From the New York Times theater blog (reprinted here in its entirety):
“Talk amongst yourselves!”
That old “Saturday Night Live” catch phrase has been popping into my mind a lot lately at the theater, complete with the shrill Long Island accent of Mike Myers’s Linda Richman.
The reason? At far too many new plays in recent seasons the characters seem to spend more time chatting to the audience than they do talking to each other. Instead of interacting with their fellow characters, they keep turning away from the action to give us commentary on what just happened, or explain what we’ve missed.
They spout lyrical tangents describing their impressions or zoom into dazzling riffs that reveal the playwright’s comic gifts. They seem to be doing anything, in short, but talking to each other, which is to say exchanging dialogue, once the standard format of modern drama.
Direct address, as it is called in the trade, has become the kudzu of new playwriting, running wild across the contemporary landscape and threatening to strangle any and all other dramaturgical devices. Hence my furtive impulse to stand up and hurl Linda Richman’s memorable exhortation at the stage.
Examples are almost too numerous to bother citing. A particular offender from last season was the Kristoffer Diaz play “The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,” about the colorful world of professional wrestling. I’d estimate that at least three-quarters of the play consisted of, um, elaborate monologues from one or another character describing events the playwright was unable to dramatize or chose not to. This secondhand description was particularly frustrating in a play about a sport that thrives on the display of combat. Conflict, that key ingredient in drama, is hard to come by when the characters in a play refuse to engage with one another.
Both the charming Kim Rosenstock play “Tigers Be Still” and the somewhat more cloying Julia Cho comedy “The Language Archive” relied heavily on narration. “The Brother/Sister Plays” by Tarell Alvin McCraney threw in spoken stage directions for good measure. It’s come to the point that I’m almost disarmed if I make it through a whole play in which the “fourth wall” isn’t regularly if not relentlessly breached.
What, nobody wants to talk to me? Hey, what am I doing here?
Direct address does, of course, have an important place in the theater. It certainly has distinguished roots. Greek theater began, after all, with just a single actor and the chorus onstage – not much possibility for elaborate interaction among characters there. (But then that’s why Aeschylus got the ball rolling and added a second actor, and Sophocles went him one better and brought in a third.) Shakespeare’s plays are famous for their soliloquies and asides, as well as their prologues and epilogues in which the characters (or players) directly acknowledge the presence of the audience.
The ability to allow a character to express his or her thoughts in a manner that, strictly speaking, people do not normally do in real life will always be a necessary playwriting tool, and an illuminating one. It is impossible to imagine “Our Town” without the stage manager, or “The Glass Menagerie”without the tortured narration of Tom.
But the device can also be used simply to cover up a multitude of playwriting sins. If you can’t figure out how to naturally impart important information, well, just have somebody step forward and fill us in. Want to define character without bothering to have to do it through action and dialogue? Just have Joe or Mary pour out their feelings to us in a long monologue. The art of deploying exposition is a challenging one, but it is a measure of a playwright’s skill. So, too, is the art of establishing character in naturalistic ways. There’s a reason why writing teachers always implore students to show us rather than tell us things: showing is naturally more dynamic, both in prose and in drama.
And when characters step forward to talk to us in the middle of a play, they call attention to the artifice of the enterprise, reminding us that we’re at the theater watching a writer’s commentary on human experience, not the thing itself.
True, the power of much great modern theater – some of Edward Albee’s finest work, much of Caryl Churchill, almost all of Samuel Beckett and Bertolt Brecht – derives directly from its abandonment of the trappings of naturalism, its insistence on confronting the audience with freedom from old-fashioned form. Then again Chekhov, arguably (inarguably?) the greatest modern playwright, achieved his mastery in plays that are almost ruthlessly true to observed life (a few musing monologues notwithstanding). He broke new ground in many formal ways, but the beauty of his plays is directly connected to the unprecedented manner in which he captured the precise, moment by moment truth of his characters’ experience onstage.
I sometimes think the decline of naturalism as the standard format for contemporary drama has simply made it easier for writers to get sloppy in ways that were more or less forbidden to contemporaries of Ibsen and Shaw and Wilde. Young playwrights these days employ direct address indiscriminately, breaking the spell of essentially naturalistic works because they have failed to grapple with some problem of structure. One reason the work of Annie Baker (“The Aliens,” “Circle Mirror Transformation”) stands out is her very sparing use of direct address.
The idea that you have to know the rules – even master them – before you break them seems to have lost some of its currency, because in our post-Beckett theatrical landscape there really are no rules.
Do any other theatergoers share my exasperation with this tendency of stage characters to chat us up indiscriminately, often endlessly? Feel free to directly address this question. Or talk amongst yourselves.
As you can probably imagine, I’ve got a lot to say about this. Most of it, believe it or not, is not about his interpretation of my play (although I wholeheartedly believe he has missed the mark, and will be more than happy to discuss why and where, if needed), but rather about some of his fundamental assumptions about theater. As mentioned above, I’ll be addressing some of this in more detail in the coming days. For now, I’d just like folks to read his essay, form their own opinions on it, and consider a couple of arguments on behalf of us young playwrights who haven’t “mastered the rules” of drama before breaking them:
1. The “fourth wall” itself is a construct (18th century European, I think — am I right?); a writer makes a decision to honor it or not. I’d argue that either choice — acknowledging that the audience is there in the room or pretending that they are not — is a fundamentally valid one.
2. And since I mentioned it: we’re talking about a European construct here. I (and many playwrights of my generation) have been directly influenced by African-American theatrical traditions, Asian theatrical traditions, Latino/Chicano theatrical traditions (I am Puerto Rican, after all), hip-hop theatrical traditions, feminist theatrical traditions…many of which reject the very concept of the fourth wall. Mr. Isherwood (in an earlier article about Fela!) maintains that one of the essential reasons we need a fourth wall is “to allow the audience to have some intellectual perspective on the material.” I argue that (a) we’re not always looking for intellectual perspective (emotional, visceral connection is one of my touchstones), and (b) an audience doesn’t necessarily need an imaginary disconnect from the performers to think critically about a work.
3. We live in an age where media is becoming more and more of a two-way conversation every single day. Cable news programs run constant polls and report on the tweeted thoughts of everyday Americans. Presidential debates are “scored” live by citizens with nifty feedback dials. Newspaper reporters can now write blog posts and receive instant feedback in form of comments. Everywhere you turn, people want to share opinions and be part of the story. And we’ve got the artform that’s absolutely best suited to fulfill that need. Why shouldn’t we cultivate that personal connection? What do we gain by ignoring it?
4. If the goal is to present a realistic vision of actual human existence, I’d argue that theater loses that battle to television and film more often than not. What theater has that no other art form has is simple to define: the audience. The human element. The thrill of the live event. I argue that the move towards establishing a tangible connection with the audience in attendance is not just a valid form of theatrical expression, but an essential one. To acknowledge our audience is to play to our strength.
5. I argue that conflict (certainly the fundamental building block of theater — I learned that much of the rules before I got started) onstage does not only take the form of people sitting in the same room and arguing. A character’s monologue, if well-written, should be brimming with conflict — not only in the actual words spoken, but in the context of the story, in the battle between one’s public and private selves, in the challenges laid out and taken on throughout the speech. Monologues are not inherently inert. The monologues in Chad Deity (a singular monologue actually, with a tiny coda at the end — I’m more than happy to discuss structure in great detail with any interested party) are all intentionally active, all in the service of a protagonist attempting to accomplish a goal that means more to him than anything else in the world. No one talks in my plays just to talk.
6. And finally, a nerdy point about wrestling (because while I’d never deign to call myself an expert on the theater, I’m happy to trumpet my excessive knowledge of the squared circle): “combat” is certainly a key feature of televised professional wrestling. However, watch a single episode of the WWE’s Monday Night Raw and you’ll discover that far more time is spent talking about fighting than actually fighting. It’s akin to soap operas and sex in that regard. The conflict exists — the conflict always exists — but it’s not always illustrated in the form of (choreographed) combat.
And there’s no fourth wall in wrestling.
So maybe we can start the conversation here.