General 6-21-2005

The Ivey Essay: How Words Get Real

Quinton Skinner, a critic for City Pages and a novelist, writes about the relation of written words to theater, and the transformation words undergo in being enacted. Head to the Ivey Awards Monday, September 24, to hear who audiences acclaim this year.

Quinton Skinner

This critic comes to the theater from the book world, and as such has had to make adjustments for the ephemerality of the stage and the particulars of the craft that make it possible. When one writes a novel, you see, it may or may not be read by many but it will continue in the world, in its codified form, for as long as copies of it exist.

It’s a different bag for the playwright. While I can’t presume to know the inner workings of any writer’s mind, the playwright must undeniably work with the knowledge that her or his work will be interpreted and re-interpreted on many stages (if he or she is skilled, and lucky), and that lines written with a great deal of meaning and intent may by inverted, subverted, and at times totally misunderstood.

Writing involves nothing less than the exposure of one’s thought patterns to the greater human community. We all work to our skill level, but the novelist enjoys a level of control pretty much unmatched in the other arts. When you are reading a novel, you hitch a ride on the ideational stream of the novelist. If you don’t like it, you put it down. But if you’re in, you’re in. The playwright, on the other hand, crafts a scenario and dialogue that will subsequently be acted out by others. A line intended (by the writer) to drip with sarcasm can be delivered with sincerity, and a poignant moment can elicit giddy laughter from an audience clued in to inadvertent signals from a scene-stealing actor.

What novelists owe the theater is the brilliant and self-evident dialectic of the three-act structure: introduction, conflict, resolution. This structure must, on some level, reflect the yearning of our species for our own narratives to make some sort of over-arching sense. Of course they don’t, and that’s why we turn to art. Every beginning novelist and playwright is taught the beautiful simplicity of the three-act architecture, and it is when a writer (of prose or for the stage) deviates from this norm that readers and audiences feel an almost subliminal sense of unease. Perhaps if it doesn’t fit the norm, it reminds us too much of the untidy nature of real life.

But we digress. Let’s have a quick look at a solid show that played in the Twin Cities last year, and examine it for both its quality of craft and for the elastic nature of how it might be played on stage. Richard Greenberg’s The Dazzle played at the Jungle Theater in July under the direction of Bain Boehlke. It involved the real-life Collyer brothers, who were found dead in 1947 in their Harlem mansion amid a staggering labyrinth of junk.

Early in the play, Langley has given a recital on the piano, and brother Homer is reflecting on their moment of public glory (already there is an undertow that the two are hardcore weirdoes). Of the two, Homer is the more world-wise, and he reflects:

Yes, a grand success. Very exciting. We’ll be welcomed with open arms. By all these dreadful people. These cretins, these merchants, these sultans of dry goods and dairy. We’ve triumphed in Lilliput! Who’d have thought it possible even a week ago?

These lines crackle with energy, and on the Jungle stage Stephen D’Ambrose delivered them with astringent cynicism in a performance that laid the groundwork for Homer’s later frustration and death. But things could have gone in different directions, a reality over which Richard Greenberg has no control. In a sense, directors and actors assume the role that a novelist inhabits, substituting the stage for the printed page. Take these examples:

“Yes, a grand success. Very exciting,” he said, his face bleached of any trace of a smile. “We’ll be welcomed with open arms. By all these dreadful people.”
Homer’s mouth wrinkled with distaste. “These cretins, these merchants, these sultans of dry goods and dairy.” And with that, he dropped his face into his hand as though unable to bear facing what he might become. “We’ve triumphed in Lilliput! Who’d have thought it possible even a week ago?”

Now try this:

“Yes, a grand success. Very exciting,” he said. “We’ll be welcomed with open arms. By all these dreadful people.”
But as he spoke, Homer’s voice rose with an agitation he couldn’t quite control.
“These cretins, these merchants, these sultans of dry goods and dairy,” he enumerated, although his ostensible scorn had begun to transform into something else. The very idea of social acceptance, which had always seemed so far off, now seemed within reach. Perhaps he could even hope to live a life without his mad brother Lang.
“We’ve triumphed in Lilliput!” he exclaimed, now openly relishing the fact. “Who’d have thought it possible even a week ago?”

So, in the first case Homer is disgusted with the idea of social approval and inclusion, while in the second he is quite tempted by it. I would argue that D’Ambrose gave such a good performance last summer that I caught both interpretations brimming beneath the surface of his portrayal of the character. And this is what is so exciting and crucial about the theater. There are levels of thought and feeling that are the exclusive territory of the novel, but the same is true of the stage. Would you rather read this:

Homer harbored a conflict in his mind and heart. He wanted to go out into the world, be free of his brother, and find out who he really was. At the same time he loved his brother more than anyone else, and he knew how much his brother needed him. They were tied together by their own distinctive qualities, and perhaps it was foolish to imagine living a normal life. Yes, he thought, their fate was together, no matter how odd and eccentric things were to become.

Or would you rather see it, depicted by terrific artists and craftsmen such as D’Ambrose and Boehlke?

I thought so.

This essay first ran as part of a series of essays on theater to honor the first season of the Ivey Awards in 2005.