Where and how to set a new play is a recurring challenge, and it was brought to mind recently by a wonderful book I’ve been reading called An Introduction to the Greek Theatre by Peter D. Arnott. Towards the beginning of the book, Arnott draws a distinction between two kinds of theatrical experience, realistic and non-realistic.
He emphasizes that non-realistic theatre, such as Classical Greek theatre, Elizabethan theatre and the Noh theatre of Japan, is filled with elements that vault the experience into a collaboration between playwright and audience – a collaboration that makes the audience work harder than it does in a theatre of realism. For example, the Chorus in a Classical Greek play deepens the theatrical experience by speaking directly to the audience, and the audience has to accept this convention.[T]he ancient dramatists found that they could best treat the lofty moral themes which formed the staple of tragedy … by leaving themselves unbound by the fetters of [realism].
Arnott contrasts the theatre of convention with the theatre of realism, where the playwright tries to create the illusion that we’re looking through a fourth wall into a setting taken verbatim from our daily lives. This is the kind of theatre that most of us see every day, and it has been prevalent since the middle of the 17th century (after the Restoration in 1660, to be exact) when theatres in Europe began building proscenium arches.
A proscenium arch – which is the large architectural frame at the front of the stage through which we view the action – gives us the illusion of looking through a large window. Essentially, it separates the players from the audience. It also allows actors and scenery that are not in a particular scene to be hidden in the wings; it forces the audience to focus in one direction only; and it has, over the years, called forth a realistic style of acting to match the environment.
While the dichotomy between realistic theatre and the theatre of convention is a topic that theatre people wrestle with every day, Arnott makes two observations that I find particularly illuminating. First, he notes that
a gross though popular misconception is that the theatre of convention is so by necessity … Nothing could be further from the truth. An age which could produce the elaborate masques and processional spectacle which delighted Elizabeth I and James I would not have been defeated by the problems of scene-painting. Shakespeare and his fellow-writers did not use it because they preferred not to; the dramatic genius of the period found its natural expression in a stage which was open, unhampered and unconfined.
In other words, the Elizabethans could have had realistic scenery if they’d wanted to, but they didn’t. They didn’t want scenery to hamper their movement. They wanted Antony and Cleopatra to move freely from Egypt to Rome and back again without being limited by painted flats. This is why most up-dated renderings of Shakespeare don’t succeed. Put Much Ado About Nothing in Mexico during the Civil War and all the imagination that Shakespeare asks of the audience goes out the window. Put Shakespeare on an empty platform and he starts to breathe.
The second interesting point that Arnott makes is that “The realistic play par excellence, except in the hands of genius, must usually limit itself to slighter themes.” In Arnott’s view, plays that are not bound by the illusion of realism usually plumb deeper themes than realistic plays, and as such they are open to more varying interpretations. Thus (goes this line of argument), unless genius intervenes (see Chekhov and Tennessee Williams), realism can hamper the playwright not only with respect to physical movement, but also in terms of his dramatic themes.
The great Shakespeare critic Stanley Wells makes a similar point when he refers to the “self-renewing quality” of Shakespeare’s work. It was written, says Wells, “as if [Shakespeare] himself had had the wisdom to leave his plays slightly unfinished, to hold back from final decisions so that future ages could read into them preoccupations of their own times … Perhaps there is, somehow, a more mythic quality about Shakespeare that enables his plays to speak to generation after generation …”
I’m now in the process of writing a new play, and, as usual, I’m thinking a lot about the style of the piece. The story I’ve created calls for a number of settings, and there are three choices I can make.
First, I can try to plot the play in such a way that it all takes place in a single setting, in this case, the faculty lounge of a small liberal arts college. Most theatres can’t afford to build multiple sets for the same play, so this might be viewed as the safest option.
Second, I can throw caution to the wind and write it for three or four realistic sets and hope that theatres will produce it despite the cost. This is often the way that plays written between 1660 and 1850 are produced to this day, at least by the bigger institutional theatres. I just saw the National Theatre of England’s spring 2012 production of She Stoops to Conquer and it contained three very sturdy sets. The National Theatre’s production of One Man, Two Guvnors, now on Broadway, also has multiple sets, in that case seven.
Third, I can simply write the play as the story demands and let the play unfold on a “unit” set the way the Elizabethans and the Greeks did it. A unit set is a single set that can represent a number of locations throughout the play, with the changes enhanced by lighting and props. I’ve used this kind of storytelling in the past: Be My Baby moves from Scotland to San Francisco and back again, visiting hotels, a hospital and a cruise ship along the way. Shakespeare in Hollywood does the same. It sprawls through Hollywood in the 1930s, and, frankly, that made it especially enjoyable to write. Do these two plays (as Arnott suggests) attempt to plumb deeper themes than my other plays because of the imaginative, non-realistic nature of their settings? Possibly. But …
I was reminded while reading Arnott’s book that plays can be non-realistic in a number of ways. I was also reminded that farces, almost by definition, are non-realistic, despite their realistic sets. Just look at the farces of Georges Feydeau, the great 19th century French playwright. A Flea in Her Ear contains two men who are not related to each other but just happen to look identical. The Ribadier System involves instant hypnotism. The Lady from Maxim’s contains a “chair of ecstasy” that freezes people with a push of the button. And in these and every other Feydeau farce, by the time the action reaches its peak at the end of the second act, characters with every species of physical anomaly, from cleft palates to satyriasis, are running in and out of doors waving guns, corsets and suspenders.
Farces, as it turns out, contain just as many conventions as Classic Greek tragedies at their height. They’re just funnier. In his remarkable introduction to the NHB Drama Classics edition of A Flea in Her Ear, Stephen Mulrine has this to say:
At first sight, it may seem absurd to compare a Feydeau farce, all frantic chases through salons and boudoirs, with Oedipus Rex, but just as the latter is a model of perfection of its kind, so too is A Flea in Her Ear, with the same merciless inevitability. And Sophocles’ bleak universe is not so very different, either, from that of Feydeau. Underlying the Belle Epoque froth is a nightmare world of vanishing objects, confused identities, unstable relationships, constantly on the brink of disintegration. … Farce, it has been said, is tragedy with a happy ending, or played at double speed.
So, should the farce I’m working on at the moment start out in a Greek marketplace or in the room where most of the action takes place? There’s no right or wrong answer; but I will soon have to make the choice. Ultimately, the answer will be bound up in the advice that I offer young playwrights when they ask me how to choose a setting for their plays: the answer is to tell the story as the story demands, with as much integrity as you can bring to the table. If you do, the technical problems will somehow, almost magically, take care of themselves.