Reading some of the reactions to Deborah Pearson‘s “The Necessity of Narrative?” in Exeunt, to which I pointed last Friday, makes you think that Ms. Pearson had strangled somebody’s kitten. Isaac Butler suggests that Pearson needlessly reduces the idea of narrative to genre conventions rather than addressing more complex constructions, and that her idea that “people like stories because they’re babies in need of a security blanket” is condescending (though Butler puts those words into Pearson’s mouth). Tony Adams counters: “You cannot have a work of performance free from narrative. Something happens. That is an event. Our brains are hard wired to create them even if they may not exist. Even if you were hypothetically able to create a performance in a laboratory, where nothing happened. There were no events. The act of performing that work before an audience would create its own narrative.”
To be fair to Ms. Pearson, it should be noted that her essay is far more ambivalent about narrative than these reactions suggest, and she discusses two recent productions (Tim Crouch’s intriguing The Author and Ridiculusmus’ Tough Time, Nice Time) in which this ambivalence is theatricalized. In the latter play especially, as she describes it:
Surprisingly, given the company’s reputation for experimental performance, this piece employs several techniques that screenwriting guru Robert McKee describes in his book, Story. The characters are consistent and easy to describe in a sentence – one is unimpressed and the other is eager to please. There is a unity of time and setting, complete with the ultra realistic touch of steam occasionally rising from their bath. And as McKee advises writers to up their stakes as the story progresses, building to a final moment of climax or resolution, the non-writer’s stories follow this by rote. His anecdotes become gradually more extreme, more upsetting, until they build to one final story that could be argued to act as a kind of climax.
And yet the writer remains unimpressed throughout – bored and over saturated by the very act of story telling. The audience leaves the theatre aware that they have been pulled in to a narrative by the same principles that the piece itself condemns. And yet the “controlling idea” (another term often employed by McKee) is clear and cohesive – there is a moral to the story: Narratives are a problematic way of processing experience. The content and form of the piece contradict each other. The piece successfully proves its point by employing the very device it criticizes. Narrative emerges from the experience as dangerous, effective, possibly inescapable …
Both Pearson and her critics circle around an issue which is central to this question of narrative in the theatre but which goes unexamined, and that’s narrative authority: who is telling the story, who is making the decisions about which events are crucial to the unfolding of a narrative and which events are inessential. The saying that “History is written by the victors” is, in a nutshell, an exemplar of the issue of narrative authority.
Some dramatists have seized upon the problem as a central theme of both their discourse and their formal experimentation, and, instead of attempting to tell a compelling story or present a compelling narrative, concentrate on the interstices of the on-stage events that make up an evening of theatre. In this work the impulse to storytelling (and to being subsumed within the telling of a story) is constantly undermined by violent fragmentation of the human urge to both telling and listening to a well-rounded narrative — and, in fragmenting and frustrating this desire, to invite the individual audience member to fit these on-stage events into their own matrix of interpretation instead of having this matrix imposed upon the events by the artist: to create one’s own story, rather than having a story eliminate alternative interpretations through the logic of its expected progression through time, in conforming to the “well-made” story, as that “well-making” is ideologically defined by the dramatist and the director.
This is a politically and socially as well as individually liberating radical project, as the work of Richard Foreman and Howard Barker demonstrate, though their radicalism is of distinctly different types. Foreman disdains any claim to creating narrative, explaining in a 1990 interview with Ken Jordan his moment of epiphany:
I’m slightly embarrassed to tell you what I saw in my head, but it did lead to my theater. I saw a particular static moment from my seat in the Circle in the Square where I watched a rather dreadful production of The Balcony. And I remember seeing Shelley Winters, on one side of the stage, and Lee Grant on the other, and it was just a moment of stasis, and a moment of a kind of tension between them, and I just wanted to make a whole play that had nothing except that unresolved tension between them. And I wrote out of that. I said that’s what I want in the theater, just that moment, and it doesn’t develop into any of the other awful stuff, the psychological stuff, the narrative stuff, the adventure stuff that it always develops into.
Undermining received ideas of the well-made story is also Howard Barker, who develops not only what he calls “anti-histories,” but anti-canons as well. In Barker’s version of the Chekhov play Uncle Vanya, Vanya’s bullet finds its target, killing Serebryakov and utterly undermining the traditional interpretation of the play as an elegy for lost or wasted possibility, particularly in the way the play has been approached in the second half of the twentieth century. (He has done the same with plays by Middleton, Shakespeare and Lessing.) In this radical rewriting Barker explodes the original narrative to explore alternative imaginations, interpretations and narratives beneath the existing narrative, leaving the audience to wrestle with both the original narratives and his reconceptions of them. But ultimately it’s the individual audience member, not Barker, who must sort through the shards left by the explosion and find in them their own significance.
What is one left with, if narrative is decentered in the theatrical experience? Well, one needn’t look to Foreman and Barker, but can look to Hollywood itself. One of the great classics of the American cinema is the 1946 Howard Hawks film The Big Sleep. Based on a novel by Raymond Chandler, the Philip Marlowe detective story presents a hopelessly muddled narrative — the kiss of death, one would think, for a genre with such severe conventions as the mystery story; when screenwriters Jules Furthman and William Faulkner asked Chandler to clarify the endlessly convoluted plot, even Chandler said that, in the end, it made no sense — it was a bad story, a poor narrative, especially given the genre. But lacking this, what is there left to watch? Well, it turns out, there’s quite a bit: the pleasures of watching and interpreting the relationships between the characters (like Shelley Winters and Lee Grant in The Balcony or Juliana Kelly and T. Ryder Smith in King Cowboy Rufus Rules the Universe, so Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall); the language; the design. And it repays repeated viewing.
But this is a bit of a digression from my main point, which is that those formal experimentalists who dispense with traditional narrative, in at least some cases, are engaged in the politically and metaphysically radical project of restoring meaning-making authority to the individual spectator rather than imposing that interpretation on an audience-as-collective. 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.