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Pragmatic Theater

The following is based on a speech given at the New York Public Library earlier this year.

I am speaking here under the rubric “Technique and Interpretation in the Performing Arts,” and if there were ever a title dreamed up to strike me dumb, this one verges on inspiration. It is not that I have any difficulty with the idea of technique. I can see as clearly as anybody that the notion of technique in, say, rock climbing is immediately intelligible. But your actual rock climber, as opposed to a critic of rock climbing, would probably describe what he does as climbing up rocks in the way that seems to make the best sense if you don’t want to fall off the rock, and as your actual playwright, rather than a lecturer, I would say that the theater seems to me, on the whole, to be a way of telling stories which are acted out for an audience and which mean pretty much what the audience thinks they mean.

In a while I’ll probably drop this faux naif persona. I’m not even sure myself to what degree it’s a posture. But I don’t think of myself as employing a technique distinguishable from common sense and a common understanding of storytelling. The rest is the hard part.

The idea of interpretation is intelligible, also. But we speak of actors interpreting roles, or directors interpreting authors. I don’t think writers are interpretative artists. Recently I was served up as the lunch break at an acting school and the opening question, from a student, was: What was the first thing I expected from an actor in my plays? My answer, “clarity of utterance,” got a laugh, a nervous laugh in which I detected reproach. An actor’s head is full of subtle and complex objectives, all in the service of the character, and clarity of utterance may seem the least of these—a given, in fact—but it really is the first thing I ask for, and, here and there, the last thing I get. I mean that literally: when the show is ready to go—chock-a-block with technique and interpretation, the final light cues, costume details, and sound effects in the last stages of refinement—authors like myself find themselves begging individual actors to look after this consonant or that vowel. The word “if” at the beginning of a sentence is a favorite for neglect. By the time a play opens I always know how many sentences it contains starting with “if,” because they’re all in my notebook.

There’s a man on the stage and a woman on the stage. The man says, “Would you care for a drink?” The woman says, “Yes, I think I might. I’ll have a whisky and soda.”

This mildly uninteresting exchange becomes more interesting, more dramatic, depending on the information we have. It’s more interesting if she’s a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s more interesting if we know the man to be a successful poisoner; most interesting of all, perhaps, if we have already seen the man’s roommate use the Cutty Sark bottle for a urine sample. Is that technique?

It strikes me now that that’s what technique must be: the control of the information that flows from a play to its audience, and in particular the ordering of the information. We interfere with that at our peril, don’t we? Actually, no, we don’t. I can think of a dozen productions of Shakespeare where the order of information is subverted (it’s harder to think of productions where it is respected). I’m thinking now of one of Trevor Nunn’s first great successes, his Comedy of Errors. The play begins in the city of Ephesus, with the duke explaining for our benefit that Ephesus is the enemy of the city of Syracuse and that anyone from Syracuse found in Ephesus is in for the chop. One of his hearers turns to us with an expression of dismay. He has no lines yet. What he has, however, is a Syracuse T-shirt, and at that instant Nunn’s story got itself in front of Shakespeare’s.

Directors of Shakespeare do this all the time for fun and profit, and a much weightier example was Richard Eyre’s Hamlet (again, many years ago), in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father was interpreted as a projection of young Hamlet’s neurosis, existing only in Hamlet’s mind. He conjured up his own ghost scene, the actor speaking both roles in different voices. It may already have occurred to you that this poses a difficulty about the first scene of the play, in which the ghost is present but Hamlet is not. The consequence, or the solution, was that this opening scene was omitted, and the play began with Scene Two, a court scene with a low level of adrenaline. In the real Hamlet, the real first scene kicks the play off like a motorbike—short broken lines, fear in the air.
Was that Shakespeare’s technique? If so, did he know he had a technique? And does it matter? In truth, we don’t like to think of genius employing technique. It almost feels like a contradiction.

There are some who would say that The Importance of Being Earnest is the most nearly perfect work of art in English stage comedy. Imagine a scene. We are in the garden of an English country house. There’s a man called Jack and a man called Algernon. And there are two young women, one called Cecily and one called Gwendolen. Now into this garden comes a character of whom you have never heard. His name is Grimsby and he is a solicitor in quest of a debt of å£700 owed to the Savoy Hotel for food and drink. The scene, as a matter of fact, occupies seventeen pages of typescript.

Years ago, Peter Shaffer said to me, “I’ve seen the most remarkable thing. It’s in the New York Public Library. They’ve got the original typescript of The Importance of Being Earnest, all four acts of it.”

The penny didn’t drop for a moment. And then of course I remembered that Importance is a three-act play. George Alexander, the actor-manager, cut the text down just before rehearsals. Wilde wrote to him, “The scene which you feel is superfluous caused me back-breaking labour, nerve-racking anxiety, and took fully five minutes to write.” Wilde was the genius, Alexander was the technician.

There is something alarming about the pragmatism of theater. Turning four acts into three is merely an extraordinary example of a process which plays go through in a commonplace way, just as Importance is merely an extraordinary example of the plays which succumb to the process.

For the moment we are just talking about what happens to the text from the moment it is shared out among the people who have to deal with it, and it should be said that in the case of a very few insistent playwrights, nothing happens to it, for better or worse. But the central paradox of theater is that something which starts off complete, as true to itself, as self-contained and as subjective as a sonnet, is then thrown into a kind of spin dryer which is the process of staging the play; and that process is hilariously empirical.
When all’s said and done (which, in the case of playwrights, is saying and doing whatever elevates the written word above all other contributions to the whole effect), it turns out that as the play negotiates that final bridge between the rehearsal room and the audience, the difference between success and failure is suddenly in the hands of real technicians, people who manipulate dials and switches. If you don’t work in the theater you would be surprised by the obsessive concentration on the adjusting of the timing, duration, volume, intensity, color, and speed of a hundred or two hundred production cues.

The paradox I refer to is that the metaphysical experience is at the mercy of the physical event. We go to the theater to “watch” writing and acting, but the responsibility for the emotional payoff in a great deal of modern theater is handed over to the punctuation of very specific technical cues. There are exceptions, some of them celebrated (Nunn’s chamber Macbeth with Ian McKellan and Judi Dench), but most of the time audiences (and directors) go for the whole shebang, and if the author is present and sitting on the edge of his seat, he’s probably worrying about a technical cue which in a minute is going to pay off—or ruin—a page which, months ago, when author and page were alone together, was complete and self-sufficient. “Hilariously,” above, seemed just the word.

I want to go back to my remarks about the ordering of information from play to audience. How many of the audience at a Shakespeare play (or at The Importance of Being Earnest, or, for that matter, any play which is being revived) are hearing the story for the first time? Sticking to Shakespeare, one might suppose that the audience at a school production is mostly coming fresh to the play; at the National Theatre the proportion would be very much lower. For the next few moments I want to consider only that part of the audience which knows the story before the play begins. For those people “ordering the flow of information” is a meaningless exercise. To bring the point nearer to home, I’m considering for a moment an experience of my own, a revival of my play The Real Thing, in which the first scene turns out to have been written by a character (a playwright) who appears in the second scene.

When the play was new, I recall hours of anxious discussion about, in the first place, guarding the surprise, and, in the second place, springing it. It was frustrating—both in London and New York—that we never quite seemed to find the moment when the whole of the audience (over whom we like to assume control) “got it” at the same time. Seventeen years later, in rehearsal again, there seemed to be something absurd about this approach. I had no idea whether the story of the play would already be known to a tenth of the audience, or three tenths, or—on certain nights—nine tenths, but the mathematics were irrelevant: in fact, I realized that my original gambit was itself irrelevant. The whole idea of cunningness, of ambush, of revelation, which seventeen years earlier seemed to be the fun, now was simply boring. I began to think it would be more interesting to tip the audience off from the start.

Following this thought through, I begin to discern that a play which depends on keeping its secrets isn’t worth seeing twice, so whatever it is that makes it worth seeing twice, it is not, after all, “storytelling” in the way I used the term. I should have known this. I once watched a professional storyteller at work (I could only watch because the language was Iranian) and—as with most of us at most of Shakespeare most of the time—I realized that the “show” was about telling a story which the audience already knew. Indeed, there is something self-limiting about “dénouement” when dénouement is the very point, the only point, rather than the texture of the telling. We can read Damon Runyon ten times over with some pleasure. Can we read O. Henry twice? Or see The Mousetrap? When it comes to mystery stories I am with Edmund Wilson—“Who Cares Who Killed Roger Akroyd?”—and this part of my thesis offers an obverse to technique: namely that whodunits would be more interesting to watch if Playbill named the murderer.

Nevertheless, and in the interests of inconsistency, I’m going to argue now that grown-up art is art that withholds information. I am able to perform this somersault thanks to the limitations of vocabulary—the number of concepts we can hold so far exceeds the number of words available for them that certain words—“information” being one of them—have to serve for quite different ideas, and the way I am using “information” now is not to do with the elements of a narrative but, rather, the possible meanings of the narrative. Art which stays news, in Ezra Pound’s phrase, is art in which the question “what does it mean?” has no correct answer. Every narrative has, at least, a capacity to suggest a metanarrative, and art that “works” is highly suggestive in this sense, as though the story were really a metaphor for an idea that has to be almost tricked out of hiding into the audience’s consciousness.

But what idea? There is no correct answer. In The Fire Raisers by Max Frisch, someone is burning down buildings in the town. The play is set in the household of a bourgeois family. A sinister lodger insinuates himself into the household. He is joined by a second stranger. They both live upstairs. Periodically they leave the house, and return. Each time, a building burns down. The household, particularly the father of the household, resists drawing the unwelcome conclusion, even after the two lodgers are found to be stockpiling cans of gasoline in the attic. Finally the sinister lodger comes downstairs and asks for a box of matches. The father gives him the matches, and explains defensively, “Well, if they were the fire raisers, they’d have their own matches, wouldn’t they?” Then the house goes up in flames.

Is this a metaphor for Hitler taking over in the 1930s? The author, I’m told, was thinking of the Communist takeover in Eastern Europe in the 1950s. But, to me, his opinion carries no more weight than mine. Or yours, if yours happens to be, “That’s how so-and-so stole my business.” I say the information is being “withheld” but it’s as much a case of there being no (further) information on offer.

I did say that all narratives have some such capacity, but the plays that are important to the advancement of art (as opposed to plays that are merely good in many different ways) are those that suggest this capacity to a very high degree, and—as it happens, as has happened during my time—do so by withholding information in the primary and simple sense of the word.

Three plays which meant a lot to playwrights of my generation when we were young were Look Back in Anger, Waiting for Godot, and The Birthday Party. They are a trio but not a set. Somerset Maugham was shocked by Look Back in Anger. The kind of person represented by the play (the representation made for that person by the play) was what shocked, and Maugham had a word for him and his kind: scum. But Osborne’s play, though it sang a new song, didn’t advance anything deeper. It withheld nothing. It shouldn’t be surprising that Look Back in Anger was admired by Terence Rattigan (I speak as an admirer, too). After I saw Look Back in Anger I started trying to write a play like it, but I stopped because there was no point. It had been done. (It was also true that I couldn’t write a play like Look Back in Anger, but that’s a mere technicality.) The point was I could see what Osborne was up to and how it might be done.

But with Godot and The Birthday Party the case was entirely different. I couldn’t see how it was done. I couldn’t see what exactly was done, either. Each play was simultaneously inspiring and baffling. It broke a contract which up to that era had been thought to exist between a play and its audience. There had seemed to be a tacit agreement, up to then, that if you could be bothered to show up to watch something up there, then the thing up there had certain obligations toward you, such as the obligation to give you the minimum information you needed to make sense of the whole.

Waiting for Godot redefined the minimum, for all time, or at least up to the present time. The Birthday Party, differently, did the same thing. And although both authors had done this cruel thing to me, I trusted them and, dimly, I knew why I trusted them.

The easiest way to explain why is simply to state that Surrealism, Dada, and that whole family of cruelties from previous generations seemed to me (and still seem) to be intrinsically worthless (though sometimes enlivening, as a fight in a pub might be enlivening), and that this was not that. It was not irrational. It was not arbitrary. It did not make its effects by dislocating narrative or thought process or the connections between things. “Early Modern” attempts to advance the state of art, in Zurich and Paris, seemed merely childish by comparison. But these new plays were baffling in a different way. The narrative line was pure, so pure that you lost sight of it some of the time, pure as a spider’s thread: when it seemed to be broken, a small shift showed it still there. These plays, so unlike Shakespeare, did the thing that makes Shakespeare breathtaking and defines poetry—the simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning.

I’m going to finish by reading a speech from a play by James Saunders, Next Time I’ll Sing to You. I have two motives for this. Firstly, it is a correction to the course I have found myself steering. I think that without a text, and a fairly self-knowing text, theater of the kind I’m involved in is impossible. Theater is indeed a physical event, and the words are not enough without everything else, but everything else is nothing without the words, and in the extravagant complex equation of sound and light, it’s certain words in a certain order that—often mysteriously—turn our hearts over.

Look Back in Anger, Waiting for Godot, and The Birthday Party, for different reasons, stopped me from writing a play of my own. But a little later, in 1962 or 1963, I saw Next Time I’ll Sing to You and I thought “Yes—that’s the one. I think I can do that.” I wanted to do that. I didn’t and couldn’t but the illusion was enough.

So here’s a speech, without comment, from Next Time I’ll Sing to You by James Saunders.

There lies behind everything, and you can believe this or not as you wish, a certain quality which we may call grief. It’s always there, just under the surface, just behind the façade, sometimes very nearly exposed, so that you can dimly see the shape of it as you can see sometimes through the surface of an ornamental pond on a still day, the dark, gross, inhuman outline of a carp gliding slowly past; when you realize suddenly that the carp were always there below the surface, even while the water sparkled in the sunshine, and while you patronized the quaint ducks and the supercilious swans, the carp were down there, unseen. It bides its time, this quality. And if you do catch a glimpse of it, you may pretend not to notice or you may turn suddenly away and romp with your children on the grass, laughing for no reason. The name of this quality is grief.

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