by Susana Cook
A manual is a set of instructions on how to use a machine that already exists. This manual is for reading plays, so the idea behind it is that plays are a device with a purpose and David Ball will teach us how to unveil the mechanism that moves the machine, so we can understand it better and hopefully build similar ones. Ball very deliberately leaves out any room for interpretation, creativity, or diversity in the theater world. He focuses on the technicalities of “drama”. If he would prefix the word “traditional” every time he mentions theater, narrative or drama he would be more accurate with his statements. But the way he deliberately appropriates those words as if the whole genre was ruled by these formulas makes the whole book a new attempt to make traditional narrative the only option, the only thing we can call drama, or good drama, the only technique that works.
His statements are bold and clear from the first pages and throughout the book.
“People who talk about, write about, or do theater agree on little. But there is one thing: “Drama is conflict!” we all cry in rare unanimity” (25). Really? The way that Ball ignores and makes invisible the huge amount of theater that was and continues being created that does not follow those rules and predicaments is unbelievable.
I think there’s two ways that people maintain the hegemony of these formulas. One is ignoring the existence of any other kind of theater that doesn’t follow these rules, and another one (this one would apply to theater that is more known and cannot be ignored) is to make extreme efforts to prove that those plays, even if not evident, are secretly following the same formula. This strategy reinforces the notion that these rules are inescapable.
Aristotle defines tragedy as Action and a set of Actions, David Ball writes a new book, that explains in detail that “A play is a series of actions” (9). In the introduction he sets the rules, “the techniques in this book will help you read analytically to discern how the play works. What the play means should not be the first consideration” (3). Leaving out meanings when talking about theater is a bold decision that ignores numerous and important authors whose work is concerned with meaning, and who made a huge contribution to the world.
He doesn’t acknowledge at any point during the book the existence of postmodern, postdramatic or avant-garde theater.
Ball moves forward and backwards in the succession of actions analyzing mostly Hamlet, King Lear and Greek Tragedies. He explains to us conflict, with bold letters as if revealing a new truth: “a play’s conflict is between what someone wants and what hinders the want: the obstacle” (28)
The audience is described as some sort of collection of puppets, easy to manipulate into whatever state we want if we master the right techniques. We are doing it for them after all, to entertain them. “Dramatic tension requires that the audience desire to find out what is coming up. The greater the desire, the greater –and more active—the audience involvement” (59)
“Don’t deprive anyone of theater’s greatest pleasure: the delicious, often suspenseful thirst to know what comes next… often the core of dramatic tension resides in keeping information from the audience. Don’t negate the tension by premature revelation” (34). I guess the word “often” is enough to acknowledge the importance of Brecht’s epic theater and the Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect).
Another very interesting note about this book is that it has no notes and no bibliography. David Ball is a professor of playwriting, acting, theater history, and literature at Carnegie-Mellon University, but his book seems to be informed just by him, his impressions and beliefs. It is lacking a lot of information, or deliberately leaving out half of the history of theater.
Ball, David. Backwards and Forwards. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.