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Playwriting doesn’t get better or worse – but it does evolve

Duncan Graham’s 2010 play Cut does not reveal itself as a traditional play does – but it’s a powerful demonstration of the evolution of theatrical storytelling. Garry Cockburn

Playwriting doesn’t get better or worse – but it does evolve

This is a long-read essay, the third in a series on playwriting and drama by Julian Meyrick. Read Part one here and Part two here.


In Book X of Republic – the one where he kicks all playwrights out of an imagined utopia – Plato puts forward his strange Theory of Forms. His unfortunate example is beds.

There are the beds that bed-makers make, he says, which are the realisation of a concept, the ideal bed. And there are the beds represented in art, from a chosen angle, for a chosen end. Where is the ideal bed here? Two steps removed. The art bed is a copy of a real bed, which is a copy of the ideal bed. A “copy of a copy” and hopelessly corrupt. Playwrights vamoose.

Since then Aristotle, Hume, Kant and Nietzsche have supplanted Plato in their understanding of art, if not beds. Yet if he had chosen a different example his approach might receive more attention.

Think about the film Selma (2014), which makes use of real events to inform a dramatic representation of them. There is an understanding of the past that historians might aspire to, the “truth” about Lyndon Johnson, say. Then there are the source materials we can access now – newspaper articles, diaries, speeches, TV footage and the like. The first is only imaginable through the second, but we recognise a clear difference between them.

Likewise, we recognise in Tom Wilkinson, the actor playing the US President in Selma, an interpretation of this material, and in deciding whether the results “work” engage in a complex triangulation between what we know we can never know (“the truth”), what we know we can know (the source materials), and what we sit through at the movies.

Drama and reality

So Plato was right about drama. It does involve an altered representation of reality. But it isn’t a corrupt one. It does not deal, as the sciences do, with demonstrable proof. It is concerned with super-factual phenomenon: experiences that involve reality but entrain it for different ends.

For entertainment, if that doesn’t sound too flip.

For beauty, escape, connection, transcendence: all the things we associate with art at its best. Plays, like dreams, provide conceptual compressions, distilled images, evocative cadences.

The relationship between drama and reality is not simple, therefore, as the on-going controversy around Selma illustrates. It takes the world and, by rearranging its structural properties, shows us the world anew. But then reality is not simple either. Drama is one of the means we have to assay it.

Duncan Graham’s Cut onstage. Photo: Garry Cockburn

Cut is a play by Duncan Graham, one of a younger cohort of Australian playwrights – others would include Lally Katz, Tom Holloway, Kate Mulvaney, Robert Reid, Declan Greene, Lachlan Philpott, Finegan Kruckemeyer, Nicki Bloom and Angela Betzien – appearing in our theatre seasons over the last ten years. Developed by the independent company floogle in 2010, the play premiered at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre in 2011, and was revived at the recent Adelaide Fringe in 2015.

Cut was acclaimed both times it was staged and there is no doubt that it is a talented work. From a dramaturgical perspective, however, it is of interest for its exemplary qualities rather than its exceptional ones.

The evolution of playwriting

It provides a good contrast to Mourning Becomes Electra, the play I examined in the previous essay in this series. If playwriting is a technology, then that technology is constantly evolving.

Cut shows the concerns and techniques of stage writing today, the distance it has travelled from its historical origins, the distance it continues to travel.

Cut is neither a “better” play than Mourning Becomes Electra, nor a “worse” one – literary judgements of little use to the dramaturge. But it is certainly different, because audiences now are different from those in 1931.

In my analysis of Mourning Becomes Electra I referred to Aristotle’s six features of drama, the main ones being narrative, character and language. Cut provides a good illustration of the remaining three: spectacle, melody and thought.

Graham’s play is shorter than O’Neill’s, running about an hour, with few stage directions, and far fewer words. There is no clear storyline or unified conception of character. Instead, there are a number of fluid narrative strands between which the solo performer flits like a moving spotlight.

The information gaps this intermittent approach creates are the “negative space” wherein audience understanding accrues. Recall Mourning Becomes Electra’s detailed description of the Mannon family mansion at the start of Homecoming. Now compare it to beginning of Cut:

Blackout. This blackout should be about 2 minutes. Lights fade up very slowly.

WOMAN: “Before dawn. 5am. The cars hum. The trains hum. A plane above hums. The distant cry of an anguished animal.

The workward are about. Sound of their feet faltering on the pavement. Half awake. Tangled in their traceless thoughts.

Window by window the city lights up in a grotesque smile.

In one window there’s a woman. Standing before a mirror. Trying to make herself out. She is putting on a face. Face over face. She seeks herself in every reflection. Each one the fingerprint of a stranger – one over the other – smudged over glass. A blur.

This woman is hunted. A man has sniffed her out. He pursues her. She has let him get closer. Perhaps she’ll find something – something in him that will reveal her face, her final face.

Blackout

WOMAN: Pull back the hair. Darken the eyes with mascara. Rinse the mouth. Spit. Lips. A sip of coffee. She leaves for work.

Blackout

WOMAN: Having your seatbelt done up low and tight is absolutely essential during take-off and landing. And whenever the seatbelt sign is on. It is a requirement that you keep your seatbelt on at all other times while seated. Fasten your seatbelt by inserting the clasp into the buckle and tighten by pulling the strap. Undo your seat belt by lifting the clasp.

Two minutes sitting in the dark in a theatre is a long time (try it). It is a statement about how the playwright intends to engage public attention, as well as the setting of a mood. A level of discomfort is manufactured, but also a level of excitement, of expectation.

This is fed by the disconnected storylines that, like blinds snapping up on distant windows, make a sudden, vivid sense before disappearing into darkness once again.

Duncan Graham’s Cut onstage. Photo: Garry Cockburn

Building a story

While the style of Cut is Graham’s own, the techniques he uses can be found in other modern plays. The most important – the most important in 20th- and 21st-century drama generally – is the replacement of exposition with complex image.

Where Mourning Becomes Electra relies on the release of explicit information to create its effects, Cut uses metaphor and suggestion, prompting the audience to work hard to "volumise” the experience it is putting on stage.

And we do work hard. We can’t help it. The construction of narrative through-line is a ubiquitous cognitive strategy that allows our brains to connect disparate data points via the trope “cause and effect”.

It is incredibly useful – but also limiting. You hear one story, you don’t hear another. If story is abandoned altogether, you don’t hear any story at all.

So contemporary playwrights build into their dramas apposite images, visual and verbal, whereby they can achieve a multi-dimensional effect, similar to a Cubist painting. Just as a person’s life-story is more than a story, but an index of their life, so modern plays craft images that go beyond the immediate story they happen to be telling.

This is the “negative space” today’s playwrights draw on to such good effect, and it works in exactly the same way as the “negative space” in architecture. Once, buildings required marble plinths and columns to keep them upright. Now the lightest of materials structures habitable space.

Likewise, the quality of what is not said shapes contemporary drama from August Strindberg to Simon Stephens. Drama is less about what gets said and seen, than what gets understood. Observe the following sequence in Cut:

Blackout

WOMAN: I come upon a house. It seems like the house I grew up in. Though it doesn’t look like that house. I go inside. It smells the same … but none of the objects are mine. I don’t notice at first, but there’s another woman. A tiny woman holding a pair of scissors.

What are you doing with those scissors?

At first I thought she was young, but now she looks old, ancient. I look closer. She hasn’t got a mouth.

I know her. I know her face …

Are you my Mother? But I thought you were …

The woman is young again. Dark hair hanging on her shoulders. She flashes her scissors like fangs.

I know. I have to choose one object in the house. The tiny woman nods.

I know this test.

I have to choose carefully.

Blackout

Duncan Graham’s Cut onstage. Photo: Garry Cockburn

Stay focused!

What keeps public attention disciplined in plays like Cut? What stops it splintering into a hundred personal interpretations?

Partly the same turns that define Mourning Becomes Electra, only ones less likely to deploy new information and more likely to use recurrence and refrain. The man with eyes of ash is a repeated image in Graham’s play, as is the tiny woman with scissors.

Where O’Neill draws on the Oresteia to construct an echo-chamber of meaningful symbols, Cut invokes the myth of the three Greek fates: Clotho, “the spinner”, Lachesis, “the measurer”, and Atropos, “the cutter” of the thread of life – hence the title of the play.

How to bring an audience to appreciate these layers of meaning? There are few clues in the text about how to stage it. But there don’t have to be, since Graham worked closely with a director, dramaturge and performer in developing the play, and produced it himself on the second occasion.

That’s not always the case with contemporary theatre. What is common, however, is that modern plays are written for known production circumstances.

The playwrights Jack Hibberd and John Romeril were part of the Australian Performing Group. Caryl Churchill was a collaborator with Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment. David Mamet was a co-founder of the Atlantic Theatre Company. Tracy Letts is a member of Steppenwolf.

Such close relations between playwrights and theatre companies means the staging context is a shared one. Plays do not need to carry elaborate directions because the playwright is in the loop, involved in casting and design. And in the case of Graham, also writing the programme note:

The word “text” comes from “texere”, meaning “to weave”. Weave what? We make narrative out of the fragments of our experiences and ideas. This happens in our minds – the weaving of the fabric, the text-ile of our lives. It’s no mistake then that the study of text is Tropology. But all texts must end.

They must be cut, tied off. Cut – in form and symbolism – appropriates an ancient poetic to explore how the modern mind responds to a perceived emergency of “end-times”, a culture courting catastrophe, in the throes of its own spectacle of violence and atrocity.

Cut’s central concern is similar to Mourning Becomes Electra, even though the stories it tells are different in form and content. Similar too is the desire to create a sense of foreboding, to entrain an almost visceral atmosphere of doom and decline.

The means for this in O’Neill’s play is the Mannon family history, its corrupt and corrupting ways. As revelation piles on revelation, we finally see, through a process of exhaustive recounting, that there is no way out for the couple at the heart of the tragedy, Orin and Livinia.

Duncan Graham’s Cut onstage. Photo: Garry Cockburn

In Cut, blackouts, disjunction and staging do the job. Narrative is replaced by melody and spectacle – music, lighting, a set design of carpet and glad-wrap – assailing spectators with their own enchantments. But Cut is not a performance piece.

It relies on an array of stage technologies to achieve its impact, but keeps these tightly braced to a word-led shaping of audience expectation. If, as Kin Hubbard quipped, classical music is the kind you keep thinking will turn into a tune, then modern drama is the sort you keep sensing will turn into a story.

And sometimes it does! At the heart of Cut’s miasmatic weaving of tone, image and intimation, is a sequence of clear action. Fragmented story lines – a woman running from a man? An airhostess on a plane? Us on a plane, with a man and an airhostess? – suddenly cohere. The woman is violently attacked by a man with eyes of ash who forces him off. Then:

WOMAN: He’s weeping … yes I think he’s weeping.

Curled up into a little ball. He weeps like an infant. I hover over him. He apologises.

I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I am such a normal person. I’m so normal. Please. Please forgive me.

He keeps crying, this man. I see the mark of finger nails across his chest. Down his face.

It repulses me.

I know what I have to do.

Shhh. It’ll be fine. Just lie there. Shhh. Just lie there. I stroke his neck. I stroke his hair. I stroke his face. And just as he wept like a baby, he sleeps like one too.

I leave him there and I walk around the corner to the petrol station.

She buys one litre – comes back to the flat. She goes to the cupboard, opens it. What do I need? She pulls out a large cast iron pot. He’s still asleep on the floor. She pours the petrol over him and without hesitation throws a match – onto the bleeding mass of flesh and tears.

It takes a while before the flames wake him. But when he does, in agony, she smashes him over the head three times with the pot.

He falls asleep again, unconscious. I watch.

He burns to death on her living room floor. I watch him.

She opens the windows to let the smoke out.

It doesn’t smell as much as she thought it would.

Where are Plato’s beds in all this? It is clear how reality corresponds to events in a film like Selma. Where does it reside in fragmented, allusive post-dramatic drama? Again, this is a question that could be asked of playwrights as varied as Harold Pinter, Heiner Muller, Martin Crimp, Roland Schimmelpfennig, Sarah Ruhl, David Grieg, and Sarah Kane, as well as our own Andrew Bovell, Lally Katz, and Declan Greene. Are their plays simply castles-in-the-mind, the dramatic equivalent of free-floating soap bubbles?

Reality can reside in facts. It can also reside in feelings. What makes Cut compelling is the way it lays hold of a specific emotional terrain and assays it with unerring verbal accuracy. “Terrifying” was the adjective Time Out used to describe it.

A feeling of apprehension rolls from the playtext like chlorine gas. With its long blackouts, disturbing images and threshold action, Cut lays hold of our collective but unacknowledged fear of catastrophe and brings it to the fore as a public experience.

Between the play, the performer and the feeling of imminent disaster – “the truth” of our perception of the world today – the Platonic triangulation of Cut takes place. The “real beds” are the events happening outside the theatre.

The “art beds” are the ones happening inside it. The “ideal bed” is the fear we recognise as uniting the two. In drama, there are two ways for playwrights to talk about something. They can talk about something.

Or they can talk about something else, achieving a metaphorical transparency that allows an audience to look through the play and lay hold of the deeper reality beyond. Here’s Graham again:

“Clue” comes from the word for thread. A “clew” was a thread one could use the find your way out of a labyrinth. In essence, a playtext is a series of clues woven together, something an audience can use to find their way through. Anything woven, no matter how tightly, will have negative space. We take fragments and threads, that have been cut or frayed and weave them together.

Now this is related to our Fate. The way we weave our story, our history, determines the outcome of our life. The fragmented text of Cut invites audiences to superimpose. We must try and keep the negative space of history alive too, to be sceptical of exhaustive histories, as much as plays that tell you everything.

This is a good description not only of the way Cut “works” but of the creative approach behind a great deal of contemporary drama. It is possible to situate Duncan Graham’s play within a craft tradition while still acknowledging the original contribution he has made.

This is the double relationship that drives playwrights forward to new discoveries, that makes the playtext a still-developing technology. It has a past but is not beholden to the past.

Instead, it is in dialogue with the past, and it is this conversation, one that has been going for two and a half thousand years, that gives playwriting its profound strength and innovative power.


This is the third in a series on playwriting and drama by Julian Meyrick. Read Part one here and Part two here.

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