Tuesday, October 27, 2009

20th Century Experimental Drama #4: Musings

This is a musing. It is inspired by my comparative literature class and all this experimental drama I've been reading, and it's something which is beginning to fascinate me, especially since NaNoWriMo is coming up and I may be doing some writing soon.

It has always been set up to me as the goal of literature, as what constitutes "good" fiction, as something to strive for in writing, that one should represent in fiction real human beings, with all their quirks, imperfections, and unpredictability. It never quite occurred to me that there was any other way to do it that was worth doing. For some reason it always stuck out to me that J.R.R. Tolkien disliked allegory, even before I entirely understood what allegory was. I suppose that is related to this.

But reading all these plays, I find something a little different. I find characters who are not quirky, who are often little more than their jobs, Mother, Lead Actress, Professor, Bishop. And by my default standards these characters should make up "bad" literature. Yet they don't.

What strikes me most about Brecht, Pirandello, O'neill, Wilder, Ionesco, and Genet is that they knew what they were doing. These plays feel deliberate. In writing these plays their authors had a goal, and they achieved that goal even if the characters or the plot never seem to get anywhere or end up back where they started. They choose a set of themes and these themes come through in both a subtle and a very bald way. Characters are manipulated to best set off the themes, and if human quirks of personality fall by the wayside, that's not a problem. You don't need to show every aspect of humanity because you are showing the exact aspects you set out to show. All this is done with skill, and this is what makes these plays good, what means they still get a whole quarter's class devoted to them in some cases nearly a century later.

In creating rounded, nuanced, human characters, you lose much of this deliberateness. Not only the characters but the entire work become human and messy. Is this better? Not necessarily. I've begun to realize that.

On the other hand, I still most often prefer to read about personalities. Humans fascinate me, and the fascinating parts can't always be conveyed in the thematically functional characters I've found in these plays. With most fiction it's the characters inside the story that hold the fascination. With these particular plays, the fascination comes in thinking about the author and what incredible and bizarre minds they must have had to create these stories.

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