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.
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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- Young Chekhov (trans. David Hare; dir. Jonathan Kent) National Theatre, London; Aug. 2016 (and also some The Plough and the the Stars)
- Prose and Verse in the 1608 King Lear Quarto: An Alternative Explanation
- Doctor Faustus (Marlowe; dir. Maria Aberg) Swan/RSC, August 2016
- The RSC and London: A widening Gulf?
- The Alchemist (Ben Jonson; dir. Polly Findlay) RSC/Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, August 2015
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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