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Form and Structure in How I Learned to Drive

December 11th, 2009 1 comment

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.

Playwright who resonantes with me right now at this moment as we speak currently this second…and why

December 8th, 2009 No comments

I think the playwright whose work most resonates with me, right now, is Paula Vogel and her play How I Learned to Drive

I think this is the case because I have been struggling with an idea I have for a play, and have been struggling for some time, with the shape of it.  I heard something from Mike Geither recently that resonated with me; Geither said that he’s coming to realize that the structure or the form of a play is what is important, and I whole heartedly agree, and I think there should be a playwriting class dedicated solely to that topic.  In fact, I’m beginning to think that this is actually where the art lies.  I have heard in describing postmodern art forms, more times than I care to mention, that the form is the meaning, and I never really quite got what that was driving at, but more and more as I read plays I am coming to understand exactly what that means.  If we presented every playwright with the exact same story: plot, narrative, characters, etc, and asked them to turn it into a play, it is clear that we would have as diverse a set of plays at the end as we have already had presented to us.  Structurally, stylistically, vocally, in tableaux, image, symbol, language, and in use of space we would see a full range of possibilities for how plays can be constructed. 

I have been struggling with the play I am loosely calling Patterns.  It is a play that uses the metaphor of pattern as its uber theme and begins with a young woman addressing the audience about making a dress and the sewing machine and pattern that she has chosen.  The problem is that I could not get beyond the visual image of the woman addressing the audience and I could not get beyond a play structure that had direct address as its primary vehicle of exchange.  The awkwardness of this form was reinforced recently for me when I saw a couple plays at Little Box, including Waves and Projecting: both of which use women who directly address the audience as their primary form.  Waves has very distinct, well-drawn characters and events and is an emotionally enthralling piece; however, the form of the thing is not right.  In fact, I would characterize it as grueling.  In retrospect, I recently saw the play The Heidi Chronicles at the Eldred Theater at Case and it is, in my mind, what How I Learned to Drive would be had not Vogel had a different vision for the play.  The Heidi Chronicles expresses a woman’s life as reflected upon and shows in linear time the course of events that lead to where she is in the present.  It is boring.  It is difficult to sit through.  It is the exact problem of linearity that Vogel escapes. Very like Waves and The Heidi Chronicles, I simply have no doubt whatsoever that my play Patterns would become the same thing: grueling, maudlin, even tiresome and repetitive–if there is no consideration of what can be done by breaking form and reconsidering structure.  The art comes in the consideration of the form.  The art comes in stepping back and figuring out, like some ancient mathematician or philosopher, what the underlying structure or form is–and identifying how that form can be brought out.  It is no easy task and requires as much focus, concentration, and serendipity as writing alone.

A while back I read an essay by Eugene Ionesco called “Discovering the Theatre.”  I ‘found’ the essay in several beat up copies of the Tulane Drama Review that I somehow have laying about my house.  In the essay, Ionesco writes about his dissatisfaction with theater.  He writes:

“Why could I not accept theatrical reality? Why did its truth appear false to me? And why did the false seem to want to parade as true, substitute for truth?… [The actor’s] material presence destroyed the fiction. It was as though there were present two levels of reality, the concrete reality, impoverished, empty, limited, of these banal living men, moving and speaking upon the stage, and the reality of the imagination. And these two realities faced each other, unmasked, irreconcilable: two antagonistic universes which could not succeed in unifying and blending.”

I think I have finally come to understand what so upset Ionesco and am coming to understand what makes metatheatricality so important and a hyperreal or absurd or fantastic approach to theater equally important: the alternative is “impoverished, empty, and limited.”  There is something about the “two realities” facing each other that just shows the staged reality to be a thin grey thing…or, as Sylvia Plath might say, "They are always with us, the thin people / Meager of dimension as the gray people / on a movie screen. They / are unreal, we say."  As I read realistic plays and watch plays like The Heidi Chronicles it becomes almost unbearable: the unbearable unreal reality of it, like a scab that you mustn’t pick, and yet your fingers keep on sidling over to it.

My mind has boggled lately at trying to figure out what theater is.  What makes it theater?  For instance, can you simply take a novel or short story and put it on a stage, have people speak the lines, and say: “behold, theater?” And if that is not theater, or not theatrical, why is that?  What defines or demarks what theater should be?  I tried approaching the question of “what is theatre” from several different points of view, and have even discussed it on my blog: what is theatre, why is theatre important, etc., all to no effect: any attempt to write about it seems boring or redundant, definitely uninteresting: academic. And even in the context of considering craft with Vogel in mind that danger emerges.  But I’ll go back to Ionesco, as the nature of the conversation changed for me when I found his essay in that 1959 issue of TDR.

The article shocked me. At first, it shocked me because I was appalled by what Ionesco was saying about theatre. Then, I was shocked because I was agreeing with him. Finally, I found myself mentally applying the points he was discussing against the play I wrote most recently and identifying what was right and what was wrong with it—and I knew that what Ionesco was saying was correct. For instance, I’ll highlight one of the comments that Ionesco makes late in his essay which, although it may seem confounding, is precise and elucidating:

The theatre can only be theatre, even though for certain contemporary doctors of “theatrology” this identity with itself is charged with tautology, or considered false, an attitude which strikes me as the most incredible and amazing of paradoxes. / For these doctors, the theatre, being something other than theatre, is ideology, allegory, politics, lectures, essays or literature. This is as aberrant as if one were to claim that music should be archeology, or painting, physics and mathematics. (Ionesco and Pronko 16)

The point is so critical that I will no doubt make a fool of myself here articulating it clearly, redundantly, to myself: theatre is theatre. Well, what does that mean, precisely? It certainly begs a question. It begs a question that I want to avoid like the plague: If theatre is theatre, what then is theatre?

In his essay defending poetry, Shelley begins with a discussion of reason and imagination and the actions of mental processes on the individual and society. I will not presume to be so lofty. I will instead attempt to identify, of my own accord, those elements that make theatre unique. That is, what is it about theatre that makes it theatre? What makes theatre different from poetry, or different from screenplays, or what is unique when it is compared against the novel? To do this, I’ll begin with questions: Is theatre simply a physical space in which an action takes place? Is theatre the notion of seeing an action or event enacted? Or is theatre a glib sneer for practices that are intentionally dramatic and unnecessarily emotional—red herrings drawing attention from something more important? This question ‘what is theatre’ is likely has old as theatre itself and, despite my attempts, it not likely to be any nearer an answer than theatre is near its end. Perhaps theatre can be defined using the words of Potter Stewart, the Associate Justice of the United States, who, in articulating a definition of pornography said, simply, “I know it when I see it.” But if that’s the case, then it begs the willful suspension of disbelief: a phrase that not only irritates some but is a statement whose precise spirit led Eugene Ionesco to write his essay in the first place: namely, that theatre had become dishonest and embarrassingly false. (Ionesco and Pronko 3-18) The complicated fact is that theatre is all of those things mentioned above: a space, an action, and, unfortunately, a diversion. Theatre is many different things to many different people: to children, it is Bread and Puppet Theater or guignol; to subscribers at the Cleveland Play House, it is On Golden Pond; and for more sophisticated palates, it is the productions of experimental theatres such as convergence-continuum or the more extreme performance art of Karen Finley. In the introduction to his book Playwriting in Process: Thinking and Working Theatrically, Michael Wright, talks about plays in a way that can be generalized to theatre, saying:

…there is no longer any meaningful single definition of a play that applies across the spectrum of what is being created around the world, beyond saying that a play is a (largely) live event that takes place in a space that all involved have agreed is a “stage.” And in the end Wright concludes that “there is little reason to believe that theatre will retreat to the well-made play or to some rigid Aristotelian framework. Theatre is far more likely to continue its expansion of form, subject matter, language, use of space, and so on…theatre continues to evolve in an open and free manner. (Wright xiv)

If this is so, then how can one define it? Worse still, how can one judge what is good theatre and what is not good? Is good theatre a full evening of theatre? Is it an hour? Ten minutes? Is it theatre that makes you laugh and feel good—or should it make your heart break? Or should it come right out and punch you in face and scream “hey, buddy, wake up and take a look around you?”

Let’s go back to Michael Wright, who has several ideas regarding what is important about theatre: first, it is a witnessed present, that is, the event that happens in real time; second, it is immediate: there is no filter or interpreter. To Wright, theatre is a ‘witnessed present’ that is “the problems of the characters are being worked out in front of us, right here and now,” and this, whether the play was written “today or in 504 B.C.” (Wright 6-7) And further, Wright notes, that “since the play needs this ‘us’ in order to exist, it’s our present at the same instant, because the problems of the characters reflect on our own lives.” More precisely, “the play is a present event—a play needs real time in which to occur and is put on by real people in front of other real people. Humans are watching humans…when we watch a play, the people performing in the play are right there, we are aware of them and they of us. And this means that thinking theatrically is also rooted in this awareness of the existence of the other.” (Wright 7) The theatre provides a sense of immediacy unlike other forms, “there is no filter between you and what’s acting upon your sensory receptors: we listen, watch, and feel the human struggles on the stage directly.” (Wright 8 ) Wright gives the example that, “we know without hearing a word that the couple over there is arguing, or the man sitting to our left is really nervous. We read these things in the behavior of people, but we also feel these things because we are in the same environment.” (Wright 7)

Aristotle in his Poetics states that theatre’s object is imitation, “Since those who imitate imitate men in action, and these must necessarily be either worthwhile or worthless people.” (Aristotle and Else 17) He then goes on to describe the elements that create good imitations and what they may be categorized as (comedy, tragedy, epic) and of what attributes they must consist. It is of note that the categorizations and attributes that Aristotle outlined where rebranded later as principles and eventually became a form of dogma in Europe that controlled what was and, more importantly, what was not produced for centuries.

Augusto Boal in his book Theatre of the Oppressed suggests that Aristotle’s Poetics presents a coercive structure who’s plain intent was to glorify the powerful and to dissuade those who would challenge them: seeking to elevate one moral sense (that of the patron) above another (that of the viewer) and disenfranchise the “worthless people” mentioned above. (Boal 3 ) Boal defiantly states that theatre is a means to political action and a means of creating political action and a political consciousness. For his trouble he was run out of Brazil.

William Henderson in his article “Why Theatre?” raises possibilities that are both similar to those raised by Michael Wright and yet different, identifying elements important to both those participating in the creation and those viewing it. Henderson is unique in including in his consideration of theatre the aesthetic elements attendant to all aspects of theatre: both inside and out, both actor and audience member. Specifically, Henderson points to the adrenalin of performance and the never-to-be-repeated moments of sheer astonishment; the sensual “pleasure of entering unfamiliar and strange ramshackle buildings, or coming upon an entirely new spatial configuration…the simultaneous danger and allure of performers’ bodies in the space around us”; in true Bakhtinian form, “the multiplicity of dialogues that exist—between performers and audience; between the various technological media at work; amongst the performers themselves; and between them and the technological forces employed—create the possibility of an intellectual engagement at a level which purely electronic media can only gesture at.” Henderson comments that “Theatre is also and always, the circus…is a high-wire event through time with the constant risk of falling off and never being able to recover…”; and that “the frailty of the performance…the very real vulnerability of the performer, the artist; and here, possibly, the real truth…the question not of our power to woo and entertain and audience but of our weakness…the sheer vulnerability of the human being in front of us surely confronts us with our own…the real sense that in our vulnerability and weakness we are fully human and thus fully connected with those around us…” (Henderson 11/08/2007)

In his article, “Why Theatre: Questions and Answers”, Craig Stewart Walker quotes Rick Salutin, a Canadian novelist and playwright, who bluntly states, “anything that brings people together in a communalizing way is valuable.” (Walker 55)

So, to sum things up (to this point), theatre is a physical space (that may or may not be dangerous to get to or strangely configured) in which actors (who may be dangerous or alluring or both at the same time) intentionally imitate (or enact) dramatic and emotional actions (that may or may not be politically coercive) which take place before us in real time (and thus will never be precisely repeated again) allowing no filter or intermediary interpreter (so we have to figure things out ourselves) which exposes the vulnerability and weakness of all present and may demonstrate the truth of our human condition (as weak and vulnerable) in a communal environment such that a dialogue is created, connecting all of us.

Ionesco would be quick to point out, I think, that what is missing (and it should be missing) from the summation I provided above is that which is contained in the latter part of the opening quote I took from him, namely that misapprehension that theater “is ideology, allegory, politics, lectures, essays or literature. “ That is, nowhere in the summation I provided is there any mention of the content of the theatre (okay, there’s one mention)—nor is there any attempt to explain theatre in terms of something else: something that it is not. It is precisely Ionesco’s point that theatre should not be ideology, allegory, politics, lectures, essay or literature, for these forms already exist and do perfectly well on their own. So, theatre should be theatre.

But the confluence of many of these elements into theatre had a damaging (and still does have a damaging) effect on the experience of theatre, leading Ionesco to write that:

I derived no pleasure from [theatre]…The playing of the actors disturbed me: I was embarrassed for them…there was something false in it all…it seemed to me that the actor was doing something inadmissible, censurable. He was renouncing himself, abandoning himself, changing skin…It seemed painful to me, and somehow dishonest…To go to the theatre meant for me to go and see apparently serious people make a spectacle of themselves. (Ionesco and Pronko 3)

On the surface there are a few things that draw me immediately to Vogel and especially the play How I Learned to Drive: the routine breaking of the linear narrative; the use of visual images and aural statements from driving guides/classes to break into this monolog-driven play and add a higher level of meaning; the use of direct audience address/narrative broken by engaging, staged sequences between the characters; the nature of what Paul Castagno calls in his book New Playwriting Strategies, the polyvocal text–that is, the intrusion of other voices.  The idea of polyvocality is taken from Mikhail Bakhtin and his work the Dialogic Imagination, which holds up the novel form as the great potential for polyvocal, multitemporal texts–but theater can accomplish the same thing in a much livelier way.

Pam Monteleone in the journal Theatre Topics, writes:

In Part II, "Strategies of Structure and Form," Castagno explores ways in which the dialogic principle shapes larger structural units, from the "beat segment" to the scene, the predominant "building block" for most contemporary playwrights (129). Two of the most useful chapters examine monologue, a noticeable omission in many playwriting tests. Castagno’s analysis of new monologue forms, multiple narrators and voice-overs, for instance, that blur the distinction between telling and showing, furnish playwrights with more creative choices for structuring time and space than writing "blackout."

Castagno uses playwrights such as Vogel as the exemplars of how new playwriting strategies can be employed and realized.  As a result of exploring Castagno’s book, I have recently read Eric Overmyer’s Native Speech which was equally revelatory to me in terms of jarring narrative structures and spatial/scene changes, as well as techniques for making the monologues work: such as the use of a microphone and radio program, the main character adopting different personas and voices so frequently that the polyvocal nature of the text cannot be doubted.

The power of How I Learned to Drive comes through its oblique approach to the narrative, which is precisely structure.  The play is revealed piecemeal through techniques that break the linear narrative and cause the audience to view events out of time and out of place and thus to view them all through different eyes.  A play that is presented linearly allows an audience to predict what will happen by seeing ahead, and more importantly, to judge the content of the narrative because the structure is an inherited structure which advances a traditional logic that is not only not challenging but is based on assumptions of epistemology that postmodernism directly confronts and seeks to overturn.  The logic of how we know is not step one, step two, step three; experience comes at us from many angles and we never really understand what happened until we can get distance from the events; a distance which the play itself plays with.

The use of visual images and aural commentary or framing provides another postmodern break to the traditional narrative structure and focuses attention on society’s formal structures and rules but abuts them to a highly transgressive story.  Although, I guess I’m forced to consider how postmodern some elements are as I guess Tennessee Williams used projected subtitles in The Glass Menagerie, and I doubt many would consider him postmodern. The nature of these visual and aural segments also function in a highly symbolic way as the mind is much more capable of comprehending and holding concrete concepts delivered through symbolic presentations than highly abstract constructions.  The use, then of these visual and aural symbols provides the mind of the audience something to “chew” on or digest as the contrast is presented or as the overt meaning of the symbol is reconstructed by the playwright in the context of the events of the play.  In some cases, these stage symbols act as foreshadowing for directions that are to come, besides commenting on the action of the piece. For me, this is an interesting “toy,” for lack of a better term, as traditional pattern use in dressmaking can be used in a similar manner; that is commentary can be added to the events of the play from dressmaking texts of a certain period alongside images standard to dressmaking.  These external structures again provide the minds of audience members something to ponder or consider in and of themselves and also in the context of the events and meaning of the play.  Also, these external structures make the text of the play polyvocal or include elements of what Bakhtin refers to as heteroglossia–that is, multivoiced texts create new meaning and multiple layers of meaning.

The use of dramatic sequences is central to the success of this play, as the temptation to have a monolog-driven play that takes as its form direct audience address must have been quite tempting at the outset of the writing of this play.  But as mentioned above, per my experience at Little Box, and other minor plays that I have had the chance to see off and on, this play form may have worked one time (the first time), but has little hope of working effectively with audiences today.  People expect much of their entertainment and given the amount of time people a lot to doing anything these days they have a right to demand the most from the time they spend doing anything other than what they want to do–assuming, of course, that theater isn’t it.  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 than of yore 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.  As well, like it or not, when coming to the theater people expect to see representations of dramatic events.  As far as we try to get from the Aristotelian model of play construction there are some aspects which cannot be ignored, and that of a re-enactment is one of them.  Beyond that, character in action is still the single best way for an audience to understand and derive meaning from theater: showing not telling.

The polyvocal nature of the text is driven home (beyond the use of audio voiceovers) by the use of the Greek chorus and the addition of regular interactions with family members–especially those of earlier generations documenting the voice of the past.  The use of the Greek chorus accomplishes at least two things: it further plays with the structure of the play and how understanding of the events of the play and the issues of the play are delivered to the audience; it provides access to yet another voice (lens) through which events are expressed and understanding achieved.  The use of the Greek chorus, I think, also underlines the somewhat faceless nature of influences on our lives.  That is, while we might be able to trace certain childhood mis-understandings of the world back to our family, it can never be precisely clear what their origin is–whether something heard or felt or witnessed–and the use of a chorus presents the audience with a largely faceless construction that can manifest itself in many forms or identities throughout.  Considered in this way, the Greek chorus is much more ominous than any one character could have been.  The ability of the chorus to adopt a multitude of voices again underlines the significance of the polyvocal nature of the play and the diverse method by which meaning is constructed and life is understood.

The end of the play delivers a sense of “this is how I’ve come to be” without the age old framing device of a person sitting down on a wooden stool and saying, “Well, it all began back in…”, and going on to bore us from there, or the terrible linearity of The Heidi Chronicles.

The power for me of Vogel and the “language” playwrights in general, as labeled by Castagno and others, is that they force the construction of theater into a different form–a form that defines itself over for each play and is and can only be unique for that play: as each experience is unique.  In fact, it has just struck me how absurd is the notion of the Aristotelian form for plays–this “handed down” construct: that all plays should be forced into this single form–like Cinderella’s sisters cutting apart their feet to shove them into the glass slipper! 

So, craft for me has become a search for form, and many of the playwrights we’ve read this semester, Vogel especially, point a path for such discovery.

Works Cited:

Aristotle, and Gerald Frank Else. Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970.

Boal, Augusto. Theatre of the Oppressed. London: Pluto Press, 1993.

Brustein, Robert Sanford. Millennial Stages :Essays and Reviews, 2001-2005. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006.

Hayes, Thomas. A playwright’s blog: dedicated to all things play building. October (2007): 11/16/2007.

Hayes, Thomas. A playwright’s blog: dedicated to all things play building. November (2009): 11/17/2009.

Henderson, William. “Why Theatre?” Craft Culture. September (2006): 11/08/2007.

Ionesco, Eugene, and Leonard C. Pronko. “Discovering the Theatre.” The Tulane Drama Review 4.1 (1959): 3-18.

McKee, Robert. Story :Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting. 1st ed. New York: ReganBooks, 1997.

Miller, Arthur. “The Shadows of the Gods: A Critical View of the American Theater.” Harper’s Magazine 217 (1958): 35-43.

Monteleone, Pam. Review: New Playwriting Strategies: A Language-Based Approach to Playwriting. By Paul C. Castagno. Theatre Topics 14.1 (2004) 375-376. Accessed: 11/17/2009

Walker, Craig Stewart. “Why Theatre: Questions and Answers.” Canadian Theatre Review Spring. 86 (1996): 55.

Wright, Michael. Playwriting-in-Process : Thinking and Working Theatrically. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1997.

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