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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, January 12, 2006

Narrative as an Invitation

From Superfluities, talking about Manet:

"What does all this have to do with theater and drama? Well, one of the things it points out it is how far our drama is behind the other arts, about 150 years behind painting in this case. Most of our drama is still playing with Victorian narrative form; as much as there are jokes around the edges of it, "playing with form," that form is not abandoned nearly as much as Manet abandoned conventions of narrative and allegory in 19th-century French painting. But there's more, too: there's the emphasis on light and shadow, rather than shape and detail; and, of course, the implication of the viewer. Manet's nude challenges us to enter the painting, accepting the impossibility of interpreting it, of assuming that if we do so it will grant us meaning. It doesn't. Foreman, too, places people on the stage, staring out at us, inviting us into that world, and we too can reject that meaninglessness, if we wish to do so. But the sensual pleasures it offers in our entering the world of the painting, without preconceived notions, can be revolutionary in changing our way of seeing, as Manet changed the art of painting."

I think that an important point is brought up here (although I don't necessarily agree with the interpretations of the painting or how George interprets Foreman). I believe that narrative is something that we are tied to, by and large, in the theatre, in a way that we rarely reconsider.

Narrative is viewed by almost everyone one in the theatre as almost the same thing as a play. A play is a form of a narrative. Just another way to tell a story.

Observance is inherent, but narrative is a form. We use forms of narrative (comedy, tragedy) the way we use makeup. It is a way to direct the viewers observation. It is a tried and true method to show something to the viewer that, in fact, invites them into something familiar, so that those who observe feel complicit in and engaged by what is being shown to them.

I believe that narrative is something that is handled best by Television and Film, and that Poetry and Visual Art, for the most part, eschew direct narrative as a matter of course. Theatre should consider viewing narrative in a new way, and that might help it distinguish itself more fully and excitingly than other mediums that utilize storytelling.

Here is where George and I diverge: Foreman, who sees narrative as something that needs to be challenged, doesn't seem to invite the audience into his insular world. I find this often true of non-narrative theatre that I've seen... it is distancing, and elitist, and makes no effort to make its symbols or images or words ring true for the casual observer.

Is it possible to invite an audience into non-narrative theatre? To make them complicit and involved, without self-indulgence?


MattJ said...

"Is it possible to invite an audience into non-narrative theatre? To make them complicit and involved, without self-indulgence?"

I hope so. You're right, narrative is a convention as you commented to me on one of my earlier posts when Spearbearer started this conversation you are dealing with. But is there no place in the theatre world for it? And is it a useless endeavor? I worry about this notion because even though it is tried and true, there is something important about challenging narrative form. And often, when narrative is challenged, and challenged well, there is still a structure and a "way in" for the audience. Whether it's a linkages of symbols and themes or whatever, some sort of associative device. It's hard to do this well, but not without merit.

And I think part of the problem that it feels elitist is that the audience isn't ready for it, they don't know what the difference can be between theatre and film. This kind of theatre without narrative is interesting and challenging, but the audience doesn't get it. But could they? I think so. I hope so.

As a sidenote, non-narrative is not just a theatrical convention, it's a gigantic postmodern form of literature as well; and you can se it done successfully in film as well.

DL said...

Great post as usual!

I've been with someone for a year who is a huge comic book fan. Huge. He is pretty much like the Jack Black in High Fidelity of comic books ( well, except he is nice and not condescending!) . But anyway, I've been reading more comic books and getting acquainted with some amazing forms. '
I've just been amazed to see how much form and ways of narrative has evolved in the comics since Fantastic Four and while theatre has evolved it's fair share, I am really blown away by how much comic fans will grow and evolve with the form as it changes.
People are so much more resistant with theatre. It's strange.
Also, I am getting some really cool staging ideas from these comics !!!
They use the most inventive ways of telling stories...

Art said...

Playwright, Jose Rivera once put it this way:

"Strive to be mysterious, but not confusing."

I believe that this issue goes to craft. I think mattj and I are on the same page when I say that sometimes post-modern artists forget that they have to challenge themselves as craftsmen as well as challenge the audience to understand what is going on.

It is not an easy skill to walk the edge of opacity, but if one can do it, AND include the proper amount of substance behind their style, they will have created something special.

Alison Croggon said...

Hmm. In suggesting that challenging conventions of narrative is a 20C phenomenon, we forget such post-modern anti-narrative masterpieces as Stern's Tristam Shandy and Swift's Tale of a Tub - written in, oh, the 1700s...

Also it's worth remembering, in suggesting that audiences are "not ready" for it, that children are perfectly capable of understanding non- or anti-narrative. Often better than adults are, because their minds are not conditioned into only perceiving cultural norms. Some of their favourite cartoons - the wicked Angry Beavers for instance, or Sponge Bob, which often work on associative symbols rather than logical causation - make absolutely no narrative sense at all.

Scott Walters said...

I don't have the hostility to narrative that Foreman expresses, nor do I have a hostility toward new forms. In fact, I have done my share of non-narrative work. I think why audiences avoid new forms, however, is because we don't help them "get it." Suddenly, and without warning, we're speaking in a different language. This goes back to Jeffrey Jones' essay in American Theatre "Thinking About Writing About Thinking About New Plays: Or, How the Visual Arts Audiences Got Comfortable with Radical Innovation, While Theatre Audiences Didn’t." I wrote about this article on my blog (see "Helping the Audience, Part 2" on December 5th). Jones talks about the catalogs that accompany art exhibits, and how they give audiences a vocabulary and a lens. Why couldn't we do such a thing?

I must admit that I sometimes think the reason we don't is that the actual ideas that lay beneath the formal experiments are so superficial that we don't want the audience to be able to understand what is going on. But perhaps that is ungenerous. Or perhaps the form is the idea ala Absurdism.

Devilvet said...

Rorshach blot as Portrait

That, to me, is a good way to think about Foreman's work.

One can see a puzzle to be picked apart, but instead I see situations, plots, ideas that are freed of what we traditionally think of as narrative, freed from the laws of physics and cause and effect.

I've seen maybe 5 foreman shows, a couple of them twice and for me the joy I get from them is more akin to the sensation of walking down a street I've never walked down before in a foreign country.

I think we often use narrative as a way to acclimate an audience to the world we create. Foreman doesn;t always do that, he lets us wander the streets of his foreign town and remain foreign, distinct, novel...


Art said...

Foreman himself, in the intro to one of the play collections, says that his favorite part of motion pictures is that first few minutes where you don't know anything about these people, and you are trying to figure out how they fit together.