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Matthew Freeman is a Brooklyn based playwright with a BFA from Emerson College. His plays include THE DEATH OF KING ARTHUR, REASONS FOR MOVING, THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE AMERICANS, THE WHITE SWALLOW, AN INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR, THE MOST WONDERFUL LOVE, WHEN IS A CLOCK, GLEE CLUB, THAT OLD SOFT SHOE and BRANDYWINE DISTILLERY FIRE. He served as Assistant Producer and Senior Writer for the live webcast from Times Square on New Year's Eve 2010-2012. As a freelance writer, he has contributed to Gamespy, Premiere, Complex Magazine, Maxim Online, and MTV Magazine. His plays have been published by Playscripts, Inc., New York Theatre Experience, and Samuel French.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Rebeck on plot

Via Via

Theresa Rebeck mounts a defense in the LA Times of plot and structure. Or, it seems, storytelling. There is a loose use, in her piece, of the terms plot, structure and story, but I think I'll focus on structure. As it seems to me that a plot (two guys want to go see a baseball game) isn't really an issue. The issue here is whether or not a hostility towards structure is a good thing.

To quote:

"I seem to be constantly confronted by theater professionals who are more or less annoyed by the prospect of structure. One time I was at a wedding reception, for crying out loud, and I got seated at a table with a really famous genius of the contemporary American theater who had directed a play I admired. He had deconstructed a well-known play but the essence of the original story was still there, and the artistry and strangeness of his interpretation was beautifully balanced within the original tale. When I told him so, he went into a drunken rage. "All that structure, all that story," he growled, pouring himself more wine. "What a nightmare."

"I love structure," I confessed. "I think it's beautiful."

"Yeah, the audience loved it too," he sneered.

OK, I condensed that conversation; there was actually more yelling and drinking involved. But the essence of the exchange is accurate: He was a great artist who looked down on structure and managed to admit that he looked down on the audience too."

With this story, Rebeck is making the point that makes me wince. Which isn't to say I know exactly how I feel about it or I'm sure she's wrong. She is equating a frustration with structure and a dismissal of the audience.

That can be true. It can also be a product of trying to give theatrical audiences something they can't find elsewhere. If you want perfect structure, you don't have to look far: it's on every TV screen, and in every film. Films that eschew traditional structure are praised simply for doing so, it being so uncommon.

On stage, the only limits imposed on us are our own. We aren't slaves to a 44 minute episode plus commerical interruptions, or a one hour and forty five minute screen time to maximize showings. So structure on stage is less a necessity of the market. It's a tool.

How useful is that tool? Most of the time...very. And it's also used prominently. I have a hard time thinking of a recent play that doesn't have some version of a two-act or three-act structure embedded somewhere in its DNA. In fact, Rebeck seems to be mounting a defense for the norm.

It seems more complex and challenging to create something successful for the stage and entirely opposes or breaks down the dramatic structure that seems to somehow be a part of "how plays work." Perhaps Expositon - Rising Action - Climax - Fall Action and Denouement are the Golden Mean of drama; that they spring forth from something more fundamental about how human being perceive and accept storytelling. Dramatic structure isn't something that comes from academia. It seems like it was discovered by an unofficial scientific method, proven on stages again and again.

That's why it behooves most playwrights to attempt to subvert or reject it or try to replace it. Because it's there, and we feel it, and we're reminded of it by people like Rebeck, and professors, and Sophocles. I'd guess that most writers feel, deep in their gut, an urge to plainly deny that their work must fall into these parameters or automatically be judged unsuccessful, messy, or less beautiful.

I love messiness. I'm not, though, dedicated to writing plays that fail to work because I've tried to resist structure. That's the dilemma I feel as I write. That tension is a good and healthy one. It's not a need to reject the audience...it's a desire to give them, and myself, something else. Something they can't find elsewhere.


Austin said...

Great discussion! It seems to me that if a plot can not be placed in a structure then it would be to messy to view. Successfully messy plays at least fall into a thematic structure that strings along our attention. Also, let us not forget Brecht's amazing use of the episodic structure.

George Hunka said...

Rebeck's comments are odd if only because at least two of the playwrights she holds up as examples of "good structure" -- Beckett and Chekhov -- were at the time of the premieres of these plays accused of lacking exactly that structure and plot that Rebeck now finds in them. "Nothing happens, twice," went the criticism of the "structure" of Godot. And even now the plot of Uncle Vanya is more a series of events that focus the melancholy of its title character than a straightforward story. They were considered plotless at the time. And so hostile to the audience, I suppose.

All right, hindsight is always 20/20. But it seems to me that Rebeck's antagonistic tone is the same as the tone that accompanied the criticisms of these early plays. Since she offers for discussion no individual titles of the plays she criticises, perhaps she's missing something, revealing her own blindspot when it comes to this contemporary work.

The blindspot is precisely to the value of this formal experimentation. Now, of course, Chekhov and Beckett are contemporary classics, but it took many years for audiences and critics to recognize the structure and "plot" (if you will) of these pieces. Perhaps in fifty years we'll be talking about the obvious structure and plot in plays by Foreman and Wellman (I'll be nearly 100 by then and probably too decrepit to say "I told you so"). But that's for posterity, and not contemporary middlebrow playwrights, to say.

Austin said...

George I think you are confusing plot and structure, or using the term in a variety of ways. If we agree that all plays are plotted, then only structure can be lacking or misused. Plot is the telling of story, therefore it would be impossible to have a play without plot.

George Hunka said...

Actually, Austin, I think I have to disagree here.

A poem has a structure just as much as a play, but that structure is informed by the genre of the poem: lyrical, narrative, epic, allegorical (a branch of narrative possibly but not necessarily so) and so on. It's structure, in fact, that all plays share, not the presence of a plot. Just as a verse or prose text might be lyrical in nature (and therefore lacking what we think of in the theatre as "plot"), so can a dramatic text.

Many of the one-act plays of the Irish Dramatic Renaissance by Yeats and Synge, I think, meet this definition of "lyrical" theatre, as well as several of Strindberg's chamber plays. Though dreams may have a structure, it doesn't resemble the structure of traditional, real-world, waking-world narrative. It's more accurate, I believe, to say that they share with lyric poetry the vertical exploration of an expression or experience, not an exploration of it through story.

Austin said...

And I will also disagree as both of the examples you have given are plotted. You seem to be making an assumption that the absence of a plot is the absence of a climatic "structure". Also genre and style do not dictate a structure. A lyrical, narrative, epic, or allegorical style could be told in a climatic, episodic, or thematic structure using a focused plotting or a panoramic plotting.

A man rises ...

A statement as simple as that above has plot, although might not be a "well-made" plot.

This is why these discussions are so difficult. Without a clear definition of terms it is hard to come to a conclusion of shared ideas.

George Hunka said...

Actually that's precisely the opposite of what I'm saying. A style is not a structure; the lyrical "style" has evolved considerably from, say, John Donne to John Ashbery; it's the form that's evolved over the past four hundred years. Lyrical poems like Stevens' "The Snow Man" and a longer contemporary epic poem like Pound's "Cantos" certainly have a structure, but a discernible narrative is very hard to find. One could find a series of events in "The Bald Soprano," but does this constitute a "narrative" -- a rising and falling, a denoument -- in the Aristotelian sense?

"A man rises" is not a plot, not even a badly-made one; it is a single, discrete event. If we're going to have definitions, let's start with the Old Greek (even though we needn't finish there necessarily) and say that a plot is a sequence of events, which requires, to begin with, more than one event. The man might rise for a reason -- because, for example, somebody has entered the room -- and there we might discern a plot in the making, but even here it's incomplete. Even Foreman's plays are connections of such events over time, one following the other. If that's the case, then, I don't know what Rebeck is talking about either, for then we have plot and some kind of structure.

Or the "plot" of Pinter's Betrayal. It's a fairly simple plot; it constitutes the story of an adulterous affair, the depiction of a series of connected events, hardly new. But the structure is what's different; what differentiates it from, say, Madame Bovary is that its time structure runs backwards.