Sunday, July 12, 2009
On Dramatic Structure
This weekend I saw the L.A. Theatreworks production of The Physicists by Friedrich Durrenmatt. If you live in Los Angeles and have never seen one of their productions, I highly recommend them. These plays are recorded for radio rather than being performed conventionally and are broadcast on NPR. Theatreworks also sells recordings of the plays, which are great to listen to while you're driving. During performances the audience sees the sound effects engineer create the sounds of doors opening, wine being poured into a glass and so on. The actors sit and wait until it's time for their characters to speak, at which point they come forward to the microphones and read from their scripts (being careful not to rustle the pages!) There are no sets or costumes as such, although the actors may choose to dress in a style reminiscent of their characters if they choose. At this weekend's performance some did and some did not.
The Physicists is a message play, the message in question being that Nuclear Weapons are Bad. It was first performed in 1961 and was written in German - our production was a translation, of course. It's a comedy-drama with an absurdist tinge to it and I found it a pretty typical example of this sort of thing. It was really the actors (Bruce Davison, John De Lancie and Gregory Itzin) who made the performance enjoyable. Their acting and the sound effects in the background combine to make the set almost coalesce in front of your eyes: it's amazing. It's such a pleasure to watch gifted character actors doing their thing. I find they're usually much better than A-list "movie star" actors, who seem to make careers out of playing the same basic character over and over again.
These message plays, though, all seem to have the same basic structure. They open with the whimsical, slightly absurdist setting and the audience getting to know the characters. Plot twist at end of first act! Second act opens with the ramifications of the plot twist. The characters' reactions segue into the Twenty Minute Lecture, as I call it, where the action comes to a grinding halt so that the playwright can air his thoughts and opinions and the audience just has to sit there and take it. Then the characters pick up their roles again and the play comes to some sort of resolution which may be hopeful, depressing or indefinite. A really classic example of this sort of play would be An Inspector Calls, which masquerades as a murder investigation but is really an anticapitalist polemic. I enjoyed it, but after the first ten minutes you know exactly where it's going to go.
This sort of play bugs me, but it isn't the message that is the problem. Good theater should challenge its audience, after all. It's the Twenty Minute Lecture that I dread: it ruins the flow of the play. I think the only playwright capable of getting away with this sort of thing is George Bernard Shaw and it's because his characterization and dialogue are so good. When his characters debate you believe they're having a debate, not that the playwright is arguing with the audience. Durrenmatt's characters are good enough at the beginning but turn into straw men, only there to expound on their creator's theories.
One could argue that blogs are guilty of this same crime, but I think most people read blogs specifically to get the writer's take on things. Besides, if the reader finds the post boring he or she can always click on to something else... now wait just a minute. Get your hand off the computer mouse! I'm not done ye