Friday, April 09, 2010

Backwards and Forwards, by David Ball

Just backwards
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.

Book Cited:
Ball, David. Backwards and Forwards. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The Virgin Molly, by Quincy Long

The theme of gays in the military and the arrival of the Messiah in Virgin Molly, by Susana Cook

I was getting to the end of Virgin Molly and there was no pregnancy in the story yet. How is he going to deal with the guy getting pregnant in just 9 pages? I thought. Until that point the main theme seems to be gays in the military; this is the track Long creates for his story. He carves deep into the psychology of these fanatic men creating very intense scenes with the erotic at the center of it. Scenes of role-playing, authoritarian abuse and humiliation lead us to the cathartic moment when the abusive Corporeal puts in action some kind of torture session to force the accusing homophobe Harmon to confess. The torture inflicted on him is to become a woman, to act effeminate. The drag queen theme appears (as in The Bacchae) as humiliation and punishment.
The author explores the theme of gender normative behavior and the military’s antiseptic idea of manhood. Quincy Long insinuates at the beginning that Molly Petersen is androgynous, maybe even a hermaphrodite. “My mom. She was sure in her heart I was going to be a girl… I am built kind of funny. Kind of a girl and everything.” (13-14) He says to the Captain. Molly is a gender variant person; he is not gay.
The tension begins to grow through a fantastic element introduced in the story: the letters and phone calls that start pouring in the military headquarters. Some of them are sent anonymously, some of them from very important people who are concerned about the development of Molly’s evaluation. This element creates a powerful reaction in the viewer/reader. It gives us the illusion that the forgotten and oppressed nobody will be rescued by some anonymous hero. It could also be interpreted as a call to action by showing us how external pressure can make a difference in an abusive situation.
When the letters start arriving it resembles Amnesty International’s work (sending letters to prisons where they keep captive political prisoners) Then it becomes exactly the device J.K. Rowling uses in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone (The letters keep arriving from everywhere, warning his adoptive family that they had somebody important in their house, a kid that they were abusing and neglecting). The captain inquires to Molly about his family or special contacts he may have with powerful people. Exactly like Harry Potter, Virgin Molly has no idea who could care about him. He is innocent and abused, but he is also special.
The mysterious letters, phone calls and the pregnancy all get resolved in the last pages by the addition of a new element, a religious mystical moment: “Jones and Private enter from the head amidst a brilliant light, holding hands” (83). Molly is giving birth. We hear voices from offstage announcing the birth of the messiah, “Leading us to the promise land” (91).
Then we realize that the magical- mystical element was somehow present throughout the play in the character of The Civilian. Nobody seems to see him, except Molly, and the audience. He carries a suitcase with a homemade bedspread. I guess the Civilian character represents God and it seems as if it was added after the first part was written. It feels like a device that was probably added to give some anchor to the very religious magical ending.
I am not taking the play as a realistic effort but the problematic issue presented is very real: homophobia and abuse in the military. He carves deeply into this theme, even through satire and extreme portrayals. But after presenting a real problem he runs away from it by introducing a new magic or religious element that will solve or end the story.
I was trying to draw a message or concept transpiring from the play it would be: The only thing that could save the androgynous -gays in the military, is the arrival of the Messiah.

Book cited:
Long, Quincy. The Virgin Molly. New York: Playscripts, Inc, 2007.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Good and Faithful Servant by Joe Orton

The meaning of work

The play starts and we are already landing in the most exciting part of the Passover Night. Buchanan and Edith meet again after 40 years. The play takes us to the action very fast, without preludes or preparation. The big event is right there, and Buchanan receives the big news of his life from Edith immediately after they meet. Edith was his only love. He finds out that she had twins after he abandoned her pregnant. The twins died in a sanitary system of an alien country and they “produced” a boy, but nobody knows which one of them was the father. The mother of the twins killed herself when she heard that the twins died. Buchanan is a grandfather. Edith breaks all this news to Buchanan very casually in a few lines. The satirical dark humor is very engaging. Buchanan is retiring after 50 years from a firm. Orton’s portrayal of the corporate approach to his worker’s life is very funny. They own his life, they took his arm and they also want the grandchild he just found out he has. Buchanan is retiring after 50 years of working in that company and all he has left is the presents they give him in his retirement party: a bad working toaster and a bad working clock. But the action pretty much stops there. From now on we’ll just follow him to his death.
Buchanan’s life seems meaningless because he devoted 50 years to work for a firm and nobody remembers him. He has nothing left, not even a friend. Orton is not focusing exclusively on corporate work; he is making a statement about work in general.
- I don’t work, says his grandson Ray
- Not work!? (Stares, open mouthed Buchanan), What do you do then?
- I enjoy myself, responds Ray.
- That’s a terrible thing to do… claims Buchanan. (167)
Orton’s sarcastic humor leaves us with two options, enjoy yourself or be a slave of a corporate firm. The beginning is playful, audacious, dark, funny, but then he seems to be telling us a simple statement: work sucks. He leaves us without any creative option besides enjoying yourself, and he has no more humor when describing Buchanan’s life as a retired man.
Not that the play should present a recipe for a happy life, but since it is presenting a recipe for disaster it would probably be great to see a hint of something other than that lonely, unhappy life. Looking at Buchanan’s story you would think that working full time is not a good idea. But Edith, who spent her life working too, scrubbing floors in the same company, seems to be content. Maybe it’s not good for a man, but for a woman it doesn’t seem to be that bad?
On another note: Abandoning your first love pregnant seems like a very bad idea in Durrenmatt’s play The Visit, but in The Good and Faithful Servant the results are very different. Buchanan finds the woman after many years, she is not upset and she becomes his wife, taking care of him on his last days and he also gets a grandson.

Orton, Joe. The Good and Faithful Servant. The Complete Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1977.