June 30, 2007

The Uses of Story

BROOKLYN RAIL (TRISH HARNETIAUX): Too often we, as viewers and critics, get bogged down in all that "coherence of story" nonsense. How have you dealt with the evil word of STRUCTURE in your adaptation?

ERIN COURTNEY: I don’t think structure is an evil word. I think structure is a glorious word. I love patterns and multiplicity and symmetry, and these can be great structures for plays. In fact, the reason I was drawn to the E.T.A. novel is because of its complex structure. Hoffman has created a wild and absurd premise that allows him to intertwine two distinctly different narratives. These two narratives wink at each other constantly and this really satisfies my love of symmetry.

KARINNE KEITHLEY: I don’t think structure is an evil word and I also don’t give a rat’s ass for the normal ideas about coherence. Having spent years in the most heady abstract part of the dance world, I’m very comfortable working as a gardener: planting, grafting, arranging unlike things to work as a whole ... The structure then is about accumulating a sense of population in space, and attending to the play between density and surface tension.

Interview in The Brooklyn Rail, June 2007



If there's one issue dividing conventional theatre from the broad swath of contemporary dramatic innovation, it has to do with the importance of story—or to be more accurate, with the importance of recognition of story. In one camp are those for whom the value of any play is largely equivalent to the (emotional) value of its story. In the other are people like Karinne Keithley who, as she recently wrote me, are "pretty sure that telling stories is done better with movies and books than it is with theater," and don't give a rat's ass for coherence.

Underlying these two positions, however, are shared assumptions about the nature and purpose of stories which are taken by both camps as self-evident. Everyone "knows", for example, that a story isn't a mere recounting of events—just one damned thing after another. It needs to be a structured recounting; stories must have recognizable parts: beginnings, middles, ends, second-act curtains, reversals, etc. The actual sequence of events as they are told need not be linear, yet the implicit sequence is always forward, across time, and therefore implicitly (and usually explicitly) causal.

More importantly, stories have characters. Indeed, the value of telling a story may be defined as precisely equal to the consequence of the story’s events upon on its characters (hence the injunction that one must "care about" those characters), the corollaries being, therefore, that stories must have both characters and events, otherwise "nothing happens." But even more than that, everyone expects that a structured recounting of events and characters will display some further degree of internal consistency and coherence. Everyone knows, in other words, that stories must in some profound and fundamental way "make sense," and from here it is only a short step to concluding that whole point of the enterprise must lie in the very "sense" which one makes—indeed, is invited to make—of the story.

All of which is long-winded reaffirmation what everybody knows—that stories make up the content.

Of course nowadays, no self-respecting theatre-goer watches a play just to follow the plot. Self-respecting theatre-goers understand that, after Chekhov, the actual story outcome can be nugatory (nobody goes to Moscow). But they expect a story will unfold nonetheless, for in Chekhov’s plays situation, character and event comprise the Action as completely as in any "well-made" play. The difference has largely to do with scale: put crudely, by scaling overt action down, Chekhov makes his plays seem not only more life-like but more nuanced. Even Beckett[1] makes use of story in this conventional sense, which is not only why Pozzo and Lucky have to appear (so something actually "happens"), but why (as we were all taught, long ago) it is crucial to understand that Godot never will. To put it another way, even in the canonical Modern theatre, story remains pretty much synonymous with content, and "what happens" in the play can be expressed—more or less—as its story.

This set of shared assumptions (story=content=emotional value) is not so much incorrect as it is drastically incomplete, and having been accepted as "self-evident," also obscures the unique functions of story in a time-based artform like the theatre.



Story as Pattern

Consider, for example, the following story, one of the lesser Grimm Bros. tales and one surely derived from the oral tradition:


Fair Katrinelje and Pif-Paf-Poltrie

"Good-day, Father Hollenthe." "Many thanks, Pif-Paf-Poltrie." "May I be allowed to have your daughter?" "Oh, yes, if Mother Malcho Milchcow, Brother High-and-Mighty, Sister Kasetraut, and fair Katrinelje are willing, you can have her." "Where is Mother Malcho, then?" "She is in the cow-house, milking the cow."

"Good-day, Mother Malcho." "Many thanks, Pif-Paf-Poltrie." "May I be allowed to have your daughter?" "Oh, yes, if Father Hollenthe, Brother High-and-Mighty, Sister Kasetraut, and fair Katrinelje are willing, you can have her." "Where is Brother High-and-Mighty, then?" "He is in the room chopping some wood."

"Good-day, Brother High-and-Mighty." "Many thanks, Pif-Paf-Poltrie." "May I be allowed to have your sister?" "Oh, yes, if Father Hollenthe, Mother Malcho, Sister Kasetraut, and fair Katrinelje are willing, you can have her." "Where is Sister Kasetraut, then?" "She is in the garden cutting cabbages."

"Good-day, Sister Kasetraut." "Many thanks, Pif-Paf-Poltrie." "May I be allowed to have your sister?" "Oh, yes, if Father Hollenthe, Mother Malcho, Brother High-and-Mighty, and fair Katrinelje are willing, you may have her." "Where is fair Katrinelje, then." "She is in the room counting out her farthings."

"Good day, fair Katrinelje." "Many thanks, Pif-Paf-Poltrie." "Will you be my bride?" "Oh, yes, if Father Hollenthe, Mother Malcho, Brother High-and-Mighty, and Sister Kasetraut are willing, I am ready."

"Fair Katrinelje, how much dowry do you have?" "Fourteen farthings in ready money, three and a half groschen owing to me, half a pound of dried apples, a handful of pretzels, and a handful of roots. And many other things are mine, Have I not a dowry fine?"

"Pif-Paf-Poltrie, what is your trade? Are you a tailor?" "Something better." "A shoemaker?" "Something better." "A husbandman?" "Something better." "A joiner?" "Something better." "A smith?" "Something better." "A miller?" "Something better." "Perhaps a broom-maker?"" Yes, that's what I am, is it not a fine trade?"


On first reading, this story appears clumsy and reductive—barely a story at all!—yet it contains all the elements of a "real" story: characters of course, situation, even the forward motion of time. But these elements have been drastically scaled back. Instead, the most striking features are elements a contemporary writer would strive to avoid: repetitive phrasing and prominent division into formulaic parts. Moreover, these features are clearly related.

If we take the first paragraph as the first story unit, we see that it first establishes character and situation with brutal efficiency, then finishes with a kind of "pointer" to the next scene ("Where is she?"). At this point, it would be hard to predict what might happen next. But as soon as we enter the second story unit, this changes immediately. We recognize, through the repetition, that this unit is almost but not quite identical the first. The prominence of patterning makes it easy to spot the differences—we have moved to the second person on the list—and with this understanding we know at once what the third and fourth story units must be, and thus suddenly become curious about the nature of the fifth.

Now one could make the case that following even this story still involves following content. Only thus, for example, do we know that the negotiation of a dowry follows the request for permission to marry. But it seems to me that what is really recognized in the second story unit is an overall pattern.[2] Not only do we know what parts 3 and 4 will be "about", we know exactly how their content will be phrased. The pattern, in other words, requires repetition. See for yourself if a paraphrased version of the third or fourth paragraphs would improve or damage the story.

Moreover—and this is unique to the oral tradition—we are now in the curious position of having to wait—in real time, without skipping ahead—for the completion of a patter to learn how it will break. The relative tedium of slogging through parts 3 and 4 is palliated by the anticipation of relief in 5. The repetitive pattern, in other words, establishes tension. (I trust no one would argue that there is any real tension derived from the content; from learning what, e.g., Sister Kasetraut is going to say.)

And indeed, the fifth part recapitulates the first four, and proceeds immediately to the sixth which, necessarily, is different not only in subject (moving on to the next stage of the negotiations) but structure. Here again, pattern shapes content, but this time the form is the list, which is freer than the first pattern since it basically takes the form of "one-thing-after-another-until-the-end." The list pattern, in fact, encourages variation between the elements, and one would expect that the actual contents of the list would be further varied, for effect, in each retelling. The same is true of the seventh and final unit, which combines both the list and repetitive pattern ("Is it X?" "No" "Is it Y?" "No?") to make a chain which must continue, however improbable and incongruous the sequence, until the answer becomes "Yes."

Clearly it would be a waste of time to dwell on the characters, situation or even the outcome of this story, as they are beside the point. Some might even claim that reading it is a waste of time as well. But unless you are prepared to claim that there is no pleasure in the story whatsoever, I think you would agree that its pleasures would be greatest in oral form, where the various enhancements unique to performance (giving voice to various characters, punctuating the lists with one's delivery, and modifying their elements to amuse a specific audience) are supported by those very properties—repetition and visible structure—which make the written version dull.[3]

When a story is told in real time, it demands constant attention. This, in turn, causes a kind of friction. This friction can be relieved by letting the audience know where it stands at any point in time relative to the story as a whole. (This is why pieces performed without intermission often include the running time in the program, and why the perennial question of the summer road trip is "Are we there yet?"). As we shall see in our final story, this can be achieved by shaping content to conform to well-understood story rules. But it can also be achieved without regard to content, through the application of pattern.

The great usefulness of pattern lies in its flexibility. It would be a trivial matter to extend the story of Pif-Paf-Poultrie; one could even improvise it on the spot, by simply adding more family members (e.g., uncle, grandmother, dog). Similarly, adding, changing or removing whole episodes could easily be abstracted into new groups of patterned story units (e.g., the Wedding of Pif-Paf-Poultrie). Indeed the malleability of pattern derives precisely from its abstract nature: once the pattern is understood, it can be projected in any direction, over any terrain.

One final point: pattern also clearly demarcates the parts of the story which can accept extraneous detail (the lists) from those where extraneous detail must be suppressed. As we shall see, other story types will be more or less tolerant of extraneous detail.



Story as Chain

Now consider a second story, also a Grimm Bros. tale, where the story units are less patterned, and the characters, situation and events become more prominent and significant:


The Straw, The Coal and The Bean

In a village dwelt a poor old woman, who had gathered together a dish of beans and wanted to cook them. So she made a fire on her hearth, and that it might burn the quicker, she lighted it with a handful of straw. When she was emptying the beans into the pan, one dropped without her observing it, and lay on the ground beside a straw, and soon afterwards a burning coal from the fire leapt down to the two.

Then the straw began and said, "Dear friends, from whence do you come here?" The coal replied, "I fortunately sprang out of the fire, and if I had not escaped by sheer force, my death would have been certain, I should have been burnt to ashes." The bean said, "I too have escaped with a whole skin, but if the old woman had got me into the pan, I should have been made into broth without any mercy, like my comrades." "And would a better fate have fallen to my lot?" said the straw. "The old woman has destroyed all my brethren in fire and smoke. She seized sixty of them at once, and took their lives. I luckily slipped through her fingers." "But what are we to do now?" said the coal. "I think, "answered the bean, "that as we have so fortunately escaped death, we should keep together like good companions, and lest a new mischance should overtake us here, we should go away together, and repair to a foreign country." The proposition pleased the two others, and they set out on their way together.

Soon, however, they came to a little brook, and as there was no bridge or foot-plank, they did not know how they were to get over it. The straw hit on a good idea, and said, "I will lay myself straight across, and then you can walk over on me as on a bridge." The straw therefore stretched itself from one bank to the other, and the coal, who was of an impetuous disposition, tripped quite boldly on to the newly-built bridge. But when she had reached the middle, and heard the water rushing beneath her, she was, after all, afraid, and stood still, and ventured no farther. The straw, however, began to burn, broke in two pieces, and fell into the stream. The coal slipped after her, hissed when she got into the water, and breathed her last.

The bean, who had prudently stayed behind on the shore, could not but laugh at the event, was unable to stop, and laughed so heartily that she burst. It would have been all over with her, likewise, if, by good fortune, a tailor who was traveling in search of work, had not sat down to rest by the brook. As he had a compassionate heart he pulled out his needle and thread, and sewed her together. The bean thanked him most prettily, but as the tailor used black thread, all beans since then have a black seam.



Despite its unusual characters, this story seems not only more "story-like" but more "life-like" than Pif-Paf-Poultrie, simply because of the attention paid to rendering the mise-en-scene. The story parts are clearly demarcated,, and correspond nicely with the cinematic vocabulary of scenes framed by establishing shots and jump cuts:


SCENE 1: Medium shot. A cottage. Zoom in on old woman preparing a meal. Jump cut to:
SCENE 2: Close up on Talking Straw. Business. Jump cut to:
SCENE 3: Long shot. A bridge. Zoom in on the three comrades. Business. Jump cut to:
SCENE 4: The riverbank. Pan to tailor. Zoom in on sewing. Fade out


This story unfolds as a sequence of clearly defined scenes. Each scene takes place in a different location, with a different focus and point of view. Characters may or may not carry over from previous scenes; thus the old woman is discarded, and the tailor introduced, as needed. Within each story unit, there is no doubt what is going on. But without the clear pattern of Pif-Paf-Poultrie (or, to anticipate, the recognizable plot lines of Sylvester), it is impossible to predict what will happen in the next story unit. The story as a whole has a rambling, episodic feel—who could predict the path from old woman to tailor—and its twists and turns account for the variety and surprise which constitute so much of its charm.

Here I must mention, in passing, my debt to Arthur Applebee’s invaluable The Child’s Concept of Story, and in turn, his debt to the Russian Lev Vygotsky, for the concepts of Focused and Unfocused Chains.


[In an unfocused chain], each element shares a clear concrete attribute with the next, but this defining attribute is constantly shifting; the result is a chain in which the head bears very little relation to the tail… the incidents lead quite directly from one to another, but the attributes which link them continue to shift—characters pass in and out of the story, the type of action changes, the setting blurs. The result is a story which, taking its incidents in pairs, has much of the structure of a narrative, but as a whole loses its point and direction… The amount of material managed in a story such as this can be quite large, but the lack of a center or "point" prevents it from becoming a structured whole in which the various parts can all be related to one another. [In a focused chain] the processes of chaining and of centering around concrete attributes are joined within one narrative. In its most typical form, the center is a main character who goes through a series of events linked one to another just as in the unfocused chain. This produces a focused chain narrative of the "continuing adventures of..."type. (It is quite common in such adult genres as radio serials and adventure stories...)


Since episodic structures have a rich literary history (Odyssey, Pickwick Papers, Huckleberry Finn, etc.), but it's worth noting they violate some basic principles of conventional dramaturgy: consistency of character, and the delineation of a story arc with through-line and payoff. Chain structures are by design loose and free, and actually reward unexpected transitions and changing sets of characters (only a seriously autistic or post-modern author would create an episodic chain of identical situations.) Straw, Coal & Bean could easily have ended without the appearance of the tailor, and with minor addition (e.g., the Bean thanks the tailor and reveals its magic powers) could have continued after. Indeed, endings pose a special problem. They will be unsatisfying if they appear to be just another episode, and must either be overtly prefigured (as in Odyssey) or treated as a formal device (hence the "problematic" ending of Huck Finn). That aside, all other constituent "parts" (which will now typically conform to more familiar story elements like "scenes," "chapters," or "episodes,") can be more or less uniform. It is the difference between the episodes that gives the story its shape and tension. And because chains are a kind of magpie form, it is hard to imagine a case where extraneous detail couldn't be worked in. Rather, the compositional challenges have to do with one's richness of invention, and ability to gauge the tolerance of the audience's attention span.




The Tightly-Integrated Complex Story

Now, finally, we can consider the story as it is commonly understood in its broader context. My last example is William Steig's Sylvester, which is worth tracking down in book form for its illustrations, which do so much to further clarify the articulation of the narrative:


Sylvester and the Magic Pebble

Sylvester Duncan lived with his mother and father at Acorn Road in Oatsdale. One of his hobbies was collecting pebbles of unusual shape and color.

On a rainy Saturday during vacation he found a quite extraordinary one. It was flaming red, shiny, and perfectly round, like a marble. As he was studying this remarkable pebble, he began to shiver, probably from excitement, and the rain felt cold on his back. "I wish it would stop raining," he said.

To his great surprise, the rain stopped. It didn’t stop gradually as rains usually do. It CEASED. The drops vanished on the way down, the clouds disappeared, everything was dry, and the sun was shining as if rain had never existed.

In all his young life Sylvester had never had a wish gratified so quickly. It struck him that magic must be at work, and he guessed that the magic must be in the remarkable-looking red pebble. (Where indeed it was.) To make a test, he put the pebble on the ground and said, "I wish it would rain again." Nothing happened. But when he said the same thing holding the pebble in his hoof, the sky turned black, there was lightning and a clap of thunder, and the rain came shooting down.

"What a lucky day this is!" thought Sylvester. From now on, I can have anything I want. My father and mother can have anything they want. My relatives, my friends, and anybody else, all can have everything anybody wants.

He wished the sunshine back in the sky, and he wished a wart on his left hind fetlock would disappear, and it did, and he started home, eager to amaze his father and mother with his magic pebble. He eould hardy wait to see their faces. Maybe they wouldn't even believe him at first.

As he was crossing Strawberry Hill, thinking of the many, many things he could wish for, he was startled to see a mean, hungry lion looking right at him from behind some tall grass. He was frightened. If he hadn’t been frightened he could have made the lion disappear and he could have wished himself safe at home with his father and mother.

He could have wished the lion would turn into a butterfly or a daisy or a gnat. He could have wished many things, but he panicked and couldn't think carefully. "I wish I were a rock," he said, and he became a rock. The lion came bounding over, sniffed the rock a hundred times, walked around and around it, and went away confused, perplexed, puzzled, and bewildered. "I saw that little donkey as clear as day. Maybe I'm going crazy," he muttered.

And there was Sylvester, a rock on Strawberry Hill, with the magic pebble lying right beside him on the ground, and he was unable to pick it up. "Oh, how I wish I were myself again," he thought, but nothing happened. He had to be touching the pebble to make the magic work, but there was nothing he could do about that.

His thoughts began to race like mad. He was scared and worried. Being helpless, he felt hopeless. He imagined all the possibilities, and eventually he realized that his only chance of becoming himself again was for someone to find the red pebble and to wish that the rock next to it would be a donkey. Someone would surely find the red pebble – it was so bright and shiny - but what on earth would make them wish that a rock were a donkey? The chance was one in a billion at best.

Sylvester fell asleep. What else could he do? Night came with many stars.

Meanwhile, back at home, Mr. and Mrs. Duncan paced the floor, frantic with worry. Sylvester had never come home later than dinner time. Where could he be? They stayed up all night wondering what had happened, expecting that Sylvester would surely turn up by morning. But he didn't, of course. Mrs. Duncan cried a lot and Mr. Duncan did his best to soothe her. Both longed to have their dear son with them. "I will never scold Sylvester again as long as I live," said Mrs. Duncan, "no matter what he does."

At dawn, they went about inquiring of all the neighbors.

They talked to all the children—the puppies, the kittens, the colts, the piglets. No one had seen Sylvester since the day before yesterday.

They went to the police. The police could not find their child.

All the dogs in Oatsdale went searching for him. They sniffed behind every rock and tree and blade of grass, into every nook and gully of the neighborhood and beyond, but found not a scent of him. They sniffed the rock on Strawberry Hill, but it smelled like a rock. It didn’t smell like Sylvester.

After a month of searching the same places over and over again, and inquiring of the same animals over and over again, Mr. and Mrs. Duncan no longer knew what to do. They concluded that something dreadful must have happened and that they would probably never see their son again. (Though all the time he was less than a mile awav.)

They tried their best to be happy, to go about their usual ways. But their usual ways included Sylvester and they were always reminded of him. They were miserable. Life had no meaning for them any more.

Night followed day and day followed night over and over again. Sylvester on the hill woke less and less often. When he was awake he was only hopeless and unhappy. He felt he would be a rock forever and he tried to get used to it. He went into an endless sleep. The days grew colder. Fall came with the leaves changing color. Then the leaves fell and the grass bent to the ground. Then it was winter. The winds blew, this way and that. It snowed. Mostly, the animals stayed indoors, living on the food they had stored up.

One day a wolf sat on the rock that was Sylvester and howled and howled because he was hungry.

Then the snows melted. The earth warmed up in the spring sun and things budded.

Leaves were on the trees again. Flowers showd their young faces.

One day in May, Mr. Duncan insisted that his wife go with him on a picnic. "Let’s cheer up," he said. "Let us try to live again and be happy even though Sylvester, our angel, is no longer with us." They went to Strawberry Hill.

Mrs. Duncan sat down on the rock. The warmth of his own mother sitting on him woke Sylvester up from his deep winter sleep. How he wanted to shout, "Mother! Father! It's me, Sylvester, I'm right here!" But he couldn't talk. He had no voice. He was stone-dumb.

Mr. Duncan walked aimlessly about while Mrs. Duncan set out the picnic food on the rock - alfalfa sandwiches, pickled oats, sassafrass alad, timothy compote. Suddenly Mr. Duncan saw the red pebble. "What a fantastic pebble!" he exclaimed. "Sylvester would have loved it for his collection." He put the pebble on the rock.

They sat down to eat. Sylvester was now as wide awake as a donkey that was a rock could possibly be. Mrs. Duncan felt some mysterious excitement. "You know, Father," she said suddenly, "I have the strangest feeling that our dear Sylvester is still alive and not far away."

"I am, I am!" Sylvester wanted to shout, but he couldn't.

If only he had realized that the pebble resting on his back was the magic pebble!

"Oh, how I wish he were here with us on this lovely May day," said Mrs. Duncan. Mr. Duncan looked sadly at the ground. "Don’t you wish it too, Father?" she said. He looked at her as if to say "How can you ask such questions?"

"I wish I were myself again! I wish I were my real self again!" thought Sylvester.

And in less than an instant, he was!

You can imagine the scene that followed—the embraces, the kisses, the questions, the answers, the loving looks, and the fond exclamations!

When they had eventually calmed down a bit and had gotten home, Mr. Duncan put the magic pebble in an iron safe. Some day they might want to use it but really, for now what more could they wish for? They all had all that they wanted.

The End.


Here, finally, is a "true" story, one in which the emotional outcome is of greatest importance. Here we have characters we care about, locked into a tightly-plotted narrative. So compelling is the whole, so firm the momentum with which we are propelled from beginning to end, that the individual parts may seem less important.

But in fact, the effects of this story depend entirely upon the configuration of the individual parts—both in relation to each other, and to the well-known pattern of a moral tale in which a protagonist gets into trouble, and is eventually rescued.

At the outset—and the illustrations make this even clearer—a happy family is shown at home and together. But almost immediately, the child goes out into the world, separate from its parents, and embarks on an adventure which, we recognize from our knowledge of the form, has to do with access to forbidden powers. The absurdity of the introduction of a lion ex machina is mitigated, again, by our recognition that this another required element of such stories. The end result (of what in theatrical terms would be Act I) is the prospect of an irreparable separation of child from parents. And here, this story too introduces deliberate delay, contrasting the forced inactivity of the child with the feverish and futile activity of the parents.

The tension of the story at this point comes from the discrepancy between two projected endings—the course of the story as it has transpired so far (the parents will eventually die and Sylvester will spend the rest of eternity as a semi-sentient rock) and the course we anticipate from the form itself, which is that such a resolution is untenable and that a happy ending must somehow be brought about. Here again, the dynamics of the story are mainly concerned with the postponement of the inevitable resolution. Once the time for resolution arrives (when spring comes round, and the parents are on the verge of giving up) , the actual reversal and denouement are managed with efficiency.

Stories of this kind are expected to be highly coherent. Their design is necessarily complex and sophisticated, making it also brittle and inflexible. All the pieces have to fit precisely, and while there are a few limited areas for elaboration and extraneous detail (as when, in this case, the parent go from place to place seeking help), the story as a whole requires that all principal elements conform to a pre-existing story pattern, with few distractions or discrepancies.[4]. Events must follow in a certain sequence and at a certain rate. Nothing would ruin the story more effectively than for Mrs. Duncan to sit on the rock the very next day, and that is because the course of the narrative is itself in service of moral imperatives. If Sylvester (and, by proxy, we ourselves) is ever to appreciate the consequences of an ill considered wish for forbidden powers, we must be made to think about it for a while. And because, as in all moral stories, the protagonists are proxies for our own impulses, we quite naturally find ourselves having an affective response to their travails.

These are the only kinds of stories—with sympathetic characters built on well-understood patterns of moral consequence—that are considered suitable for conventional plays. And not surprisingly, conventional plays are judged successful to the degree they elicit sympathy, empathy and affect. For conventional plays are, finally, moral tales (this is the assay Aristotle performs in the Poetics, with its weighing of Good Outcomes to Bad Men vs. Bad Outcomes to Good Men, which may account for its curious currency.) And just as one must concede that a moral tale must be affecting to be effective, so one must accept either the baggage of articulated-tale-with-affect as a whole, or take none of it. There is no middle ground. No one would dispute that such stories can be highly affecting. But by the same token, that is all they can do. And whether the impulse is to break free of narrative or to shed the constraints the moral tale, contemporary dramatic innovators have consistently realized they must also find alternatives to the complex articulated story.

Fortunately, as we have seen, this kind of story turns out to be only one point on a much broad spectrum. The episodic chain structure has already yielded the multi-threaded narrative [the subject of a future post] which is the form of plays as different as Len Jenkin's A Country Doctor, Complicite's Mnemonic, and Kirk Lynn's Lipstick Traces. Pattern plays are only beginning to be explored, but Anne Washburn's Apparition and I Have Loved Strangers strike me as excellent examples.[5]





[1] This is grossly unfair to the Beckett of Play, but the man is dead and I’m arguing a point.
[2]If you want to respond that pattern is surely content too, you may skip the rest of this post. You have understood everything.
[3]A further gauge of the difference between written and performed narratives is the problem of the ending, which is too abrupt to be satisfying as it stands. If one understands the text as just the framework of a performance, however, it's obvious that the story can be resolved in any number of ways—for example, by treating the list of possible occupations as a rhythmic structure which leads to a purely formal climax, or by making sure that the actual occupation will be particularly meaningful (or ludicrous) the audience.
[4]Conventional dramaturgy is often taken to task for its homogenizing influence. Questions of foolish consistency aside, the problem of "coherence of story" really rests with the choice of story type, and the unspoken assumtion that complex, tightly-integrated stories are the most stage-worthy type.
[5] The model of ring composition, advanced by Mary Douglas in Thinking in Circles and others, is also highly relevant and, as Douglas suggestively notes, well suited to cut-and-paste composition.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

1.
"This set of shared assumptions (story=content=emotional value) is not so much incorrect as it is drastically incomplete..."

This seems to be the thesis for the whole essay but I don't know how to think about it. Either those equal signs are correct or they're not. You point out some alternative approaches to the structure and effect of "story" in the Grimm's tales, but rather than argue that these are counter-examples to the equation, you actually point out how they conform to it all the same. They are indeed "non-standard," but NOT as regards the assumptions articulated earlier.

It seems like what you're actually talking about is the possibility for theater getting away from recognizable moral formulas and deemphasizing moral content in value judgments, rather than rethinking the structure or affect of "story" per se. The latter can be a tool for the former but it is not the real issue under discussion.

If the question is one of actually escaping "story" - as in the interview quote with which you open:

2.
It is hardly arbitrary, or a matter of mere lack of initiative, that theater has generally remained more conservative than other arts in regard to traditional approaches to storytelling; while the materials of books are words and the materials of cinema are images, the materials of theater are actual people, objects, and events. These will naturally end up as mimetic "stories" when placed in almost any motivated configurations; only by willfully fighting the current can a playwright build something else out of them. Of course, one can become very graceful at fighting the current.

Jeffrey M. Jones said...

RE: "the materials of theater are actual people, objects, and events..."

You are absolutely right (although, interestingly, objects onstage are both more and less than they are in the "real world.") The implications of this are indeed profound, and have everything to do with the peculiar nature of the theatre, but all that will have to wait for a later post.

As to your main point: My formulation (story=content=emotional value) may indeed have been too cursory. Let me elaborate.

"Story" is, as you note, the subject of the post. It's an elastic term, but in this case I mean simply the sequence of events that occur over the course of the work. To distinguish story from anything else that might be in the work—"what happens" vs. "what's going on"—let me abstract the story of each of the three pieces, and work with the resulting summary. The summary will, obviously, not contain all the elements of the full story, but I think it may make clear the degree to which story is equivalent to content.

1. Pif-Paf-Poultrie asks for permission to marry Katrinlje from every member of her family. She tells him what her dowry will be, and asks him his occupation.

2. In the course of cooking a meal, an old woman drops a straw and bean on the floor. A coal jumps out of the fire. The three run away and come to a stream. The straw lays across the water to form a bridge, but the coal freezes in fear while walking across, burning the straw and plunging them both in the water, where they die. The bean laughs so hard at this misfortune that it tears itself apart, but a tailor sews it together with black thread. This explains why all beans have black seams.

3. A young donkey discovers a wish-granting pebble. When a lion crosses his path, he panics and wishes that he were a rock, then realizes that has no way of reversing that wish. His parents search everywhere, but lose hope as time passes. A year later, on a picnic, his mother happens to notice the magic pebble, which reminds her of her son. She places it on the large rock nearby, and wishes her son were back again. The donkey repeats the wish, and being in contact with the pebble, finds his wish is granted. The family is happily reunited.

Though Sylvester is the longest piece, it is also the easiest to summarize because every episode and detail has been shaped to conform to the "master story." Episode and detail are the only significant elements lost through abstraction; if anything, the essential elements are made even more clear. In fact, abstraction encapsulates and highlights not only significant thematic material (the consequences of wishes, the strength of family bonds) but the extraordinarily specific signal events (sudden appearance of lion; mother places magic pebble on stone which we know is also her son) which "drive" the story. This is what I mean by tight integration. Even in summarized form, the story (sequence of events) includes the significant themes which, in turn, generate our emotional connection to the work (what the story is "really about."). As with a map, much has been left out, but everything can still be located in its proper place.

The same, I would argue, is not the case with Straw, Coal and Bean. When episode and detail are removed, the story loses a great deal of its interest. In episodic narratives, the story is only the skeleton; the meat, if you will, is in the episodes and detail which, by the same principle, do not have to fit neatly within any master pattern—and are often more interesting when they do not. What is also missing from the summary is the shift of focus and point of view from scene to scene. This strikes me as a particularly visual narrative, which is why I abstracted it into a cinematic model. Finally, the summary gives little evidence of the charm which I find in the tale. But as a rule, the emotional value of episodic stories is often less manifest than in tightly-integrated moral stories. There is a kind of detached quality to the protagonist (I find this true of both Odysseus and Huck). Emotional and affective content is often delegated to secondary characters in fleeting set pieces (Jim's despair at having passed Cairo; the scene with Argos, the faithful dog). Again, this is related to the story structure, whereby every episode is fleeting and one thing just leads to another. You could summarize the Odyssey accurately without Argos (but not without Penelope's weaving); but just as significantly, you could separate the story of Argos from the larger narrative (which you could not with the weaving. In fact, "Sailor returns after 10 years; kills suitors" sounds more like a tabloid headline.)

Finally, I hope you would agree that almost everything is lost by summarizing Pif-Paf-Poultrie. The content of the piece has less to do with what is told than with how it is told. You could, in other words, change the story almost completely by simply changing the patterns of language (which, in effect, is what summarization accomplishes). And while it may seem a bit of a stretch to discuss emotional significance, if you have a pleasurable response to the story—as I do—it is not in some way acoustic, based on the turns of phrase and repetitions? One final thought: if our analytic vocabulary seems impoverished in considering patterned or episodic stories, it may be because moral stories, which require a specific kind of emotional connection ("characters you care about"), so dominate our understanding of the nature and purpose of stories.

Anonymous said...

I am actually sort of deeply uninterested at this juncture in history in plays whose merit is based on acoustic volleying, or patterns of language that shift around lysergically, or any of that stuff if there's no conventional "plot" -- an arbitrary plot even -- to hang it all on. I just get so bored. 99 percent of the time this is so terribly boring, and 1 percent of the time people make it work -- guys like the wooster group or foreman (well, sometimes foreman) and I haven't got the slightest clue how that do it.

But mainly, and I don't know what this says about me, I don't want to see pieces that inflect the aural qualities of language and patterns of sounds and rhythms of words to the exclusion of a grounding principle of narrative. I'm not saying we need to hew to realism or naturalism or we can't have any kind of abstraction onstage, but do i really want to watch karinne kethley's play of "density and surface tension"? Probably not. Because it is boring. I could probably watch this sort of a piece for twenty minutes and find it interesting. Longer than that and I get immensely bored.

In terms of stories having to have a moral axis, I think this is ok - though i think this is a little reductive -- but why is an affective link to the thing you are watching a bad thing? I sometimes feel like downtown and uptown theatre have this same repression of affect in common. I get how some plays exploit of manipulate this, but doesn't dramatic impact come out of this odd, visceral thing that happens when we're not processing something exclusively in our heads? I want to see plays that have emotional power, sorry -- am i a rube?

Karinne said...

dear anonymous,

It's very possible that you would be bored at my shows but why assume that this avenue is doomed to failure except for the exceptional crew (Wooster et al) (and I would say the same about conventional drama- you can't judge the worth of the enterprise based on its success or failure rate because most fields are full of mediocre efforts). My only real thought to add to this conversation is that a typical plot isn't the only kind of plot. Speaking in defense of my own plays, or at least my intention because I will not claim to be the 1% success story- moral grounding and human life are actually profoundly important to me, and exist through and through in my work even though the scenes aren't always held together by the unities or anything like them.

My proposal- and I'd like to approach this positively and not defensively- is simply that narrative and storytelling are hamstrung by old conventions, and that you need to develop a new structural vocabulary if you want to try something new out. For me 'surface tension' is a useful working idea- it's in fact something I use to evaluate how boring or not boring what I'm doing is. It's a compositional tool.

And by the way jj, you misquoted me- I merely said i wasn't concerned with "the normal ideas about coherence"- I care very deeply about coherence. In fact I care about it so much that I want to build it a new house, cook it some new meals, take it somewhere it hasn't been before.

I really love storytelling and I'm well aware that storytelling (or communicable experience?) is at the heart of this venture. I just don't think it's of necessity tied to exposition or conflict resolution. The deeper I got into exploring communication, the more I came to believe that all speaking is full of it. Speaking to another person in itself can be a morally grounded exquisitely unfolding collaboratively imagined experience. Holderlin: Song is existence.

Jeezam. In the curious way these things unfold, the more I've allowed myself to trust in the storytelling value of language and to work the coherence from the surface tension thinking or what have you, the more emotional the experience of my shows has been (as related to me by audiences), the more full of human experience, the more affective in all the good and old school ways.

I guess all I'm saying is that the "plot" of the world I spend my time observing and collecting from comes in a structure that interests me- in small units, yes, in patterns, in passing fragments, interwoven with long time, long experience.

And, in all fairness, my own project for the adaptation festival, for which rail quote was pulled, was an adaptation of an essay, not the taking of someone's story and the willful destruction of it's dearest throughline. My project was this: how can I communicate the essence of this book, and I allowed myself to employ a non plot based structure to do it.

This project:--"pieces that inflect the aural qualities of language and patterns of sounds and rhythms of words to the exclusion of a grounding principle of narrative"-- has nothing to do with a project that says conventional ideas of plot, duration, structure etc. can be rethought. I know it doesn't describe my own plays. I know my only goal as an artist is to establish what you call "an affective link".

jj: maybe my own query has more to do with the unit- the line, the fragment, the monologue, the scene, the act, the entirety- than storytelling versus anti-storytelling. ?

Anyway anonymous, I don't think you're a rube, I just think that you might not be pulling up in your head the same model that I'm trying describe and trying to create.

oh, one vote for boredom. benjamin, in his essay on storyelling, says this: "boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience."

Vive l'Ur!

kk

Jeffrey M. Jones said...

Dear Anon,

There are so many ways to make bad theatre, and boring theatre is not only bad but painful. The cautionary example of New Music is ever present in my mind: a handful of passionate partisans for stuff everyone else finds unendurable. This is not a good model.

The causes of boredom, however, are (as you note) far from simple. The expectations of the audience and the context in which the work appears to them are as important as any "content" of the work itself. That said, I would agree that it is almost physically impossible to pay attention to a time-based art form for longer than 20 minutes without a perceivable macrostructure which allows one to anticipate an ending and measure one's progress against that point. The point of this post, therefore, was to suggest how story can provide that kind of continuity without having to depend on well-crafted plots and characters-you-care-about. Foreman, incidentally, is about as good an example of Focused Chains as you're likely to find, and I regret not having mentioned Melissa James Gibson's sic as a further instance of linguistic patterning.

But really, who would dispute that plotted stories with affective content can be effective and enjoyable? Not I. The question, rather, is what such stories cannot do well, and thus what else might be possible, necessary and enjoyable. If those answers were easy and obvious, any fool could do it.

Dear kk,

Sincerest apologies if I misquoted you. I did take your comment a little out of context but I was merely playing for effect. Unfortunately, I was playing with your words and ideas, which isn't fair.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading the blog posting regarding the uses of story. Before reading the post, I had just finished THE CRAZY PLAYS. I couldn’t stop contemplating questions I had regarding your process and how “story” relates to that piece. I love the element of collage in your work and think it is integral to the message. I guess my question is-could you discuss the elements of story in your own process and how they tie into the “collage” technique?

Anonymous said...

I’d venture to suggest that, through “The Crazy Plays,” you have subverted the tradition of repetition and visible structure in an exciting and – for a reader primarily acculturated in traditional conventional theatre – disconcerting way. I found your plays to be very cumbersome to read and realized that, well, of course they are; to shape seemingly dismembered, cold phrases and words in enormous repetition in relation to characters who are, on the contrary, constantly changing identity requires that the words are represented orally and physically.

These plays also illustrate your choice of introducing this blog post with Karinne Keithley’s assertion that structure isn’t “an evil word” and that it is “ . . . about accumulating a sense of population in space, and attending to the play between density and surface tension.” If there were no structure, I wouldn’t have any platform to try and make guesses as to where the play is (or isn’t) directed. I still don’t think I know where the direction(s) are, but that mystery is also part of what contributes to an interesting play.

-a student from Wheaton College (MA)

Afrodyte said...

I'm sorry to resurrect this thread, but I only recently discovered it as I was reading for some thoughtful, artist-generated discussion about different narrative structures.

I'm very happy that there is an audience for this sort of work, as I've become increasingly more decentralized in my approach to story. It may just be the mood I'm in and the things I'm dealing with right now. At the very least, whatever comes of it will be true.

I'm drawn to more non-linear works (and I define all cause-and-effect sorts of works linear, even if they don't necessarily unfold that way) because I rarely, if ever, watch or participate in art just to see what happens next. To be honest, the stories that stick with me the longest are the ones I'm already very familiar with. It's not so much nostalgia as it is rediscovery. Each time I come across my favorite works, I see it from a completely different perspective. Whether intended or not, such works have layers of meaning that I can explore. To a certain extent, this type of experience is what characterizes my favorite works. And this sort of experience comes from the most unexpected places.

Going back to my own work, this divorce from what a story "needs" to have constitutes the bulk of my creative work. I spend far less time writing than I do simply putting aside artistic baggage. It's not so much that linear narrative is bad as that it doesn't fit the story I'm telling. There is a story, just one that doesn't necessarily relate to cause-and-effect. In fact, the structure of my current piece is based more in space than in time. It's a lot like a house with many rooms, with roughly the same freedom of exploration you can find in it.

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