I love working with Matt and Mark because, like me, they work from the ‘outside in’ (see previous post for more on this). Again, I’m not for a moment suggesting this is the only way, or inherently better, but it’s the way I work and it’s been causing me problems of late as it doesn’t seem to be an approach that makes commissioners feel very safe.
I think this was our fourth Liquid meeting, yet this was the first time we had considered Character. The previous three times we’d spent in wide-ranging discussions comparing the Jacobean world with our own, and trying to find where the core Jacobean themes of Power, Love and Revenge might be located. On the way we’d taken in the Russian mafia, Baudrillardian hyperreality, global warming, cannibalism, Heat magazine, the Third Reich, atheism, Rupert Murdoch, the Mills-McCartney divorce, and the Olympics. We looked at how human structures create the conditions to destroy themselves. We read scientific reports about depression in chimpanzees. We talked about how gambling undermines economics and even the very concept of money itself. We considered making our audience eat until they were sick before the start of the play. We drank a lot of coffee.
Only then did we turn our attention to Character. (These are my kind of theatre-makers).
I’m a particular fan of John Webster and I was delighted to find the following quote about him in an essay by Simon Trussler, which we examined in today’s session:
“In the Poetics, Aristotle, arguing for the pre-eminence in a play of action over character, declared that a man’s happiness or otherwise is decided by the choices he makes – especially ‘when those are not obvious’. And this comes close both to Webster’s Jacobean view of ‘character’ and to what we would today call ‘existential’ choice, by asserting that our individuality is shaped not (as in ‘realist’ drama) through the deterministic effects of heredity and environment but, as with the character here [in The White Devil] through the sum of our own actions and the choices determining them: truly, existence preceding essence. While reasons or ‘motives’ can be found for Flamineo’s actions, it is probably more helpful to understand him through his behaviour and his attempts at a kind of self-definition: he becomes what he does.” [Italics in original]
As you can imagine, this was very exciting to me. It’s the total antithesis of the character-led psychological-realist approach that so exasperates me. It led on to a fascinating discussion in which Matt pointed out that the Jacobeans were writing long before the advent of modern psychology. They thought purely in terms of storytelling and action. This is what makes their plays so compelling – almost every character possesses a driving, obsessive, primal urge of one kind or another, which not only transcends rationality, but during the course of the play comes to commandeer the character until they are indistinguishable from the action itself. Everything else about them, in particular their brutal, visceral language becomes defined and subsumed by it. There’s something almost magical realist about engendering something so abstract on stage in this way.
This begs the question, can action be divorced from character? In life, perhaps not (though the existentialists might have something to say about that). But in deconstructing life and reassembling it, otherwise known as playwrighting, there is no reason why life can't be reduced to its constituent parts in this way, and abstract action alone become not just the starting point but the defining characteristic of a human being.
I find it fascinating that in a world without modern psychoanalysis, this could well have been how almost every play was written. And not only that, but without any public subsidy such plays were financed entirely by popular demand. Directors, producers and audiences were entirely comfortable conceiving of the world around them in this way.
You’ll find me on eBay looking up Time Machines.