We’ve been spending a lot of time recently outside what our professor calls “the narrative tradition”. This is the familiar story-telling form, with all the Aristotelian comforts of plot, character, theme, etc. (Interestingly, he won’t put Shakespeare or other drama from that period in the narrative tradition, and has not as yet, given me a good reason why.) But the modern writers we’ve been looking at are clearly outside.
Our primary in-class example has been Girl Gone by Mac Wellman. Wellman has written often that he thinks modern theatre is hidebound, or “geezer theatre” in his words. Like John Cage, he’s an advocate for randomness, surprise, and the intrusion of the chaotic. He argues that real life doesn’t have a narrative, so why should theatre?
I wonder, though, if that’s part of the reason we enjoy storytelling. Finally, something has a point. It makes sense. Maybe it’s a relief to be carried along in the narrative. On the other hand, it may truly be a western cultural bias. I know I’ve had the experience of reading folk-tales from some cultures and been completely bewildered by the lack of connective tissue between the events.
Outside of class, I’ve been reading Adrienne Kennedy. Her play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, a prize-winning work that is rarely performed, has a very different feel that Wellman’s. I snarked on Wellman a bit in class, saying Girl Gone was a like something you’d get if channel surfing stoned: bits of B-movie (Satan Sorority Sisters!) mixed in with PBS (Martha Graham) and the History Channel (The Glories of Constantinople) — but he likes playing the trickster. Encountering Kennedy, on the other hand, is more like seeing a cubist painting for the first time. Her characters are shattered into separate selves, with different actors playing separate aspects of the same character.
Both writers make use of poetic language. In Wellman, it’s the playful assonances and long strings of words that may relate sonically but not logically. In Kennedy, it’s imagistic, rhythmic, and repetitive. What’s important about both of them, is that they can’t be “consumed” in a way that a typical narrative work is. You can’t just walk out of the theatre knowing what you’ve seen. You have to think, remember, puzzle things out, find the meaning for yourself, and put something into it. In these days when so much is spoon fed to us, and we passively sit in front of TVs and movie screens, that’s not a bad thing.