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September 10th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ve been reading a book entitled New Playwriting Strategies: A Language-Based Approach to Playwriting by Paul C Castagno and liked it right off due to his focus on Bakhtin and the nature of polyvocal and multivocal texts.  Not that I am inherently just fascinated by these ideas in and of themselves, but for what they bring to an experience in the theater: characters who are complex, multidimensional, constantly shifting, identity is in flux.  As this book takes a language-based approach, so does it contain works by playwrights who really throw the rest of play creation in to flux as well.  For instance, I’m ready Native Speech by Eric Overmyer right now and am just blown away by not only the language variations in each character, but the collage of theatrical elements: the way a woman’s voice on the loud speaker announces a scene shift with subtlety and that scene shift happens without any dramatic re-set to the stage set, just simple movement through stage space–including the end of Act I, which is a Tableaux Vivant.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari

This leads me to one of the things that fascinated me about Mud: each scene ends with a tableau, what Fornes describes as a “stage picture.”  Having only read, and not seen, the play, I can only imagine the effect of this, but it must be startling.  The end of a scene with a stage picture: 1) emphasizes spatial constructions; and 2) provides a contemplative moment; 3) shakes up the flow of the theater piece.

By emphasizing spatial constructions I mean that as an audience member I would be interested in the physical, spatial relationships between the characters on the stage–the blocking–where they are physically in relation to each other, to the room, etc.  Spatial constructions are part of what the theater is all about. Theater, by its nature, is a spatial art form; in fact, I just picked up a book that is all about the use of space in theater.  Distance is just as important as proximity.  A character’s proximity to another character, and that character’s reaction to that proximity, can speak volumes that dialogue cannot.  Humans are visual creatures and most of communication takes place through visual sign stimuli, not through language.  Recognizing this is part of making living theater, not just stale recitations or monologues.  Spatial constructions can also lead to layered meaning, or even contradictory meaning for instance, when a character tells another she is happy, while aggressively ironing clothes and slamming the iron down on the board.  In another Fornes play, which I detested, Sarita, the set itself is very like that in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, whose exaggerated, surreal set reflects the interior psychology of the main character.  The set description reads:

Livingroom in New York’s South Bronx…the proportions are not realistic. The ceiling is inordinately high. There are no windows except for a small one, ten feet high on each side wall…

Such as set casts a dominating influence over the action that takes place within.  Mud is similar, set in a “wooden room…on an earth promontory.” The room is so small and oppressive, the poverty in which the characters live, that the three characters barely have room to move around each other.

The freezes allow for contemplation.  This is something that generally only happens with breaks between Acts, if you believe people are actually contemplating and not just rushing out to smoke or drink or whatever.  The freezes in Mud last 8 seconds, allowing for consideration of not only the characters frozen on stage, but also the relationships between them and a review of what events occurred in the previous sequence.

The freezes shake the flow of the piece, not allowing for the rhythm or rush to get too far ahead of the audience; but it’s not as intrusive as a blackout, to which some people are opposed.

I’m currently working on a piece and I may experiment with tableaux in it; although I am interested in how Overmyer handles the transitions in Native Speech, too.

Mud feels like a mix between an Absurdist piece and an Expressionist piece.  Fornes originally studied painting and I think it is easy to see the influence that has had on how she envisions sets and space in her plays.  Read, for instance, the set notes on Mud:

The set is a wooden room which sits on an earth promontory.  The promontory is five feet high and covers the same periphery as the room. The wood has the color and texture of bone that has dried in the sun.  It is ashen and cold.  The earth in the promontory is red and soft and so is the earth around it.  There is no greenery.  Behind the promontory there is a vast blue sky…

And on she goes.  The visual contrast of the colors in this set is strong.  I have always been personally fascinated by the contrast of red and yellow; but the strong bone color is set off by the red of the earth and the blue of the sky–a contrast in elements as strong as the contrast between Mae’s desires and the mud in which she is stuck.

The physical set is not the only Absurdist/Expressionist element.  The language of the play is the equal to the physical set.

MAE: You don’t know numbers.

LLOYD: Yes I do. (He stands.) I’m Lloyd.  I have two pigs. My mother died. I was seven. My father left. He is dead. (He gets three coins from his pocket.) This is money. It’s mine. It’s three nickels. I’m Lloyd.  That’s arithmetic.

MAE: That is not arithmetic.

And much of the play is like that.  Simple sentences constructed of a noun, verb, and direct object.

 MAE: I’m pressing, jerk! What are you doing! I’m pressing.  What are you doing! (He looks away.) I’m pressing what are you doing! You’re a jerk. (She continues ironing.) I work.  See, I work. I’m working. I learned to work. I wake up and I work. Open my eyes and I work. I work. What do you do! Yeah, what do you do!–Work!

LLOYD: So what. (He sits in a corner on the floor.)

The use of language in this manner (very simple constructions, powerful images, high levels of repetition) create language equivalents to the visual design: that is, highly impressive images that stay with you and create a strong sense of character, event, and purpose.

Mud is a tough play, one that comes out and punches you in the mouth and makes you spit blood.

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