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Form and Structure in How I Learned to Drive

December 11th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’ll pick up from where I left off with the previous essay, regarding Paula Vogel’s play How I Learned to Drive; specifically, I’ll consider some of the techniques that have attracted me to this play and their meaning, as suggested by a few critical articles.

In the previous essay I discussed that I have been struggling for some time with the shape of a play that I’ve been working on. As well, there was some mention of the notion that the form of a play is what is important. This suggestion was confirmed repeatedly in the two critical articles that I read on Drive which focused expressly on the need for a unique form in which to tell the story, necessary to subvert not only Vogel’s own authorial voice, but to ensure that the audience doesn’t come away with a pre-conceived understanding based on the form of the play itself. As Stevenson notes in her essay:

The form discovered by Paula Vogel for Li’l Bit’s revelation of her secret affirms this multiplicity [of bodies on stage, of voices, of perspectives], and allows Li’l Bit to tell her story without being reduced to the fictitious unity that a realist form would enforce. (Stevenson, 244)

Again, I have heard much description of postmodern art forms that discuss the form as meaning, and after reading these two critical articles alone I have come to understand how form works to create meaning in Drive. Structurally, stylistically, vocally, image, symbol, language, and in use of space Vogel controls how meaning is constructed, and is not afraid to lower her own authorial voice to the level of the voices of her characters and thus give equal presentation, weight, and value to all the voices both in the play and outside it. (Kimbrogh, 97)

The main techniques that lead to formal subversion or the revisioning of structure include: disruption (of time, theme, memory); multiplicity of voices; Brechtian techniques and stage techniques; changes of generic modes; and even the assertion by Kimbrough that the play itself is a polyphonic form:

I propose that Vogel treats dramatic form as polyphonic. She employs tragedy, comedy, realism, and epic stagecraft in different scenes for purposes of audience affect, but she does not allow one style or genre to dominate the form of the play or to completely shape audience perspective…genres are really forms of thinking that shape ideology…subverting ideology or thematic reception is to subvert genre. In applying defacilitation to genre, Vogel succeeds in creating polyphony of dramatic form. (Kimbrough, 100)

Disruption is one of the most significant techniques used by Vogel in How I Learned to Drive. This disruption takes on many forms throughout the play, and there will be great crossover in singling out any one technique per the above list. But Stevenson points to perhaps the single greatest disruption and the one that is essential in forcing the form of the play: namely the disruption to body image that Li’l Bit endures as a function of her sexual abuse. This disruption is most powerfully demonstrated to the audience at the end of the play when the first instance of the sexual abuse is shown on stage. Li’l Bit states that, “That day was the last day I lived in my body.” [Vogel, 90] Stevenson cites, throughout her article, evidence regarding how sexual abuse victims conceive of themselves, foremost being the sense of separation from their physical body. Thus, it is no accident that Vogel places such a strong emphasis on parts of the body and Li’l Bit’s alienation from them and her own body. As well, it is equally to be noted that throughout the play various stage techniques and Brechtian devices are employed to dislocate the audience and ensure that the broken conception of character is experienced and understood. Two simple examples of this dislocation and disruption by use of stage technique include the “erotic” photo shoot with Peck as the photographer and Li’l Bit as the object and the scene that reveals the first instance of the sexual abuse of Li’l Bit. The former scene uses the contrasting visual forms of the “live” photo shoot involving Peck and Li’l Bit, however, over the top of this scene is layered the visual images of women cast as slides. This projection of visual images of models contrasted with the live shoot on the stage serves to demonstrate the alienation between the lived life of the subject (Li’l Bit) and the alien perception of body that has been projected onto her. The latter scene employs what, up to this point, has been a “Greek Chorus” character to act as the voice of Li’l Bit while the “narrator” character acts out the first instance of sexual abuse. As Stevenson points out, from both a stage craft and Brechtian viewpoint, a lot is going on in this scene: the narrator character is at once the 35-year-old narrator of the play that the audience has become used to, but is also the 11-year-old Li’l Bit who was first abused in 1962. So the dual stage layers of the character are present and this metatheatrical device serves to dislocate any attachment that the audience might feel toward any particular instance of the character. But then the third layer is thrown in: that of the Greek Chorus female acting as the voice for Li’l Bit as an 11-year-old. Thus we see that the separation of voice and body is here enacted clearly on stage, and that there are three representations of Li’l Bit present for the audience to consider. This multiplicity of character and actors, as well as the separation between action and voice compound the meaning of the scene and demonstrate the complexity of what has happened to Li’l Bit as result of the sexual abuse, as well as create a very complicated stage image for the audience to sort through: that is, the audience is not given a simple linear set of events to contemplate easily. And the above only represents two examples of the complexity that Vogel creates to disrupt the narrative presentation of events in Drive; and, it should be noted, these disruptions are, at least, three dimensional: manifesting in character, space, and time.

Closely related to the disruption mentioned above, is multiplicity of voice, which serves to disrupt audience experience of the events, but also to provide a more complex understanding of the content of the play itself. The multiple representations of time and space in Drive are representative of Mikhail Bakhtin. In her essay, “Bakhtin, Temporality, and Modern Narrative: Writing ‘the Whole Triumphant Murderous Unstoppable Chute’,” Stacy Burton considers three lesser-explored concepts of M. M. Bakhtin’s critical theory: the chronotope, heterochrony, and heteroglossia; and the significance these concepts have to the critical understanding of modem fiction. Chronotopes are “conceptions of time and space… [that] determine ‘to a significant degree the image of a person in literature.’” (Burton 1996, 45) The chronotope is also understood to be “the key term in [Bakhtin’s] discussion of time and narrative.” (Burton 1996, 43) The essence of the chronotope is twofold: it contains a temporal component and a spatial component, both of which defines a character within a novel and impacts the narrative, these ideas are readily applicable to theater. The temporal component can loosely be defined as the placement of the character within time, and the spatial component can be understood to be the physical placement of the character within space—also known as “framing” or “viewpoint.” Thus, within a novel whose attached narration is concerned with a character’s action in the present tense, the character’s chronotope can be understood to be the “now” and “here”—that is, current time and current physical space. This, however, is a simplistic representation of a chronotope, as within a novel or play multiple chronotopes can be present at one time, as demonstrated by the very first scene of Li’l Bit’s sexual abuse. Each character will manifest his or her own chronotope and each narrative strand will manifest its own distinct viewpoint. It is this aspect of the play that greatly increases its complexity, for as M. M. Bakhtin notes:

“. . .the modern novel, sensing itself on the border between two languages, one literary, the other extraliterary, each of which now knows heteroglossia, also senses itself on the border of time: it is extraordinarily sensitive to time in language, it senses time’s shifts, the aging and renewing of language, the past and the future—and all in language.” (Bakhtin et al. 1988, 67)

What is true of the novel is also true of chronotopes—as the character of Li’l Bit in the revelation of her sexual abuse, suddenly makes manifest several chronotopes (her at 35, 11, and the disembodied voice)—which is not including that of the audience member, who brings his or her own ‘narrative strand’ to the theater. Added to this is the presence within a narrative viewpoint of multiple expressions of time: “Bakhtin amplifies these early hints about multiple chronotopes and proposes the outlines of a more complex theory of narrative temporality. Here he describes the world as fundamentally multitemporal, or ‘heterochronous.’ Within any narrative, he explains in a crucial passage, several chronotopes may be at work:

Chronotopes are mutually inclusive, they co-exist, they may be interwoven with, replace or oppose one another, contradict one another or find themselves in ever more complex interrelationships. . . The general characteristic of these interactions is that they are dialogical (in the broadest sense of the word)… (this dialogue) enters the world of the author, of the performer, and the world of the listeners and readers. And all these worlds are chronotopic as well.” (Burton 1996, 47)

Plainly put, within any narrative moment, multiple time references may be present, as well as multiple points of view and conceptions of time. As if this weren’t enough, per what is mentioned in the quoted section above, the presence of a character, an author, a performer, and listeners introduces one of many possible dialogues that can exist in a narrative—that is, instances of multiple voices speaking to one another. This possibility extends equally to characters within a play, as Vogel demonstrates, and introduces the concept of heteroglossia (polyphony). What is most interesting about the various representations of voice, however, is that Vogel is willing to give characters un-inhibited freedom in expressing themselves which complicates the understanding of the audience: that is, there is no easy way to label any one character as “good” or “bad” or “right” or “wrong” which leads to Kimbrough’s assertion that Vogel is an ethical playwright. (Kimbrough, 94) One of the starkest examples of this at work in Drive, pointed out by Kimbrough, is that with Aunt Mary, Peck’s wife. Kimbrough writes:

the polyphony affords the greatest depth of character in the person of Peck’s wife, Aunt Mary. In a monologue towards the end of the play, Vogel allows Mary to speak for herself for the first time. Earlier, in the first family scene, Li’l Bit remembers and presents her aunt as a woman who is totally unaware that something festers in the relationship between Li’l Bit and Peck…But in her monologue, Mary contradicts her niece’s memory. She says, speaking for herself, “And I want to say this about my niece. She’s a sly one, that one is. She knows exactly what she’s doing; she’s twisted Peck around her little finger and thinks it’s all a big secret.” Through polyphony Vogel not only allows characters to speak for themselves, but she disrupts audience perception. She forces audiences to ask themselves anew what they think of situations and relationships that they are constantly assessing through different points of view…Vogel also gives spectators permission to doubt that the truth of Li’l Bit’s story may not be entirely accurate.” [Kimbrough, 102-3]

Brechtian techniques as well as stage techniques have already been mentioned, though it will do to mention one other Brechtian technique that Kimbrough draws attention to: namely the presence in Drive of multiple generic forms and the use of single actors to instantiate multiple characters in the play. Kimbrough notes that, “an ensemble of three actors…play all of the other characters in the play. But the characters…do not resemble the realistic characters presented in Li’l Bit and Peck. Because the ensemble portrays at least three different characters each, they cannot be cast close to type. Instead, the family members are personified through minimal use of stage signifiers–properties, behaviors, and the like–that indicate a character type, even stereotype.” [Kimbrough, 98-9] A common technique used to alienate the audience by undermining emotional attachment to any one character. But Kimbrough also notes, more interestingly, the inclusion of multiple generic forms in the play, that affect audience experience of events: “all of the scenes with Li’l Bit and Peck are presented in the style of Stanislavskian realism…in contrast, all of the other scenes and characters are interpreted by the ensemble…the scenes resemble Brechtian epic stagecraft in that the actors do not strive to create fully realized and detailed characters…the realistic scenes with Peck are, for the most part, serious and dramatic; the ensemble scenes are comedic.” [Kimbrough, 99]. In fact, Kimbrough and Stevenson both point to the presence of multiple genres in the single play: comedy, drama, memory play, and even mystery–that is, we are led to believe, at the beginning, that we are seeking a secret or the discovery of something undisclosed or hidden. Kimbrough even points to the inclusion of the Greek Chorus as an indicator that this play, on a level, functions as a Greek Tragedy, “in which someone is on trial.” [Kimbrough, 100]

Thus, as I noted in my first essay, sitting in a theater and listening to one character vomit for his or her neurotic problems or the history of her neurotic condition is not particularly favorable, nor is a fatty layer of maudlin emotion buttered on top. People today are much more cynical and while compassion exists, consistently overplaying emotion does not. So, finding new ways to make people feel the emotion or feel the emotional confusion or experience the suddenness of the event and attempt to synthesize the experience in the context of the play is, to my mind, a much better solution than mere presentation. So, Vogel’s techniques in How I Learned to Drive: the disruptions (of time, theme, memory); the multiplicity of voices; the Brechtian techniques and stage techniques; changes of generic modes; and even the assertion that the play itself is a polyphonic form; serves to create a more engaging form and a more diverse method by which meaning is constructed and life is understood.

Stevenson, Sarah Lansdale. “Yielding to Multiplicity: The Kaleidoscopic Subject of Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive (1997). Women Making Art: Women in the Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts since 1960. Eruptions: New Thinking Across the Disciplines (Eruptions: New Thinking Across the Disciplines): 7. 2001.
Kimbrough, Andrew. “Formal Subversion in How I Learned to Drive: A Structure of Meaning.” Text & Presentation: The Comparative Drama Conference Series Supplement 4 (2007), pp. 93-108.
Vogel, Paula. “How I Learned to Drive” The Mammary Plays. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1998.
Burton, Stacy. “Bakhtin, temporality, and modern narrative: Writing ‘the whole triumphant murderous unstoppable chute’.” Comparative Literature 48, no. 1 (Winter 1996): 39-64.
Bakhtin, M.M. “From the Prehistory of Novelistic Discourse.” In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1988.

  1. June 4th, 2016 at 17:23 | #1

    Aw, this was an incredibly nice post. Spending some time
    and actual effort to make a really good article… but what can I say… I procrastinate a whole lot and don’t manage to get
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  1. March 22nd, 2010 at 23:29 | #1

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