by 99 Seats
I didn't really weigh in on the whole "Is narrative good?" debate from the last couple of weeks (for background, see Hunka, George and Pearson, Deborah and, of course, Butler, Isaac). I followed it, but, to be honest, this kind of academic writing washes over me to a certain extent. I don't always think about my craft in such explicit, defined terms and, well, if you've read my writing, you know I tend to the casual, the vulgar, the, shall we say, colloquial and the measured tones of academic thought don't always feel comfortable in my mouth (or on my fingers, as it were). But after thinking about it all and cogitating on what was bothering me about the whole conversation, and after what is, yes, I think (in my normal, non-hyperbolic way) the single most depressing comment I've read on any blog anywhere, I felt I had to weigh in.
In case you don't know my playwriting work, I am, unabashedly and proudly, a narrative-based theatre artist. I write plays with linear stories in realistic (generally) settings. I flirt shamlessly with old-fashioned forms like the well-made play, the parlor comedy, the comedy of manners, the romantic comedy, employing tropes, styles and techniques that are most often found on sitcoms now, but all began on the stage; in fact, in many cases, they began on the first stages. I try to write jokes, add plot twists and reveals, often mix in a farce element or two, like props and stage business and sight gags. This is what I do. When writers like George or Deborah talk like this:
Hooking an audience with one (even a bad one) is easy enough – look to any reality tv show or soap opera for proof. We are hungry for that final moment of resolution, and will often sit with a story of any quality until it finally ends. But once it is over we are able to gauge immediately where the holes in its logic are and whether it was worth our time. By employing narrative or choosing to ignore it you take a risk either way, with the former, because the audience knows the rules better than you do, and with the latter because they don’t.
When one gives oneself over to or “loses oneself” (in that particularly evocative term) in a narrative, one gives that authority over to another — that is, the storyteller, who always has ideological ends of his own, even if that end is “merely” to entertain (and it never is, the term “entertainment” itself an ideologically-loaded construct): the listener drinks the Kool-aid, in that oft-used term. But that term originated with Jonestown, and drinking the Kool-aid in its original context didn’t mean becoming an automaton or a True Believer: it meant death. In this case, it means the death of the imagination, the suicide of individual agency itself. Aesthetically speaking, there is something profoundly conservative and authoritarian, if not reactionary or paleo-conservative, about this. It is this individual agency that artists like Foreman and Barker intend to restore and celebrate, even if it must be at the cost of allowing the self to be absorbed in a story told over the campfire — indeed, to find oneself, not to lose oneself, in the theatrical experience.
I feel like they are very specifically speaking to me and about me and about my work. And, yes, I do bristle at it. When Myles posted:
I am currently getting a master's in contemporary theatre and we are working a lot in deconstructing theatre. And in that, narrative has been put in the background. Not forever, I'm a big believer in narrative. I'm in agreement that we humans are story making machines. In the thesis productions this year from the year ahead of us. Out of 10, perhaps 4 had some narrative. The others were tonal. Though the other 6 had some existential ruminations regarding content, it was really frustrating. Then make it into a movement piece. My thought is, narrative is vital, even in it's most gossamer form. It simply is a pleasure...except when its not.
My heart dropped into my stomach. Narrative, in this view, is simply a pleasure, it's an author forcing his/her world view on you as a dictator, it's easy, it's simple, it's obvious, and only true artists dig deeper than the narrative, lying on the surface like fool's gold, to the real truth beneath. George, again, from his comments:
I do need to disagree with you that because we’re narrative creatures that the significance these narratives present to us are sufficient or even meaningful. One of Ms. Pearson’s arguments (and Barker’s and Foreman’s), I believe, is that they’re not: they are inadequate to describe the range of possibilities inherent in human experience in that they foreclose alternative imaginations and experiences. You may call these imaginations and experiences “narratives” if you wish. But I’m doubtful that the matrix of interpretation that this implies would be acceptable to these dramatists in the terms we’re using.
And I say: bollocks. Bollocks to the lot of it.
I made a choice to be a narrative-based artist, to tell linear, discrete stories, to employ the tropes and styles I do. I don't do it because I didn't learn any other ways or because I lack the fortitude or courage to see past the surface. I don't do it because my only goal is to entertain and give people a good time and send them out into the street, tapping their feet. I have very, very specific reasons that I employ this very, very specific artistic style. I want people to think they're getting safe, easy narratives that they're used to, I want them to find themselves enjoying themselves and getting swept away in a well-told story, and then realize that they're watching certain kinds of people behave in ways they never get to see. I write well-made, bougie plays about black people and a multicultural world on purpose. It's not an accident or the path of least resistance. In fact, I face quite a good deal of resistance. My work doesn't meet people's expectation of the work of a black artist. That's purposeful. Sure, I could embrace the long, proud and excellent tradition of non-linear black theatre. I chose this because of the audiences I hope to reach, to bring together. This is my project.
There is a strain in theatre circles that is so anti the concept of narrative, so dismissive of it, that it misses its power and the point. The worst part is that this strain presents itself as the "serious" people. Joke-writers are frivolous, looking to sell out. And you know what? A lot of funny, smart, sharp people do sell out. Because in other media, they're allowed to ply their trade, reach larger audiences and can maybe have an effect. Shaw said, "My way of joking to tell the truth. It's the funniest joke in the world." Humor can have a way of getting inside of people and changing their way of thinking. If making connection and sharing a view of the world is the point of art, it can be a powerful tool. I don't understand a field that files one of its most useful tools away as a toy because people like it. I don't see what that serves.
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.
But more than that, we tell our artists that there are techniques and styles that are just awful, awful, awful, in and of themselves, without a thought to the content or context and should just be put on the shelf, never to be touched. Mostly because people like them. (See above how that turns out, not doing things people like.) It just feels like cutting off our noses to spite our face.
So, Myles, if you like narrative, pursue it. Use it. Explore it fully and passionately and decide how it serves your project, the story you're trying to tell. When someone tells you narrative is false, is a lie, you tell them, it's all a lie. We work in theatre. It's all made up, paper moons and cardboard skies. Hell, if you're feeling your oats, tell them that telling a good, smart, sharp story that takes your audience out of their seats and into the world of the play, well, that's harder, isn't it, than reminding them over and over that this is all false, or that narrative doesn't exist, or whatever artsy fartsy notion they're peddling. Making your audience believe false things are true? That takes work. You tell them that. And then you go to work.