March 31, 2007

The Play Considered as an Information Engine

"Plays are partly a sequence of ambushes of one kind or another; and I think that the trick of it is a lot to do with the way that you allow the information to flow from the stage to the audience. It's the speed at which it flows, and sometimes it's the order in which the information arrives."

-- Tom Stoppard
WNYC radio interview with Leonard Lopate

Setting aside the rather ugly invocation of ambush, Stoppard's remark illustrates an assumption about dramatic structure which is as fundamental to our contemporary reading of the theatre as it is generally unacknowledged.

We expect the experience of watching a play to consist, at a very deep level, of a regulated disclosure of information over time. In the simplest version, we enter the theatre knowing nothing but the title. The action starts a flow of information whereby we first orient ourselves, then build up an information structure through which we learn (hence the importance of that verb in theatre criticism) what is happening, has happened and—best of all—what is likely to happen. It is, for example, precisely this expectation that the play contains "hidden" information which will be disclosed at just the right time that makes possible the effects of anticipation, suspense, and the appreciation of a just and neat conclusion. For the play must end when all the information in the play has been made disclosed. There is, quite literally, nothing more to say after that.[1]

The same, of course, can be said of the detective story, but because the play is a more complex and ambiguous form—because it is, necessarily, a kind of model of experience itself—the limitations imposed by requiring an audience to seek out and follow the flow of information are more consequential. Because plays are also expected to contain "meaning" in ways that detective stories are not, it is almost impossible to resist viewing the "meaning" of the play as analogous to its information. Hence the justifiable frustration of audiences with plays that do not unambiguously disclose their meaning (with the proviso, drilled into us in High School, that the "meaning" may only resolve itself as an intractable dilemma; the "problem" play.)

The most insidious notion, though, may be the simplest. That the play is a kind of information bag which must be emptied completely by the end, so that its contents, laid out in place, can be seen to form something coherent with nothing important left out or left over. It is, clearly, this very stringency which burdens drama with its peculiar set of structural laws and obligations. Playwriting, at least in the conventional sense, is frequently likened to carpentry because, as with a house or a cabinet, the pieces all have to fit and the finished work must have a sound and regular structure. A play that won't, or can't, provide full disclosure is considered ill-made at best, and at worst, as an act of irresponsibility or bad faith. We scold "bad" playwrights in much the same way we'd harangue a drunken plumber who'd hooked the toilet up to the bathtub.

Novels, if you think about it, have never been construed in this way. They were unruly shambling creatures from the outset (can you imagine a picaresque play?) and, with exceptions, remain so today. Perhaps this notion of theatre derived from the physical layout of the stage itself--a place designed specifically to show (θέατρον means "place of seeing") , and therefore, necessarily to conceal. More likely it is the result of a series of historical accidents, because the underlying expectations--for closure, for completeness and consistency—are themselves rather recent cultural products. The expectations raised at the beginning of, say, the Iliad, are much less rigorous than at the beginning of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Elaborate digressions, like the catalog of ships or the description of Achilles' shield, would be intolerable in Baker Street.

Introducing the expectation that any play will eventually reveal secrets is obviously an effective way to engage the attention—indeed, the anticipation—of the audience. In crude terms, it makes not just the play but the prospect of the play exciting, which is a good thing if you're in the play business. But while this expectation may be benign in conventional representational theatre, it has presented perhaps the greatest single barrier to a clear reading of alternatives to that theatre.

When critics or audiences complain that an experimental work is "confusing" (or more likely, that it is "pretentious nonsense,") they are not really complaining about alternative forms. They are complaining—rightly—that the expected "hidden" information has not been disclosed unambiguously by night's end. The sense of bafflement and frustration is all the deeper because the problems (such as they are) of decoding new forms and structures pale before the recognition that something fundamental to the reading of a conventional play is "missing." This reaction may be expressed by saying "I don't know what that damned thing was all about," but what is really being said is "How the hell am I supposed to make sense of this thing when I can't find the information thread that's supposed to be there?"

By the same token, the difficulty in "explaining" the strategies of even the canonical American avant-garde come down to a failure to recognize that this expectation of information is, in fact, localized to a particular, albeit prevalent, dramatic form. Miller and Mamet and Williams and Wasserstein all conform to the rule that the play—as they understand it—starts out with a lot of information under its clothing and does a kind of strip tease. So be it. But to look, in vain, for this kind of "information" processing in, say, Richard Foreman—who has been almost mind-numbingly explicit about his methods and purposes—is inexcusable. Foreman's plays are a good example because they positively teem with information; it is hard to imagine anyone's theatre having more going on from moment to moment. But the distinguishing characteristic, of course, is that it's also almost impossible to remember what just happened, just as it's impossible to predict what's going to happen next, or even—and this is the tip-off—to be able to articulate in any meaningful way how you got from one moment to another. The persistent failure of mainstream drama critics to understand the relevance of this kind of dramatic structure to the structures of conventional theater and experience is—there is no other word for it—embarrassing.

Three more or less recent plays—all mounted in "downtown" venues—hints at the richness of alternative approaches once the play is no longer conceived of as an information engine.

The Director, by Barbara Cassidy

Cassidy's play is ostensibly representational in that it presents wholly plausible figures in a contemporary situation: a woman, having been pursued by a well-known film director whose modus opernadi is to proposition strangers on the street, decides to track down and interview others whom he's hit on, with the vague aim of making a documentary. Soon enough, however, it becomes clear that the director himself—the title character!—will never appear onstage, and in so doing the play expressly withholds what is, ostensibly, its most valuable piece of information.

The work was, predictably, misread as a "broken" play—although at least one review, interestingly, recognized the omission was deliberate—but the device is certainly familiar enough from fiction (Hitchcock even invented the term "Maguffin" for something similar). Cassidy, of course, is putting the audience in exactly the same place as her protagonist—searching for something which will never be revealed—with the crucial difference that the audience is expected (a) to recognize that as the premise of the play and therefore (b) be drawn to all the other interstitial moments—of which there are many—in which some other crucial piece of information turns out to missing.

Cassidy's play, in fact, draws attention to all the protagonist's other relationships: with her lover, with a potential colleague (who would also like to be her lover); with her interviewees. And in every case, these are relationships at cross-purposes—not because there is something we know and the characters don't (the "complication" of conventional dramaturgy), but because we knoiw there is something the characters themselves don't know. This play, which presents a protagonist in search of self knowledge, and a search in which essential knowledge is forever unobtainable, is surely expressing—staging—a quandary familiar from all our everyday lives. How often are we baffled and confused? How often do we bear the realization that the most critical events and familiar figures in our lives are fundamentally unknowable? Cassidy's play therefore poses a direct challenge to the expectations of conventional theatre by asking whether, in fact, it is ever possible to fully know anything about experience itself (and if so, how can a play ever, honestly, disclose all its "secrets")? Again, given the history of (oh, let's say) late 19th and 20th Century English prose fiction, this is hardly a radical proposition. It is, nonetheless, a condition the prevailing rules of dramatic structure make almost impossible to render onstage.

Crime or Emergency, by Sibyl Kempson

Here, after all, is that rara avis, a picaresque play: one damned thing after another! The play begins with a pelvic examination; the next minute, the patient has pulled a knife on the doctor and is chasing her through the parking garage; they run by a prone figure, who turns out to be Sean Crosby of the Dallas Mavericks—cut to the deck of a yacht…

And it just keeps going like that. One scene follows another with only the most tangential connection. Within any scene, people will suddenly do things—like slap someone else—for no good reason. Hell, even the monologs won't stay on track. Try following the knife-welding trailer-trash in her big speech which comes a few scenes later…


I met this woman one time and she read my horoscope. My mother used to cast horoscopes. She was some kind of a sensation in the fifties. She said “Ly – bra” instead of “Leebra.” So when I was being born she said to the doctor, please can this baby be born in the next ten minutes or else it’s going to be a Scorpio rising. And supposedly she wanted a Ly-bra rising, it’s easier to get along with. The doctor agreed to do it, and told her to start pushing. She pushed too hard I guess? I don’t know and something happened with the tubing. She ended up losing a lot of blood or whatever and fainting, and I ended up with Scorpio rising anyway. I guess then something happened with my father because I ended up going to live with another family that wasn’t related. Anyway, this woman read my horoscope and told me that the Scorpio rising might be one of the reasons I have a hard time getting along with people. I told her she should really go fucking fuck herself. But I guess it makes sense. One time I had a boyfriend. He had a traditional family, we went to visit, we were lying in a hammock reading aloud from this allsome book about a guy who gets really cranky with his family and can’t figure out why. He has scary dreams, and something happens one night up at their country house – what is a country house? – and even they have company and the company notice it; it’s in the night. So he goes to a hypnosis and finds out he’s been abducted by aliens his whole life, and so was his dad, and so is his SON now - ! And there’s all this lost time – he sits down to eat a t.v. dinner and then in the next moment, he doesn’t even fall asleep, his t.v. dinner is cold and the t.v. is playing the star spangled banner.! Remember that?! Now it’s on all night with Half Pint and Pam Ewing selling face creams on the same show. Talking, sitting on couches – they’re so nice to each other! Anyhow he had this aunt, this boyfriend I had had this aunt. And she was a couple sandwiches short of a picnic!

Need I add, there's much more...

Space prevents a detailed explanation of Kempson's method (q.v., Vygotsky's Focused and Unfocussed Chains), but the basic principle—one thing following another with only the most nominal or arbitrary connection—is another assault on the stricture that all information revealed in the course of a play must come together with a high degree of internal consistency. Here too, dramatic principle is at variance with experience; but more importantly, what Kempson's play gains by virtue of its free, associative leaps—its convolutions and continual surprises—is the exuberance of playful thought.

Les Carabiniers, by Kirk Lynn

"Object" is a term used in computer programming to refer to a blob of code and functionality exposing properties (things the object has or "is") and methods (things the object does). If a conventional—by which I mean only "well-understood form of"—play were an object, its properties might be characters and situations, and its methods might be Start and End. You could even write a kind of "pseudo-code" to represent what happens in a performance as a kind of program or routine, thusly:

  Dim ThisPerformance as new PlayObject
  Set ThisPerformance = PlayObject("Streetcar")
  With ThisPerformance
    With .Characters("Mitch")
      .DelayEntrance = True
      .TilScene = 3
    End With
    .Location = "New Orleans"
  End with

All of which is to say that theatre, as commonly understood, establishes the expectation of a form with strictly defined aspects and well-governed behavior.

My two previous examples were plays which violate the expectations of the play form, making it impossible to start up and run a valid Play Object. Kirk Lynn’s piece uses this expectation of a play object, and familiarity of its workings, in a very different way.

As in a conventional piece, he loads up a play with some basic properties (i.e., characters and situations) and sets it running. In this conventional play, a woman, getting to work after a one-night stand, realizes that she’s left her purse at her lover’s apartment. The man meanwhile rummages through its contents; the woman returns and realizes what he's done; end of play.

Lynn's critical insight is that the whole rigamarole of a play's structure is nothing more than an elaborate timer. By running of the play in the background, the predictable storyline established a base layer for the overlays, tangents and ornaments that form the actual play., Here, for example, is how Lynn's text begins—the man ostensibly in bed, "at the start of the story":


The man says:
“She had accidentally left her purse on the table.
“Her purse was a whole scene in itself, embroidered black fabric, a brass clasp, and a long thin strap like a wire. She had accidentally left it on the short little pale yellow table at the foot of my bed.
“It was the stupidest table in the world. It was the stupidest table ever. If there was a book on the table you wanted to read before bed, you couldn’t reach it—unless you bent yourself into a full jackknife to get it, and that’s not relaxing. That’s not gonna help you get to sleep. I don’t know what I pictured when I put the table there.
“I mean, I keep books on the table. But they’re not the sort of books you would ever read before bed. Thomas Bernhard. A collection of Goya prints. Susan Sontag.
“I recognize this is ridiculous. I had been lying awake in the bed for less than five minutes and yet, what I said was, ‘I’ve been lying here forever.’
“She might have thought I meant that I had never told the truth, but she wasn’t there. I was alone and was speaking out loud only to test that fact.
“’I am completely naked under these covers.’
“She had accidentally left her purse on the table. A woman I barely knew. It was a purse the size of suspicion itself.”


After a while, the purse begins emitting a soft song.
It sounds something like Cat Power’s version of “I Found a Reason” being played by one of those shitty handheld tape-recorders.
A woman enters and removes a shitty handheld tape recorder from the purse and presses the stop button.
The woman says:
“In the real world, when the purse started singing, that was a cell phone. That was my cell phone and I was calling it to find out if I had left my purse in his apartment.

As the play object runs its expected course, the actual events onstage diverge from the tracking story: the man onstage sprinkles tacks on the floor for no apparent reason; the woman has several more phone conversations with her friend; the taped voice indicates substitutions of other objects for the “actual” contents of the purse, or, as in the following, excisions in play itself:

The tape player says, “Part of this next section has been cut from the play. In it, I was going to talk about how putting a photo of the purse inside the purse made no discernable difference—at first—but in the section we cut, the man was to continue taking photos of the purse and stuffing them inside the purse, so that each photo was a photo of the purse with another photo in it, and eventually it does become discernable. Eventually the purse is bursting at the seams. This is because—”
The tape player was interrupted by the sound of a doorbell, which plays on the tape. The tape player continues making the sound of a doorbell at regular intervals until the woman has entered and stands looking at the man, who is wearing nothing but a sheet and shoes, holding the Polaroid camera in his hand

Yet because we can "follow" the play object running in the background, we can not only connect up the elaborations occurring on stage but—and this is marvelous—retain much of that sense of completeness which derives from the knowledge that the play object, even if hidden, will reliably dole out its information straight through to the end.

Here's how it ends:

A new woman’s voice, a woman from the office, says, “Hey, how’s it going? The girls at the office want to know if you’re turning your one night stand into a full blow love affair?”
The first woman’s voice says, “Can I call you right back?”
The woman from the office’s voice says, “You said you liked him when you left the office…”
The first woman’s voice coughs before she says, “Sorta.”
The woman from the office’s voice says, “What? Did he look through your purse?”
The first woman’s voice says, “Yes. Can I call you right back?”
The woman from the office’s voice says, “Oh, you’d do the same thing if he left his wallet at your place. Don’t mess this up because he was curious about you. I mean what could he have seen?”
The first woman’s voice says, “I don’t know.”
The woman from the office’s voice says, “Whatever it was he’ll forget it when he sees you naked again. Give it a chance.”
The first woman’s voice says, “I have to go. Bye.”
The woman pulls the covers up over her head. And then we hear the tape reach it’s end and stop itself just as the woman kicks her shoes out from the end of the bed and they land on the table and the lights go out.

These are, of course, but three examples, chosen by virtue of being at hand. They are not in any way meant as a comprehensive examination, nor have I dealt with any of them in a comprehensive way. They stand merely as a suggestion of how much is possible once the theatre is relieved of any need to ambush its audience with information.

[1] The more advanced variant is the situation in which we know the story—hence the "information"—in advance, as when going to a Shakespeare play. Here we find that our pre-knowledge does little to diminish the pleasure of our experience because it has no effect on our ability to track our progress through the elapsed performance time, which is what the information structure really does. We can, for example, anticipate the entrance of Hamlet or the Graveyard scene in exactly the same way we can anticipate the second act curtain of an unfamiliar play. If we don't know the play, we wonder what will happen next. But even if we do know the play, and what's going happen next, we can still be in anticipation of any significant moment, or node. The distinguishing problem of theatre is always that it must hold the audience's attention in real time, and the articulation of a regular information structure proves to be one of the richest and easiest ways to do this. The actual content of that structure—what is revealed—is less important than its shape or pattern, which makes possible anticipation, suspense and satisfaction. This, I think, is essentially what Stoppard means to say.