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We can’t get those two hours back – drama works as time unfolds

Drama is less about what gets said than what gets understood. Hernán Piñera, CC BY-SA

We can’t get those two hours back – drama works as time unfolds

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

Asked whether his films had a beginning, middle and end, the director Jean-Luc Godard famously replied “yes, but not necessarily in that order”.

He was wrong. That is exactly the order of his films. Or any other film. Time is the condition of drama, and this proceeds in linear fashion regardless of the content in it. Writers can re-arrange or explode the formal surfaces of their plays. This makes no difference to the fact of time on which they rely for their real-world existence.

If we see a play that is two hours long we emerge from it two hours older. Time passes in successive increments, out of the impenetrable future, into the fading past. It reflects, and can only reflect, this pattern: now this/now this/now this /now this/now this/now this/ etc.

Drama’s existence is fugue on the temporal dimension of life. We don’t get those two hours back. Which is why we are so pissed off when we see a play that doesn’t “work”.

What gets understood onstage?

Given the centrality of time to drama’s unfolding, it is odd that it receives so little attention in academic scholarship. Instead, a play’s literary merit is often the thing discussed, its nature spread flat out, like a musical score, as if it could be comprehended all at once.

But this is not how drama “works”. Drama involves a time-reliant combination of information and expectation, such that a certain kind of attention is elicited. To put it simply, drama is less about what gets said, than what gets understood.

A dramaturge focuses not on the literary merit of a play, but on the accrual of understanding. It may happen that it is both a literary masterpiece and “works”. But the two do not necessarily go together, as high viewing figures for sub-average TV drama frequently attest.

From a dramaturgical perspective many of the scholarly observations made about plays – who wrote them, when and why, their history, their canonical status, or not – are irrelevant. Audiences do not need to know such things to watch a drama.

Plays provide their own map legend, allowing sense-making from within. Likewise they rarely assume specialist knowledge or use purely private imagery. Instead, they present in a publicly-accessible manner, “for the many and the wise”. Their communicative shape is outward, participative.

They actively seek connection with audiences. Of all the art forms, drama is the most forward.

New mourning

Mourning Becomes Electra is a trilogy of plays written by the American playwright Eugene O’Neill in 1931. How do they “work”? Under what conditions could they “work”?

Mourning Becomes Electra as an opera, composed by Martin David Levy, for Florida Grand Opera in 2014.

In his Poetics, Aristotle identifies six structural features of drama, the main ones being narrative, character and language. He allots primacy to the first because:

all human happiness or misery takes the form of action. The end for which we live is a certain kind of activity, not a quality … In a play [people] do not act in order to portray the characters. They include the characters for the sake of the plot.

Aristotle wasn’t right even in 4th Century BCE. But he did pose a key question:

What counts in a play when it is actually performed?

Mourning Becomes Electra is a transposition of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, the earliest complete play in existence. Aeschylus set his story at the end of the Trojan War, thereby raising issues related to Ancient Greece’s recent conflict with Persia.

Having said the scholarly context of a play is irrelevant to its performance, the social context of the audience clearly isn’t. Plays make assumptions about spectators’ general knowledge. If they did not, no dramatic understanding could accrue in the short time available.

O’Neill sets the different parts of his trilogy – Homecoming, The Hunted and The Haunted – at the close of the American Civil War. For US audiences, this was a time of both history and myth, similar to the Mycenaean era for Aeschylus. The recent conflict was the first world war.

Eugene O'Neill plaque, New York City. Open Plaques/Flickr

As the action unfolds, there are six layers of meaning available to O’Neill writing in 1931, looking through 1918 to 1865, echoing a play from 458 BCE, looking through 490 BCE to the 12th century BCE.

An audience doesn’t have to grasp these layers intellectually. But they may be brought to appreciate them emotionally through allusion, suggestion and inference. In this way plays are “volumised”.

What we hear and see is only the most visible part of our dramatic experience which, like an iceberg, lies largely beneath the surface of portrayed events.

At the heart of Mourning Becomes Electra are the Mannons, a New England family of vast wealth and good repute, whose secret past is one of avarice, lust and betrayal.

In Homecoming, Ezra Mannon, a Union general, returns from the war to be murdered by Christine, his beautiful wife, in concert with her young lover, Adam Brant. But the causes of this killing go back further.

Brant is the son of Ezra’s uncle David, cast off by his brother, Abe, Ezra’s father, in a jealous rage at his marriage to a woman they both loved. Brant takes up with Christine to revenge himself on the family.

In The Hunted, Brant is then murdered in turn by Orin, Ezra’s son, a Union captain suffering from war trauma. Most of Homecoming is taken up by with feud between Christine and her daughter Livinia, who sees her father poisoned, and in The Hunted persuades Orin to shoot Brant. When Orin confronts his mother with what he’s done, she commits suicide.

The Haunted is set a year later, after Orin and Livinia have returned from a trip abroad. It focuses on their attempt to escape the sucking bog of the Mannon family evil. They fail.

Mad with guilt, Orin shoots himself while Livinia, all chance of happiness gone, her entire family dead, locks herself up in the Mannon mansion to spend the rest of her life in self-reproach.

What makes it work?

Based on the first tragedy ever written, Mourning Becomes Electra is itself self-consciously a tragedy. How does it achieve its effects? Mainly through the lines that are spoken and the deeds that are shown.

This may seem an obvious point, yet it is not. As we will see when next looking at Graham Duncan’s Cut (2011) in the next article in this series, plays are not written in words but in words and silence.

It is around the “negative space” carved out by “positive action” that dramatic understanding accrues. In O’Neill’s play this space is at a premium, as it is filled to the gunnels with characters arguing, explaining, accusing, articulating their feelings in high language.

And when the characters aren’t talking, the playwright is. Take the stage direction describing the forbidding Mannon mansion:

Exterior of the Mannon house on a late afternoon in April, 1865. At front is the driveway which leads up to the house from the two entrances on the street. Behind the driveway the white Grecian temple portico with its six tall columns extends across the stage. A big pine tree is on the lawn at the edge of the drive before the right corner of the house. Its trunk is a black column in striking contrast to the white columns of the portico. By the edge of the drive, left front, is a thick clump of lilacs and syringas. A bench is placed on the lawn at front of this shrubbery which partly screens anyone sitting on it from the front of the house. It is shortly before sunset and the soft light of the declining sun shines directly on the front of the house, shimmering in a luminous mist on the white portico and the gray stone wall behind, intensifying the whiteness of the columns, the somber grayness of the wall, the green of the open shutters, the green of the lawn and shrubbery, the black and green of the pine tree. The white columns cast black bars of shadow on the gray wall behind them. The windows of the lower floor reflect the sun’s rays in a resentful glare. The temple portico is like an incongruous white mask fixed on the house to hide its somber gray ugliness.

The directions in Mourning Becomes Electra would grace a Steinbeck novel in their physical exactness. And this extends to the characters as well. Christine Mannon, for example, is described as:

A tall striking-looking woman of forty but she appears younger. She has a fine, voluptuous figure and she moves with a flowing animal grace. She wears a green satin dress, smartly cut and expensive, which brings out the peculiar color of her thick curly hair, partly a copper brown, partly a bronze gold, each shade distinct and yet blending with the other. Her face is unusual, handsome rather than beautiful. One is struck at once by the strange impression it gives in repose of being not living flesh but a wonderfully life-like pale mask, in which only the deep-set eyes, of a dark violet blue, are alive. Her black eyebrows meet in a pronounced straight line above her strong nose. Her chin is heavy, her mouth large and sensual, the lower lip full, the upper a thin bow, shadowed by a line of hair.

The play is full of such details – of characters who look a certain way, or like other characters, or suddenly whither or bloom. How is a director or cast to make sense of these? What is the playwright trying to do?

Dress rehearsal of Eugene O'Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, directed by Peter Marroney, at the University of Arizona’s Drama Department, 1970. David Lee Guss/Flickr

Plays differ radically in the instructions they provide in respect of their production. Shakespeare’s originally had no stage directions at all. Why would they? They were written for a company of actors well-known to the playwright, who himself was a member of that company.

They were unlikely to be performed by anyone else since before the award of author’s royalties the aim was to stop people performing your play, not facilitate it.

O’Neill’s position was different. His plays were designed to be reproduced in situations where he was not physically present, and the stage directions offer a guide to the author’s intentions. Necessarily, they are loose-fit.

Some productions will follow them carefully, some not. But that may not have bothered O’Neill. His aim was probably less to control every presentation of his plays, than to ensure his views were part of the staging conversation. And in this respect, the directions in Mourning Becomes Electra are gems of the genre.

Turning points

As the trilogy unfolds the action speeds up. By varying the pulse of explicit information, playwrights can build a sense of intellectual and emotional momentum, sweeping along the audience physically and psychologically.

A classic means of doing this – again, identified by Aristotle – are “the reveal” and “the reversal”. They often go together.

When Brant reveals his true motives for courting Livinia – to hide his relationship with Christine – her position reverses. She goes from being a lover to being an instrument of revenge. The reveals and reversals accumulate and become the wherewithal for audience inference about what is going on subtextually, or what might happen next.

In this way, what a play shows shapes expectations about what will be shown. Or what can never be shown (but is nevertheless understood to be the case).

When expectations shift radically during the course of the action, a drama can be said to “turn”. Audiences go from passively receiving information to actively applying it, prompted by a passage of action that radically stimulates their understanding.

In The Hunted, Livinia manipulates Orin into killing Brant by playing on his possessiveness of Christine – the same possessiveness that caused Abe to reject his brother, David. At this point, it is possible to see a whole web of psycho-sexual relationships running through the play, reaching a climax in the suggestion of incest between Orin and Livinia in The Haunted.

Beyond the plot

Does all this make plot the primary feature of Mourning Becomes Electra?

It is certainly important. And it is important for other 20th-century playwrights too: GB Shaw, Noel Coward, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Terrence Rattigan, and Australian writers such as Ray Lawler and Richard Beynon.

But the plot is borrowed, just as many of Shakespeare’s plots are borrowed, and the reveals and reversals are largely of interest because of the characters’ response to them. At the heart of O’Neill’s play is a round-trip of consummate spiritual destruction: that of Livinia’s.

Over the course of three plays (six hours?) this figure – Aeschylus’s Electra – goes from vengeful harridan, to loving woman, to broken criminal. Mercilessly punishing her mother for crimes she later also commits, she then mercilessly punishes herself.

It is a terrifying fall, and it happens on the level of character, not plot. For Mourning Becomes Electra to “work” good actors are needed for all roles, but especially for Livinia.

But … what’s it about?

What is O'Neill getting at more broadly? The men in it are all damaged – by greed, by conformity, but above all damaged by war. It is, at heart, an anti-war play, and breathes with a horror of violent conflict, the men who engage in it, the women who encourage it. When Lavinia lauds Orin for his bravery in the Civil War, he responds:

ORIN: I’ll tell you the joke about that heroic deed. It really began the night before when I sneaked through their lines. I was always volunteering for extra danger. I was so scared anyone would guess I was afraid. There was a thick mist and it was so still you could hear the fog seeping into the ground. I met a Reb crawling toward our lines. His face drifted out of the mist toward mine. I shortened my sword and let him have the point under the ear. He stared at me with an idiotic look as if he’d sat on a tack – and his eyes dimmed and went out. (His voice has sunk lower and lower, as if he were talking to himself.) Before I’d gotten back I had to kill another in the same way. It was like murdering the same man twice. I had a queer feeling that war meant murdering the same man over and over, and that in the end I would discover the man was myself. Their faces keep coming back in dreams - and they change to Father’s face - or to mine.

Does Mourning Becomes Electra “work” as a play? It certainly has high literary status, but would it now elicit the kind of attention the playwright created it for?

Justice, said American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, is what the courts will enforce. Likewise whether a play “works” can only be discovered by putting it front of an audience.

No other test matters, none other exists. And the test is a public one. A lone response to a drama is not significant unless it can prompt others to respond in the same way (though this has been famously done on a number of occasions).

Under what conditions would O’Neill’s play “work”? Almost certainly a contemporary cast given the script would find the dialogue a challenge. There is a lot of it, and the sentence constructions, the phrasings, the individual words would seem “old-fashioned”.

In drama, however, everything is relational. The play is not the thing. It is the understanding in the play that is the thing.

We do not say that Shakespeare is “old-fashioned”, although no doubt he seemed so to the prose playwrights of the Restoration era. Instead, we have found a way into his plays by close attention to their formal surface (that we may better understand them) while pursuing our own concerns (that they may serve our current needs).

The division often cited between doing a play faithfully or freely adapting it isn’t an absolute one. A faithful production of a play betrays if it fails to capture the energy within. A radical one serves it well if it does so.

Finding a way to make a non-contemporary play “work” is tough in either case, however.

Different acting skills must be acquired, different writing conventions taken into account. But the process of exploring a play’s original meaning is important if it isn’t to be reduced to what can be easily grasped, the tyranny of the now.

If drama is about understanding, its significance as an art form lies in the fact that we are asked to understand something other than ourselves. This responsibility also falls on the playwright, of course, gifted with a few precious hours of our attention.

The greatness of Mourning Becomes Electra, the reason why it “works” in the right circumstances, lies in its inter-subjective transcendence. For O’Neill does not use Aeschylus’s Oresteia in a crude way.

He evokes it such that multiple layers of meaning are opened up, allowing us to witness moments that are both startlingly new and immeasurably old: to open a channel of human communication across the ages.

You can get a sense of this in O'Neill’s last stage direction, at the end of The Haunted. Livinia has rejected her suitor, Peter, and the Mannon’s gardener, Seth, is boarding up the mansion in which she will be incarcerated:

She ascends to the portico - and then turns and stands for a while, stiff and square-shouldered, staring into the sunlight with frozen eyes. Seth leans out of the window at the right of the door and pulls the shutters closed with a decisive bang. As if this were a word of command, Lavinia pivots sharply on her heel and marches woodenly into the house, closing the door behind her.

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