinctions between story/narrative and fiction. On one level, economic narratives like “a rising tide lifts all boats” and “what’s good for the banks is good for Canada” are no less fictional than, say, Lord of the Rings. The narratives don’t make the world make sense, but they do make an individual’s behaviour make sense in (that particular version of) the world. On another level, economic/political/social/psychological narratives do have different functions and purposes than narratives that proclaim themselves as fictions.

    4. The dancer/dance phrase was ill-chosen on my part, I think. I blame this on the fact that I was writing at 3 am on a hot humid night in Tel Aviv, beset with insomnia and tending more toward passion than articulation. I do think that it’s a useful theoretical exercise to attempt to distinguish between story and storytelling, between the content and the form. I also think, though, that we have to acknowledge the degree to which form defines content and vice versa. The story is the telling and the telling is the story. To stea– ADAPT an example from Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen (in, I’m slightly embarrassed to admit, “The Science of Discworld”), it’s like distinguishing between childhood and adulthood. On the one hand, you can easily agree that both are real and valid concepts with actual existence in the world. On the other hand, it’s utterly impossible, in any particular individual, to point out the place where one ends and the other begins. Neither of these propositions cancels out the other, and their paradoxical coexistence makes everything that much more interesting. And, sometimes, frustrating.

    5. The “playwrighting” argument was meant specifically to deal with the authorship of plays, not with performance (a term I was deliberately avoiding in order to sidestep the drama/theatre/performance morass, which I’ll get to in a bit). I like “playwrighting” because, I feel, it has the potential to get at what goes into constructing a play besides narration: the ordering of events, the arrangement of incidents, the consideration of significant movement and physicality, the combination, coordination, and juxtaposition of elements on stage at a given point (Hamlet’s “my pulse as yours doth temperately keep time” speech to Gertrude reads very differently when we’re aware of Polonius’ still warm corpse behind him, regardless of how the speech itself is played), the length and order of scenes, etc. These can all be considered narrative elements, and they’re all (potentially) part of a playwright’s work in the writing/wrighting process. Because of a number of factors, a lot of these aspects get left out of Canadian theatre writing, and we get the monologue-heavy plays that you’re criticizing.

    6. I don’t agree that the actor playing Hamlet NECESSARILY doesn’t need to know the plot of the rest of the play, though I certainly wouldn’t argue that he or she necessarily DOES. Mostly, I’m not sure where or how I suggested that that might be the case. I don’t think that all actors are involved in the text-crafting side of the storytelling, but I do think they’re involved in the performance side. How and how much they’re involved will depend hugely on the nature of the production and the actor in question. Actors may not need to know all the plot details of scenes they’re not in. But a production will be immeasurably stronger, I think, if they have a sense of the tone and rhythm of those scenes, and whether their next entrance is intended to blend with them or disrupt them, for example. Part of their job as performers/storytellers can be to understand how their role fits into a larger pattern, though it’s usually up to the director to coordinate that. When the Nurse enters in 4.5 of R&J to find Juliet’s body, she comes in with her usual comic rhythms and patter. The audience, having just watched Juliet agonize and then drink the potion (which, for all we know at this point, could be a poison), is not prepared to engage with the Nurse’s bawdy business the way we might have earlier in the play. The performer playing the Nurse needs to be able to commit to the bawdy comic bits, while being aware that there won’t be feedback from the audience to energize that performance in a comic way. That will take a different kind of commitment and enthusiasm (almost entirely self-generated) than the Nurse business earlier on. The performer probably doesn’t need to know all the details of the plot, but a general sense of what’s going on will alert her (or, possibly, him) to where the audience is at, and what kind of work will need to be done in order to make the next moments work. This could also be accomplished by the director saying “don’t worry about the why, here’s what you’ll need to do here,” but a competent actor should be able to figure a lot of this out, thus freeing up the director to do other things.

    7. One major pitfall I’ve found with the language of “storytelling” is in the related and insidious phrase “telling the story,” as in, “well, we could do it that way, but that’s not really telling the story.” It’s a phrase often found in company with “serving the text.” These phrases reveal a line of thinking that is not only problematic, but seriously flawed and, I think, fundamentally dishonest.

    A play has one text, but many stories. The choices made in production will radically alter the narrative experienced by the audience, and the ways in which the audience experiences that narrative. You have an excellent example of this in your post on The Crucible, so I don’t need to demonstrate it here. My first, and lesser, issue with “telling the story” and “serving the text” is that these phrases (and the views behind them) reduce the multiplicities and ambiguities– which are part of the construction of the text, and part of what makes the text complex, interesting, and worthy of staging repeatedly– into a single uniform entity with only one possible interpretation. As if that weren’t enough, the self-proclaimed “storyteller”– actor, director, or otherwise– then claims for himself the clarity and insight to determine precisely what the one right story might be.

    This is where I find “serving the text” to be especially insidious. The director claims for himself this superhuman incisiveness, while denying even the possibility that alternate interpretations might be possible/valid. Having done so, he then denies any responsibility for the choices made during this process, transferring blame to the playwright (an especially useful dodge if the playwright’s been dead for a few centuries). I don’t think that this is being done calculatingly or maliciously (for the most part), but it’s an approach that allows directors to make terrible choices without having to take any responsibility for them, all the while trumpeting their own qualifications as privileged interpreters AND pretending humility as “servants of the text.” Drives me nuts.

    8. I don’t want to go in depth into the drama/theatre/performance thing, because while it can be a really valuable conversation, it can so easily turn into a black hole. I will say that part of my fascination with theatre is the process whereby performance becomes drama, i.e. the combination of people, words, light, sound, movement, costume, etc. on a stage coalesces, in the senses and minds and (yes, I’ll say it) imaginations of the audience into characters, events, sequence, and story. It’s a process that’s so utterly bizarre and yet so completely taken for granted until the strange, precious moments in which it fails, revealing just how absurd, fragile, tenuous, and marvellous the entire enterprise is.

    But it’s by no means the entirety or even the majority of what theatre should be or should aspire to be.

  6. Noam Lior says:

    I realize I’m jumping on this one late– I’m out of the country traveling, so this has been my first real chance to weigh in– but there are elements of this topic that are near and dear to me.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your second section, and am also frustrated with the over-reliance on narration that characterizes a lot of Canadian theatre. I do think there are pragmatic and institutional reasons for some of it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s an unfortunate trend that makes for anaemic theatre.

    I do, however, want to spend some time defending “storytelling” as a term. I understand the objections to it, but they strike me as taking a prescriptive approach to the term (focusing on its literal meaning) rather than paying attention to the way it’s actually used. Over the last 10 years or so, “storytelling” has come into more general use as a synecdoche for narrative structuring. It CAN refer to literal telling, i.e. narration, but much more frequently, it’s used by artists of various stripes to describe the process by which artistic/aesthetic choices coalesce into a coherent fiction. This covers plot, character, theme, structure, composition, pace, tone, rhythm, etc. In that sense, while it’s not the most literally correct term to use, it has the virtue of being both extremely useful and widely comprehensible.

    Just to be clear, let me add that I recognize and agree that the term “storytelling” itself emphasizes one aspect of theatre’s potential over many others: it’s strictly concerned with the aspects of theatre (or film, or comics, or dance, or whatever) that relate to crafting and communicating a fiction– the set of imaginary characters, events, places, etc. that are conjured by the actual people, actions, and words on the stage (as experienced by an audience).

    This emphasis, as you suggest (and as Shalwitz argues), tends to ignore/override the elements of form, of virtuosity, of physicality, of design, of presence, even in primarily narrative/dramatic theatre, as well as to utterly sideline the many streams of theatre for which narrative is not the main concern.

    “Storytelling” has its problems, even in the context I’m suggesting. It almost immediately sets up a dichotomy between “story” and “storytelling,” yet another formulation of the old form vs. content arguments that Aristotle raises with his conception of plot. It’s a useful distinction in some ways, but pragmatically about as logical as trying to distinguish between the dancer and the dancing.

    “Story-crafting” would be a more accurate term, perhaps. I love “playwrighting” and its insistence on plays as something wrought, rather than written, shaped and built in a way analogous to the work of a cartwright or shipwright, creating something concrete yet manipulated, like wrought iron (“dramaturgy,” I assume, links to “metallurgy” and “demiurge” in analogous ways). “Storytelling,” for all its etymological inexactitude, tends to function as a pan-media version of that, describing the process of shaping and building a narrative.

    I think both “story” and “storytelling” have much broader applications than you give them credit for, stretching beyond narration into narrative and (at the risk of sounding “semantic-psychobabble”-y) narrativity. I’d still strenuously insist on theatre that does less writing and more wrighting, though.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Thanks, Noam! I will admit that if taken less literally, my issues with “storytelling” take on a more prescriptive cast — but I don’t think I’ve spelled the consequences out in the post.

      To sketch some of them in response to your response, though: I don’t know that “communicating a fiction” is what theatre ought to be about. It can be, of course (though I do find it a bit bittersweet that in that context “storytelling” becomes a metaphor for the exact opposite of Brecht’s theatrical goal). I’m also intrigued by the slippage between playwrighting and, well, performance — the term almost absent from your comments. I’m not convinced at all that actors, say, are involved in the business of “playwrighting” (if we adopt that term as the word for “making a play” rather than “writing a script”). At most, they’re engaged in creating a role. But that’s not a narrative — it may be a narrative arch, or one character’s trajectory (or, ugh, journey), but not the totality of the play. I don’t think it matters for the actor playing, say, Hamlet, that Ophelia goes mad when she goes mad — he doesn’t need to know about that any more than his character does. It matters for the overall plot or, if you will, the story; but it’s only relevant for some of the actors involved in the play. “Playwrighting” in your sense, like “storytelling,” smacks too much, to my ears, of single (or possibly collective) agency, whereas I tend to think of performance as the product of a collaboration between very different sorts of agents, with differently limited competences and viewpoints. (Though I’m happy to say that playwrighting is a much better metaphor than storytelling in this regard.)

      The last thing I’ll say, in haste, is that I do think it’s pragmatically not just possible but actually quite important to distinguish between dancer and dance, but not from the audience’s perspective (that was Yeats’ point, I think). An actor or a director better have a very clear understanding of what or who the dancer is, and what’s involved in the dancing.

  7. Kirsten Alicia says:

    Holger, thank you so much for taking the time to give me such a full response and even more to think about. I shall return!

  8. Kirsten Alicia says:

    “So that, in a large-ish nutshell, is my conceptual beef: theatre can’t tell stories, because stories are always necessarily retrospective. And theatre isn’t about the past. It’s about the present.”

    “Stop telling me stories. Show me events.”

    This is why I’m confused. How is theatre about the present? How does theatre show events? An event is defined as an observable occurrence, so the play itself works as an event, but what the play is about is the telling of the story of different events. Events that cannot be shown, because they have already happened.
    For me, sitting in the audience, I am watching a play about something that has already happened. The text, the director, the actors, the sets are telling me the story of particular events that have happened to particular people in the past. It doesn’t matter that the present tense is used, I do not believe that I am watching something that is actually happening right in front of me. That would be reality & a play is not reality. It could be based on reality, on something that has happened previously, but it is still telling me what happened to those people, in that place.
    If I use my imagination to create a character and create events that happen in that character’s life, then tell others about that character & those events, I am telling a story. If I use actors and a stage set to tell that story, that is a play. It doesn’t matter if my character is ‘alive’ right now, on August 30, 2012, because by the time her story is told, the events will be in the past and she will be changed by those events.
    I have been thrilled by some of my theatre experiences, there are plays I remember virtually word for word and scene by scene. But just like watching a film, I was, and always am, aware that I was watching people telling me a story, fictional or otherwise, through words and actions, written by someone else, by ‘pretending’ to be other people. Does that mean I am incapable of Coleridge’s ‘suspension of disbelief’? Is it confirmation – not needed, by the way – of my limited intelligence? What am I missing?
    Forgive my lack of erudition, but I am fascinated by this topic & look forward to any futher thoughts being posted here.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Thanks for the comments, Kirsten!

      I’d respond in two ways. First, the concept of “telling,” which is my big bugbear. I don’t think it’s accurate to say that all the elements of a show “tell” you a story. An actor’s not telling you what’s happening (or what happened) to her character; she embodies it. You may or may not get lost in that embodiment (I agree that you never want to get lost completely, otherwise it stops being fiction and becomes reality — and who wants that?). But the mode of representation in theatre is very different from narration. The actor stands for the character, but she doesn’t tell you that directly — she doesn’t say “I crossed the room, I picked up a glass, I drained it, I smashed it, I burst into tears.” She does all those things. The way the game works, you understand that some of those actions are more real than others (she really drinks, she may really cry, she really walks; she probably doesn’t really drink gin, the glass is probably not made of glass, she probably isn’t really sad), but none of them, real or not, are actually the actor’s own actions at all, but the character’s. But you need to make that connection. No-one tells you to do that. All the stage does is put a bunch of people in front of you who move and speak — and you need to realize that they’re representing other people’s movements and words. That’s not telling. That’s using physical presence in order to represent absent people.

      Which gets me to my second point: pastness. In one sense you’re right that the events of the play have already happened. They have been written down, most of them at least; they are prescribed by the script. And that script is a kind of narration, and usually written by a single author. However, that author doesn’t control what each individual actor is doing, or what the set looks like, or what the sound ambience is — or more ephemeral things, like the olfactory atmosphere of the performance space. So whereas in narration, ultimately everything is controlled by the single figure, visible or not, of the narrator, in performance that authority is very broadly dispersed, and always subject to interruption. The script is written and finished, but a performance never is — it’s ongoing and unfolds in the present, with subtle differences every night. In that sense at least what you’re watching IS happening right in front of you. It’s not in the past at all. There’s also a sense in which a play can be thought of as always unfinished, at least if it’s written for performance. From that perspective, the events in the play have NOT already happened, because they’re unfinished in the written script; they will only take place once the play is staged, completed by the actors. (Slightly silly real-world example: compare a script to traffic rules. A red light tells you that you have to stop. Now, if a car pulls up to a red light and stops, you could say that it’s echoing the legal principle laid down in the traffic code. But does that mean it’s action already took place the moment the code was written? More problematically still, what if a car runs a red light? [Or if a performance does something unanticipated in the script, as every performance does, all the time?])

      I’d say the temporal argument only goes so far. In narration, past and present are necessarily split: if a story is told, it has to be over, logically, because it’s being told from a time beyond the story. A narrator can’t tell a tale about his or her future, at least not a factual story. A narrative can unfold linearly, and often does, but it can never go beyond, or even reach, the point from which it is being told. Performances, on the other hand, always necessarily rely on the present moment, and they carry on forward — if narration is limited in its exclusively backwards gaze, performance may be limited in its inability to look back. Instead of “the past,” though, I’d suggest that “absence” is a more useful term. The events in a play have not necessarily already happened, but they ARE necessarily absent from the stage (otherwise, as you say, we’d watch reality). They’re neither in the past nor the present, because they’re not, and never have been, real. They’re elsewhere. And the things, the actions, the voices that are so present in the theatre point towards that elsewhere. But they don’t tell you about it. They show you something very much like it, and ask you to make the mental connection between the visible and audible reality in front of you, and the fictional, absent world of the play.

      Does that make a bit more sense? It’s not an easy subject!

  9. Intrigued says:

    I think what is both most problematic and most intriguing here is how we define “Narrative.” The Cambridge Companion to Narrative defines it as the representation of an event – in which case your argument absolutely stands. Theatre Presents, rather than represents, unless it is a staged piece of storytelling told in the past tense. But this idea of “representation” is problematic. Does it mean that stories must always be told in past tense? Does it mean that they must be telling truthful events? And in so far as theatre is a product – our memory of a theatrical event is all we are ever left with. Every piece you wrote about here, every piece of theatre you have ever experienced, belongs to you as a memory. (Unless you are watching a durational piece that lasts your entire life.) The same is true of films or any prose written in the present tense, both of which are usually referred to as story-telling mediums. It is in looking back on immersive artistic events that we assess them as narrative and decide how successful they were. So maybe how meaningful the narrative created by the memory of the experience is what theatremakers are concerned with when they talk about storytelling.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Thank you! If you get me going on presence vs representation, I’ll just confirm “Commoner’s” worst fears!

      I think it’s right to say that theatre presents — at least more than any other form of fiction. But theatre, or at least most theatre, isn’t pure presence either. The very notion of a character presupposes that theatre’s presence serves an absence. Right? Sticking with the Iceland crew, Christine Horne is present; her actions unfold in the present, from moment to moment; but Kassandra isn’t there, in any real sense, at all — that’s not her body, that’s not her voice, those certainly aren’t her words (though neither are they the actor’s). So theatre uses presence to representational ends. (Obviously this gets much more problematic the more postdramatic things get.) And that doesn’t just apply to the individual actor’s body, but also to everything that happens on stage: all those events are present, sure, but they represent some other event — stage combat isn’t the same as a fight to the death; a stage marriage isn’t the real thing; a stage kiss isn’t a real kiss (even if it is).

      I don’t think stories have to be truthful. But I do think they always have to be about what, from the perspective of the teller, is the past. But that’s not true of all representations. (Well… it is, in one sense: the play always exists before the performance [again, with the same qualifications as above]. The character is always there already, in part. So there is always an element of pastness in all dramatic performances. They’re all beholden to the past, though they’re always pulling away from it. Too many alwayses.) “Telling” really is the problematic term here, not narrative or representation. I mean, if you read a novel, the story it tells, no matter how it’s written, is necessarily over (the text may say “she crosses the room. Silence. She opens the door. She scream” — but the book in your hand assures you that those things have all happened already; the book is not writing itself in front of your eyes. I’m sure there are forms of online writing that overcome this condition, though — written theatre. Are there?).

      I have to think about your argument about retroactive narrativization. I think it’s a very interesting point. And I certainly agree that narrative, especially in post-dramatic theatre, is something that can happen either through the performance or in the audience’s mind (or not). Plot is a feature of drama, not necessarily of performance; and even a tightly plotted script can read as incoherent and narratively meaningless to an audience (the “what just happened” phenomenon).

      Quick postscript, though: agree re. memory, but memory of a life performance is different (sayeth Peggy Phelan). You may remember one thing, but on re-reading or re-watching discover that you were misremembering. That may not matter, though — the memory in itself may be more important than its accuracy. But you can, at least in theory, check your memories against those things. With live performance, there’s just no way. At best, your memory might be up against the memories of a group of actors or fellow audience members. There’s no firm ground there.

  10. Commoner says:

    It’s this type of semantic-psychobabble over-analysis that alienates non-artists from Canadian Theatre.

    Phrases such as:

    “Theatre doesn’t tell anything. A performed play doesn’t tell anything. A character might. An actor can’t — or shouldn’t, at least not without a purpose”

    “So that, in a large-ish nutshell, is my conceptual beef: theatre can’t tell stories, because stories are always necessarily retrospective. And theatre isn’t about the past. It’s about the present.”

    are beyond just absurd, they’re also painted in black-and-white and are totally limiting in their assessment. The main problem here is the reliance on a simplistic idea of what constitute a “story”. To say that because theater is alive, it isn’t telling stories (however varied in structure, form and content) is kindasortamaybe ridiculous.

    • Holger Syme says:

      I don’t even know how to respond to this. You might want to re-read the post.

      For starters, I’m analyzing what I find lacking in Canadian theatre — so if a reader finds my way of thinking alienating, Canadian theatre should become more attractive as a consequence, not less.

      You do understand that I’m not prescribing anything, right? I’m offering a theoretical model for what performance is and how it differs from narration. My argument is not that actors or playwrights “should” follow my “advice,” because I have an aesthetic preference for a particular kind of theatre (I do, but that’s beside the point); it’s that there are certain things theatre can and can’t do, as a form. Of course that’s “limiting” — but any generic distinction is. It’s presumably also limiting to say that a novel is written down. You’re free to sing a song and claim that that makes you a novelist, but you’d have to work pretty hard to convince me that you’re not being silly.

      Lastly, if you’ve paid attention to what I wrote, you should have noticed that it’s not the “story” part I find most problematic, but the “telling.”

  11. Very true indeed. However I find that most of Canadian Theatre establishment (including the reviewers) are uniquely opposed to any other form of theatre. In fact, as I observed, the lack of storytelling type narrative about some current heart-wrenching subject is usually associated with the director’s preference for form over content, which is in the underlying subtext has a somewhat moral implications. Of course, the art of directing itself is a bit circumspect in Canadian theatre. It is quite often that the director is not even mentioned in the reviews or mentioned somewhere in the end, among other things, as if the show directed itself or was put together by the actors ( which is not uncommon)
    Add to it an absence of serious education for the young directors and here you have it: 19th century theatre, but instead of melodrama being at the centre of it – it is centered on issues of various sorts. Which often makes it a politically correct motivational speaking delivered in a confessional style.
    Of course, there are quite a few exceptions to this, but working differently makes them immediately marginalized and minimizes the chances for any support, however minimal it is.
    Interestedly enough, I don’t think it is the case in Quebec. Why is that?