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May 02, 2011


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Jeremy M. Barker

Thanks for posting this. When I wrote about narrative, what I was talking about is something similar to number 3--the idea that the way in which you structure events creates meaning out of them. Ironically, this is the opposite of an (apparently) famous EM Forster quote about the difference:

'The king died and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king died, and then the queen died of grief' is a plot.
(from Aspects of the Novel)

Anyway, the point I was trying to make--and that I think Deborah Pearson was trying to make, based on what she's written here and elsewhere and in our email conversation--is a particular sort of plot or narrative, a way in which we see playwrights as constructing arguments to make a simple point or argument. That's different from your original point about "essayistic" being an exploratory process. And I'd point out of course that just because a particular play or story has a beginning, middle, or end doesn't mean that the ideas or thing its about can necessarily be so neatly tied up. You can tell a story about a war, which story has a beginning, middle, and end, but that doesn't mean that it will itself come to sum up or represent the war it's about.


We might need to start using concrete examples here. No one likes mentioning plays by name that they find problematic, but I'm not sure how much longer we can have this conversation without it. Otherwise we might be circling around some stuff that's too abstract.


To respond more fully.. I think what J and I are talking about loosely are definitions 1 and 2 for Narrative. What you (and Pearson) are trying to diagnose are the ways that the first and second definitions of narrative can become the third definition.

Does that sound fair/accurate? If so, that's a project I can get on board with. I just don't think that looking at that is in any way really an indictment of narrative in general (back to defs 1 + 2) the way that George seems to or that I thought Pearson did in my blog post below.

I also remain unconvinced that-- even if we can enumerate and agree on what its conventions are-- a contemporary "well-made play" inherently does the thing talked about in definition #3 for narrative. But i'm certainly open to having a (Decent and open-minded) argument/discussion about it.

Tony Adams

That's the problem I'm having.

Tony Adams

Would something like "For Colored Girls" be a narrative work in that framework?


That's a great example to look at, Tony. It seems to me that "For Colored Girls" is a collection of narratives but it lacks an overarching narrative, much like a collection of thematically related short stories doesn't have an overarching narrative. What do you think?

Tony Adams

I think everything is a collection of narratives...using narrative as a descriptive term is fraught with inaccuracy and conflation. (but that just may be me)

Even overarching narrative, at least as I understand it, suggests moving in a similar direction. Which I think "For Colored Girls" does. (Though, obviously, that would be more thematically than structurally.)

But most conversations I've had around aesthetics go something like: "You see, young narrative. Those narratives don't care about plot narrative. They just want to take your narrative and plot their own narrative. The only narrative for this is to narrative."


Jeremy M. Barker

Ok--just to try to clarify what I meant when I talked about "narrative." Let's take Pinter's Betrayal. I would have said that the plot is the story of the affair, but the narrative is what places it in reverse. That is, you can have these events, these plot points, but the way in which they're structured is "the narrative." Perhaps that's wrong, but as the word is attached to the idea of "narrating," which is the "account of a story," I was using it to describe the process by which the information is recounted, which I think is fair. In non-fiction, after all, several authors could tell the same true story, but all have a different narrative, which becomes the catch-all term for what makes something unique.

And again, that's why I've mentioned several times that this isn't about getting rid of "stories" or having free form meandering theatrical spectacles. What I interpreted Pearson as talking about is a specific sort of narrative, a particular way of telling stories that seems dominant today. Tim Crouch, who she mentions, plays with conventions of traditional narrative, which unfolds in linear time; but there's still a narrative, which she readily admits to.

I took the following paragraph from her essay as the main point:

"Performance in the UK has its own Kinsey scale of Narrative – most pieces I have seen seem to lie at one of two extremes – well made plays that place Story above all else, or performance and dance pieces that reject storytelling entirely. And then there are those pieces that sit somewhere in the middle – juggling the difficult job of telling a story while not telling a story, aware of narrative without pandering to it blindly. Two pieces that come to mind are Tim Crouch’s The Author and Ridiculusmus’ Tough Time, Nice Time."

That's why I interpreted her as wanting to see theatrical performances that challenge our standard expectations of a traditional narrative. I think that Shange is a great example, and one that problematizes Isaac's comment that maybe this conflict has to do with class. Class certainly has something to do with it, but rejecting a rational realist narrative isn't just bourgeois indulgence in our fear over own lack of agency; women writers tend to have a lot of issues with those sorts of narratives because in establishing a causal relationship to current circumstances, they reinforce the role of women in a situation, and particularly if it's written by a man, a woman has every reason to want to dissent from it. This is similar to what I was talking about when I wrote about race and contemporary performance, and compared Shange or Parks to Wilson or Hansberry. It cuts both ways; sometimes the fixed realities of a realist narrative serve an important political purpose; other times, the nature of the convention (which includes everything from the linear unfolding of the events to the idea that characters have motivations for their actions which we can understand as fixed) reinforces a set of assumptions about the world which another artist may want to disagree with. Hence for colored girls. Hence The America Play.


Interesting points, Jeremy. Just to grapple with the class thing for one moment... First, let me reinsert the caveat that that class point is really a trial balloon floated here, and isn't an original thought by me.

Now, moving forward... it seems that-- and I want to treat *really* carefully and note as well that I am speaking descriptively here-- that there's a race thing that complicates this. Namely that black work in the twentieth century that sought to specifically speak to non-bourgeouis audiences (and other traditionally neglected theatrical constituencies) eschewed realism, particularly in the case of Bullins or Shange or Robbie McCauley. Bullins in particular is a weird example, because he very much rooted his work in his urban community and made it self consciously for/by/about/near black people, yet even most PHD students i know get flummoxed when they try to unpack it. Seriously, if you put GENTLEMAN CALLER up at PS 122 today, it'd still blow people's minds (and you could do THE THEME IS BLACKNESS at MOMA and people'd understand it as part of a certain performance tradition as well).

In mainstream and white theater, meanwhile, that kind of work that you're talking about in largely for/by/about/near white people with a certain amount of income and education.

I honestly have no idea what to make of this, as it scrambles all sorts of assumptions that I and others have when approaching unconventionally structured work. And I know I'm painting in super broad strokes, but I just wanted to note this as a way of further problematizing the thought balloon I floated in my earlier post.

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