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April 24, 2011


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Gwydion Suilebhan

I have nothing to say here except to thank you for giving me so very much to reflect on. This is very thoughtful stuff.

Alison Croggon

Thanks Isaac, excellent disputation. I agree, Pearson's notions of narrative bear very little relationship to most stories I can think of, bar the most emptily generic. Puzzling.


I love narrative too and I'm not going to stop loving it, but I do think our innate love of narrative stems from the need to believe that we live in a universe where cause and effect can be divined.

One of the great pleasures of narrative is the feeling of being able to arrive at an event in a story and feeling: "ah, I know why this is happening! Because ____." Knowing the why, knowing the cause, is very pleasurable. Even in stories that end in chaos.


Hey Ben,

Granting that's true... why is that bad? or inherently problematic? or (in pearson's case) something to be condescended to?

Tony Adams

my .02 here


The human brain imposes order on chaos; for instance, that's how we see fluid motion from a series of still images flashed in front of us in rapid succession. And so, our brain processes a series of seemingly random unconnected events/words in a narrative, either loosely or tightly knit, depending on the raw materials provided us. Narrative organizes (or "packages," if you like) the torrential current of experience that flows past us every second of our existence like a rushing river. There's not much we can do about it. If, in our intellectual hubris, we intend to seek a world without narrative, it's not unlike seeking a world without romantic love, after complaining that it is bourgeois and often sentimental. You can if you like, but to me it amounts to a lot of heavy lifting without much concrete reward. There still exists a lot you can do with narrative that isn't cliched, sentimental, or obvious. I'd rather spend my time seeking out those new methods rather than burning everything down in the search of some ascetic ideal.

George Hunka

My response here.

Deborah Pearson

Given how radically you have misinterpreted my essay I'm not sure how much point there is in responding to this. I agree with many of the points you make, but not as arguments to my essay, which you seem to think is making a point it's not. I think you have a particularly difficult time "arguing" my essay, as you've chosen to do, because if I am making an argument it would appear that I contradict myself constantly.

I'm not making an argument.

Ironically, what I wrote is not meant to have a controlling idea, it is meant to have a controlling question, which I don't answer. The question remains unanswered for me, although parts of your response (when they are not trying to argue points of mine that aren't there) go some distance in further illuminating that question.

As you've taken so much of it out of context, I'm not sure what to start with here -

(Moral) is in brackets - because obviously I don't believe that all stories have a moral - I believe that (most) fairy tales have a moral - but regardless of a moral, I do believe that generally stories are About something. They usually have a controlling idea - from anecdotes, to memories, to linear and non-linear novels, films and plays - being that humans draw meaning from causality, narrative resides in this meaning. There is an entire field of psychology based around narrative that often focusses on helping people reinterpret the meaning of events in their lives - this is nothing new. Causality has meaning - and this is narrative. Often in history, in pursuit of this meaning, real lives and experiences are edited out, which I think is problematic, but possibly necessary, as I write in my essay.

Your point about characters is interesting - you write that many characters are too complex to be summed up in a sentence and point to several great characters who can't be. I would respond by saying that moments of dramatic tension or interest come from the places in a story where a character shows themselves to be complex by deviating from the nature we have ascribed to them (which could usually be summed up in a few words or a sentence), and the viewer is always aware of the nature the character is deviating from. This is why they enjoy watching them deviate, transform, develop. Characters stems out of the tension with and development of that sentence, or, if you prefer, meaning.

Also, I bring up Oscar bait, but admitting that I am aware of the Oscars does not mean that Oscar bait is my only model for story telling. But honestly, I think that you have misinterpreted and misappropriated both the purpose of my essay and its content - so maybe it's futile to niggle on your specific responses since they were taken out of context.

On a final point - interestingly from a narrative perspective, what I found most problematic about your response was its own narrative predisposition - "Pearson was SHOCKED to find" - When I read that you were beginning your response to my essay by caricaturing me behind a computer with a big exclamation point over my head (when the passage you are referring to is actually a simple introduction, as opposed to a reactionary headline - in no place in the essay do I appear to be, as you put it, Shocked) it took me about ten minutes to decide whether or not to even keep reading. I thought, "This person will not be engaging with the writing from a fair perspective. In his first paragraph he's already ascribed emotional qualities to my essay that aren't there." That said, I'm glad I did keep reading, not for your arguments, which were directed at an imaginary target, but for your insights.

All the best and thanks for the response,



Hi Deborah,

FIrst off, thanks for writing in, and I'm glad we can have a respectful disagreement about some of this stuff (And learn that we agree more than we think, which is always a pleasant surprise).

Now to the meat of your response: I think I'm far from alone in mistaking what to you is a deliberately contradictory, more essayistic casting about mental tentacles around the subject of narrative for a more deliberate argument. This suggests to me some craft-level flaws in the writing of the piece. There's a way to signal to your readers that that's what you're doing and-- having read a lot of that kind of work recently-- I would argue you haven't done it here. Amongst other things, those kinds of essays must rigorously interrogate the writer's own assumptions about the subject they are assaying, something that I don't think your essay on narrative does.

Secondly, setting that aside and assuming for a moment I'm a lazy reader who didn't get what you were going for (and it certainly wouldn't be the first time I've misread something) I think the criticisms of the individual points you explore still stand. For example, the piece still fails to define what you mean by the word narrative (or the word media, for that matter) and thus elides narrative, conventional narratives, oscar bait etc. and there's still the condescension inherent to using terms like "security blanket" to describe why people might want narrative, and I still reject what you consider to be the plainly visible political problems of narrative.. etc. etc. and so forth.

But I should also cop to being a bit of a dick with that all-caps-lock SHOCKED! that's a bit of the argumentative lefty political blogger in me. it's an internet meme to talk about people being shocked, SHOCKED to discover things that you think they should've already known, and it was misapplied to your piece.

Jeremy M. Barker

Isaac, I have to agree with Pearson here. The response is almost a willful misreading of what she's actually trying to address--she's responding and made clear that is to something she's seeing in contemporary theater (maybe just in Britain, but maybe not--I'd say it's also true of America). I'll agree that terms like "narrative" are very broad, and it makes it difficult to have a meaningful discussion, but if you'll at least grant her she's talking about certain types of narratives, maybe we can have a conversation about whether those certain types of narratives are increasingly common, are actually valid if they're as reductive as she finds them, or in general have a real conversation about this issue.

As it is, I think it's unfair of you to employ traditional narrative dance or Shakespeare (the complexity of which we imbibe through years of schooling, based on a few hundred years of critical discourse) to argue that a point about how contemporary theater is being made is invalid. Could Pearson have been more specific? I suppose, but I've had the same problem "naming" the things I find disagreeable with the trends I see in contemporary playwriting. It's not as simple as "devised" vs. "scripted," because we can all agree that there are fine playwrights making fine work. It's also not as simple as "art for art's sake" vs. "engaged" theater, either, because I'm certainly not arguing for a McSweeney's version of theater, either. Diversity is important and it takes all sorts.

What Pearson, Andrew Haydon (who wrote a very similar piece around the same time) and I are all saying is for whatever reason, a lot of the theater we're seeing is too neat and clean with a narrative constructed to make points, which the audience usually agrees with walking in to theater, which always leaves me wondering why bother?

What Pearson is clearly suggesting is that at the very least there's room for more narrative innovation, which is not necessarily the same as rejecting it totally (which I think she made clear by defining the sort of narrative she was talking about). Also, we could have more innovation in character. Mac Wellman via Witkiewicz pretty neatly summed it up as "Euclidean character" construction, a geometrically closed idea of character employed in such narratives which carries with all sorts of ideas and tropes about what character is or should be, just as various forms of Method-based performance also make assumptions about character and identity.

In the end, this isn't about us being Pearson or I being wrong or you being right; we're simply asking questions about the work we see being made, a mainstream primary mode of creating dramatic theater, the contemporary "well-made play," and we're trying to problematize it: in terms of how it represents character, identity, socio-political content, etc. How it works, in other words. And while your editorial critique of the piece has some validity, how dense, technical, and lit-crit speak should our writing have to become in order to have a conversation about what more people than just Pearson and I see as a primary model of playwriting?


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.


This may honestly be the most depressing thing I've read today.

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