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May 02, 2011


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Thank you. As a comedy writer, I always feel like I get the short end of the stick in this industry. Until my work is in front of a thankful and starved-for-narrative audience, that is.

Tony Adams

Can you name a work devoid of narrative?

Tony Adams

I ask because, while I hear lots of people stepping up to defend it, and lots to deriding it, I can't name a work without narrative. Can you?

"Narrative" in the sense you're using it always seems like "the human condition".


Devoid? Not exactly. But there are works, like Hunka fave Foreman and some of Len Jenkin, where narrative is firmly in the background or almost wholly submerged. I guess I am using "narrative" and "story" interchangeably. And they're not, you're right.

I definitely don't mean the human condition. When I'm saying narrative, I'm using the definition of plot I learned: a chain of causally-related events leading to a climax. That's a work's narrative. The work that George is talking about appears to be work that subverts that, or leaves out one part or another, in service of presenting a more "authentic" experience.

Tony Adams

Not to seem overly pedantic, but a work's plot is a work's plot, not a work's narrative, right? Narratives come in many, many different structures.

I guess I'm just confused whether you're making a formal argument? or based on content? Is it how you're saying it? Or what you're saying?


Like I said, this isn't my normal form of talking about work, so forgive me if I'm confusing.

I'm talking about primarily about form, which is definitely separate from content. What both Isaac and I are reacting to in George and Deborah's writing is the implicit assumption that a certain form means a certain kind of content. A work that rejects narrative, as George puts it, is inherently liberating, politically and artistically. I disagree. It's the work's content and the content's relationship to form that makes it liberating. Or not.


Thank you, J. Thank you for this post. I have been monitoring (and contributing) to the discussion about narrative over at George Hunka's blog, and while I find George an interesting thinker on matters theatrical, I increasingly find his ideas of a perfect theatre too austere and humorless to enthusiastically get behind.

I too write mainly in what can be called a realistic style. I hate when that style is automatically criticized as lazy, safe, cowardly, dictatorial, or whatever. I employ it because I find it the most effective for what I want to say, but like you described of your own methods, I like to at some point flip things, so the audience ends up seeing something different than what they expected at the start.

I once heard a director grandly declare he would never direct a play with a living room in it. It was too pedestrian, too domestic. I dare say that something like "Long Day's Journey Into Night" has the early-20th century equivalent of a living room set, and only a fool would declare that piece safe, cozy, and pandering to a sitcom-demanding public.

For the record, I also happen to love a lot of non-realistic work (You mention Len Jenkin; he was a teacher of mine at NYU and I have always enjoyed his wild, demented amusement-park-of-the-mind plays. When I complimented him once on one of his more realistic works, and asked if he thought he would write another like it, he shook his head grimly and said "Too hard."). I don't think either approach (narrative or non-narrative) is necessarily THE answer to the problems facing the theatre today.

My favorite bit of your post:
"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."


"...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."

Thanks for this. I feel like when I talk about wanting my work to have appeal or resonance to a wide audience, I'm often met with scoffs or the sentiment that I'm selling out or making inauthentic art, when I think the reality is that when a person can find some sort of personal attachment to a work, more often than not it makes it more powerful, not less. I'm not really interested in the artistic equivalent of forcing an audience to eat their vegetables, and I'm glad you're not either.

I'm staunchly pro-narrative. It almost baffles me that I live in a world where I have to *declare* myself pro-narrative, because, to me, story is at the core of why I care to do what I do, for precisely the reason Hunka eschews it - that is, it's inexorably bound up in our understanding of our identity.


Comment better suited to post. My response on my blog.

Jack Worthing

Wish I'd written this. And I wish you knew how rarely I say that. Well done.


Thank you, thank you, thank you for this.

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